Zagato – A successful family history

Aston-Martin-DBZ-Centenary-Collection-1-1400x790

Recently, Carrozzeria Zagato celebrated its 100th birthday. What is already a remarkable anniversary becomes even more significant in view of the fact that the company continues to be successful on the market.
and is now run in the third generation by the great-grandson of the founder, Andrea Zagato, and his wife Marella Rivolta-Zagato.

In 1919, Ugo Zagato founded Carrozzeria Zagato in Milan at the age of 29. From an early age, he had to take on responsibility and work. Even before his birth as the youngest of six brothers, his father died. Growing up in poor circumstances, he had no choice but to take up a profession at the age of 15.

First he went to work as a guest worker in a foundry in Cologne, then he returned to Italy for his military service in 1909 and subsequently worked for the coachbuilder Varesina in Varese in northern Italy. There he learned the craft of building bus and truck bodies. At the same time, he studied industrial design in Milan.

During the First World War, he moved to the aircraft manufacturer Officine Aeronautiche Ansaldo-Pomilio. This stage was to provide him with formative knowledge for his further career, as he gained an insight into the methods of lightweight construction and aerodynamics through his employment in the aviation industry.

Alfa Romeo 1750 GS Zagato

LIGHT AND STREAMLINED – THE FIRST VEHICLES FOR ALFA ROMEO

At the latest since founding his own bodywork company, he was able to successfully apply this expertise. Even with the first vehicles he converted for Alfa Romeo, he consistently focused on lightweight construction, low air resistance and a low centre of gravity.

This was a particularly good mix for sports cars, so it is not surprising that Zagato constructed successful racing cars on Alfa Romeo 6C and 8C chassis, which won the Mille Miglia several times and brought fame and notoriety to the Zagato name.

However, as is well known, you can’t pay employees from fame and honour alone; you have to sell more bodies than just these one-offs, which is why Zagato was in a bit of financial trouble by the 1930s at the latest. But true to Ugo Zagato’s motto “better own a small company than be an important employee”, he vigorously pushed the success of his company. In this way, Zagato gained new customers in addition to Alfa Romeo. FIAT, Lancia and Isotta Fraschini commissioned one-offs, especially light, streamlined sporty cars.

The Second World War was, of course, also a break for the Carrozzeria. Immediately after the end of the war, however, the company took off. An important piece in the mosaic was the entry of Ugo Zagato’s eldest son Elio, who was born in 1921. His enthusiasm for motor sports and cars led him to postpone his planned medical studies and instead follow in his father’s footsteps.

Ferrari 250 MM Zagato

A breath of fresh air was also urgently needed, because the development away from frame construction towards self-supporting bodywork was causing problems for the majority of bodybuilders. So it was a move away from pure superstructures to custom-made products.

In this context, it was again of great advantage to achieve success on the race track. Elio Zagato as an enthusiastic and successful racing driver was in a way the best business card as a representative on the track, true to the old motto “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday”. Bentley, for example, also took advantage of this publicity opportunity to compete successfully in races on Sundays and sell a car to the observers of these victories the following day. In the 1950s, the Maserati A6G2000, Ferrari 250 GTZ and Alfa Romeo 1900 SSZ, among others, were successful with the distinctive Z on the body.

Lancia Flaminia Sport Zagato

RESPONDING TO CHANGE THE RIGHT WAY

Participating successfully with one-offs is one thing, but much more orders and sales were needed for the company’s sustained success. With an industry in flux and challenges at all levels, Zagato had to manage the balancing act of maintaining its independence as a family business, but at the same time attract investors and other manufacturers who commissioned vehicles from them. At best, not just one or two prototypes, but at least a small series.

For example, more than 7,000 Lancia Fulvia Sport cars were built in the 1960s and 1970s in two series and with different engines.

Maserati Mostro Zagato

The Fulvia falls into one of Zagato’s most formative and productive eras, which is closely associated with the name Ercole Spada. Spada was chief designer at Zagato from 1960 to 1969. Among others, the Alfa Romeo Junior Zagato or the 2600 SZ belonged to this era.

But also the Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato, which was only built 19 times. In order to save some weight, the DB4 was sent to Zagato, where it was given a new dress made of aluminium. However, due to the significantly higher price compared to the DB4 and even the DB4 GT, sales remained below expectations.

Zagato has enjoyed a long-standing collaboration with Aston Martin to this day – with a few creative breaks in between. Think of the V8 Zagato, which was available as both a coupé and a Volante. Or the V12 from 2011, with which they took part in the 24-hour race on the Nürburgring.

It didn’t really work out with other manufacturers. A successor to the Diablo was designed for Lamborghini. But when Lamborghini was taken over by Volkswagen, the plans were not pursued further.

Zagato also appeared as a manufacturer from time to time, but in a different way than one might expect. In 1972, in the wake of the oil crisis, they presented the electrically powered micro-car Zele. It did not become a pioneer of electric mobility, but it showed that Zagato was also concerned with things beyond pure design.

Andrea Zagato Adrian van Hooydonk BMW

THE ITALIAN CORE BUSINESS

The core business, however, remained the work with Italian makes. First and foremost, of course, the close relationship with Alfa Romeo, which has lasted from the first vehicles to the present day.

Milestones have been created, not only for Zagato, but also for Alfa Romeo. Think of the Giulietta Sprint Zagato from the end of the 1950s and the various versions of the Tubolare Zagato (TZ) models.

Or the two models SZ (for Sprint Zagato) or RZ (Roadster Zagato), which were produced in small numbers by hand in Rho between 1989 and 1993. A car with a design for which the word “independent” probably fits best. Not everyone found the SZ/RZ extremely beautiful, but it was never Zagato’s ambition to simply design pleasing bodies. Causing controversy, sometimes causing offence, that was certainly within the realm of possibility or even desired. For the sake of completeness, however, it should also be mentioned that RZ/SZ are not “pure” Zagato designs. The design departments of Alfa Romeo, the FIAT parent company and Zagato were involved in their creation.

When it comes to extravagant models of the 90s, the Lancia Delta Hyena cannot be missing. Only 24 examples of the Zagato interpretation of a Delta HF Integrale Evoluzione were built. It was the last model to be produced in the company’s own production facilities and before Elio and his brother Gianni withdrew from the operational business.

INTO THE FUTURE WITH ANDREA ZAGATO

Since then, it has been up to Andrea Zagato to make the illustrious name fit and resilient for the future. Once again, he received support from the family. His wife Marella Rivolta comes from the other large automobile family of the same name and invested in the company not only financially, but also as a congenial partner with advice and action.

Since then, the two of them have shown that Zagato was well advised to broaden the company and, as a design office, to look beyond the automotive horizon and to be able to develop design for all situations in life and for all small and large things.

If you take a tram in Milan, for example, take a good look and you might be sitting in the Bombardier Eurotram model designed by Zagato, which won an award in 2001.

As far as the automotive sector is concerned, Andrea Z. has proven that it is possible to survive as a manufacturer even without your own production facilities, if you design the right one-offs and very small series.

With the Aston Martin DB7 Z from 2002, the Spyker C12 from 2007 or the Bentley Continental GTZ from 2008, they created vehicles that appeal to collectors and are a success for Zagato and the respective manufacturer alike.

In this respect, Rho is looking to the future with confidence, as the last remaining family business to bring great design to the road.

Photos Gruppe C Motorsport Verlag

Author: Paolo Ollig

As editor-in-chief Paolo regularly writes about all the big and small stories related to classic cars and motorbikes. Classic dreams: Lamborghini Countach and Mercedes-Benz 300 SL.

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