Italy's Zagato shifting gears ahead of 'great revolution' in car design

Zagato's past is key to its future. Kevin Hackett follows the path from Milan to Abu Dhabi to find where the company is headed.

ABU DHABI. 19th Jan.2009. WORLD FUTURE ENERGY SUMMIT. OPENING DAY.A delegate looks inside the solar powered Masdar City car on the first day of the World Future Energy Conference in Abu Dhabi yesterday (mon).  Stephen Lock  /  The National.   *** Local Caption ***  SL-energy-013.jpg

Pininfarina, Bertone, Touring, Ghia: Italian design studios responsible for some of history's most breathtaking automobiles. In any list of the most beautiful cars of all time, their creations continue to dominate; the design studios' crests adorning their flanks like the most exclusive labels found inside the finest couture clothing.

Yet there's one Italian design studio that many outside the rarefied world of the serious car enthusiast have scant knowledge of. It has battled its way through world wars, depressions and financial meltdowns and is still going strong. Its name has come to symbolise the very essence of individuality, traditional craftsmanship and inimitable style. That name is Zagato, and you've probably seen one of their cars, perhaps even ridden in one, without even knowing it. But more on that later.

It was 1919 when Signor Ugo Zagato left his job at Officine Aeronautiche Pomilio to set up his own business, Carrozzeria Zagato in Milan, with the intent of using the techniques he had learned in aeronautical science to further design in both the aerospace and automotive industries. He believed that lightweight construction was the future. How right he was. Ugo's automobile designs were both light and strong, which helped make a name for his new company in the glamorous world of motorsport - a pastime that really got into its stride after the Second World War. His elegant coachbuilt bodies clothed the likes of Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Lancia and Rolls-Royce.

Ugo's son, Elio, was given a Fiat 1100 Zagato Spider by his father when he graduated from Bocconi University in 1947. Elio raced that car and became hooked on the excitement of it all, but realised that its success on the track was down to the intelligence of its design and construction as much as the talent of its driver. As a result, Elio inherited the company reins and Zagato went from strength to strength as a leader in automotive design.

Elio's son, Andrea, is now in charge and Zagato is still pushing boundaries and bringing unmistakable style to the most exclusive automobiles. Adored by manufacturers and collectors the world over, what exactly is the secret ingredient that makes a Zagato?

"The key to Zagato's approach is co-branding," Andrea tells us. "The best result is based on an open collaboration between the two styling centres, with each one bringing the essence of the car's style. Therefore Zagato is never in competition with any manufacturer it is involved with."

In other words, when a manufacturer or individual owner asks Zagato to wave its magic wand over its cars, the result will always be recognisable for what it actually is, yet it will still be unmistakably the work of this much prized atelier. It's a winning formula.

Consider one of Zagato's recent efforts: the Bentley GTZ. At first glance it is evidently a Continental GT but there's a tangible difference; a Zagatoness, if you will. "If you can recognise a Bentley GTZ as a Bentley and as a Zagato then the co-branding activity has to be considered successful," remarks Andrea. "Naturally the front of the car should be more influenced by the original [or donor car] brand, while the side and the rear should reasonably be more influenced by Zagato. It's a process based on honesty and full respect between the two brands."

While Zagato has restyled bodies for Ferrari, Porsche, Bugatti, Bristol, Lamborghini and even Nissan and Toyota, undoubtedly its most famous collaborations have been with an unmistakably British icon: Aston Martin. The relationship began in 1959, when Aston Martin launched a sharper, more competition-focused DB4; the GT. It was lighter, smaller, more agile, with lightweight bodywork supplied by Touring of Milan. Aston wanted it to be lighter still, but Touring had to admit it had done as much as they thought possible. Somebody gave Zagato a nod, so the DB4GT was given to it and, by the time the team finished with it, the DB4GT Zagato was a masterpiece.

Highly prized by collectors prepared to pay enormous sums for any of the 20 examples built, the DB4GT Zagato was, indeed, lighter than anyone could have imagined but it was also extremely beautiful, with a very different style that was unmistakably both British and Italian in origin. As a race car it enjoyed success; as a collector's car, it will enjoy immortality.

The relationship between the two companies was resurrected in 1986 to celebrate 25 years of the DB4GT Zagato. The resulting car was a re-clothed V8 Vantage that married the traditional lighter weight/more power ethos with a style that can only be said to be "of its time". Beautiful it was not. Zagato and Aston joined forces once again in 2002 for the DB7 Zagato and there's little doubt there'll be another collaboration some time in the future.

Obviously a company cannot survive by being drip-fed special one-off projects like these, so Zagato has had to diversify and is now a respected player in the fields of industrial and consumer product design. But it will always be inextricably linked with glamorous, unattainable motor cars, and wealthy clients still approach the design house today for them to re-clothe their precious cars.

Yet the styling of these vehicles could be accused of being overly derivative. They tend to rely on past victories with a dollop of nostalgia in the mix. Andrea Zagato has his own ideas about this: "Automotive design is at the end of its first life cycle and we are all expecting a great revolution in the way cars are powered. Consequently the architecture of the next generation of vehicles will change massively," he says.

As for the current fad for retro design cues seen in cars like BMW's Mini, VW's Beetle and Fiat's 500, he adds, "Always before a revolution, the world has celebrated the previous golden age. It happened at the end of the 19th century when architects used neo-classical style to celebrate the architecture of the Romans and Greeks with elements like columns and timpani. It's happened in painting and sculpture and it's happening now in automotive design, where the best selling cars are inspired by the golden age of the Fifties and Sixties. Only a completely new generation of vehicles, with new rules and new types of powertrains will provide the opportunity to innovate and to be involved in remarkable projects as we were in the past. We expect electric people-movers without drivers to be the next revolutionary step in automotive design."

Speaking of which, the PRT (Personal Rapid Transport) driverless cars that are now operational in Abu Dhabi's Masdar City were designed by none other than Zagato, so he's at least true to his word. However, more conventional vehicles continue to roll out of the legendary studios. Cars like the Fiat 500 Zagato Coupe, an extremely good looking, more sporty 500 that was unveiled at this year's Geneva motor show. Or the latest take on Alfa Romeo, the TZ3 Stradale Zagato, an unbelievably sexy shape that clothes American firepower in the form of a Dodge Viper chassis and V8. Heresy? Certainly not; there's a rich history of Italian design and American grunt being combined in glorious fashion and there's an obvious connection when you consider the recent Fiat/Chrysler business merger.

With one eye on the past and another on the exciting future of transport design, whether or not a driver is included, Zagato will undoubtedly still be a key player many years from now. In these times of dull, lifeless, automotive androgyny, whatever your take on Zagato's creations, there's something to be said about being an individual and standing apart from the crowd.