Art, Jewelry, and Zagato—Fiat’s Remarkable 8VZ

The fastback/berlinetta form was becoming more prevalent in the first half of the 1950s, and Carrozzeria Zagato was one of its biggest proponents. Fiat gave the Milan-based coachbuilder the perfect chassis for them to show their wares, in their technically advanced 8V model.

Automotive jewels come in all sizes, shapes and forms, and one of the most exquisite from the 1950s was Fiat’s 8V. The model’s debut at 1952’s Geneva Auto Show was dubbed “the surprise of the year” by Road & Track, and with good reason. The unveiling marked the arrival of one of the decade’s most advanced and supremely balanced road (and eventually, race) cars, from a manufacturer with serious prewar sporting history but much better known at the time for its economy cars and mass production models.

Powering the 8V was a narrow angle 110 horsepower 1996cc V8 mounted behind the front axle, making the car a front mid-engine design. Compression was 8.5:1, the engine’s overhead valves operated by pushrods. Carburetion initially consisted of two double barrel Webers, and the exhaust manifold routed the pipes above the heads so the motor could fit in the slender engine bay.

Power was transmitted to the rear wheels via single, dry plate clutch and a four-speed gearbox. The front and rear suspension was independent with transverse wishbones, telescopic shocks and coil springs at both ends. Large drum brakes provided the stopping power.

Man Behind the Model

The 8V was named after its powerplant, a 1996cc V8. It’s a jewel of an engine, pulling in one long, continuous surge that never seems to run out of breath.

The man behind the model was Fiat’s enthusiastic engineer, Dante Giacosa. “The 8V was a complete blank piece of paper,” he told me. “The idea was to have it very strong and rigid with an independent suspension. Because we desired ruggedness, a tubular chassis was ruled out,” the engineering team opting for steel sections that ran the length of the car’s outer edges, with cross-members connecting them.

When queried about the idea of a sophisticated sports car, something seemingly out of character for the company and general marketplace at that time, “you must recall that Fiat made racing cars back in the 1920s,” Giacosa replied. “Sports cars came from the transformation of production cars. When it was easy enough to do, we would transform a production car into a sports car (and the 8V) was more of an experiment to see how something like that would do.”

Not Made for Just Anyone

All the design elements seen in the hood scoop, bumperettes and grille come together to make a fabulous “face” on Fiat 8VZ chassis 0058.

As superb as Fiat’s most expensive and lavish model was, it struggled to find an audience. The original wind tunnel derived coachwork was indeed aerodynamic, but its avant-garde looks weren’t for everyone. This offered up a marvelous opportunity for Italy’s booming coachbuilding scene, and Pinin Farina, Ghia, Vignale and Zagato all applied their craft to the 8V.

Also appreciative of the 8VZ was one of the greatest privateers of the era. As Carlo Leto di Priolo noted in the massive tome “Fiat 8V” by Tony Adriaensens, once the Zagato-bodied 8V appeared “the car began a series of wins (that ranged) from the national championships to the international successes…(and lasted) for almost a full decade…It was a very reliable car that forgave (the driver), and reading its racing history you can (ask), how come it kept on winning for so many years?”

Elio Zagato, the literal driving force behind the 8VZ’s existence, can answer that question. “My favorite car was the 8V,” he told me. “Its chassis was fabulous (and) it was the first car with a fully independent suspension. I saw the advantage in that.”

A classic berlinetta (fastback) with striking proportions, one that was equally at home on the street, and the track.

The Driving Force

Indeed he did, for as Leto di Priolo pointed out, throughout the 1950s the 8VZ scored a number of Italian championships, several class wins at the Mille Miglia, and a number of outright victories. A number of those victories came from Zagato himself in the car seen here. Chassis 0058 is the second pre-production Zagato (chassis 0057 being the first), and is one of the 20 fabulous Zagato berlinettas.

In the right hands these little lightweight jewels could absolutely dance around a racetrack, and in 1954 with Elio behind the wheel, 0058 did just that. He competed ten times that year, and finished first in class in seven of the races. Highlight of the year was September’s Coppa InterEuropa, where Zagato scored an overall victory, set a fastest lap, and recorded a new two-hour distance record.

Elio sold 0058 in February of 1955, and the subsequent owners raced the 8V for two more years. In the late 1950s, it made its way to America and remained in the States for some four decades before ending up in Holland. At the time of “Fiat 8V’s” publication in 2005, chassis 0058 was described as “probably the most original of the surviving pre-production 8Vs.”

Post-War Art

Another thoughtful design touch—the way the door wraps down into the frame, making it easier to get in and out of the low slung Zagato 8V.

The current owner of 0058 knew what he bought, and had it impeccably restored over a several year period. It truly is a piece of postwar art, with perfect proportions and cool details such as a door opening that goes down to the chassis rails so the outer edge of the floor is cut away. Then there’s the sharply defined crease that runs along the side of the body, some “jewelry” in the hood scoop, a small ridge along the front of the bumpers, fabulous two-tone instruments, and more.

In sum, Zagato’s 8V was the version that truly put this remarkable Fiat on the map. As Giacosa pointed out, the 8VZ “was a good car, one that a lot of people in Lingotto (Fiat’s headquarters) appreciated”—a remark he never applied to any of the other coachbuilders’ designs.

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