Counting Blessings with “Automotive Greats”

An element that makes life so rich and rewarding is the people who are around you, and over the past three-plus decades I’ve been extremely blessed to know and befriend a number of the best in the auto industry. So at this special time of the year, it was the perfect occasion to reflect on some of them, and the interesting cars they have brought into our lives.

Mr. Carroll

Father of the 289 and 427 Cobra and so much more, Carroll Shelby certainly defined the word “character” in so many ways. This portrait is from 1995.

At 1981’s Palo Alto Concours in California, Carroll Shelby and his cars were featured, and I was one of many enthusiasts thrusting something in front of him to sign. But rather than a piece of paper, it was a copy of “The Cobra Story.” He looked up when seeing the cover of the book he wrote in 1965, we chatted for a moment, and then he signed it. Little did I know three-plus decades later we would be talking on a somewhat regular basis…

Carroll made a name for himself as a stupendous driver in the 1950s. The highlight of that part of his career was winning Le Mans in 1959 in this Aston Martin DBR/1.

Carroll was a real character, and once he got to know you, you were in. We had fun and some interesting conversations overthe last few years of his life, and one of the best occasions was when he was featured at The Quail in 2010. We never formally invited him to the event, for I just kept him informed of what we were doing, and which cars were being lined up. After a few of these calls, in that gravely voice Carroll said, “Winston, I like what you guys are doing, and would like to come.” He did, and that was very likely his last public interview before he passed away.

Speaking of Characters…

Test driver Valentino Balboni was a fixture at Lamborghini for nearly four decades, and a key figure in giving the cars their lively, distinctive personalities.

It’s a good word to describe Lamborghini test driver Valentino Balboni. I first met him through a mutual friend, and then while frequenting Lamborghini for magazine work we became good friends. One dinner conversation, in particular, stands out.

He’d been at the company for around 30 years when we got together on a cold Modena winter evening. At the time Lamborghini was having some real problems with cash flow, future product and employee morale. A few miles to the north Maserati had been taken over by crosstown rival Ferrari, and was in the midst of a massive refurbishing of the factory, and total revamp of their line up. They wanted new talent, and were putting on a full court press to hire him.

Valentino has an impromptu conversation with friend and former Lamborghini employee Giuliano Pizzi, one of the few who was there when the first ever Lamborghini V12 was bench-tested for the first time.

We sat in a quiet corner of that restaurant, walking through the plusses and minuses of him staying, or departing. In the end Valentino stayed with Lambo, which makes him a real rarity these days—an entire career at a single company, and today this legendary, humble figure still acts as an ambassador for the marque that was his life’s work.

In Lambo History

Another stellar figure from Lamborghini’s history is engineer Gianpaolo Dallara (pictured below in 1994). Many consider him Italy’s best ever chassis man, but in those early years he was capable of much more. His innate talent and creativity truly came to the fore in 1965 on the Miura, the model that vaulted Lamborghini into the limelight. Not only did he design the avant-garde chassis on that landmark car, but working with Paolo Stanzani and test driver Bob Wallace, the engine and transmission as well.

In the early 1990s, I asked Dallara what was the inspiration for the Miura. He hesitated for just a split second to ponder, and then said two words: “The Mini.” I was flabbergasted, for up to that time every book and magazine claimed the car came about because Dallara, Wallace and Stanzani wanted Ferruccio Lamborghini to go racing, and created the P400 chassis and drivetrain to convince him to do that.

That two-word answer reaffirmed why it was always best to find the people who lived the adventure so you could get at the real story, and not the one that had been told over and over.

Engineer Gianpaolo Dallara has a great number of championship-winning competition cars to his name, but the single automobile he is probably best known for is Lamborghini’s landmark Miura.

Living the Adventure

That lesson repeated itself with an absolute prince of a man, Sergio Scaglietti (seen below in front of his factory). One of his most spectacular cars was 375MM chassis 0402, a one-off made in 1954-55 for film producer Roberto Rossellini. It had long been thought to be a rebody that Rossellini instigated, and in the Ferrari world and elsewhere there is a gaping chasm in terms of value and importance between a rebody commissioned by a client, and one done with the factory’s blessing.

When I asked Sergio about the project, he said Ferrari sales manager Girolamo Gardini called him and said the car would be coming, and to make a new body for it. Because the Ferrari factory was behind it, that immediately changed the historical and concours judging equation on 0402. At the world’s best shows, rightly or wrongly non-factory commissioned rebodies are typically penalized because it wasn’t how the car left the works. But discovering that Gardini made the call, 0402 was now seen in a new light, and became the first ever Ferrari to score 100 points at Pebble Beach.

Sergio loved America's multitude of cowboy movies and TV shows. Needless to say he was in heaven when the Ferrari Club of America invited him to their annual meet that was in Texas, and took over a working western town that was complete with gunslingers! Just look at the way he is smiling here to get a sense of how much fun he was having...

One Sharp Dude

For the past two decades Ian Callum has been design director at Jaguar, and has transformed the company’s design language in the process. He’s one sharp dude who truly gets it, for as he says, “good design doesn’t need to be explained.”

During the second half of the 1990s Callum was a key component in the resurgence of Aston Martin by designing the very popular DB7 line up, which was followed by his Vanquish. He’d been splitting his duties between Aston and Jaguar in 1998-99, but when new management began running Aston, against his desires Callum was forced out of his role at Aston.

It was an agonizing period for this passionate aficionado, and in a late spring catch-up phone call he queried, “When are you next coming to the U.K.?” I told him in several weeks, and he replied, “I need to show something to somebody, and it’s going to be you.”

We rendezvoused at the design studio that summer, and in the enclosed courtyard his men wheeled out two full-scale models. One was the DB9 that would debut four years later at the Frankfurt Auto Show. The other was what would become the AMV8 Vantage concept at 2003’s Detroit Auto Show, and go on sale in 2005 as the V8 Vantage. So anytime you see another talented name associated as the designer of those cars, just know both started with Callum…

A Piece of Fiat History

Our final individual is one who had great influence on Fiat history. Engineer Dante Giacosa was born in 1905, and atthe age of 23 began his career at Fiat subsidiary SPA. He joined Fiat the following year, and his engineering and managerial talents were behind many of the marque’s great sports cars. In the second half of the 1960s the 124 Spider made most every roadster from England seem agricultural, while the 8V was one of the most advanced roadcars of the 1950s.

Interestingly, some of Giacosa’s first postwar work was with Piero Dusio and Cisitalia. The effort started during the war, and he recalled, “In America during that period there was dirt track racing.” Dusio had given the engineer a free hand to create what he wanted, and Giacosa decided “to make something like those (dirt track racers), using Fiat components. (Dusio) liked the idea, envisioning a series where his racer friends would compete in identical cars.” From those humble beginnings came the marvelous Cisitalia 202 MMs and road-going berlinetta (below), the latter basically transforming postwar sportscar design.

At the time of our conversations (as seen in upper photo), this most talented engineer was age 90, his mind was still sharp as a tack, and he delighted in speaking about automobiles, history, and his creations. The last time I saw him was in July 1995, and he passed away nine months later.

As said up front, it has truly been a blessing to have known such individuals. Some are still with us and some aren’t, but with the rapid ways the auto industry is changing, they all will likely remain unique.



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