Last Man Standing: The Zagato Story, Part II
An ideal way to close out 2019 is with a deep dive into Zagato history. The last independent great Italian coachbuilder celebrated its Centennial this year, and in Part I last week we examined the first several decades of the company’s history, what made Zagato successful, and how those elements almost led to their downfall. We pick up the tale as third generation coachbuilder Andrea Zagato assumes the helm, right before his family company would go through its greatest crisis ever…
Andrea’s Zagato’s self-proclaimed “first serious involvement” in a Zagato project was the ES30, more commonly known as the Alfa Romeo SZ. Andrea was then in his mid-30s, and found himself working with the ES30’s father, Fiat Auto’s powerful CEO Vittorio Ghidella. A mechanical engineer and serious “car guy” who brought Fiat back from the brink of disaster, Ghidella was Zagato’s “angel” inside Fiat.
In the second half of the 1980s Ghidella felt Alfa needed something it hadn’t had in quite a while—a sporty road-going coupe—and the resulting SZ became an ideal opportunity to examine future technologies. “The car was entirely designed and engineered with CAD-CAE-CAM,” Andrea notes. “It was the first experiment of the Fiat Group with this new process, and a great experience for me as assistant to the project manager.”
Zagato’s factory was tapped to produce 1000 SZ’s, but that came with a price: the coachbuilder had to buy out Aston’s 50% stake in Zagato (covered last week)—which it did with the help of a Japanese investor. “This was one of the first symptoms of the coming coachbuilder crisis,” Andrea reflects. “We were now in the hands of our OEM clients.”
Things worsened when the unthinkable happened: In the weeks leading up to the SZ’s launch, Fiat fired Zagato’s “angel.” Shortly thereafter Ghidella briefly worked at Ford, and there was talk the American firm would purchase Alfa and/or Zagato. But in the end, nothing happened.
By now Andrea had purposefully chosen to work at Forma & Technologia, a nearby company in charge of the SZ’s CAD development. Eventually he merged Forma & Technologia with Zagato’s technical office, which proved to be a lifesaver for the crippled firm he would soon inherit.
In 1992 Fiat made an offer to buy Zagato, but Elio and Gianni Zagato (Andrea’s father and uncle) rejected the terms. Shortly thereafter RZ production (the open version of the SZ) stopped with approximately half of the contracted cars built, and the upcoming Lancia Delta Sports project also earmarked for Zagato was canceled. Gianni Zagato thought he found cash flow salvation in Japan so at that year’s Geneva Show the carrozzeria presented the Seta and Bambu’, two intriguing proposals based on Nissan’s 300 ZX.
“This was my uncle’s idea to keep the assembly lines alive,” Andrea says. “While Nissan’s interest seemed real my father and I were against this solution. We believed lean production lines were invented by the Japanese; therefore, why should Nissan provide us with assembly jobs when they were the masters of flexible assembly lines?”
They were right, and the two Nissans remained one-offs. Projects such as building 15 Bugatti EB110s and 112s kept the lights on, but in 1994 the handwriting was on the wall. Production lines were shuttered, Zagato was reeling, and Andrea was put fully in charge.
Around this time was my first visit to the works, and everything had the forlorn look and downtrodden air of a once-glorious company well past its prime. But Andrea perceived a way forward. “We’ve been burned by big overhead and fixed costs more than once,” he observed at the time. “I won’t let that happen again.”
So how did he soldier on through overwhelming adversity? “A lesson I learned from my father: turn every event into a positive one,” is his response. “He had this ability that’s typical of racing drivers, where they try to win the race, notwithstanding any possible inconvenience.”
Plus there was Andrea’s conviction in the changes he was seeing in the industry, and how Zagato would handle them. The work for Bugatti demonstrated styling, engineering and prototyping could be quite profitable, as did the first true “Andrea car”—the brilliant Lancia Hyena Zagato project he oversaw in 1992-93.
Helping clarify his way forward was identifying key components to Zagato’s success over the decades: aeronautical inspiration; functional and rational design; done only in low volume, special edition coupes and roadsters. That approach avoided competing with the manufacturers’ design studios, a trend that became quite prevalent after 1999.
With direction determined, Andrea changed the company name to SZ Design, and found a willing partner in ex-racing driver Giorgio Schon, the son of fashion icon Mila Schon. Recognizing he himself didn’t possess the acumen to carry on Zagato’s design legacy, Andrea sought out Ercole Spada, the man who penned a number of Zagato’s classics (Alfa’s TZ1 and TZ2, and Aston’s DB4 GTZ, to name three). Spada had recently left Turin’s Idea Institute, and recommended Andrea speak with Norihiko Harada, his protégé there.
“Nori” took the Zagato job, and came on board at exactly the right time. In 1994 Lamborghini CEO Michael Kimberly contacted Andrea about redesigning the Diablo to jumpstart sagging sales, which led to the L147 “Super Diablo” project. While a number of running prototypes were made, the radical L147 never saw the light of day.
However, the Raptor did. Both were Nori designs, and this Lambo went from conception to finished car in under four months, and was the first Zagato to be created using CAD-CAM systems only. It was one of the sensations of 1996’s Geneva Show, and while there was talk of a run of 25 cars, it remained a one-off.
The Raptor demonstrated Zagato was clawing its way back, and those claws became much sharper when Andrea gained a life partner. I had known the Rivolta family of Iso Rivolta fame since the early 1980s, and was surprised to discover these two Milan-based automotive dynasties had never met. In one of the few times I’ve played matchmaker, Andrea and Marella Rivolta really clicked, and the two ended up married.
They became business partners as the sparks flew. “When I decided to invest in Zagato,” Marella recalls, “I was helping my father with an automotive project…and felt that developing it in Milan would be the best solution. That is why I went to Zagato.”
Their relationship is much more than a typical husband-wife dynamic. “I didn’t see in her a future company partner, but a beautiful woman with a lot of character,” Andrea says. “Apart from the 20 years of fighting and never giving up, the biggest contribution Marella made to the Zagato signature is her taste. In the automotive business, it is easier to find good designers than people with great taste, for design is about volume, proportions and rules. Taste is more of a gut feeling…(and) Marella has great taste…”
“We put our soul and all of our passion in our company,” Marella notes. “Andrea and I are very similar in certain things and we have common strong fundamentals but are also very different and complementary. At the end we discuss and find solutions and strategies together.”
One strategy was staying laser-focused on keeping Zagato lean and nimble, and the company survived and then thrived when the rise of the manufacturers’ internal design studios took down the other coachbuilders. “We never did a car that was considered a threat to the core business of our clients,” Andrea says. “Instead, we were a complement to them, with limited production models that have our own, unique take on their image.”
A continual flow of intriguing one-offs and limited production specials emanated from Zagato, and personal favorites include the aforementioned Lamborghini Raptor (1996) and L147 (1997), Aston Vanquish Roadster (2004), Ferrari 575 GTZ (2006), Spyker C12 (2007), Fiat 500 Coupe Zagato (2011), and most especially, Ferrari’s 599 GTZ (2017).
When asked what is the most important car under his tutelage, Andrea names 2002’s Aston’s DB7Z because “it marked the chance for Zagato to be a side Signature for ‘Collectible Editions’ without the need of having a production line.” He also notes 2008’s Bentley Continental GTZ “opened up the possibility to make collectible versions for every automotive luxury brand, even those we have never collaborated with before.”
Despite those breakthroughs, numerous other cars, and award-winning transportation and other projects outside the automotive arena, only recently did Andrea feel the company broke free from its past shackles. “A Shooting Brake is not a normal Zagato model but something I always wanted to make,” he says. “When Aston’s Vanquish Shooting Brake sold out the 99 units in a few weeks, that’s when I felt we had climbed out of that hole.”
But Italy’s passionate Last Man Standing isn’t quite done. “I believe I should be able to bring Zagato back to the track,” he enthusiastically proclaims. “This may be the next target, with endothermic or maybe with electric or hybrid engines.”
In other words, stay tuned for Zagato’s next 100 years…
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