Guiseppe Nuccio Bertone

September 12, 2004|by JASON STEIN/Wheelbase Communications

The man behind the men was a fascinating fellow.

One historian described him as someone who "oozed urban affluence, a short and foxy-faced man with a penchant for sharp tailoring and sunglasses."

Look at the old photos today, some seven years after his death in 1997 at age 82, and you can still see the style, the confidence and the eye for talent.

But, then, that might have been Giuseppe "Nuccio" Bertone's greatest asset: his eyes.

Self-described as an automotive designer talent scout, Bertone never lifted so much as a pencil in all of his years influencing the world's best cars.


But, make no mistake, Bertone's talent is all around us, even to this day: the Lamborghini Espada and Countach; the Fiat 850 Spider; and the tribute to Enzo Ferrari's son, the Dino coupe.

Working from his Italian design shop - Carrozzeria Bertone - his creative team penned some of the most significant cars of the last century.

Some historians refer to Bertone as the greatest nurturer of design talent in history.

Perhaps for this reason, he didn't even mind living out of the spotlight, allowing his talented designers to make the family name a household name.

Bertone was born in 1912, two years after his father - Giovanni Bertone - opened a carriage building and repair facility in Turin, Italy.

Nicknamed "Nuccio," he joined his father's business in 1934, the same year the company exhibited its special-bodied Fiat Ardita - the Superaerodinimica - at the Turin Auto Show.

In those days, not all cars came with bodywork and there were few factories. Instead, customers looked to a mix of small companies to finish their new vehicle. Bertone was one of them.

But with one regular order - from automaker Lancia in 1927 - the Bertone family became the biggest of the companies that provided bodies.

Armed with a diploma in accounting, young Nuccio began the process of growing the family business while maintaining his hobby as an amateur racer. But when his father retired in 1952, Bertone was faced with a challenge. Few people wanted to wait for their own personal vehicle to be built. As well, many cars were being offered with integrated, welded steel bodies or modules called monocoques. Body panels were an inherent part of the design and the market for conventional carriage builders was shrinking.

Bertone, with his small series of special-bodied two-seat MG roadsters for the U.S. market, was struggling until Alfa Romeo came into the picture.

When Alfa asked Bertone to build 500 coupe bodies for a new car called the Giulietta Sprint, it was a turning point in automotive history.

Bertone had decided to invest in a manufacturing plant with stamping machinery that would allow his company to shape the Sprint's curvaceous panels. The order for 500 Alfas eventually became 40,000 and, as a natural extension of his business, Bertone was allowed to let loose his creative team and thus formed an internal design house.

With production concerns alleviated, Bertone's shop eventually helped manufacturers with styling, engineering and prototype construction and production.

Bertone would also let his styling chief, Franco Scaglione, run free. Scaglione, already well known around the world at the time, incorporated aircraft influences into aggressive shapes and wonderful pieces of rolling art.

When he left in 1959, Bertone knew he could turn to Giorgetto Giugiaro, an amazingly talented young designer.

When Giugiaro left six years later, Bertone nurtured Marcello Gandini.

All his stylists would become internationally known designers with Bertone's studio fittingly pegged as the talent epicenter.

In it all, Bertone never forgot where he came from and who helped him become successful. When challenged, he could recall the names of colleagues some 60 years back as well as their designs. But he always hinted that there was room for improvement.

"I am pretty satisfied with the final results," he would say of his team, "Well, nothing is perfect."

All the while, Bertone's shop continued to flourish. He opened a large factory in Grugliasco, near Turin, to build niche models for Alfa Romeo and Fiat.

The company set the benchmark for beautiful vehicles, including many Lamborghinis and Ferraris. In fact, inspiring and stunning design was to be expected, not hoped for.

In retrospect, Bertone was able to carry on what his father had begun, but was able to provide quantity and extra styling muscle for his customers.

During the 1970s and 1980s, fortunes fluctuated. There were hits as well as misses.

But, mostly, Bertone set the standard. His once-tiny company stayed a world player in an era of globalization. Until his death in 1997, he earned accolades for being able to spot and develop talent: not to control it, but to unleash it.

He would often visit the studio near Turin on Saturday mornings, "so as to not disturb the designers," he would say. But on Mondays, those same designers found his observations for each and every project.

The man behind the men lived in the shadows but left his mark on the world.

"I drove their pencils."

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached at

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