Monday, April 1, 2013

Dissect A Dash #2: The 1957 Italian Supercars; Ferrari Superamerica - Maserati 3500 GT, Lancia and Fiat Abarth

There are truisms, and there are myths. And the car designers of Italy in the 1950's created both.

1957 Abarth Fiat 750 Zagato
 America at the time was obsessed with big cars, with big fins and bigger motors. 
Their signature race was Daytona, with Chrysler 300 letter-cars swapping paint with the Pontiac flock. 
But Italy was all about the Mille Miglia, and the Grand Prix. Their racer dreams were of twisting curves on the public roads and the winding duels on the European track circuit. Detroit built brawn; Turin designed beauty, and where the pride of America was the chest-thumping Flying Mile at Bonneville, Ferrari was lifting the mantle from Bugatti and creating the ultimate in speedy sports cars.
The mid-fifties was a dry-well in dashboard design for Detroit.  Uninspired, deeply practical, the gauges were interchangeable between the brands. You could stick a Chevy speedo in a Ford and no-one would  blink. Except to wipe away the tears.
But there was something going on overseas. In 1957, Italy was an arms race of style and speed, each manufacturer snatching up the hottest artists to slap their imprimatur on their House's latest offering. Men like Sergio Scaglietti, who poured out his vision of tuck-and-roll leather and the tiniest of fins imaginable, perhaps a two-finger salute to the Exner crew at Chrysler?  

1957 Chrysler New Yorker

1957 Ferrari Superamerica

And the biggest salute of all? The last Scaglietti Superamerica on the auction block went for over two-million. That's not in Lira. A top-of-the-line, pristine Chrysler letter car from the same year wouldn't touch six-figures. 
So sure, much of it is the scarcity, the performance, and the magical Ferrari nameplate, but while Detroit was installing couches and record-players in their cars, Enzo commissioned supple leather and a clean, timeless layout.

Diamond tuck-and-roll? Sure, why not. If it was good enough for Sam Barris in Hollywood, Scaglietti wasn't going to turn up his nose at it.
And dat dash.
Enough toggle switches to operate Coney Island, and more warning lights than Sophia Loren sightings in downtown Rome after "The Pride and the Passion".
This is an interior that says, "We're ready to race, but it may take a couple of hours to find a sucker, so just sit right back in this bolstered cockpit, with soft, stiched-lambskin under your ass and a rocket panel display in front of you..."

1957 Ferrari Superamerica interior

Here's a color shot of that big-bucks survivor. The styling looks as good today as 55 years ago... but if there is one area that restorers will fall short in, it's the bits. The jewelry. The switches and the lights are different, because that's a shortcut that 90% of the judges and lay person will gloss over.

So that's what all-out, Italian-style luxury looks like. What about the contenders to the throne, like Maserati?
Let's take a look at the smooth 3500 GT.

1957 Maserati 3500 Grand Touring

This was a car built for show and go. A sedate exterior matched with a growling big block engine, with all of the amenities required for those long country drives. 

Plenty of space for the bambinos in back

1957 Maserati 3500GT Dashboard

As you can see, there is a little more elegant simplicity here than in the Ferrari "cockpit of danger". A racing sports steering wheel, tachometer, speedometer and accessory gauges, and that's pretty much it. This was the cigarette boat of luxury cars; straight-ahead speed with no muss, no fuss.

This dash is reminiscent of the Lancia line. The Zagato-penned Appia GT is similarly configured, with a compact trio of main gauges.

1957 Lancia Appia GT by Zagato

The layout is almost a cross between the Ferrari and the Maserati. It is a simple gauge cluster, with a row of control switches.

Its' brother, the Aurelia, is a bit on the more "high-strung" end of the spectrum. It's a marvel of engineering.

1957 Lancia Aurelia

 And inside the set-up is strictly business.
 Everything, every gauge, IS RIGHT THERE, enabling you to adjust conditions at a glance.

You only need take your eyes off the road for just a split-second to determine your speed, reach for a switch, or check a light. The driver controls all. The passenger just sits back for the ride.

Speaking of rides, this would be one you'd never forget - squealing your tires around a sharp curve, probably only two of still making contact with the pavement, in a race-prepped Fiat Abarth 750 Zagato "Bubbletop". 

I once had an old guy tell me, "You know, if I could have any car in the world, I'd want a racing Abarth". I was like, right, NOT a 1962 Ferrari GTO? But you know what, you could drive an Abarth, and not worry about taking a 2-million dollar ditch crash. And that's really the whole point. Who cares if you own a Bugatti Atlantic if all it means is staring at it through your climate-controlled, bullet-proof plexiglass storage cube?

1957 Abarth Zagato 750

The Abarth was lab-created to run, like a foal from Secretariat. Lightweight, stiff and nimble, it twitched across the road like a waterskipper. It had great rear-engine balance and acceleration.

You'll notice, once again, how tightly-grouped these gauges are. Just a hair below sight-line, even visible through the open steering wheel-design, so that when you were taking that bend at 70mph, your peripheral vision was still part of the equation.

The Fiat 600 Abarth was a romp. It was a micro-race car with macro excitement. On the whole, it's slightly nerdy presentation belied it's nefarious purposes.

Who's going to move over and let this guy pass? Intimidating isn't the word that comes to mind. Pesky, maybe.

But it was loaded for (a very small) bear. That 140kmh speedo isn't there as a joke.

Neither is that tucked down tachometer near the shifter. Talk about being on the down-low; this was such a sleeper that your wife would have thought you were buying the car for her. Again, it's all about styling, with that Abarth wheel and simple dash, just like you're getting ready for the Italian Job, Part II !

1957: The year the Italians Got It Done!

No comments:

Post a Comment