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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

September 19, 1997

Richard Allen is an enthusiastic reader of this column and an even more enthusiastic owner of exotic Italian cars. He sent me a program from the recent Concours Italiano, an all-Italian auto exhibition that's one of the events held annually during the Monterey Historic Car extravaganza. I couldn't attend in person, so I welcomed the opportunity to review the event.

Then it occurred to me that many of our casual readers don't know why some cars are labeled "exotic" and how many of them are Italian. To fill that educational gap, we herein describe the most outstanding examples of Italian haute automobilia:

MASERATI - A very old name in the Italian auto business, it dates back to five the Maserati brothers, Carlo, Bindo, Alfieri, Ettore, and Ernesto, who had been into motorcycle and auto racing before World War I. The brothers sold the company in '38 and the new owner, Adolfo Orsi, showed the first post-war Maserati sports-touring car in '47. From '47 to '83, Maserati made a plethora of exotic road cars that range from the early ('51-'53) front-engined A6G through mid-engined two-seaters like the Merak ('74-'76) and Khamsin ('77-'83).

Due to some European shenanigans that involved Citroen and Peugeot (you know how French car makers are), Maserati got into financial trouble and Alejandro de Tomaso came to its rescue in '75. From '84 to '90, Maserati fell into making expensive four-door sedans that can't really be labeled "exotic" - at least not by me

DE TOMASO - De Tomaso, an expatriate Argentinean, went to Italy in '55 to drive race cars for the Maserati brothers who had formed a new company known by the acronym OSCA. He got into the car-building business on his own in '59, making race cars at first (including Formula One), then began a long association with Ford by powering his first exotic road car, the Vallelunga, with Ford of England 1.6 liter engines. His Mangustas ('67 -'70) and Panteras ('71-'89) were all powered by 351 Ford engines mounted amidships and all were suitable for American hop-up techniques. Ford went into a joint venture with de Tomaso in the late '60s to market the Pantera through Lincoln-Mercury dealers, then bought the company en toto in '72. Ford abandoned the project a couple of years later, but De Tomaso had retained title to the company name. He produced a couple of V6 powered semi-sedans (the Muestria and the Longchamps) and kept busy by buying up Italian companies like Maserati and Innocenti.

LAMBORGHINI - Unlike de Tomaso, Ferruccio Lamborghini elected to make his own engines to power his exotic road cars. An industrialist who'd make his fortune in appliances and tractors, he bought a factory in Sant'Agata, Italy, in '62, surrounded himself with the best Italian auto designers he could pirate from Ferrari, Maserati and the like, and rolled out his first car in '63. It was the 350 GTV front-engined coupe that was powered by his own 3.5 liter V12 that produced 280 horsepower. It was the only front-engined car the company made and later models were always mid-engined; some mounted longitudinally and others transversely. To say that the Lamborghini company is prolific would be an understatement. During the '70 to '73 production years, it put out five different models, the Muira, Espada, Islero, Jamara, and Urraco. The next year, it produced the Countach, probably the most famous Lamborghini model and a design that was copied by numerous kit car makers around the world.

FERRARI - Of all the Italian exotics, Ferrari is the most famous. The make is 50 years old this year and it's been the automotive status symbol for movie stars, dictators, sports figures and business moguls from its earliest days. Enzo Ferrari himself had been the operator of the official Alfa Romeo racing team in the '30s and after the war, began to produce his own vehicles. Needless to say, the company began as a builder of competition cars, both sports racers and Grand Prix single- seaters, and is still contesting the Formula One world championship. The first road car built to bear the Ferrari name was the tiny 1.5 liter V12-powered Type 166 made in 1947 and was followed by a great profusion of street machines that were powered by V6, V8 and V12 engines of very complex designs. Ferrari exotics are still in production, still highly desired and its newest offering, the F550 is good for around 200 MPH.

ISO - Renzo Rivolta was an Italian industrialist whose company made such plebeian vehicles as the famous Isetta "bubble car" (I had a couple) and his own version of the ever-present Italian motorscooter. When he entered the exotic auto business in the early '60s, his instructions to his head engineer were to make the car flashy, fast and reliable. To achieve the latter, the design team powered its creation with that darling of two generations of American hot-rodders, the ubiquitous 327 Chevy small-block V8. The first Iso was aimed at the carriage-trade U.S. market in '63 but unfortunately the company named the car after its founder. At the time, we auto writers made many jokes about the Iso Rivolta but the company pressed on, making classy exotics using Chevrolet and then Ford V8s until '74 when it was killed off by the American fuel crisis.

Car spotting is a traditional American road sport, one I've participated in for 55 years. During that time I've made an interesting observation: when cars like the above mentioned Italian exotics are on the road, there's usually a police cruiser near by. Just ask Richard Allen.