Dream cars are not meant to be subtle. If they're to stand out and draw a crowd at an international auto show, they require a little extra something, whether it's style, technology or pure chutzpah.

At Italy's biennial Turin Auto Show, the focus has always been on style and design. And there's no wonder why--four decades ago, the fabulous creations emerging from Italian coachbuilders in that city made Turin the center of the automotive design world. While the names of many of these carrozzerie--from Allemano to Zagato-- are familiar to European car fans, there is one Turin-based company that has managed to remain obscure for some 80 years: Gruppo Stola.

That low profile was intentionally cultivated, as Stola has always worked far behind the scenes in the automotive world. Founded in 1919, Gruppo Stola originally concentrated on model building for the big fish in Italy's automotive pond. For example, Stola helped Lancia build its first Lambda back in 1921, and has worked steadily with Italy's colossal Fiat Group over the years. Today, Stola Group has 2,000 employees and facilities in Italy, Brazil and India, producing highly confidential bread-and-butter automotive work: engineering, model-making, prototype construction and the building of production presses and assembly machinery.

But something happened in 1996. The younger generation of la famiglia Stola got an itch for international attention. Alfredo and Roberto Stola, vice-chairman and company president, respectively, decided to use the biennial Turin Show as a kind of coming-out party. And what better public relations device could they build than a fully functional, high-technology dream car? The resulting creation was a bright citron-green convertible called the Dedica, the company's first running show car. Dedicated to former Fiat boss Giovanni Agnelli, the car was built on Fiat's popular Barchetta chassis; Stola Group had been instrumental in the engineering development of the Barchetta, and the similarities were evident. Even the glowing blue, green and gray interior, with anodized aluminum-trimmed dash gauges, was very close to Fiat's original. Still, the car attracted a sizeable crowd, so two years later, at the next Turin Auto Show, Stola introduced its second fully operational concept car under the name Abarth Monotipo.

This one-of-a-kind automobile stopped traffic, both on the road and in the show. The car's fluorescent "Live Abarth Red" paint is so bright, it might actually hurt to look at it in bright sunlight; thankfully, its impact is alleviated by the dark Kevlar hood that's been designed to echo the one on the last great Abarth, the Fiat-Abarth 124 Rally.

Fiat, which owns the Abarth name, granted Stola permission to name the car after the Austro-Italian tuner Carlo Abarth. More than just honoring the man, though, the car has been built in Abarth's spirit. Unlike the paltry offerings that have recently emerged from Fiat bearing Abarth's emblem (such as ground-effects kits for the tiny Cinquecento and Seicento compact cars), here finally was a car that puts serious horsepower and race-capable suspension behind the scorpion badge.

It's racy body was designed free of charge by an old friend of the Stola family, Aldo Brovarone. Brovarone, now retired, spent most of his life working at Pininfarina, where he worked on many projects including the Ferrari Dino.

While the Dedica was no wimp--a turbocharged, Lancia-built 262-bhp 2.0-liter 16-valve engine sits under its sculpted hood--the Monotipo's Lancia-based powerplant pumps out 330 bhp at 6500 rpm. A five-speed transmission is mated to a Viscodrive limited-slip differential, and ventilated disc brakes, just like those used on the Ferrari F40, stop the car.

Despite the attractions of the engine, it was really the Monotipo's body that Stola wanted the world to know about. Thanks to the almost exclusive use of composite materials for the body, the Monotipo weighs in at a feathery 1936 lb. Remarkably, the Monotipo is built on the same Barchetta chassis as the Dedica, yet weighs 308 lb less. Little details on the body--built-in towing eyes, handless doors and plugs for the quick-lift air jacks incorporated into the rear panel--carry out the racing theme. The long, clear plexiglass roof, made from an aerospace-grade polycarbonate with built-in anti-mist and anti-scratch qualities, echoes the front hoodline; its rear point almost meets the back bumper. The roof's special material was provided by Isoclima, one of the many companies that assisted Stola in the Monotipo's creation. Others include Ciba Specialty Chemicals for bodywork, Brembo for brakes, and Momo Corse for the seats, steering wheel and gear knob. O.Z. Racing built special light-alloy 10x18-in. wheels and Goodyear provided Eagle F1 tires.

I was thrilled to take a ride in the Monotipo, despite the fact that I'd given the Stola staff no warning and the car was due for service the very next day. "There is no problem! This car is a dream car, but it is built to be as reliable as a production car," Alfredo Stola assured me as he fetched the keys. He pressed a hidden button, and I gasped as the door lifted up and out, hinged on the B-pillar like a wing. As I sank into the white leather interior, I felt as if I'd climbed into a space capsule. Behind me, the elaborate roll cage made of varying tube sizes held a helmet ready. As I buckled my four-point belts, I examined the riot-red switches and vents glowing on the scrubbed steel console. The motor roared to life with Alfredo's first turn of the key, just as he promised.

More racing trim shared the cockpit space--two halon canisters and a Momo 16-liter safety tank further back. The greenhouse effect from that long, arched roof was about to kick in when Alfredo turned on the air conditioning--yes, air conditioning, on a concept car! We cut a swath through Turin's traffic, causing near misses from gawking Fiat drivers on all sides. Along the way, Alfredo discussed the finicky shifting (the Viscodrive was the principal reason the car needed servicing) and the narrow powerband--power under 4000 rpm is minimal. He also apologized for the tremendous racket from the noisy turbo wastegate, as well as the heavy traffic.

But then the locals finally cleared a straightaway (I think they all pulled over to watch), and Alfredo put his foot down. The turbo kicked in, and the Viscodrive screamed as the front wheels scrambled up to 62 mph in what felt like the claimed 4.9 sec. But I'll admit to being too stunned to check the stopwatch. I do know that if the Brembo brakes hadn't done their job we'd have been on our way to Antares before the onlookers could say arrivederci! With a top speed of 160 mph, we would've been there in time for lunch.

Since that driving session in Italy, I've been lusting after Stola's latest offering, the Porsche Boxster-based S82 Spyder. Alfredo built the new S82 as a way to bring his own personal dream car to life on the occasion of the company's 82nd birthday. "My dream car is the 550 like James Dean had," he confessed in a recent interview. "At the same time I love the Boxster. I didn't want to try and make the Boxster 'better,' but felt the best compromise was to make something like a 550 by modifying the Boxster." The resulting S82 was again designed by Brovarone, built by Stola's modelers, and is powered by a twin-turbo 450-bhp Porsche engine that Alfredo says won't slow down until after it hits 186 mph. And, unlike its one-off predecessors, Stola plans to produce something like ten S82s, for sale at about 285 million lire each (that's about $130,000). Not an unreasonable price tag for a dream.

*Final quote of Alfredo Stola from "Ferdinand Meets Alfredo," by Winston Goodfellow, Sports Car International, Vol.17 No.6, Nov. 2001.

Stola Abarth Monotipo

Vehicle type: Front-engine, fwd two-door coupe
Structure: Steel unibody
Engine: Turbo-charged inline-four cylinder dohc, 16 valve
Displacement: 2000cc
Power: 330 bhp at 6500 rpm
Intake system:Electronic fuel injection
Transmission: Five-speed with Viscodrive
Curb weight: 1,936 lb
Suspension, f: MacPherson wishbone with helical springs, double-action gas shocks
Suspension, r: MacPherson double wishbone with double-action gas shocks
Steering: Rack and pinion
Wheels: O.Z. 18 x 10 cast alloy
Tires: 265/35ZR18 Goodyear Eagle F1
Brakes: 14-in. vented discs with Brembo four-piston calipers
0-to-60 mph: 4.9 sec.
Top speed: 160 mph (electronically limited)

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