Few European engineers have touched as many great car companies, great designers and great automobiles as has Giotto Bizzarrini, and fewer still have left behind mechanical icons that will live forever in Italian automotive lore.
Giotto Bizzarrini was an extremely talented and experienced engineer with a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Pisa and an abiding passion for fast, beautiful cars. By working hard, having good ideas, being a helluva good driver, and being in the right place at the right time, he got a job as a test driver for Alfa Romeo in Milan in 1954. After three years of experience, he managed to get another test-driving job, this time with the one company that is synonymous worldwide for fast, beautiful cars-Ferrari.
In his first year at Ferrari, he worked mostly on suspension, steering and brakes, while others tended to the V12 engines, and by 1958 he was taken off the racing team and placed in charge of future product and experimental cars. Working in that office, he and his team developed what has become perhaps the single most desirable sports car in the world, the 250 GTO. For many, that would have been enough for a whole lifetime of engineering and design, but for Bizzarrini there would be a whole lot more to come.
According to the history books, Bizzarrini left Ferrari in the big blowup of 1961 along with Carlo Chiti, who went on to establish and run Autodelta as an out-of-house tuner and race shop for Alfa Romeo. Bizzarrini instead went freelance, and the first client he worked for was the driven industrialist Renzo Rivolta of Iso Thermos, a Milan refrigeration company that eventually branched out into minicars, sports cars and racing. Iso invented and sold the original Isetta front-door minicar, later licensing it to BMW and others, which made it famous and provided the money for Iso to do other car programs. There, Bizzarrini worked out the final details of the car that would become the Iso Rivolta GT, a Corvette-powered sports car that put the company on the map.
It was during this period that the famous argument between Enzo Ferrari and tractor manufacturer Ferruccio Lamborghini took place, when Lamborghini decided he could build a sports car that was better than the Ferrari he wanted but could not get from Enzo. He needed an engine designer, and he got one-Giotto Bizzarrini. Bizzarrini designed and developed a 3.5-liter dohc four-valve V12 that grew to 4 liters, 5 liters and 6 liters in various Lamborghinis from then until now. Although Lamborghini has been sold three times, the basic engine design is still used today.
The Corvette-powered Iso Grifo (griffon) in both street (A3L) and racing (A3C) trim, a collaboration between Rivolta, Bizzarrini, the Bertone carrozzeria and its young designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, followed the GT in 1963. Their hard work was rewarded with class wins at Le Mans in 1964 and 1965, 9th and 14th overall, respectively, and strong showings at places like Monza and the Nrburgring. Rivolta, who didn't care much about racing, let Bizzarrini race the cars under his own name, and he did, attracting name drivers in big-time American and European endurance racing.
Legend has it that Rivolta grew less and less enchanted with racing, Bizzarrini more and more. They parted ways, with a twist. Bizzarrini, it turned out, had registered the Grifo name and owned it. He traded it back to Rivolta for financial considerations, including a large number of spare Corvette engines and other parts which he would use in creating the first cars built with his own name on them. Essentially modified Iso Grifos, they were called 5300 GT or Strada models.
But modifying a previous design was not the way Bizzarrini wanted to do business, so he sat down to create a brand new car without interference from anyone. And that one was the extremely low and very small rear-engined, open-cockpit P538 (as in posteriore), 5.3-liter, eight cylinders, once again built around the 327 cu-in. Corvette engine with four Weber carburetors adapted to it.
This was not a normal sports car by any stretch of the imagination. It had two seats, as required by FIA for sports cars, and room for the famous FIA suitcase under the front hood. But the driver sat in the center of the car, with the passenger on his left, and a bunch of mechanical equipment on his right.
The very low nose and room for the suitcase dictated a very small front-mounted radiator to cool the modified Corvette engine, so Bizzarrini used about 80 percent of the tubular frame members to carry coolant to and from the engine, providing more area from which to dump heat from the coolant. Like the Grifo and GT, it used a de Dion rear-end setup, with Campagnolo solid-disc front brakes and inboard Campagnolo rear disc brakes. The amazingly swoopy, low-riding fiberglass bodywork was designed for Bizzarrini by none other than Giorgetto Giugiaro, and bodies were built one at a time by a nearby boatbuilding works, the fiberglass panels bonded to the birdcage space frame at Bizzarrini's shop in Livorno.
The car was supposed to race at Le Mans in 1966, as a follow-up to the two consecutive class wins of the Grifos in 1964-65, but it crashed. A second car was built for American racer Mike Gammino to race at Le Mans, but Gammino apparently wanted to use a real high-rpm Italian powerhouse of an engine instead of a cast-iron Detroit lump, so he asked Bizzarrini about the possibility of using, say, a Lamborghini V12. Use an engine that he had designed, in a car he designed? Why, of course! Thus was born the later, and last, version of the Bizzarrini P538.
Keep in mind that, unlike Ferrari and Rivolta and Lamborghini, Bizzarrini could not fall back on street cars or tractors or refrigeration systems when his racing car business went south. He built a beautiful, fast, but uncompetitive car for Le Mans that did not meet the new rules, and he was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1968. Before that happened, his former collaborator, Giorgetto Giugiaro, who had gone from Bertone to Ghia to freelance, used one of the existing cars to build a closed prototype which was shown under the banner of Giugiaro's new company, ItalDesign, as the Bizzarrini Manta coupe.
Those who have been through it can tell you that every bankruptcy is different and that Italian ones are certainly different from American ones. The creditors seldom take or liquidate absolutely everything. And that was the case with the Bizzarrini closing. Before the courts got involved, apparently the family stashed a few of these and some of those, a little of this and a little of that, in secret places.
And that's how this car came to be. It is alleged that Giotto, his wife Rosanna and former shop foreman Salvatore Diomante built this car a little at a time with their own hands long after the courts had liquidated everything else, and sold it. It's been working its way to its current owner since 1968, when it was built for a wealthy Swiss jeweler. It carries chassis number 005.
As for Bizzarrini himself, he survived the bankruptcy, built a few more cars, went to work for American Motors designing the AMC/3 show car, and later taught engineering at the University of Florence. He's still with us today, living in Italy, still trying to market a small Bizzarrini two-seater sports car. Diomante opened his own company, Carrozzeria SD, in Turin, and made several copies of the P538 cars at least until 1988. A grand total of eight P538s are believed to exist, including the Diomante replicas, which used square tube in their chassis and did not use chassis members to contain coolant like the round-tube-chassis originals.
This car was equipped with a 3.5-liter Lamborghini V12 engine, ZF five-speed trans-axle, upper and lower control arm suspension with coilover shock units, front and rear stabilizer bars, beautiful Campagnolo alloy knock-off wheels, and high-speed tires (which have been replaced by Michelin XWX P225/70VR-15s). It's 166-in. long overall, on a 99-in. wheelbase, with a front track of 65 in. and a rear track of 68 in. The body is 75-in. wide at its widest point, across the rear fenders. It weighs 1,900 lb all up, carrying an endurance racing setup, four electric fuel pumps, 60 gal. of fuel and 18 qt of oil, in tanks behind the front tires.
The current owner of this Bizzarrini P538 is Van Horneff, of Saddle River, N.J., who bought it in 1995 at auction. It was listed in the catalog as a Lamborghini, but it was in fact a very rare Bizzarrini, on the block with other cars, trucks and heavy equipment. It is one of only two P538 V12 cars in North America, the other is in a museum in San Diego.
Horneff, 58, an entrepreneur in real estate, agriculture and entertainment, is married to a former Dean Martin Gold Diggers lead dancer who currently teaches dance, and has a successful actor son among his four children. Horneff showed the car briefly in 1996, won Best of Show at Le Belle Macchine at Pocono in 1996, then decided to sideline the car for a year or so to clean it up to a very high level, "...but not to concours condition. It's a race car."
He concentrated on the engine, the engine bay and the interior, because the red paint job was in good shape and needed only TLC and elbow grease. There are a few flaws in the underlying fiberglass body, which he says will be fixed eventually. It has since been to Lime Rock, Greenwich, Amelia Island, Meadow Brook, Pocono, Radnor Hunt Club, Portofino and several other high-end concours events and vintage races.
He has other cars, including a B-engined MGA roadster, and a 1958 MGA coupe with a blower on it that won highest honor at the North American MGA Registry show two years ago as well as the Antique Automobile Association Junior, Senior and Grand National titles. He also races a Porsche 944 in addition to the P538. His street ride is an aging Jaguar XJ6.
Horneff has an unusually frantic business life, complicated by endless phone calls and letters imploring him to sell the Bizzarrini for simply astronomical sums of money ($1.2 million for the San Diego museum car). For the time being, he's still learning how to drive it fast, which takes more than a little bit of skill, bringing it to physical and mechanical perfection and fending off potential buyers. If you had the only one of these for 3,000 miles in all directions, you'd probably want to keep it, too.