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La Dolce Vita: Italy’s 20 Greatest (plus five duds)

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The great Carlo Abarth with a collection of his creations

There are of course, endless connotations of what constitutes the superlative in a car. For example, it’s obvious that if you’ve got to tip-toe over a country mile to get to your local Tescos, up hill and down dale dodging lackadaisical pheasants and strange me in tweed, then your idea of The Best isn’t going to be represented by a Scuderia.

If, however, your aim at any given time is to rise up at 4AM on a Sunday morning and move as dynamically and irresponsibly as possible on a public highway, to the soft rising of the late summer sun and the symphony of five hundred wailing cavali, then the Discovery is not going to cut it.

But there’s the rub. When talking about vehicles imagined, designed, built, driven, raced and consumed in Italy, we’re talking about a special kind of vehicle. Italians don’t really do practical. Italians make the kind of vehicle that means more than the workaday, that provides function much closer to racing form as a matter of course than anywhere else in the world.

Lovers of Italian vehicles (and for that matter, Italian design, Italian cooking, Italian art, literature and film – are the sort of people that crave experience and leave practicality and sensible-ness to the Belgians.

Baring this in mind, we have chosen our favourite 20 Italian cars – and we have chosen the top twenty that fits most into the category of Passion, flair and quickness. And also, there's a handful of cars, which, for us, don't live up to the billing . As Enzo Ferrari said “the most beautiful car is the one that wins…”

Italian Motorcycles: Winds of Passion

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Rich Beach explores the Italian penchant for two wheeled style

Passion. Italians have it in spades. In fact, where we are all made of 3/4 water, the Italians are 75% pure passion. Passion flows through everything they do, from throwing a dish together, constructing an argument to building a motorcycle.

And the difference between Italians and the rest of their European brethren is starkly apparent when you have to sit through a pre-launch presentation from say, the press office of BMW motorcycles. Here, you’ll be efficiently bombarded with fact after German fact, number after number, dry weight, rake angle, torque curves… The spiel from a Japanese manufacturer will consist meanwhile of mind-bending new technology and nano-scale efficiency improvements, although admittedly with much talk of spirit. Honda is always particularly keen to remind we hacks of the spirit within their machines – albeit in a Zen kind of way.

But then you go to Italy, where a small almost cottage industry manufacturer (yes, Ducati is a cottage industry if you compare them to the Japanese), tucked away in the rolling countryside are releasing their latest machine – a machine designed with passion, powered by desire and marketed with dreamy, oozy desire.

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Moto Guzzi's beautiful Falcone of 1950

Outside the gates of the Moto Guzzi factory, in the tiny little picture postcard village of Mandello del Lario, the company’s slogan reads: The Winds of Passion (in Italian). Now, I won’t be so crude and repeat the interpretation some visiting bike journalists and myself made of this. Let’s just say we sniggered. But that was before we went inside and were stunned silent with awe as we were led around the museum filled with historic Guzzis. The only winds of passion came from the mouths of each employee we spoke to about their life dedicated to the town’s iconic marque. This was the factory their father dutifully toiled for, and his father before him. For each of them, it genuinely appeared to be an honour to work there.

The Germans and Japanese, also of course, have museums of motorcycle development. But in each case it feels just that – a pristine display of their ever forward marching progression. Inside the Italian factories on the other hand, it feels more like the scribbled pages of Da Vinci’s notebook, a scrapbook of ideas and family memories, faded pages and curled corners to boot. The history envelops you and, despite their current bikes’ modern technology, you still feel the weight of the history of the marque riding pillion with you. You get a feel for this inexplicable quality that is this ‘passion’, the joy. You experience it as you ride a Guzzi, or Ducati, Aprilia or even an MV Agusta.

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MV Agusta is the ultimate Italian motorcycle marque. This 860 is one of our favourites

Italian’s don’t make food, cars or motorcycles; they make love. When you hand over £40-50,000 for a Ducati Desmosedeci RR – probably the sexiest, most desirable production supersports bike in the world, you’re riding a piece of highly efficient 200+mph, 170kg, carbon fibre filth. You dirty pervert you.

And it’s no coincidence the greatest motorcycle racer the world has seen is Italian. Valentino Rossi is storming towards his 9th World Champion title, despite the efforts of his Spanish and Australian title contenders. Not enough passion you see. No one celebrates a win, engages the public or showboats like Vale. He doesn’t like easy wins and he respects, not hates, anyone who can beat him. He’d do it if he didn’t get paid. Because of the passion.

If only the classic Italian automobilia were as reliable and consistent as Rossi. Which is a point that seems to prove the indubitable power of passion – if vintage, and even not-so-vintage Alfas or Ducatis, are renowned for breaking down, or suffering problems, which they are, then what is the attraction if a Jap machine will run and run and run?

The difference is, the enthusiastas of the rich and frustrating world of Italian machinery know full well that to keep a beautiful motorcycle, or car, in good order, they must dedicate time, affection and constant maintenance to her. Just like the young Sophie Loren – she’s beautiful but highly-strung. Most importantly, she requires regular, attentive, passionate, extensive, joyous and expert servicing.

Give her these things and she will make you feel like God.

The Scuderia Chronicles

Tony Dodgins on Ferrari's unique motorsport heritage

Ferrari is the most evocative name in Formula 1 and the most passionately supported team the world over.

Ever present since the beginning of the FIA Formula 1 World Championship in 1950, Ferrari has won 15 world drivers’ championships and 16 constructors’ titles, making it the most successful team in the sport’s history. But it’s more than that. It’s about that prancing horse insignia, Italian style, the blood red cars and exclusivity.

The “Cavallino Rampante” was the personal motif of Italian WW1 flying ace Francesco Baracca, who carried a red horse on his planes. After his death, his mother, Countess Paolina suggested to Enzo Ferrari that heroic racing exploits reflected the spirit of her son – today it would be called ‘synergy’ – and so Enzo adopted a black prancing horse with the yellow colours of Modena as background.

After Alfa Romeo dominated the inaugural 1950 championship, Froilan Gonzalez, ‘the Pampas Bull’ broke their winning streak in a V12 Ferrari 375 at the 1951 British Grand Prix. With changed rules at the end of the year Alfa withdrew and in ’52-3 Alberto Ascari won consecutive titles in the 4-cylinder 2.0 litre Tipo 500 Ferrari.

With new 2.5-litre rules in 1954, Ferrari struggled against Maserati, Mercedes Benz and Juan Manuel Fangio but, by 1956, the great Argentine driver was in a Ferrari and claimed Ferrari’s third drivers’ title before returning to Maserati.

The constructors championship was introduced in 1958 and although Mike Hawthorn was drivers champion with just a single victory in his Ferrari to Vanwall driver Stirling Moss’s four, the inaugural makers’ title fell to Vanwall.

Enzo Ferrari first got his hands on it in 1961 when American Phil Hill took the title, now for 1.5-litre cars, in the distinctive shark-nose Ferrari 156.

Motorcycle ace John Surtees became the only man to win world titles on two wheels and four when he took the 1964 championship in the V8-powered Ferrari 158, winning at Nurburgring and Monza. ‘Big John’, who loved his time at Ferrari, eventually fell out with team manager Eugenio Dragoni.

Ferrari then endured more than 10 years in the doldrums before claiming both titles in 1975 with Niki Lauda behind the wheel of the 312T. Lauda was badly burned in a crash at Nurburgring the following season but came back heroically six weeks later at Monza to try to defend his championship lead. He finished fourth, his fireproof balaclava coated in blood from unhealed wounds. Lauda, who’d had operations on his eyelids, could not blink properly and clear his eyes of tears, spelling an early retirement from the wet season finale in Japan, where he lost his crown to James Hunt by a single point. Lauda won a second Ferrari championship in ’77 before he, too, tired of Maranello politics and left to join Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team. There's nice old footage of Lauda in action below, as well as a shocking memory of the horrific crash.

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That opened the door for Gilles Villeneuve, possibly the most revered Ferrari driver of all time. Gilles drove the wheels off his cars (quite literally at Zandvoort in 1979) and was adored by the tifosi, although it was team mate Jody Scheckter who used consistency to win the 1979 world title in Ferrari’s flat-12 engined T4. The little French-Canadian, father of ’97 world champion Jacques, won six races for the team before crashing fatally at Zolder in qualifying for the 1982 Belgian GP.

Just two weeks earlier he had been livid at team mate Didier Pironi, who he claimed had ‘stolen’ his win at Imola. They had not spoken since and, at Zolder, there were seven minutes of qualifying remaining when Villeneuve left the pits for the last time, with Pironi faster... With just one chance to prove his point on ‘sticky’ qualifying rubber, he went over the back of Jochen Mass’s March and was thrown from his Ferrari 126C2. The car was the class of the field that year but Pironi’s own title challenge and career was ended by a crash a rainy Hockenheim practice session two months later.

After Scheckter’s success in ’79, Ferrari could boast only constructors’ titles in 1982-3 and ’99 before Michael Schumacher ended a 21-year wait for its next drivers title in 2000. It was the beginning of unprecedented levels of reliability and success in F1, with Schumacher winning five consecutive titles and Ferrari winning the constructors crown in every year of the ‘noughties’, save for a 2005-6 interruption from Fernando Alonso and Renault. Kimi Raikkonen became the ninth driver to win the world title in a Ferrari when he pipped McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso in the last race of the controversial 2007 ‘Spygate’ season.

Mille Miglia: A Fatal Attraction

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Ben Oliver on the road race that created Italian automotive passion in its own image

You are a driver in the Mille Miglia in the 1950s. You have been racing for fourteen hours now, stopping only to take on fuel and swallow another couple of pills.

It is dark, and you’re climbing through the Apennine mountains towards the Futa and Raticosa passes with over a hundred miles left to the finish line. The road is supposed to be closed, but this is fifties Italy so every hairpin corner brings a bicycle, donkey or badly parked car to deal with.

The tarmac is broken. Your car has three or four hundred horsepower but drum brakes and weak headlights and tyres that squeal but don’t grip. You’re so tired your amphetamine-addled mind is seeing things that aren’t there and missing those that are. And in this state you constantly have to make the finest of judgements; how hard to push. Back off, and you lose the race. Push too hard and you and your co-driver will die. There’s no Armco up here yet; no impregnable carbon-fibre safety cell in your car or teams of paramedics on every corner. These cars barely have seat belts. Get it wrong and your best hope is a quick death.

The Mille Miglia ran – on and off – for thirty years between 1927 and 1957; a race over a thousand miles on public roads, starting and finishing in Brescia and looping through Rome and Florence. It broke cars and drivers; fewer than half of the hundreds who started each year would finish. It was staggeringly dangerous, dangerous enough to be temporarily banned in 1939, back when we thought smoking was healthy and were about to enter a world war. But its influence was immense. “In my opinion, the Mille Miglia was an epoch-making event,” said Enzo Ferrari. “The Miglia created our cars and the Italian automobile industry.”

Italians could read in their newspapers about the victories of their home-grown cars in Grands Prix around the world. But before television, they couldn’t see them. So imagine being an Italian peasant farmer who has experienced nothing faster than a mule, and sitting on that mule in your field and watching an Italian hero like Varzi or Nuvolari or Taruffi drive an Italian car past you in a furious, deafening red streak, and reading in your newspaper the next day that he had beaten the Germans.

Ferrari is Italy, Italy is Ferrari. And this is where it all began.

When the race restarted after the war Ferraris won eight of the eleven races, before a Ferrari caused the carnage that finally killed it in 1957. Alfonso de Portago was the 28 year-old nephew of the King of Spain. His Ferrari suffered a puncture and flipped into the crowd who had gathered to see the cars at their fastest. De Portago, his co-driver and ten spectators, many of them children, died. The Mille Miglia was banned for good three days later and the crash grew to assume a morbidly iconic place in Italian culture.

In 1977 the road race was resurrected as a ‘historic rally’, open to cars that could have competed in the original event. The organizers stress that it isn’t a race. Do not believe them. It is insane. It is a convoy of the world’s most valuable, least-replaceable classic cars being driven with zero regard to their safety or their occupants’, on open public roads, chased and cut up by modern supercars, and all actively encouraged by the local police – who even compete themselves. It is no less dangerous than the original race, and it is impossible to imagine this happening anywhere other than Italy.

I competed in it in 2008, in a priceless, utterly original Jaguar XK120 known as the ‘Montlhery record car’, in which Sir Stirling Moss set a series of world speed and endurance records in 1951. It’s a privilege to take part in the Mille Miglia, but not actually much fun. You get a couple of hours’ sleep each night and spend all three days in constant fear of wiping out a piece of automotive history and trying to figure out the rules, which the Italians make utterly incomprehensible. Yet every year nearly 2000 of the world’s wealthiest car collectors apply for just 375 places. They’ll all have to stump up a £10,000 entry fee, but that’s just the start. Most pay for support vehicles and mechanics and fly their cars in from around the globe. And they have to buy them in first place. The popularity of the event drives the value of eligible cars through the roof, and many here have paid millions just to be able to drive up the starting ramp.

But as mad as the modern event might be, we’ll never understand how it must have been for those who drove in the real thing. Stirling Moss averaged almost 100mph over the entire course in 1955; to do that he had to travel at 170mph at times down unlit, cratered back roads, an almost unthinkable speed even in a modern supercar with half a century’s technical advantage. The old Mille Miglia can’t be replicated. Nothing in modern motorsport compares to it, and nobody will ever feel the same way at the wheel of a car.

Style Visionaries: Definitive Italian Designers

Four Italian craftsmen who would define twentieth century automotive style.

Illustrations by Current State

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//The Founding Father: Carlo Castagna//

Castagna started out as an apprentice at the prestigious Mainetta and Orseniga workshops in Milan, which was one of the main producers of coaches to European Royalty. When the patron of the company retired in in 1849 Castagna took over the company, renaming it C. Castagna & C. Castagna’s promenade carriages (the nineteenth century equivalent of open-top sports cars) were ostentatiously appointed, passionately conceived and meticulously constructed. Towards the end of the 1800s Ottolini and Ricordi, importers of Benz Quadricycles for Italy, commissioned the first motorised carriages from the master. Castagna set the benchmark that all other European carrozeria aspired to, and therefore set the tone for Italian motoring for the entire twentieth century.

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//The Autodidact: Ugo Zagato 1890-1968//

Ugo Zagato’s legacy is to have created a distinctive, instantly-recognisable aesthetic based on lightweight, aeronautical style bodies. Throughout the twentieth century the ‘Z’ appellation gave client cars a sleek, aerodynamic remix of the base design. Designs like the Alfa RL SS Torpedo, through to the 1938 Lancia Aprilia Sport were shot through with the flowing lines of the modernist movement, and later models, like the Aston Vantage Zagato of the mid eighties remain classics of uncompromised penmanship. Though the Zagato look will never be to everyone’s taste, it remains unconventional and classic. Take a look of some of our favourite z-cars.

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//The Populist: Giovanni Michelotti 1921-1980//

Michelotti Began his career as an apprentice at the Farina works in the mid-30s and in the 50s became business partner with Alfredo Vignale. In the 50s and 60s he was one of the most prolific Italian designers – having as many as thirty cars on display on various different stands at the Turin Motor Show of 1960. Whilst working for Vignale he designed the BMW 700 and 1500 Coupés which raised his and BMWs profile greatly – and Michelotti’s innovation and foresight meant that he was the first western car designer to be hired by a Japanese company (he designed a car for the Contessa for the Hino company in 1959). He also worked extensively for Triumph, creating the particularly successful ‘2000’ series and developments like the Triumph Stag. Michelotti may not have had Gandini’s flair for the jaw-dropping stylistic flourish, but was more responsible for disseminating the Milanese aesthetic than any other Italian designer of the century.

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//The Genius: Marcello Gandini 1938-//

There was obviously something in the water in Turin during the summer of 1938. Gandini was Born on August 26, just nineteen days after his legendary collaborator and rival Giorgetto Giugiario. Both pensmen would come to represent the apotheosis of twentieth century car design. When Giugiario left carozzeria Bertone in 1965 Gandini was offered his job. Controversy still rages as to which of the pair was ultimately responsible for the epoch-making Lamborghini Miura of 1968, but Gandini’s early, bold statement was the introduction of the scissor door on the Alfa 33 Carabo concept, which was first shown at the Paris Motor Show at the time of the Miura launch. This, of course was one of the most distinctive elements of the Lamborghini Countach, Gandini’s outrageous masterpiece.

Homage to Zagato

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Though Zagato is one of the most controversial automotive styling houses of the twentieth century, we think you will enjoy some of the most interesting and beautiful of the carrozerria's creations.

An Italian Obsession in The Garden of England

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"People just like 500s. We drove down to Italy for the 500's anniversary _ everyone was smiling and waving"

What is it that makes Italian cars so special? Liz Seabrook asked the question at the Italian Car Picnic at Honnington Gardens.

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 John Day: 2002 Alfa Romeo 156 GTA V6
“I like Italian cars because they keep you on the edge…there’s always the risk that they might breakdown.”David Muriel and his 1969 Alfa Romeo 1300 GT Junior Zagato

“Italian cars have soul…But the Zagato is not the car for an old man with a bad back.”

2 John Jenkins and his 1972 Fiat 500
“I like the fact that Italian designers break the rules, like Alfa Romeo choosing to put the registration plate to the left and not central.”

3 Ignazio Maniscalchi: Lamborghini Diablo (kit car)
“I’m from Sicily, I’m not patriotic but everything Italian is beautiful.”

4 Giovanni: 1972 Alpha Romeo Bertone 2000 GTB (aka Giulia coupe) 105 model
“My favourite Italian cars are reliable ones; the problematic ones were sold to my customers.”

5 Stuart Palmer & son and their 1969 Alfa Romeo Spider Veloce
“My wife had a Fiat uno as her first car, she used to pick me up, but there was nowhere to sit because the dogs had eaten the seats!”

6 Simon Lavis and his 1986 Ferrari 412
“The 412 is a nice comfortable car. En route to a car event everyone falls asleep until other Ferraris drive past and beep their horns!”

Integrale: Everyman Supercar

Delta Integrale & master

In 1987 Lancia launched in the first Delta Integrale a car that cost the same as a high-end Rover but could run down a Porsche 911. Speed freaks of that much maligned decade were afroth.

The Integrale represented brilliant bang for bucks. The years have been good to the Integrale's brutal aesthetic too. Not only do they look like they could eat an M3 for breakfast (and they could stay with them for the first few hundred yards at least), they look a good bet to appreciate in value.

We caught up with Steve Pilgrim, Bristol-based IT consultant and passionate owner of an Integrale Evo II. Just what is it about the Integrale that floats his boat?

Influx Magazine: Why Integrale?

Steve Pilgrim: It was the hot-hatch that I could never afford when I was younger (I had

an MG Metro) - to buy or insure (it's group 18). I also loved Sega Rally

(still play it whenever I can find it!).

IM: What essentially Italian qualities do you think the car has?

SP: The design : a luxury 80's hatchback that is very pretty - but was

transformed into a rally car and whilst having the functionality still

remains beautiful (and brutal). If people know what it is they love it . If they don't know then they

wonder what it is (usually a Golf).

IM: What is she like on the limit?

SP: Wonderful! It's the feeling of being so connected with the car

and the road (all the cliches are generally true). I was very careful when

I first got her as bodyparts are hard to come by. eBay or a few

specialist dealers are your only option.

IM: Is she a keeper?

SP: She's a keeper alright. It doesn't age in style. It's a timeless classic and stops me wanting anything else. I've had her nearly five years and we've enjoyed trips and events around the country. The Lancia Centenary Celebrations in Turin were the highlight.

Delta Evolution: Fact File

• Original design was based on the Fiat Strada/Ritmo by Giorgetto Giugiaro

• The same car was also sold in Sweden by Saab, who had a hand in its design, explaining why it was less likely to rust than other Lancias. It was branded as a Saab 600 in Sweden

• In 1985 Lancia supercharged and turbocharged the Delta to create the Delta S4, which boasted 480 bhp. It was raced for a year before the Group B rally category was scrapped by the FIA, arguing that the cars used were too fast and so too dangerous

• In 1987 Lancia released the HF 4WD for the new rally season

• 1987 saw work start on the first Integrale, with the existing 2.0 litre engine tweaked to produce 185 bhp, 0-60 in 6.6 seconds and a top speed of 130 mph, which combined Group A race technology with a road car

• In 1989 the 16V version was released, storming rally circuits in 1989, 1990 and 1991, as well as performing well as a road car

• 1991 Lancia pull out of the world rally circuit

Evo II (1993)

• Three-way catalytic converter

• New Garrett turbocharger

• twin overhead camshafts driven by toothed belt

• four valves per cylinder

• 16" light alloy rims

• Body colour roof moulding

• New leather-covered three-spoke MOMO steering wheel

• Recaro seats upholstered in beige Alcantara with diagonal stitching

• Aluminium fuel cap and air-intake grilles on the front mudguards designed to increase airflow

• Top speed137 mph

• 0-60 in 5.6 seconds

• All 4223 cars produced were left hand drive