Talking about the industrial situation after the Second World War, Prof. Grandi investigates the small workshops which, starting from mass-produced cars, brought to life extraordinary examples of craftsmanship in design and aerodynamic experimentation. Among all these, worthy of note was the coachbuilder Meteor, from Varese, which, as its very name involuntarily foresaw, crossed Italian car history as quickly as a meteorite, leaving absolutely impressive creations in its wake.
Drawings courtesy of Massimo Grandi
When we are charmed by a vintage car, we often forget to consider the context in which it was created. We may place it in a given season of history, but we rarely consider the social conditions, professional qualities and trades which, at certain times in history, led to the special and unrepeatable development of art, technique and manufacturing skill. So, in Italy in the period between the two world wars, and thereafter from the second half of the 1940s, above all in Turin, Lombardy and Emilia, the professional talents in the world of both two and four wheels had spread and consolidated, in the field of both engineering and bodywork. This widespread savoir-faire developed around the large factories in Turin and Milan, but not only.
Around the big names like Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Maserati and the newborn Ferrari, as well as the big coachbuilders like Touring Superleggera, Farina, Pininfarina, Bertone, Vignale and Ghia – to name but a few – an authentic constellation of secondary activities had formed, true industrial and craft-level spin-offs. Spin-offs, as well as a fabric of small businesses, in the vast majority of cases linked to the competition car world, which after the Second World War developed rapidly and gained more and more popularity.
But while the period after the war was difficult for the large companies that had suffered severe damage during the war, for the small manufacturers it was even tougher. For most small businesses, building a complete car, as Ferrari succeeded in doing with its sci-fi 12-cylinder engine, was an impossible feat. The only possibility was to develop cars starting from what the industry made available, using both the engine and often also the chassis. A few companies had started to build engine components, cylinder blocks and heads, as in the case of Stanguellini, or actual engines in the case of Ermini from Florence.
We should recall that in the second half of the 1940s, depending on what was available on the market, the most common and interesting models for the small manufacturers and coachbuilders to develop were based on the Fiat 508, 1100 and 500 and the Lancia Aprilia. In this brightly-coloured constellation of engineering and bodywork enthusiasts, hundreds of cars were built, almost always single pieces, and always linked to the competitive sports world. Often it was the drivers or the ‘gentlemen drivers’ who asked for racing cars to be built, and the same car always ended up destroyed or reconverted. This meant that many of the creative cars built by these small workshops didn’t survive until today, and so we can only enjoy them through old archives and photographs.
And this is why here I would like for a moment to leave the world of the big cars, those renowned and well-studied models, seeking to discover some cars known only by a very few enthusiasts with in-depth knowledge of the car culture. I would like to do this because, in design terms, these cars are often real gems, and this is why they deserve attention and appreciation.
I will start this overview with a very special car, made by a small coachbuilder in the mid-40s: the Fiat 1100 Coupé Meteor. Meteor was founded in 1945 in Varese, in Via Bellavista 4, by Vittorio Bosdati, but was immediately taken over by the driver Dario Dal Monte Casoni.
Dal Monte Casoni aimed to make one-off cars, intended especially for racing. Locally there was plenty of skilled labour, particularly panel beaters. But the company lasted only a few years, closing in early 1949, and focused in particular on special cars based on Fiat 500, Fiat 1100 and Lancia Aprilia engineering.
The interesting aspect of this production lies mainly in the bodywork design. Dal Monte Casoni constantly strived for maximum aerodynamic efficiency, based intuitively on its basic principles, starting from the theoretical shape of the so-called “elongated drop”. On paper, the “elongated drop” is the shape of a solid suspended in a fluid with a Cx of zero.
The practical problem is that the ratio between width and length of this particular shape makes it impossible to be faithfully applied to a car, which would end up being overly long.
But based on this arrangement, Del Monte Casoni achieved some truly extreme solutions, without much attention to the distribution of volumes or interior comfort. His Fiat 1100 Coupé is an emblematic example of this. Its drop shape in fact has a very long tail, which could appear extremely unbalanced compared to the overall volume.
The passenger compartment is reduced to a minimum, almost as if it was a record-breaking aerodynamic single-seater. If we compare the shape and size with that of the basic 1100 sedan, of which it kept the 2420 mm wheelbase, we can immediately understand the formal revolution.
The driver and passenger sit in an extremely small, sacrificed space, practically on the chassis of the car which is extremely low, only slightly above the bonnet.
As we said, an extreme solution, with apparently unbalanced proportions. I say apparently, because in my modest opinion, this car, considering that it was built essentially for competition purposes (Dal Monte Casoni raced this car at the Campo dei Fiori in Varese, for example), has its very own formal beauty. The clean, elongated lines, drawn over a longitudinal “thick wing” section, the small roof with a pronounced V-shaped windscreen, the very long tapered tail that ends in the wheel casing, give it is very own elegant line.
The very modern front is reduced to the minimum, with a large, trapezoidal radiator air intake that is simply “cut in” with no frame, made of a metallic mesh accompanied by two square headlights, also cut into the bodywork without any decoration. One interesting feature of the aesthetics is the wide dihedral angle running centrally and longitudinally along the whole car, which was normally used by the panel beater to check the symmetries of the body. The end result is positive and highly expressive.
On the other hand, if we look at the geometries of the front and rear main lines, we can see that even in the empirical creation of the design, some of the criteria used for the composition are far from random.
With this coupé, which I would prefer to call a “Racing Berlinetta”, I think we are looking at a small design masterpiece. In addition to the considerations of its appearance, we must also recognise its efficient aerodynamic performance, as, without any changes to the engineering, the car could reach speeds of 145 km/h compared to the 110 of the original car. The convertible versions, again made on the Fiat 1100 and Lancia Aprilia base, as we can see in the bottom drawing of the Fiat version, repropose exactly the same volumes yet, beyond the competition dimension, are less able to cope with the clear imbalance. Even the front appears more dated and conventional for its time. In any event, the convertibles also express their own personality, but without reaching the height of our berlinetta.
In its very short life, in addition to these two cars Meteor also made some pure sports cars, also using the chassis of the Fiat 1100, Fiat 500 or 750, developed by engineers of the calibre of Nando Tajana.
There is also an interesting model based on the Lancia Aprilia, a notchback racing berlinetta, the appearance of which I have tried to recreate here, based on old archive photos of the body during the construction works. Also in this case, we can see a rather long tail which, like the previous convertible, is perhaps rather out of proportion in its overall shape, dictated solely by an attempt to assure aerodynamic function.
To end, in addition to these sports creations, in 1949 Meteor also worked on a road car, a convertible made on a Fiat 1100 base.
A demi ponton design which, in my opinion, is not particularly interesting, but in any case I felt was worth mentioning to offer an overall picture of the production of this coachbuilder. A story which, as its name seems unintentionally to recall, passed like a meteorite through Italian car history, leaving us however with a tiny gem like the Fiat 1100 coupé, bearing witness to a passion, an art and a skill that remind us of this extraordinary season in a distant past.
Massimo Grandi, architect and designer, previously director of the Car Design laboratory at the Design Campus of the Department of Architecture at the University of Florence. Member of the ASI Culture Commission. Among his published works: “La forma della memoria: il progetto della Ferrari Alaspessa”, “Car design workshop”, “Dreaming American Cars”, “Ferrari 550 Alaspessa: dall’idea al progetto”, “Quando le disegnava il vento”, “Il paradigma Scaglione”, “La più veloce: breve storia dei record mondiali di velocità su strada” (with others).
F. Maurizi: Archivio vetture sport
A. Sannia: Enciclopedia dei carrozzieri italiani