Experimentation is the distinguishing feature of the visionary Tuscan designer’s career. Among all his works, two particular projects focus specifically on aerodynamic research, two record cars born between the Fifties and Sixties: the 1956 Fiat-Abarth 750 Record and the 1963 Stanguellini-Guzzi Colibrì
Drawings courtesy of Massimo Grandi
When we talk of record cars, our thoughts turn instantly to a formal repertoire linked closely to that essential purpose of pure speed, just like aircraft, where everything is based on efficiency and nothing is expressed in its aesthetic dimension. But when the research into this efficiency reaches the highest levels of synthesis between form and function, when function, or rather functionality, reaches the limits of perfection, form is also expressed in all its coherent beauty.
Talking in terms of aesthetics, how can we not admire the beauty, for example, of a 1943 Lockheed L-049 Constellation, the four-engine plane with a triple tail which is still considered today by specialised literature as one of the most elegant planes ever made: the sinuous main lines of the fuselage were designed to optimise aerodynamic penetration, but ended up representing one of the most characteristic elements of the plane, creating a simple yet sophisticated appearance with an elegant profile reminiscent of a grey heron in flight. These forms were not intentionally designed to be “aesthetic”, there was no research into beauty, but they were rather merely the response to technical specifications, created by adopting solutions based on the mathematical principles of aerodynamics.
This is therefore a form of “mathematical beauty”, the aesthetics of “pure function”. In other words, when the shape reaches these levels of synthesis, it creates coherent beauty that is far from self-referential, super-structural or superfluous.
And these considerations must also be applied to the world of cars designed to beat land speed records. Like aircraft, beyond the technical components such as the engine, chassis etc., the aerodynamic function of the external shape, the body, and therefore the design, is of fundamental importance.
In car history, some designers have based their approach to design on aerodynamic research, the element used to build and define the form of their creations. To name but a few of the most important: Edmund Rumpler, Paul Jaray, Bell Geddes, Hans Ledwinka, Jean Andreau, Reinard Koenig, Ervin Komenda, Malcom Sayer, Giovanni Savonuzzi and Franco Scaglione.
Throughout his intense yet unfortunately relatively short career, Franco Scaglione made aerodynamic research one of the pillars of his work. One particular example is his experimentation with Bertone on the BAT 5, 7 and 9 (respectively in 1953, 1954 and 1955). Among all his works, however, two in particular focused specifically on aerodynamics, and I refer to two record cars: the 1956 Fiat-Abarth 750 Record and the 1963 Stanguellini-Guzzi Colibrì.
Fiat-Abarth 750 Record - In eleven years, between 1956 and 1966, the Abarth won a total of 113 international records on the Monza circuit, including 6 World Championships, with 11 different cars. Six of these were streamliners, designed and built specifically to beat track speed records.
The first of these six was built in 1956, on a Fiat 600 chassis, adapted and fitted with a Fiat-Abarth 750 engine, and was designed specially to draw the attention of both the public and engineers to the skills of Abarth in developing Fiat-based models. Bertone was tasked with designing this special car.
In this car, Scaglione’s creative flair and passion for aerodynamic science could be expressed to their full potential, as Abarth’s underlying objective was to reach the maximum possible speed with a specific engine power. A single-seater, its length-to-width ratio was optimal. Moreover, used only on the track, it was freed of all the possible regulatory constraints of a road car.
The overall inspiration to similar German pre-war cars, for example the 1937 Auto Union Rekordwagen Type C, is clear, but the general solutions applied came strictly from the baggage and linguistic repertoire of Scaglione’s previous experiments on the BATs, starting from the large rear fin. With its polished aluminium body, the prototype presented at the Turin Motor Show in 1956 expresses all the harmonious elegance of the forms of Scaglione’s design work.
In the first track tests, however, Abarth made substantial modifications to the design, shortening the tail, lowering the mudguard profile and perforating the fin to reduce the air pressure on the central fairing.
For all this, the Fiat-Abarth 750 remains an example of the expressive power of a harmonious composition of pure beauty around an object of cold, objective determination to become a record car, superseded only by the subsequent 1963 Stanguellini-Guzzi “Colibrì”.
Stanguellini-Guzzi Colibrì - This car, built on a chassis designed by Stanguellini and produced by the company "Gransport" in Modena, was initially supposed to be fitted with a Moto Guzzi "8C" 500 cm³ engine, which had been shelved a few years earlier when Moto Guzzi withdrew from world motorcycle racing. However, the costs of developing such a complex engine for a car, and the more advantageous advertising of the smaller engine, therefore led to the use of the single-cylinder, twin-shaft, air-cooled 248 cm³ racing engine developed by the motorcycle company from Mandello del Lario for the record attempt.
We are therefore talking about an essential “machine” intended for pure speed performance. The displacement and the power output of just 29 HP are very small for a four-wheel vehicle, so everything was influenced by the lightness of the car and its aerodynamic profile.
Scaglione’s studies and applications in the aerodynamics field have already been underlined, but here the essential technical and mechanical features blend marvellously with an equally essential and synthetic design, a sublimation of the form which adapts like a clinging veil placed delicately over the skeleton of the car, on the wheels, the driver’s cab, like Stefano Maderno’s marble veils covering St. Cecilia, which shape and outline the body beneath.
They bring to mind the extraordinary forms of another record car, but which never had the chance to get on the track, the 1939 Mercedes T80.
When we talk of aerodynamic profile, we must not simply refer to the profile of a car, but also its ability to penetrate the air, creating as little disturbance as possible for the streamlines moving along the surface of the body. The most aerodynamic shape is the elongated drop, and here this is taken to its most precise dimension, entirely in the roof, cut off at the rear to overcome the excessive length demanded by its proportions, in the fairing.
Then, to increase the stability and load on the driving axle, the rear of the fairing was squashed to minimise the turbulence generated by the K-tail, almost taking on the shape of an authentic downforce spoiler. To understand the size of this perfect synthesis between aerodynamic research and shape modelling even better, we should think only of the 1956 Guzzi Nibbio II.
The forms of the Guzzi Nibbio are undoubtedly aerodynamically functional, and the speed records bear witness to this, but they still bear the signs of the classic, compact wing profile of the 1940s/50s, even if “enhanced” by the long, shaped rear tails/spoilers.
If we compare the main lines of the two cars, we can see how the Colibrì has a completely different architecture, more similar for example to the 1960 BlueBird Proteus CN7.
Today we would call the design minimalist and strictly functional, but precisely because of these essential forms and succession of curves and sinuous lines it seems to evoke the language of bio-design.
The Colibrì has a “natural” shape, drawn only by the wind, yet it is moulded to levels of disconcerting harmony and beauty. The careful profiling and structural lightness of the "Colibrì” helped the drivers Angelo Poggio and Pietro Campanella to win 6 world class middle-distance records on 9 October 1963, on the high-speed track on the Monza circuit.
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).
Some of the drawings in this article were taken from the following publications:
M. Grandi - “Quando le disegnava il vento”, ASI libreria, Turin 2012
M. Grandi - “Il paradigma Scaglione”, ASI libreria, Turin 2016
G. Genta, M. Grandi, L. Morello - “La più veloce”, ASI libreria, Turin 2017