The early 1960s were a difficult time for Ferrari. The company was strained financially and faced tough competition from the likes of Jaguar, Aston Martin and later Lamborghini, both on the racetracks and inside showrooms. This situation was further aggravated by Enzo Ferrari’s strong personality and the internal tensions the company faced as a result of it.
The defining incident of the time was the ‘Great Walkout’ of 1961. A group within Ferrari, led by sales manager Girolamo Gardini, with manager Romolo Tavoni, chief engineer Carlo Chiti and experimental sports car development chief Giotto Bizzarrini had become increasingly disgruntled with the interference of Ferrari’s wife, Laura, in the day to day running of the company. Gardini presented an ultimatum to Enzo to either remedy this or risk losing his key men. Enzo Ferrari was not one to respond to threats kindly, he promptly fired Gardini and all his supporters.
It was after this incident that the story of Bizzarini began as a car maker rivalling the offerings from Enzo Ferrari. Soon after the walkout Chiti, Tavoni and Bizzarini started working with a wealthy Venetian aristocrat to create a new marque to compete with Ferrari. ATS (Automobili Turismo e Sport) set about working on three projects: an F1-car, a GT-prototype and a regular road going GT. None of these projects saw any success and the company folded soon enough.
Giotto Bizzarini didn’t give up though. He started working alone after ATS failed. He was an experienced engineer having worked on Ferrari icons like the 250 Testa Rossa and the 250 GTO, and on Lamborghini’s V12 engine, Bizzarini was then hired by Iso Rivolta to help develop their Iso branded cars. He worked on a number of cars here, most notably the Grifo, which also enjoyed some success at Le Mans. But the arrangement with Iso was a complex one, and Bizzarini left in 1964 to form his eponymous car firm.
Bizzarini S.p.A.’s first car was the 5300 GT. It followed the then trending idea of combining Italian design with big American V8 power. It was relatively well received and Bizzarini decided to replicate that success on a more mass-market scale.
The car that he would create to achieve this feat was the Bizzarini 1900 GT Europa. The project was originally intended as a prototype for Opel, who were looking for a piece of the hotly contested small sports car market. Sadly though, Opel passed on Bizzarini’s idea and instead chose a more conservative design developed in-house. That car would go on to become the Opel GT. Bizzarini though was unfazed and decided to put the prototype into production anyway. The first few cars came with a 1.5-litre FIAT motor, but then shifted to a 1900 cc Opel unit. This was good for 110 hp and given the light fibreglass body, the 1900 GT Europa was good for a 128 mph(206 kmph) top speed. The Pietro Vanni design body sat on underpinnings largely derived from the larger 5300 GT – this meant a straight forward front engine – rear drive layout. The car was unveiled at the 1966 Turin Motor Show and was in production till 1969 before bankruptcy forced a shutdown of the company. Records are sketchy but it is estimated that anywhere between 12 to 17 examples left the factory, making this particular version seen here that is going up for auction at RM Sotheby’s Paris 2018 sale an extremely desirable example.
This particular 1900 GT Europa was fitted with an Alfa Romeo engine and a 5-speed manual early in its life, although the engine was later switched out for an original Opel unit.
The Bizzarini 1900 GT was unique interpretation of the small sports car and held its own in the popularity that this type of car saw in Europe in the 60s. It competed against the likes of the Alfa Romeo Giulia and the Lancia Flavia and only lost out because of the financial insecurity of a small enterprise. Bizzarini was an early example of a small European cottage industry supercar manufacturers, a trend which now sees widespread acceptance. Photos by Dirk of Jager courtesy RM Sotheby’s