Wheels (Australia) - - CONTENTS -

An­drea Za­gato re­flec re­flects on the 100-year his­tory of h his grandad’s most enig­matic de­sig de­sign house


OR A CITY that’s the self-pro­claimed Euro­pean cap­i­tal of de­sign and style, let’s just say that Mi­lan doesn’t make its core at­tributes im­me­di­ately ev­i­dent. In the streets that feed out from the Stazione Cen­trale, Italy’s busiest (and pre­sum­ably vi­sion-im­paired) graf­fiti ban­dit has barely left a wall or shopfront un­tagged. Dusty re­tail win­dows at­tempt to off-load random tatt, and the bins over­flow into the gut­ters.

Sure, there’s a rich his­tory of high-end la­bels and bil­lion-dol­lar brands here, but you have to go look­ing for them.

Our jour­ney takes us 20 min­utes north-west to the sub­urb of

Rho, but even here, Italy’s pre-em­i­nent car­rozze­ria of au­to­mo­tive re­body­ing, cur­rently cel­e­brat­ing its 100th an­niver­sary, doesn’t in­stantly dazzle you with a glitzy mar­ble and glass fa­cade or ele­gant wa­ter fea­tures. In­stead, you’ll find Za­gato down a slightly scruffy back lane past a porce­lain tile im­porter.

But when you turn past the re­cep­tion area into the main atrium, all that is in­stantly for­got­ten. The sight of a hand­ful of the com­pany’s more sig­nif­i­cant mod­els ar­rests your at­ten­tion, var­i­ous dou­ble-bub­ble roofs, sen­sual curves and volup­tuous forms catch­ing the morn­ing light that fil­ters through the glass ceil­ing that soars above the loft-style gang­way.

An­drea Za­gato, grand­son of founder Ugo, bounds up to meet us, a slightly rum­pled bun­dle of en­ergy and en­thu­si­asm. He quickly apol­o­gises for the some­what un­der­whelm­ing build­ing en­trance. “The lo­cal coun­cil re­cently ap­proved our ap­pli­ca­tion to re­con­fig­ure the ac­cess road,” he ex­plains in ac­cented but ex­cel­lent English. “The next time you visit, you will ar­rive down Za­gato Lane, and straight into a very im­pres­sive foyer sec­tion.”

An­drea has been run­ning the com­pany for nearly 27 years, and he knows his clien­tele well. They are par­tial to a flash fa­cade, this money-no-ob­ject clique. Their pas­sion for cars as art forms runs deep, and the rarer the bet­ter for when they whip the dust cover off at Peb­ble Beach, or per­haps Con­corso d’Ele­ganza Villa d’Este.

Over a cof­fee, An­drea tells me the story of the com­pany’s be­gin­nings, and there’s a real sense of authen­tic­ity and en­gage­ment to the way he ex­plains it, as if he’s shar­ing this story for the first time, not the 100th.

“My grand­fa­ther Ugo be­came fa­mous for build­ing horse char­i­ots in a busi­ness of fabricator­s and coach builders. He moved into air­craft de­sign and con­struc­tion for WWI, and then turned to­wards cars. He was the first to ap­ply air­craft de­sign – light, sim­ple, un­adorned – to au­to­mo­tive. This was the be­gin­ning.

“He met Enzo Fer­rari, he was re­cruited in the ’20s to build cars for Scud­e­ria Fer­arri; they were very suc­cess­ful. The cars were tube­frame con­struc­tion cov­ered by alu­minium. Sim­plic­ity and light weight; this was his lan­guage. He went on to es­tab­lish a fac­tory, also do­ing many cars for Alfa Romeo, but it was bombed in the war. He lost ev­ery­thing. He had to start from scratch.”

An­drea’s only real mem­ory of his grand­fa­ther is be­ing picked up and dropped off for school, around age eight, by a solemn gent. Not sit­ting on grandad’s lap learn­ing to drive, or riding on his shoul­ders, or hand-rolling a cig­a­rette for him. Yet his ad­mi­ra­tion for what his grand­fa­ther had achieved would later be­come a core mo­ti­va­tor as he ma­tured into adult­hood.

FAn­drea’s fa­ther Elio was a handy Gran Turismo driver, a five­times cham­pion, and his suc­ces­sion to the head of the com­pany was never in doubt. Elio’s brother Gianni came on as tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor. His fa­ther’s most sig­nif­i­cant busi­ness skills, An­drea tells me, were his net­work­ing and re­la­tion­ship build­ing, form­ing part­ner­ships with OEMs, and in test-driv­ing the cars. He had a nat­u­ral tal­ent for find­ing ways to re­duce weight and im­prove per­for­mance with­out com­pro­mis­ing re­li­a­bil­ity and longevity.

An­drea ma­jored in fi­nance and busi­ness at Boc­coni Uni­ver­sity in Mi­lan, grad­u­at­ing as the 1980s be­gan, ush­er­ing in heady days of high fi­nance, global ex­cess and wide-lapelled power suits. One of his first tasks, at the re­quest of his fa­ther and un­cle, was to per­form a de­tailed analysis of the Za­gato busi­ness. “I had to sit them down,” he says, “and de­liver a very dif­fi­cult truth: ‘Your com­pany is dead’.”

This was a pe­riod where man­u­fac­tur­ers were quickly de­vel­op­ing more flex­i­ble pro­duc­tion for their vari­ants of a sin­gle model, so it was ob­vi­ous to An­drea that the OEMs’ need to out­source the build­ing of niche mod­els to Za­gato was go­ing to de­cline in the fu­ture. “My mod­el­ling in­di­cated there would be no more of this for us in 10 years,” he says. “My fa­ther and un­cle were well into their 60s. The thought of sell­ing the com­pany was not nice, but nei­ther did they re­ally know how to turn it around.”

An­drea al­ready had a con­tract for a fi­nance job in Lon­don, but said to his fa­ther, “If you need me to help you, I will.”

He was 25, and his fa­ther ac­cepted his of­fer. The job in Lon­don was ter­mi­nated, along with his deeper de­sire to one day study vet­eri­nar­ian sci­ence and care for animals. He was san­guine about these re­al­ties, and the more he looked into the busi­ness and the more he learned about what his grand­fa­ther had achieved, the more it be­came an ob­ses­sion to not let it at­ro­phy. “A sick­ness” is how he de­scribes it.

“I dis­cov­ered this com­pany built more than 440 mod­els for 44 dif­fer­ent brands – the his­tory was so huge, I felt I must do whatever I can to keep the com­pany alive. I felt my grand­fa­ther was owed this recog­ni­tion,” he says.

Be­fore he could start on a re­con­struc­tion of the com­pany – at that stage it was a pro­duc­tion busi­ness, with assem­bly lines and paint shop – he had to un­der­take dif­fi­cult de­con­struc­tion work, strip­ping back ca­pac­ity and over­see­ing a raft of job re­dun­dan­cies.

“I de­cided to [tran­si­tion] the com­pany into a de­sign and en­gi­neer­ing op­er­a­tion,” An­drea ex­plains. “Around 1985, CAD/CAM was re­ally com­ing on. I said to my fa­ther, ‘This is how we must re­shape the com­pany. We can con­tinue to build unique and spe­cial cre­ations for our most en­thu­si­as­tic cus­tomers, but we need to be an ad­vanced spe­cial­ist of com­puter-aided de­sign and en­gi­neer­ing. And not just for cars, but for the nau­ti­cal in­dus­try as well.’”

Some com­pa­nies were as­ton­ish­ingly slow to join the revo­lu­tion. Like Lam­borgh­ini, for ex­am­ple. Ac­cord­ing to An­drea, even in the early ’90s, the su­per­car spe­cial­ist barely had a com­puter to its name. “I went there once with a floppy disk in hand; there was nowhere to plug it in,” he says, shak­ing his head.

“We later dis­cov­ered the Di­ablo was around 20mm asym­met­ri­cal left to right. CAD/CAM al­lowed you to be pre­cise; re­ally raise qual­ity. The first car we did was the Alfa SZ in the late ’80s. We

“I felt I must do whatever I can to keep the com­pany alive. I felt my grand­fa­ther was owed this recog­ni­tion”


The still­born Lam­borgh­ini Canto, de­signed by Za­gato in 1999 as a re­place­ment for Di­ablo Ugo Za­gato (grand­fa­ther of An­drea, be­low left), who founded the busi­ness in 1919

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