Andrea Zagato reflec reflects on the 100-year history of h his grandad’s most enigmatic desig design house
WHEN A CAR COMPANY WANTS SOMETHING TRULY SPECIAL, THEY TURN TO ZAGATO. THIS YEAR, THE ICONIC ITALIAN COACHBUILDER TURNS 100, SO ASH WESTERMAN VISITED THE MILAN-BASED HEADQUARTERS TO DISCUSS THE PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE WITH THE MAN IN CHARGE
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