Caprie Sunset

Perhaps the greatest edifice ever built on behalf of automotive design is receiving the Italian preservation treatment. 

Imagine it without the cars inside: Stile Bertone’s former headquarters, photo (c) Ruoteclassiche

There’s no easier task than to accuse corporate America of cynicism. Greed, hubris, soullessness: pretty much any unappealing trait can be attributed to any of the industrial giants.

General Motors, a company of such dubious reputation it enabled a rather shady character like John Zachary DeLorean to play the role of automotive samaritan, suits this stereotype just fine. Even before the axing of more than one storied marque that deserved better (or the Chevrolet Corvair) are mentioned.

And yet this cold, soulless corporate behemoth did what wasn’t strictly necessary: It honoured its legacy by investing in it. Or, more to the point, it signed off extensive renovation work on the famed Design Dome at its Technical Center in Warren, Michigan.

GM Design Dome, post-renovation, photo (c) Architect Magazine

Designed by Finnish-American architect, Eero Saarinen, the Design Dome stands not just as a symbol for American modernism, but an era when Detroit defined automotive design through effort, creativity and boldness. Qualities this very building helped facilitate.

This wouldn’t be of such significance – it should really be taken for granted – if there wasn’t the recent example of another site of similar importance sorely lacking this (or any) kind of reverence.

Purpose built as a design studio and prototype workshop in the early 1970s, Stile Bertone’s Caprie headquarters was a shrine to Italian car design magnificence. Some of the most significant car designs of all time were created here, some of the most important concept cars in history were once stored here. But none of this seems to matter in the aftermath of Stile Bertone’s bankruptcy in 2014.

A recent announcement not only stated that the last few Bertone concept cars remaining at Caprie will be sold at auction this May, but also granted insight into the present state of what still is the home of Bertone – its legacy, both spiritually and literally. For the vaults, drawers and cupboards of Caprie contain the history of the company, and hence some of the most important elements of car design history.

This history will be sold off at another auction in the autumn – in parts. All of which is not just enormously undignified, but endlessly aggravating.

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It’s not so much the fact that Bertone isn’t just some company. But the fact that priceless pieces of car design history are treated like 20 year old hotel furniture.

But who’d have to be blamed for this awful state of affairs? The Bertone family? The debtors? Unfortunately, the matter is more far-reaching than that and inevitably leads to a fundamental critique of the state of mind of what should be one of the greatest countries on our planet.

Italy’s history and cultural heritage are literally an embarrassment of riches, which goes some way of explaining the throwaway mentality that has taken hold of her. As is well known, the less one has, the more one cherishes what’s there.

With an endless amount of historical and cultural sites, food and drink that’s the envy of the world, not to mention an aesthetic tradition and culture that’s second to none, it would appear as though the Italians might believe they can afford to be a bit blasé about the remains of a defunct design studio.

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The trouble is though that the Italian indifference / inaction isn’t restricted to the automotive realm, where factories are literally abandoned. It even affects undisputed monuments like Rome’s Colosseum, which is in a process of slow, yet steady erosion that officials have failed to address. Instead, it’s up to Diego Della Valle, CEO of Italian leather goods maker, Tod’s, to instigate a privately funded initiative to save Rome’s number one landmark.

So the fate of the Caprie studio obviously isn’t due to a perceived insignificance, but the combination of administrative incompetence and public ignorance. The benefactors of this will be the vultures that will, for some reason or another, be able to get their piece  of Bertone history.

As far as the Caprie building itself is concerned, one must hope for the best but expect the worst. For it’s unlikely that a white knight à la Della Valle will step in at the last minute and turn Caprie into a museum. Sergio Marchionne has other things to do – after all, Alfa Romeo’s still relatively new Centro Storico didn’t come cheap and is unlikely to have paid any dividends. Corrado Lopresto apparently doesn’t believe in museums anyway.

So a fate similar to the Artioli Bugatti and De Tomaso factories, not to mention Alfa Romeo’s Centro Stile at Arese, appears to be the most likely outcome. For in a country that fails to get its act together when it comes to the Colosseum, a mere relic of 1970’s expressionist brutalism doesn’t even register.

Italy has it all: the flair, the culture, the history, the ingenuity, the intelligence. And that makes these turns of events all the more lamentable. Vaffanculo.


The author of this piece runs an obscure motoring site of his own, which you may or may not choose to visit at



Author: Christopher Butt

car design critic // runs // contributes to The Road Rat magazine // writes a column for Octane France //

12 thoughts on “Caprie Sunset”

  1. There is a conflicting dual position that can be taken. Without history, and a working knowledge thereof, we are losing continuity and identity. For any of us who lived through these periods, be this music, cars, culture, et al, we will be saddened by the passing of eras, and in particular, the seminal ones…the ones that perhaps were instrumental in radical shifts in our various cultures and those that formed identity.

    On the other hand, does the next generation care? Or beyond? Not particularly, apart from the scholars and inquisitors (bless ’em). And, of course, it has ever been so, and time erodes pretty much everything. Identities change, and Europe is witnessing a great deal of this right now.

    Personally I’d much prefer to see the conservation and promotion aspects, but I’m old.

    1. I’m neither old, nor do I long for the world of the 1950s.

      There simply is no progress without an awareness of history.

  2. One might imagine that an museum or even wealthy collector might want to keep this collection in one piece. A lot of design research could be done plus there’s a museum tourism possibility. Collectors spend millions on one car; surely the carchives of Bertone are worth something too. That the Italian state can’t or won’t act is sympomatic of Italy’s heritage problem.

    1. That’s not confined to Italy.
      Up until a couple of years ago there was the “Rosso Bianco Museum” close to Frankfurt, a private-owned, absolutely unique collection of about 100 predominantly Italian sports cars. There was an Alfa 33 Stradale, a Porsche 917 and every other imaginable racer.
      When the collections proprietor was forced to look for another building, he simply wanted a statement of welcome of the City of Frankfurt. No money, no help, just a statement that Frankfurt would be happy to be home to the collection. But of course, with Frankfurt’s magistrate being dominated by the Greens, he didn’t get the desired paper.
      As a result, the collection was sold to a Dutch investor who despite of having signed a contract stating otherwise, sold the cars piece by piece and destroyed the unique collection.

    2. I knew Rosso Bianco rather well, and it was always a rather peculiar place. Even more than a decade before it was closed down, it was rather shabby and run down. It possessed all the charm of a lowly 1970s car dealership ‘showroom’, which wasn’t as quaint and charming as that description may make it sound. Rosso Bianco was, in fact, a bit of a disgrace and didn’t do the cars parked (rather than exhibited) there any justice.

      Comparing some warehouse, in which some rather special automobiles happened to be stored, with the unique Caprie complex, where some rather special automobiles were created, is a rather pointless exercise.

  3. Italian car makers habitually look forward, not backwards.
    That’s why Enzo F. always ever was interested in the next new car, not the old one.
    If you look at the distorted view Alfa’s current management has on the history of this company it’s small wonder it took them ages to create a centro storico.

    It’s not limited to car makers. Look at how MV Agusta for a long time didn’t care about their history and for a couple of years even forced owners of their old race bikes to use their ugly new ‘Gruppo Agusta’ logo when the bikes were presented.

  4. I have encountered many people who experienced the Bertone saga. It’s a very sad story. I hear it’s mostly Fiat who is to blame. Imagine Germany when VW goes practically bankrupt, I don’t think Karmann would survive. But please mention that the collection of historic cars was recognised as historically significant and bought by the Italian automobile club ASI and will remain in Italy. Maybe something similar will happen with the archive. To end with, from my own experience of living in Italy for some years now, I can honestly say that there are levels of poverty and misery that are more deserving of funds than this issue. And it’s not like others manage things better. The new owners of Bertone, Akka seem not to understand what the brand signifies. Like often in Italy, there is goodwill, but no money.

    1. Karmann already went bankrupt. VW took over what was left, including Karmann’s own collection.

  5. And miraculously the Bertone factory is still operating under Maserati.

    1. I read that Autoclassics piece and almost wept. That this incredible building, which has somehow remained untouched (in itself miraculous) since Bertone’s insolvency in 2014 is to be emptied for heaven knows, what fate, and its contents spread to the four winds. What a tragedy that in years to come the only people who will have access to the reams of priceless documentation and original design renders for generations of historically important Bertone designs are likely to be the wealthy collectors who will undoubtedly secret them away, not to seen again.

      Yes, of course there are bigger problems in the world, but this is an automotive site and our concerns are (rightly or wrongly) rooted within its narrow confines, past, present and future. To my mind, the proposed sell off is little short of an act of vandalism and speaks volumes about what has happened to the wider Italian car industry since Fiat imploded. Because, while one can argue that the Turin car giant saved many failing marques, while keeping the carrozzerie in business during the latter years of the 20th century, but once it began to fail, their respective fates were sealed anyway.

      Notwithstanding of course, ace miracle-worker and serial walker on water, Marchionne and his rag-bag of revenants.

      Yes indeed, the days of miracles and wonder.

  6. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe said “A city without old buildings is like a man without a memory”.

    Not that buildings need to be tremendously old to have significance and resonance.

    A tale of woe, well justifying Kris’s concluding profanity.

    1. I wonder what Le Corbusier would have made of Mies’s nostrum. He loathed old cities and many of his followers were probably thrilled when bombs cleared so much space in Europe’s great cities.
      In my experience of car designers, they aren’t that interested in history. There are exceptions – most though will be unmoved by Bertone’s collection being lost or dispersed.

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