Fifty years from the day it opened, we look back at the 1970 Salone dell’Automobile di Torino.
In late 1970 much of Europe was in the grip of a pandemic, but not one which hindered the annual motor show round which had started in neutral Amsterdam and closed in Turin with a high-art extravaganza where function took a distant third place after form and fashion.
The pandemic was not biological but ideological, manifesting itself in social, political and industrial turmoil, and acts of terrorism by far-left, far-right and nationalist elements. In Italy the phenomenon was given a name – Anni di piombo – ‘The Leaden Years’, and was to last for two decades.
Despite their geographical and cultural separation, Italy and the United Kingdom were affected hardest and longest of all Europe’s industrial nations. In Italy, after the ‘Hot Autumn’ of strikes in 1969 the chief weapon of industrial disruption was absenteeism, which had reduced potential production capacity by 10-15%, and reduced Fiat’s share of their domestic market to a grim all-time low of 63% – Donald Stokes would have envied their woes.
Industrial unrest probably played its part in delaying important launches from Fiat and Alfa Romeo, but there was one significant mass-market premiere at Turin, and it wasn’t Italian. The Opel Ascona debuted in Turin by virtue of the German GM division’s platform-sharing strategy for their new mid-range contenders. The far more glamorous Manta was launched in September 1970 at Timmendorfer Strand, a Baltic coast resort north of Lübeck. Its early launch ensured appearances for the Manta at Paris and London before handing over centre stage to the Ascona in the Piedmontese capital.
In Motor’s Turin Show Report of 6 November 1970, Anthony Curtis describes the Ascona as “a rather dull-looking saloon version of the Manta”. He reports that the Ascona’s power unit is a 1584cc version of the Opel cam-in-head engine developing 80bhp(net) at 5200rpm. Somewhat bathetically, it is reported that “a less powerful engine is available as an option”.
There’s a strong strand of jingoism running through Motor’s reportage. The worst was yet to come for the UK’s car industry, but was the disparaging tone about the Opel warranted when the writers probably knew a great deal about what Austin-Morris would present in five month’s time? The forthcoming Marina matched the Ascona’s dimensions to within millimetres, and also its design brief; saloon, coupe, wagon with two different rather old engines.
The Marina has become a byword for all that was wrong with British Leyland yet it hung around until mid-1984. The neatly styled and well-engineered Ascona founded a dynasty which was in its third generation by then, and phenomenally successful as an assimilated British Vauxhall.
Comparisons between Fiat and BLMC are plentiful. For Fiat, 1970 was a slow news year, after the sustained onslaught of 1969 which brought the Autobianchi A111, 128, 130, Dino 2400, and Autobianchi A112, closing the year with the takeover of failing Torinese neighbour Lancia.
Despite industrial turmoil and the disappointment of the Maxi, there was optimism about the future of Britain’s newly consolidated automotive flag-carrier, which had briefly become the world’s fourth largest carmaker, measured by production numbers.
The Jaguar XJ6 was a masterpiece, its mystique enhanced by being all but unobtainable. The Triumph Stag and Range Rover had arrived within a week of each other in June 1970, and Triumph had refreshed their entire product line-up within two years, with more still to come. Appropriately for BLMC’s most Italian-influenced marque, Triumph used Turin as the launch-pad for the GT6 Mark 3 and Spitfire Mark 4, distinguished by a Stag-like tail end treatment masterfully executed by Michelotti.
1970 had been an exceptional year for Triumph, with the Stag arriving in June, and the 1500 and Toledo in August. Curtis reported that Innocenti – still Italian owned – had revealed plans to increase production of licence-built Minis and 1100/1300s by 33% to 70,000 cars per year, with £120 million to be spent on parts from British Leyland, and pointedly refers to the modest 5000 sales of Autobianchi’s A112 Mini rival in its first year.
For the mass-market Italian carmakers, Turin was a time for mild fettling of the ranges. Alfa Romeo announced the 103bhp Giulia 1300 Super, with an engine variant previously reserved for the coupe. The Lancia Fulvia berlina at last received the five speed gearbox denied it in the Fessia era, despite the the firm’s idiosyncratic five speed tradition set long before by the Ardea and Appia.
Four years into its production life, Fiat gave the 124 Berlina a twin-cam engine, while the established versions received safety and comfort upgrades, signalled by a mild evocation of The Fiat Charter (Facelift Clauses). The 124 Special T’s 1438cc engine is noted as developing 80bhp, compared with the Sport coupe’s 90bhp from the same capacity. Cost-cutting, or deliberate manipulation to place clear water between the top 124 saloon and the cheapest 125?
Although the decades of discontent had begun, Italy’s unique and expanding supercar industry remained the focus of attention, notwithstanding tiny production numbers and parlous financial state of most constructors. At Turin in 1970 the vigour of the newcomers had reached its peak.
On the De Tomaso / Ghia stand, there was an extraordinary fecundity of ideas; a monospace city car, a mid-transverse engined backbone chassis with Cosworth BDA power, but no suggestion of a body, two versions of an in-house designed V12, and the Modena, an all-new four-door saloon with a Ford Cleveland V8.
That may sound like the Deauville – which it is – but Modena was the name it carried at its Turin debut. The British contingent were not slow to note the Jaguar inspiration both visible and subcutaneous, although the “cleaner frontal treatment, so much better than the real XJ6’s perforated grille” found favour. Motor was not shy about quoting XJ sales in Italy; 489 in the year ending October 1969, 1236 in 1970 so far, and 1500 deposit-paid orders in hand.
Lamborghini’s efforts were more finely focused than De Tomaso’s, but their mid-engined Bertone-styled 2+2 Urraco signalled Sant’Agata Bolognese’s intent to out-Dino Ferrari in both engineering and sales numbers. The challenge started with cylinder count, eight to Ferrari’s six. The 2463cc all-aluminium V8 had a high 10.5:1 compression ratio and an impressive array of four Weber 40IDF1 carburettors and produced its peak 220bhp at 7800rpm.
However the engine’s cylinder head design was distinctly mainstream with one belt-driven overhead camshaft per bank operating two in-line valves per cylinder, and shallow Heron combustion chambers. This reads to me like an engine developed for low-cost large-scale manufacture. There are parallels with the production version of the Jaguar V12, where a similar top end design was adopted to help it over the cost viability hurdle.
Manufacturing scale in this instance, is somewhat relative. Lamborghini’s ambitions for the Urraco were 1000 per annum, around double that of Ferrari’s Dino sub-marque. The Urraco’s styling was not universally praised. Curtis has harsh words for Marcello Gandini’s “clumsy handling” of the C-pillar air intakes, and the cramped rear passenger accommodation.
He seems to be on more comfortable ground with engineering matters, giving a concise but informative description of the Urraco’s drivetrain and suspension. Those who expected a scaled-down version of the V12 Miura’s bunk-bed arrangement with the gearbox in the sump were in for a surprise. Lamborghini Chief Engineer Paolo Stanzani had left behind Issigonis’ influence on his predecessor Ing. Giampaolo Dallara and had gone full Giacosa with a transverse end-on arrangement with unequal length driveshafts.
MacPherson struts were used at all four corners. Despite Ferruccio’s high ambitions, only 520 Urracos were produced between 1972, when production commenced, and 1976. Neither he, nor Stanzani nor Gandini could be blamed for the shortfall. Geopolitical tensions and fast-rising oil prices were soon to combine with a mutation of the militancy pandemic into anti-capitalist terrorism. The wealthy, literally fearing for their lives, avoided indiscreet and conspicuous flaunting of prosperity.
As Lamborghini and De Tomaso were disrupting the Italian high-performance car industry, Giugiaro and Mantovani’s Italdesign was challenging the established order of the established Carrozzerie. Their Turin showpiece was the Porsche 914-based Tapiro, with a double helping of gull-wings, and a thrilling interpretation of the near-universal chopped-wedge topology.
Despite the intricate aperture engineering and visual drama, Tapiro was styled with a view to production, lest the Zuffenhausen management considered expanding the mid-engined 914 family into the 911’s sacred territory.
The Carrozzerie were not immune from industrial unrest. Pininfarina had nothing new to show. Not for a lack of creativity, but a series of strikes over the year left the revered design house with nothing to show but the Ferrari 512S Modulo, first seen at Geneva in March 1970, and the previously-seen W109 300 SEL 6.3 Coupé. The latter is a target of Curtis’s withering opprobrium – “not the prettiest car in the world”.
The “outrageous” Bertone Stratos, with its recumbent driving position was not liked by the British visitors either, described by Motor’s talented technical artist Brian Hatton as “the lie of the century” and by Curtis as “the thin end of the wedge”. Half a century on, we can look on it more kindly as an artefact of a long-past era when the automotive sculptor’s art had reached a glorious peak of exuberance, untroubled by the ills and realities of the world around it.
Part two follows shortly.