Is that a gun in your pocket?
The name of this vehicle has nothing to do with Auntie Beeb, being simply composed of the initials of Messrs. Beretta, Benelli and Castelbarco – all three of them distinctly Italian. The first two names will sound familiar as they are those of the arms maker and motorcycle manufacturer respectively; the third was a member of the Italian nobility.
Pietro Beretta had inherited the family company, founded in the 16th century, in 1903 but found his factories seized by the German army upon the allied invasion of Italy in 1943. When hostilities ended two years later there was understandably little demand for Beretta’s traditional offerings. Postwar Italy – its confidence, its infrastructure and its economy – had to be rebuilt and providing mobility for as many private individuals and businesses as possible was of course one of the vital aspects that needed to be addressed in order to reach this goal.
The problem was that after the gruelling and draining war years however not many people were able to afford much more than a bicycle or at best, a motorcycle. As far as cars were concerned, Fiat’s tiny 500 Topolino was the only realistic option for those with the financial means to purchase anything with four wheels.
Pietro Beretta saw an opportunity to keep his factory busy, provide the average Guiseppe with an alternative to the motorcycle or Topolino and help get Italy back on its feet. Joining forces with his friends Guiseppe Benelli (one of the six brothers that founded the famous motorcycle brand) and count Guglielmo Castelbarco, Beretta’s aim was to produce a car that was not just an alternative to the Topolino but something a little bit larger and more up to date in key areas.
Naturally, Benelli was tasked with developing and building an engine – a 20 hp air-cooled V-twin with a displacement of 750cc. The tubular chassis with independent suspension all around and front wheel drive was constructed at the Beretta factory while the body – an early proponent of the ponton style that would become very popular in the following years – was built at Alberto Rosso, a Turin coachbuilder. Final assembly of the BBC would also be carried out by Rosso.
As far as can be determined, Count Castelbarco’s contribution to the project was limited to offering financial support (and influence) to the enterprise. Three prototypes were completed in 1949 and were subjected to various real-world proving tests in which they performed rather well.
The ingredients to potentially one-up the Topolino were certainly present: a larger and more powerful engine, front wheel drive -meaning more room inside, independent suspension on all four corners and a more modern appearance. However, none of the partners in the BBC project had any experience in designing, producing, promoting or selling cars.
The lack of brand name recognition and a dealer network supposedly at least in the initial stages limited to Benelli outlets were daunting hurdles – especially in the face of an all-powerful FIAT that absolutely dominated the Italian automotive landscape.
And the Turin giant would flex it muscles upon getting wind of the BBC plan; then FIAT president Vittorio Valletta summoning Pietro Beretta to Turin to a meeting that would effectively stop the BBC in its tracks. What was discussed was never disclosed by either party, but it most likely boiled down to a cordial (but with a tinge of menace) request to Beretta to stick to making guns, and if he did proceed with the BBC the gloves would be off.
The Swiss car magazine Automobile Revue described it this way at the time: “If, when and where this car will be built only time will tell. It is true that there are projects but practical preparations could not be made because apparently the financiers are afraid to face the industrial giant Fiat. Despite this, BBC hopes to be able to start manufacturing a series of 1000 cars.”
That never happened as we now know. Beretta did however enter the automotive arena, albeit in a sector where FIAT did not have a presence. Together with his old friends Benelli and Castelbarco he became owner of Brescia based Mi-Val, a manufacturer of machine tools and motorcycles.
In 1953 the Mivalino was launched, a Messerschmitt KR175 built under license but with its own engine built by Mi-Val. It was not a success and production of the Mivalino ended in 1955 with an estimated one hundred sold. Mi-Val continued producing motorcycles until 1968; the Beretta company (a highly respectable 495 years old at the time of this writing) is still in business but after the BBC affair there have been no forays outside of the weapons industry. Only one of the three BBC prototypes has survived and is currently owned by the Beretta company.