We Interrupt This Programme

Is that a gun in your pocket?

Image: Corrado Belli

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.

Image: Corrado Belli

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.

Image: Corrado Belli

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.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

12 thoughts on “We Interrupt This Programme”

  1. That’s a great story to kickoff the weekend. I vaguely heard of a Beretta car (not the dreadful Chevrolet) but I never had any details, until now. Another learning opportunity here at DTW. Thanks for sharing, brrrruno.

  2. What a fascinating story; totally unknown to me. The car, on paper, does seem a very modern thing for its time. I wonder how it was to drive compared to the (Fiat) competition.

  3. Good morning Bruno. Another great story uncovered, thank you. What a mean-spirited and disproportionate reaction from Fiat. Italy’s post-war reconstruction desperately needed both employment and transport and there was plenty of room for a minnow like the BBC to co-exist alongside the shark that was Fiat.

    From what one can tell from the photos, the coachwork looks to be beautifully executed. I love the ‘toothy’ grille inspired by contemporary Buicks. It has very unusual looking wheel hubs. I wonder what that is about?

    1. Daniel wrote:
      “What a mean-spirited and disproportionate reaction from Fiat.”
      Almost everybody agrees that the is nothing like competition to boost innovation and consumer service and keep prices down… but most people agree that there is nothing like a monopoly to boost profits. Well, that’s until your dominant market position made you so complacent that you lost touch with the consumers’ requirements… like Fiat for example.

    2. Hello Daniel, it does have rather prominent wheel hubs. There are aluminum wheel trims for the car which cover the whole wheel which would tidy things up, somewhat. Behind the disc wheels appear to be finned drum brakes.

    3. In the end it was the EEC that brought competition to the Italian mass-market with an assist from Detroit’s European satellites – just after it joined the top-selling “foreign” cars in Italy were the Ford Anglia and the Opel Kadett, with the VW bug in there somewhere.

  4. This is an interesting piece of history. At that time one could reasonably start up a car company (if you don’t take into account the fact the big ogre will eat you first).
    Thanks for the article.
    Nick

  5. When it comes to the Italian Automotive Industry, did Fiat prior to securing its overwhelming dominance (and later complacency) actually have any serious domestic rivals that under better circumstances could have led to an Italian Big Two / Three (either on their own or by also merging or acquiring other domestic rivals or projects like BBC and CEMSA, Isotta Fraschini, etc)?

    Ducati was another that attempted to a small car project around that time called the 2-seater Ducati DU4 sedan.

    1. The DU4 was said to have been powered by a 90° L-twin cylinder four-speed 250cc motor with a 350cc “sports” version also being on the cards had it reached production.

  6. That’s fascinating and new to me. The car has shades of the contemporary Hillman Minx, Fiat 1400, etc.

    I particularly like the B-pillar design – I guess that makes getting in and out easier. Using front wheel drive, rack and pinion steering and independent suspension was pretty advanced for the time, too.

    Apparently, the other 2 prototypes were / are at the Morbidelli Museum Collection.

    There’s a small book about it, for those who wish to learn more.

    https://motorracingmemorabilia.com/product/bbc-by-paolo-prosperi/

  7. That’s certainly a charming little car, though it doesn’t look like it would be cheap to make. Closer to 1100 than Topolino money, I’d reckon.

    Plenty of technical interest here. That engine has an unusual V-angle – it could be as much as 150 degrees.

    It’s distressing to read of Vittorio Valletta’s school-bully tactic. Giacosa always wrote of him with the sort of reverence more expected for Popes or Emperors, but this seems shabby and petty. Possibly BBC’s intent to use a Torinese coachbuilder and assembler riled him.

    Valletta hung on for a long time, retiring in 1966 at the age of 83. Perhaps his grip had slackened before, given that Milanese Innocenti had by then risen from being a steel tube maker to scooter manufacture, then on to stealthily becoming Italy’s second largest car manufacturer and second biggest selling car brand.

    Also, could the creation of the tripartite (Bianchi / Pirelli / Fiat) Autobianchi joint venture in 1955 been a smokescreen to create some sort of competition, yet still within Fiat control?

    In the end, Fiat always got to pick up the pieces. I believe the clause is still there in The Fiat Charter…

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