In the years prior to World War 2, it was common practice for automobile manufacturers to sell stand-alone chassis to customers, usually wealthy aristocrats, businessmen and playboys. The fortunate owners would then employ the hand of master coachbuilding firms to sculpt the body of the car, who would meet the specific requests of these clients. The consequent variety of design and artistic flair during this golden age of the automobile is truly astonishing, with the likes of Castagna, Bertone, and Ghia employed by owners and manufacturers alike to create unique cars for the few...

Looking back at this vibrant period of imagination, few coachbuilders have survived up to today, fewer still continue to thrive independently, producing special cars by the handful in a manner not dissimilar to when they started. But only one continues to make headlines with every project it announces. This is Zagato.

Founded by Ugo Zagato in 1919, the Zagato family name has been entwined with some of history’s most iconic and desirable cars, from its inception all the way to the present day. There is a certain mystique surrounding the atelier which fascinates car enthusiasts of all ages from the first moments they learn of Zagato (for myself it all started with a model of an Aston Martin DB7 Zagato, at the age of 8). Where do these utterly beautiful cars come from? And what exactly happens inside the coachbuilder’s inconspicuous headquarters in the rather unassuming town of Terrazzano, bordering Milan. We wanted a glimpse at the Zagato legend first-hand to uncover, if not for our readers, then certainly for ourselves the magic of such a company, and its place in the modern world. To our delight, Zagato invited 8JS with open arms and I was fortunate enough to be the one sent on the pilgrimage to Terrazzano…

The Zagato headquarters are situated directly next to the Autostrada dei Laghi, a stone’s throw away from the fantastic Museo Storico Alfa Romeo. From the outside there is little to suggest the building complex (home also to legendary coachbuilders Touring), houses anything remarkable inside besides the modestly sized “Z” logo on the building’s façade. It is only once you enter, walking through the narrow corridor lined with offices filled to the ceiling with archival books and models, do you feel like you’re in the right place. 

Reaching the end of the corridor, the room opens into what can only be described as an aircraft hangar. That’s when the ‘wow factor’ hits and the smiles turn into grins. On the left side of the hangar running all the way to the wall at the rear is a row of Zagato’s latest creations. Almost immediately the marque’s latest works with Aston Martin catch my attention, with the Vanquish Coupé, Volante and Shooting Brake sitting together amongst a row of unicorns. Of all the creations Zagato has produced in its 103 years of existence, the Vanquish remains the only car I have seen out in the wild, and for many this will be the same. Produced in a total of 99 units, the Vanquish Coupé is common by Zagato standards, while the rest of these however are simply mythical. The reason I say this is simple. Until seeing these cars in the flesh, it’s quite difficult to imagine they were ever produced in the first place. Taking the Ferrari GTZ Nibbio Zagato as an example, the car is so radically different from the 599 upon which it’s based, one could be forgiven for mistaking it for a mere concept or even show car. But here it sat, in front of my very eyes, proving to be the real deal.

Walking past the Ferrari, I was greeted with ever more elusive creations, ranging from the Alfa Romeo TZ3 Stradale – commissioned by German collector Martin Kapp to celebrate Alfa Romeo’s centenary in 2010 – to the newly released GTZ, which pays tribute to the rebirth of IsoRivolta. This car is particularly interesting, marking an important milestone for both parent brands. Why’s that? Well, Zagato is now run by Andrea, the great-grandson of its founder Ugo, who, as fate would have it is married to non-other than Marella Rivolta-Zagato, granddaughter to Renzo Rivolta, the founder of ISO. So, it would seem the GTZ is truly the favourite child of both companies, merging the design language of Zagato with the styling cues of the original Iso Grifo A3/C. True to form, the GTZ is a blend of Italian design and American muscle, powered by the 6.2-litre supercharged V8 from the Corvette Z06. Combining that power with a carbon fibre body weighing a mere 1199kg, means the GTZ can get a shift on.

Zagato stays true to its roots, producing custom-built cars in a very limited quantity. During the early to mid-20th century when coachbuilders were employed by many wealthy individuals and manufacturers, cars were often produced as one-off designs for clients or as a limited production run for automakers, typically no more than a handful at a time. We can still witness this today. Yes, the production capacity of Zagato – which employs no more than 25 workers across the whole organisation – is limited, and only models restricted to 9 examples or fewer are constructed on site. However, production numbers are purposefully limited, keeping true to the marvel and desirability of coachbuilding, an art which is scarce in today’s era of machine-manufacturing. Limited to only 19 examples, I can say with confidence I won’t be seeing another IsoRivolta GTZ anytime soon, making this encounter all the more special.

Strolling to the rear of the hanger I encountered two of Zagato’s latest designs, the Aston Martin DBS and DB4 GTZ Continuation. These cars together form the DBZ Centenary Collection, “born to celebrate Zagato’s 100thanniversary” and must be purchased as a pair – only 19 pairs exist. To see these cars side by side is quite remarkable, despite the 60-year age difference there are striking similarities between the two; the DBS undoubtedly inspired by the simplicity of the DB4. These resemblances are significant: the sweeping front grill, the diving bonnet, the widened rear wheel arches, the shape of the rear diffuser. Everything is simply more pronounced on the DBS, even the paintjob; a mix of “Supernova Red” with gold-plated accents (including the wheels). However, the DB4 has an upgrade of its own with the entire body built from carbon fibre, owing to its lightness and no doubt makes it more competitive than the original. Zagato is unquestionably most renowned for its collaborations with Aston Martin, hence celebrating its centenary with the British marque seems obvious, with a pair of bespoke cars celebrating the past and the future.

The simplicity of the showroom floor allows the cars to take centre stage, and I can only commend Zagato on how everything is integrated. Opposite the cars sit several panelled garages hidden in plain sight, storing not only spare parts, but some of Andrea Zagato’s personal collection. Behind the row of cars on the showroom floor lies the workshop, a truly incredible space where Zagato’s in-house engineers and mechanics work to complete and restore customer cars in a clean and spacious environment. Whilst I am unable to divulge the models that were receiving treatment, I can say with confidence this was the highlight of my tour. True unicorns lay within, some receiving a fresh coat of paint, whilst others were little more than skeletal frames, early in the fabrication process being built to meet customer specifications. I love the Zagato line of Aston Martins (who doesn’t) but in my eyes, the collaborations with other marques are even more extraordinary. Not solely down to lower production numbers – making the cars naturally more special – but also due to their radically different styling when compared to the platform car upon which they’re based; for example, the Lamborghini 5-95 is further from the original Gallardo than say the Vanquish Coupé is from the Vanquish. I fall into the category of enthusiasts that unquestionably want to recognise a coachbuilt car when we see one – in this case, the bolder the better. It is unsurprising then why I adore Zagato’s latest creation, the Maserati Mostro Barchetta, which sat pride of place in the centre of the hangar.

Inspired by the 1957 Maserati 450S Coupé Zagato, the Mostro has earnt its name thanks to none other than Sir Stirling Moss, who requested the car for his endeavours at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. When gazing upon it for the very first time, Sir Stirling described it to be “beautiful like a monster”. This oxymoronic phrase can in my opinion be applied to many if not all of Zagato’s creations, masking exceptional power beneath sinuous shells of metal and carbon fibre. A special car – limited to only 5 units – the Mostro Barchetta was unveiled at this year’s edition of the Concorso D’Eleganza Villa d’Este, an equally special occasion held every year on the lawns of Lake Como’s most prestigious hotel.

With this Maserati, Zagato has paid close attention to the past; the absence of electronic traction control and a frontal mounted gearbox are better suited to the racetrack than the road, true to the 450S of 1957. Yet the atelier extracts the very best from today’s technology, using a carbon fibre chassis and mid-mounted engine to achieve a 50/50 weight distribution and an overall weight of just 1200kg. Gazing over the blue-fleck bodywork, it’s difficult to spot a straight line on the Mostro Barchetta – designer Norihiko Harada emphasising the relationship between his design and that which won the heart of Sir Stirling Moss. I have difficulty deciding on my favourite design feature: the wrap-around windscreen or the gorgeously simple single-nut alloys… I’d have to settle for the windscreen, reminiscent of that aboard the Monte Carlo Offshorer 30, a real icon of the 1980s.

The Mostro Barchetta embodies the true essence of coachbuilding in the modern era, illustrating an appreciation for motoring history through a radical yet inspired design whilst not merely a re-edition of a famous icon of yesteryear. This is where (in my opinion) the manufacturers of today slip up. Drawing parallels with the world of horology, re-editions and modern tributes are often too similar to, and more often than not a blatant copy of the vintage design upon which they’re inspired. Additionally, many marques of today no longer have the funds nor flexibility to create limited run productions of cars which favour the few. This is the niche where I believe coachbuilders such as Zagato can continue to thrive into the future. Whether you choose to accept it, the luxury sportscar brands we know and love today are indeed mass producers – when compared to their older selves – spurred on by the continual growth in global wealth. Yet, Zagato, and the few remaining coachbuilding ateliers allow these titans of industry the freedom to create radical designs and push the boundaries of what is acceptable by tradition. They are the pinnacle of individual expression and bespoke customer service, and as I have experienced on my short but magnificent visit, the true dream factories for collectors and admirers alike, and for this, we are eternally grateful…

I’d like to thank the team at Zagato and in particularly Ms Rebecca Racina and Mr Salvatore Raso for taking the time to show me around the incredible atelier, allowing us and our readers a glimpse inside the Zagato legend.