Automotive journalist and former Petersen Automotive Museum director, Ken Gross is the Guest Curator of the exhibition “Bellissima! The Italian Automotive Renaissance 1945-1975”, which opens on May 27, 2016 and runs until October 9, 2016, at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville (USA). Early information on the event indicate it will be one of the highlights of the 2016 classic and historic car calendar. Ken Gross gives us an insight into the classic car exhibition before the doors open.

How things are going in Nashville? We’re a couple of months before opening, so does that mean all your work is already done? Or are you heavily involved in the launch?

At this point, we’re finalizing the exhibition layout and the interpretation team is readying all the didactic materials.  The catalog is complete and at the printer’s. We’re ensuring the transporters are set up to deliver the cars and motorcycles. And the promotional effort is gearing up to ensure Bellissima! is well-publicized.

Italy and the USA are both car countries – but at a first glance, they seem to have had very different approaches to automobiles after the Second World War. There was some collaboration, though. Tell us more about these early years. Are there cars in the exhibition that are testaments to this era?

Italian carmakers and Carrozzeri recognized the immense potential of the North American market, even as Italy jump-started its own industry, one that had been badly damaged during the war. Opportunities existed for existing automobile companies like Fiat , Lancia, Maserati and Alfa Romeo, while new marques like Ferrari, Iso, Bizzarrini and Lamborghini hoped to capitalize on the demand for sports models, and we have several of those cars on display. Pinin Farina designed the Nash-Healey and production bodies for Nash. Ghia’s styling efforts greatly influenced Virgil Exner;’s “The Forward Look” in the 1950s, along with the Chrysler Turbine Car.

I assume it was mass production that swept away most of Italy’s carrozzieri. But Italy’s sports car brands managed to stay popular. What was it that Americans liked about these cars?

Custom coachbuilders were quick to restart their efforts and new firms appeared after hostilities ended. Battista Pinin Farina brought the 1946 Alfa Romeo 6C2500 Cabriolet in our exhibit to the Paris Salon in 1946. Although he was denied entry, he displayed this very car on the street near the Salon, attracting favorable attention, while winning an invitation inside for next year.  Ghia, Zagato, Vignale and Boano found opportunities with existing and new Italian marques. Ghia partnered with Chrysler, and you soon found brilliant engineers and designers like Savonuzzi and Luigi Segre, creating exciting showcars, several of which – like the Ghia Gilda, are in the exhibition. Americans loved the seductive styling of Italian cars. Briggs Cunningham turned to Alfredo Vignale to body his bold C-3 coupes and cabriolets. Boano built the Lincoln Indianapolis to try to convince Ford and Lincoln to use his company’s services. Pinin Farina’s styling tour de force, the Cisitalia 202, while not a huge seller, had immense design influence. The custom carbuilders faltered as the use of unit bodies by manufacturers increased, but the carrozzeri were still able to design new bodies even as they were less likely to manufacture them.

Which role did the USA play in the rise of supercars in the 1970s, e.g. for Ferrari, Lamborghini and the like?

Wealthy Americans wanted and could afford to buy high-end sports cars. From the beginning, Ferrari appealed to glitterati, Hollywood celebrities and so-called captains of industry. Ferrari’s 400 Superamerica was a limited-production model. Enzo Ferrari himself determined which clientele were eligible to purchase a 400SA. Although the example in Bellissima! was commissioned by the Riva Yacht-building family, 400SA’s were purchased by numerous American patrons. Lamborghini sought to compete with Ferrari and Ferruccio’s radical mid-engine Miura upstaged the 365 GTB/4Daytona’s from Maranello by offering a transverse V-12, mounted amidships, years before Ferrari countered with the 365BB. With the Miura – and we have a Miura S in the exhibition – the world according to Enzo Ferrari was about to change.

Is there one car that sums up the exhibition and its main themes?

The Ferrari 250 GTO: Here you have a rare (one of just 39 examples) custom-built (by Carrozzeria Scaglietti) successful racecar (it competed at Le Mans, Sebring and many other venues), that’s arguably one of the most beautiful competition cars ever produced.  An engineering triumph, based on the 250 SWB, but with its powerful V-12 mounted further rearward, it’s early use of a rear spoiler was noteworthy. The fact that it is also one of the most valuable automobiles ever built , rivaling fine artworks and sculpture with its mega $Million value, makes it even more special.

Such an exhibition can probably only be put together with the support of the collector community. How did collectors respond when they heard about the project?

I’ve been involved with exhibitions of fine cars in fine art museums for eight years. The word is out in the collector car community and, for the most part, collectors are eager to participate. Unlike a Concours d’Elegance, where there are a limited number of awards, every car in one of these exhibitions is ‘Best in Show.’ Our elegant catalogs preserve the look of the exhibition for perpetuity. We can’t do these shows without the collectors, and I am immensely grateful to those aficionados who are willing to share their precious cars for the four months it takes to mount a major exhibition.

Which of the cars was especially hard to find and/or bring to Nashville?

The impossibly low Lancia Stratos HF Zero by Bertone, arguably the most dramatic showcar of the 1970’s, is very much in demand. It appeared at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Indianapolis Museum of Art in “Dream Cars,” and it won “Best Concept Car” honors at the Kuwait Concours d’Elegance. Understandably, its owner would like to have it back for a while. He is very kind to let us display it.

Leaving all professional considerations aside – which of the cars on display do you like the most?

The Alfa Romeo BAT7: Its dramatic styling aside, the sensational  BAT7 by Nuccio Bertone and  Franco Scaglione is a car that still fascinates enthusiasts. I remember seeing photos of this car and its two companions when I was just beginning to learn about cars, and thinking, ‘no one but the Italians could create anything like this’ – and of course, no one ever did. We are privileged that Don Williams and the Blackhawk Collection are loaning us these three remarkable berlinettas – they seldom appear outside the Blackhawk Collection in Danville, CA – and even more rarely on the East Coast. We think they will attract large crowds.

You didn’t ask about motorcycles, but I’ll note that we have three in the exhibition,. Of those, I like Duvati 750 Super Sport. I owned a Ducati 750 Sport many years ago, one of three Ducati’s I’ve had. They are fast, exciting bikes with a unique exhaust note. I’d happily jump on that 750SS for a spin, anytime.

Italy’s back in the USA, which is becoming a very important market for some Italian brands again –especially Maserati and maybe Alfa Romeo. Do you see a parallel to the heydays of the last century?

Fiat has a nice foothold – our stunning Fiat 8V Supersonic berlinetta is testimony to Fiat’s genius in the ‘50s. Our Maserati A6G “Double Bubble” by Zagato continues to inspire contemporary Maserati styling. Alfa Romeo is definitely back in America with the spritely new 4C roadster. While this exhibition reminds visitors where the Italian companies were, it also underscores that they have every right to celebrate that history with exciting new models. As well, the Alfa Romeo Club’s National Meet will take place in Nashville during the run of this show, so our timing to present significant historic Italian cars couldn’t be better.

Thanks for taking time to talk to us, Ken!

Thank you…we hope everyone in your audience will come to visit Nashville and see “Bellissima!”

For more information, please visit Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville (USA).

All car photos courtesy of the exhibitor and © Harholdt.

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