Once one of the largest looming symbols of the 20th century’s headlong dash into modernism, industrialism, and its race into the future, the car seems to have fallen from grace. The idea that the automobile would grant every citizen the freedom to go wherever, whenever, seems less utopian now, tarnished by the realities of traffic congestion, the price of fuel and the harm that burning it does to the environment. Even the psychological liberty associated with car ownership, the feeling that personal mobility leads inexorably to exploration, adventure and discovery seems less potent given the increasing homogeny of the American landscape and the limitless communicative potential of an online world. Put simply, things change.
The wants and needs of individuals and societies shift, economies rise and fall and take whole cities with them, but the industry has often exacerbated the situation by failing to be bold, by refusing to see that just because something is good doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement, and in short, by failing to have vision. I’m not talking merely of innovation; the average car on the road nowadays is safer, more efficient and more comfortable than its ancestors by leaps and bounds, but it is 2012 for god’s sake, and while I am certainly no gear-head (they call it internal combustion ‘cause things combust internally right?) it’s disheartening to see TV car commercials flogging 40 mpg like it’s a Flux Capacitor or something. Cars were supposed to be the beginning of a brave new world, and looking around, it’s easy to recognize that the future ain’t what it used to be.
The sluggish evolution of transportation possibilities would be easier to swallow were it not for the fact that the cars don’t even look cool anymore. Technology and science are interesting and all, but I’m an unrepentant aesthete, and if I can’t drive the future, it would be nice to at least drive something futuristic. By dumbing down the industrial design of the automobile, making them largely interchangeable except for subtle variations noticeable only to aficionados, you remove any trace of wonder associated an invention that, for better or worse, has reshaped human life and the very face of the planet. I mean, the PT Cruiser doesn’t exactly spark your imagination, does it?
Thankfully there are always exceptions, notably, Gruppo Bertone. As Italy’s oldest manufacturer, his company began life in 1912, when Giovanni Bertone began building high quality horse-drawn carriages in an age when spotting a car on the streets of Turin was a rare and mind-blowing experience. Though World War I proved a brutal interruption, Bertone was able to revive his business, and brought his design expertise to bear on a new focus: automobiles. The company quickly built a reputation for styling elegant exteriors for a variety of other firms, forging especially valuable partnerships with heavy hitters like Alfa-Romeo, Fiat and Lancia. Shrewd management decisions guided Bertone through the Great Depression intact, and a few scarce government contracts allowed them to survive the second World War. Then, it was as nations were beginning to be rebuilt and economies adjusted to peace-time operations that the Bertone exerted his creative influence on an ever greater scale, and Giovanni’s successor and son Nuccio proved instrumental in upholding, and indeed pushing, a high bar of stylistic innovation.
This innovation was expressed most purely in the company’s prototype and concept cars (of the type set to those wicked synths in the video above), which reimagined car construction from the ground up. They rethought how doors open, where windows could be, anything and everything in an ambitious pursuit of formal and functional improvements. Bertone also used the 1960s to break into new markets, expanding into working with Lamborghini, most memorably on the glassy 1967 Marzal (there are plenty of pretty pictures at their website). With their long list of clients, the company continued to impress at high profile car shows with a succession of fresh models. By the 1980s, Bertone had enough money and enough of a brand to start making and marketing cars under their own name, gradually putting more focus on improving the engineering and emissions, instead of audacious visual design. Though Nuccio passed away in 1997, and the company has not been immune to the dire economic straits plaguing the industry in recent years (they filed for bankruptcy protection is 2007), the Bertone name has managed to stay alive, and what’s more, active.
Of course, not every car the company made looked like it sped out of a sci-fi movie; in fact a number of them are kind of boring, but their production timeline is punctuated by these flights of fancy that live up to the kind of creative, industrious spirit that brought us motorized transportation in the first place. It’s hard to care how fast a car goes if it doesn’t look like it’s got anywhere to go. The whole mystique surrounding the automobile as a symbol of progress and freedom, it only works if it appears to point toward new horizons. Even when standing still, the Bertone styled cars simply exude an acceleration and swiftness that most on the road couldn’t match at top speed.