Automotive History: Other European Deadly Sins (Part 2) – Monteverdi, Italicized Helvetica Bold

Although some of you may have discovered the existence of Belgian cars in yesterday’s post, it is likely that many CC readers will be able to recognize the only post-war Swiss marque in today’s topic. Monteverdi cars represent the same short-lived “Golden Age” that gave us Facel-Vega, Iso or Jensen – super-luxurious Autobahn cruisers with huge V8s and impeccable tailoring. Nearly all the Euro-American hybrids died out in the ‘70s, but Monteverdi carried on through to 1984. How did they manage that?

Above, the man: Peter Monteverdi (1934-1998); below, the place: Binningen, on the outskirts of Basel.

The story of the marque is often the story of the man – never more so than in the present case. Peter Monteverdi was born to an Italian father in Binningen, in the half-Canton of Basel-Landshaft, where Switzerland meets France and Germany. Almost immediately, Peter Monteverdi got involved with cars (his father owned a car repair shop) and built his first sports car by age 16. He soon started taking part in races and hill-climbs in nearby France or Germany, once Switzerland outlawed all car racing after the 1955 Le Mans disaster. Monteverdi drove a variety of cars in the ‘50s, but found a lot of success on Ferraris. He took over the paternal business when his father died in 1956.

In 1960, he created his own racing car under the MBM (Monteverdi Basel Motors) brand, a Formula Junior single-seater with a DKW engine. Soon, a Porsche-powered chassis was made for hill-climbs. Monteverdi even tried racing the MBM as a Formula 1, but he suffered a severe crash at Hockenheim in 1961 that led him to quit racing. That dream was gone, but at least the MBM adventure put him on the map. Back in 1957, Peter Monteverdi had managed to meet with Enzo Ferrari and officially became the Swiss Ferrari importer. Monteverdi also became the Swiss importer for Bentley, Lancia and BMW over the years, making him a figure in the relatively small Swiss automotive world. The Ferrari account was lost when Enzo Ferrari, in 1965, demanded that Monteverdi pay up front for a shipment of 100 cars, which led to a memorable shouting match and lifelong acrimony between the two hot-blooded automakers.

The first of several cars with Peter Monteverdi’s personal “BL 69” plate.

 

In 1964, Peter Monteverdi signed a contract with Jensen and took home a CV8 coupé – a sexy, powerful yet comfortable car – as a demonstrator. He used the CV8 as his personal transport in 1964 (but sold precious few Jensens) and after a time the centime dropped: why not do something like this, with oodles of power and lashings of luxury, instead of having to put up with Enzo Ferrari’s constant bickering? Certainly, it seemed the invariably middle-aged Ferrari customers he saw everyday could be tempted by a few more creature comforts than were available in the prancing horse’s vehicles. Monteverdi was about to “pull a Ferruccio” on uncle Enzo.

Peter Monteverdi worked on his supercar project discreetly in 1965-66, busily determining how the project might get off the ground. The engine would be the infamous 7.2 litre (440 ci) Chrysler V8 with minor modifications, mated with the Torqueflite or four-speed manual transmission. The chassis was (allegedly) designed by Monteverdi himself.

1966 prospectus for the new car, then still named MBM.

 

For the car’s body, the Swiss entrepreneur went straight to the best: Pietro Frua, then as the height of his fame. This was going to be an exciting mélange of US brawn and Italian style – put together in… Switzerland? By the ‘60s, most Swiss people would have had a hard time remembering the last national automaker.

The last Swiss car before Monteverdi: 1934 Martini NF (4.4 litre 6-cyl.) cabriolet by Worblaufen

 

Sure, there were a few assembly plants – notably the GM plant in Bienne, a couple of truck manufacturers and a few coachbuilders, but the last Swiss automaker had petered out in the mid-‘30s. Suffice to say that Peter Monteverdi was starting from a blank page, which carried its own challenges.

The new 375 S. Peter Monteverdi liked being photographed posing (awkwardly) with his creations.

 

The new car was supposed to come out on home ground – the Geneva Motor Show – but the timing was too tight for an early 1967 unveiling; instead, the new car would be launched at the Frankfurt show in October. The MBM marque was ditched in favour of the boss’s last name. This was a wise move, for it was a great and melodious name, a supercar’s name.

The first proper Monteverdi car was the High Speed 375 S, a two-seater coupé. The body, which had been designed and  built by Frua in Italy, was a thing of beauty. It immediately gave the Monteverdi cars and marque a strong visual identity that is not always present in cars of this elk (I’m looking at you, De Tomaso): quad headlamps set low within a simple, rectangular grille and a squared-off rear to match. Only a couple of Monteverdi cars really strayed from that formula.

Monteverdi also enjoyed having his stand right in Ferrari’s face at motor shows.

 

Frua went a bit fish-faced for the 375 S’s redesign, which followed in 1968. The car’s startled front end is hard to put in relation to the squareness of the rear. The design must have had its fans though, as Monteverdi kept the hardtop going until about 1972 and introduced a cabriolet version that lasted until 1974.

The Frua 375 L prototype lacked the taut lines that Monteverdi wanted.

 

But what the Monteverdi range needed most was a four-seater coupé. The Jensen crowd were put off by two-seaters. The wheelbase stretch was to be around 10cm, enough to shoehorn a rear seat, albeit without much legroom. Frua designed the car as a fastback, but Peter Monteverdi was not happy with the result. He promptly went to Fissore, another Italian coachbuilder, and made some changes to the Frua design.

Five Fiats and a Benz, L-R from top: ’47 & ’51 1100, ’52 170 D & ’54 1100 TV, ’57 Multipla & ’58 600

 

Fissore was a relatively renowned Italian coachbuilder, located near Turin. They had started in the ‘20s by making horse-drawn carts and moved to motorized transport by the ‘30s, though trucks and buses were more their specialty initially. After the Second World War, Fissore worked increasingly with Fiat, making small runs of special bodies (wagons, coupés, etc.), commercial vehicles (hearses, ambulances) as well as the occasional special request (prototypes, one-offs) for Fiat, Italian Mercedes-Benz dealers and private individuals. All Fissore bodies from the first half of the ‘50s were penned by the prolific and talented Giovanni Michelotti.

By the early ‘60s, Fissore extended their client list to include OSCA (top left), Cisitalia and the Brazilian DKW-Vemag (top right). The carrozzeria then got involved with the TVR Trident design and also built a series of P1800 prototypes for Volvo. The Monteverdi account would bring in a limited but steady source of activity for Fissore at a time when many of the old names (such as Allemano, Motto, Touring or Viotti) had gone under.

The gorgeous 375 L was sold from 1969 to 1977 – some say in 300 units, others go as low as 50.

Fissore made a deal with Monteverdi to supply him with better-quality bodies than what Frua, who was notorious for subcontracting the bulk of his carrozzeria’s work to various second-tier coachbuilders with various quality control issues. Fissore was a more serious outfit and cooperated with Monteverdi to design the 375 L – perhaps the best-looking Monteverdi and certainly the most iconic. Nobody has any idea how many were made, just like for most Monteverdis, but they remained on the marque’s sales literature until the very end of the 375 series, longer than any other model. But of course, Frua flipped his lid when he saw the 375 L and successfully sued Monteverdi and Fissore for making an unlicensed copy of his design.

1968 Monteverdi 2000 GT – missed opportunity?

After all, did he not just finalize the BMW-powered Monteverdi 2000 GT? Frua had been working with Glas and BMW for years and he had suggested to Peter Monteverdi that the BMW platform could be a great base for a stylish sports coupé. But now, Frua walked away and took his BMW contacts with him.

Same car, different badges…

 

Or so it seems. It’s unclear whether Frua made the 2000 GT as a BMW first and then took out the double kidney grille to turn it into a Monteverdi or the other way around. Whatever the timeline actually was, the mooted “small Monteverdi” never happened. Peter Monteverdi couldn’t have cared less – he wanted to continue fleshing out his big V8 range.

The Hai point of post-war Swiss car making.

 

First order of business: a supercar. To out-Ferruccio Ferruccio Lamborghini himself, Peter Monteverdi devised a mid-engined stunner, the Hai 450, which he unveiled at the 1970 Geneva Motor Show. The Hai (“shark” auf Deutsch) was probably penned by Trevor Fiore, given the car’s shape. The front end, though, is far more graceful than the French car’s snout, and if we owe only that to Fissore and Monteverdi, it’s already plenty. Almost instantly, the Hai became a mystical object of fantasy. The dizzying 450 hp (from a Chrysler 426 hemi), the stunning looks, the modernity of the package, the 180 mph top speed – it all seemed too crazy. And perhaps it was: despite many demands from wealthy enthusiasts, Monteverdi never agreed to a sale, perhaps thinking that it was too much car for anyone to handle. Notoriously vague with figures, Peter Monteverdi claimed that “a few” Hais were built. It could well be that only three or four were ever made, if that.

Next came the logical step: a big four-door saloon. The 375 chassis was stretched even more and was beginning to reach American proportions. The Iso S4 and the recent De Tomaso Deauville may have prompted Monteverdi to accelerate the 375/4 programme, which led to the car’s launch in 1971, though it seems the first cars only hit the road by ate 1972. The rather svelte wedge-shaped luxobarge was still using the 7-litre Chrysler V8, which managed to push the car up to 240kph. The 375/4 sold quite poorly – estimates vary of course, but at best (i.e. according to Monteverdi) only 30 units were made in five years.

Be that as it may, Monteverdi sort of hit their stride by this point. The cars were not exactly flying out of the factory, but there were a few lucky takers out there. What kind of product did they get for their money? A very fast, very comfortable car with all the bells and whistles and leather, for sure. But it wasn’t all top-notch Swiss quality. Having to import almost everything to make his cars, Peter Monteverdi found out how difficult it is to be an independent automaker in a small country with few automotive players and suppliers.

The 1972 Monteverdis – best-looking range ever?

 

The Fissore bodies rusted and they rusted quickly. The interior fittings were not up to Rolls-Royce or Mercedes standards – by quite a distance – on a car that cost as much as four Jaguar E-Types. Several parts of the 375 (e.g. brake servo, power steering unit, A/C, etc.) could be different from one car to the next, depending on what Peter Monteverdi had managed to find. Fortunately, Chrysler were happy selling their V8s and transmissions. But even in the good years, the business struggled.

The fish-mouthed 375 S was restyled for 1973, in both coupé and convertible form. The former became the 375 Berlinetta and the latter was renamed Palm Beach. The rest of the range carried on unchanged.

Above: Monteverdi range for 1974-75; below: victims of circumstance around the same time.

But by the mid-‘70s, the writing was clearly on the wall. The 1973-74 Oil Shock had poured cold water on the hot Euro-American V8 hybrids, which peeled off one after the next. The whole luxury car world was in tatters – Aston Martin, Maserati and Lamborghini were also in a precarious position. AC, Iso, Jensen and Monica lay dead or dying. To make matters worse, BMW announced they would no longer use Monteverdi as their Swiss agent after 1975. But Peter Monteverdi did not panic. He had an idea.

It’s hard to pinpoint the birth of the SUV. The 1963 Kaiser Jeep Wagoneer could certainly count among the forefathers of the genre; some also argue that the 1970 Range Rover was one. But the guy who really nailed it, arguably, was Peter Monteverdi with the 1976-82 Safari.

As we can see from this amusingly translated brochure, Monteverdi took a humble International Scout, stuffed a great big V8 in the front, redesigned the body to give it some of that Monteverdi style (taillights courtesy of the Peugeot 504 wagon), stuffed as many extras as he could think of and trimmed the whole thing in leather. Now that was a mid-‘70s Escalade, far from the Jeep’s dated styling and the Range Rover’s dodgy quality.

The Monteverdi Safari was quite a hit. It was expensive, but it had no competition. If you were swimming in petrodollars like the OPEC leaders were at the time, the Safari was an obvious choice. The last of the 375 range, now paired down to the saloon and the 2+2 coupé, was kept alongside the Safari for 1976 and 77, but production was stopped by then.

Transforming existing models was certainly easier than making a car from the ground up. Seeing how the Safari had saved his company, Peter Monteverdi figured he might try to market a new saloon based on a series-produced car. Even the Swiss preferred to buy smaller cars by this point in time. He naturally turned to Chrysler. The corporation’s new Plymouth Volare, though it had no pretense of prestige, seemed like a good base for the 1977 Monteverdi Sierra.

I’m confident many of you have an opinion on the Plymouth Volare, which was, according to Paul, a clear-cut Deadly Sin for Mopar. Judging by comments on various Volare/Aspen-related CC posts, negativity is the norm when discussing this particular car. Monteverdi did two positive things: he restyled the car, inside and out (taillights courtesy of the second series Renault 12) and tweaked the engine. But the rest of the car was as terrible as any other Plymouth Volare. Rust, rattles, cramped seating and high fuel consumption were just as bad on the expensive Monteverdi as on the cheapo Plymouth.

Undaunted, Peter Monteverdi introduced a Sierra drop-top, which was quite a looker, and even produced a finished prototype Sierra wagon. Alas, sales were dismal: three cabriolets and somewhere between 25 and 40 saloons in five years. What was to point of proposing a cheaper (but still very expensive) Monteverdi saloon if the new one fared as badly as the old?

But Peter Monteverdi likely did not lose too much sleep over the Sierra: the Safari had been paired up with a cheaper version, the Sahara, which also sold pretty well. From 1977 to 1980, over 300 Monteverdi cars were being sold per year on average – triple the numbers of the early ‘70s. It was all thanks to the 4×4 range. The same Monteverdi treatment that had been applied to the IH Scout and the Volare was also attempted on a Subaru wagon and a Toyota Hi-Ace. But the world wasn’t ready for a deluxe MPV yet…

In 1979, Monteverdi unveiled a new military vehicle design – a Swiss Jeep, if you will. Always on the cutting edge, the Swiss army were immediately taken by the 230M and its CoE version, placing an order so large that Monteverdi were unable to even begin fulfilling it. Swiss truck and bus maker Saurer ended up licensing the Monteverdi design, making three versions (a military Jeep and a CoE, as well as a civilian version of the Jeep) for several years and further improving Monteverdi’s profitability.

Also in 1979, Monteverdi tried stretching the Safari to turn it into a four-door wagon. The results were certainly handsome and Monteverdi soon got a call from Rover (or Rover got a call from Basel, the story is characteristically unclear). They inspected the prototype thoroughly and paid a large sum of money for the design rights. Monteverdi were ideally placed to do a trial run, and the four-door Range Rover, decked in leather and festooned with “Monteverdi Fissore” badges, was presented at the 1980 Geneva Motor Show.

This initial run of four-door Range Rovers, which (crucially) had the same wheelbase as the two-door, was sold through Range Rover dealerships. The chassis and body were sent from Sollihull with two sets of doors to Fissore in Turin, who made the cars more or less by hand. The cars were then transported to Binningen, where the interior was gussied up and badges applied. This went on until late 1982, by which time Rover had introduced their own slightly revised production version. As is often the case, production data are a mystery, but the consensus is that 150 to 300 Range Rovers were made by Monteverdi.

Peter Monteverdi was financially set up for life by the early ‘80s. The Sahara and Safari 4x4s were getting on a bit by now, and the Sierra had been a complete flop. What was the Swiss carmaker’s next move? Still in cahoots with Fissore, in 1980 Monteverdi toyed with a Ford Grenada-based hatchback prototype called the Monteverdi Macho (above) that had few realistic prospects of reaching production. Whatever a Monteverdi was, it should be a big, powerful car. Chrysler had had their day, now Monteverdi switched to Mercedes-Benz.

The new W126 S-Class was everything Monteverdi wished he could make – big, imposing, well-engineered and supremely comfortable, albeit in a more Germanic vein than the Plymouth-derived Sierra. With a little Fissore magic, the Benz became the new Monteverdi Tiara, launched at the 1982 Geneva Motor Show.

I’m not sure what to make of the result. The front-end restyle did not mate well with the beefy Benz’s look and ended up looking rather anonymous. Monteverdi’s continuing infatuation with French-sourced rear lights resulted in his grafting the Peugeot 505’s clusters on the S-Class’s tail, giving it a strange look of déjà vu. No mechanical changes were made, rendering the car somewhat pointless.

Perhaps the Tiara’s best feature…

 

In 1984, after a mere four Tiaras built, Peter Monteverdi decided to halt all production and reassess his business model. Unlike most dead marques, his was still in the black and he had several options to consider. In the end, he turned the garage in Benningen into a museum, thereby ensuring the Monteverdi mystique could live on. He may also have built a Hai or two at this point, just to make sure he could claim to have made “a few” of the phantom supercar.

Above: 1971-85 Fissore Scout 127; below: Rayton-Fissore Magnum

The end of Monteverdi also spelled trouble for Fissore (officially renamed Rayton-Fissore since 1976), which went into administration in 1984. The Swiss partner, coupled with the traditional Fiat-derived products, had helped sustain the coachbuilder throughout the ‘70s – especially the Méhari/Mini Moke-like Scout. But the era of small specialized production seemed at an end, even in Italy. However, a new project was put together with American backing: a sprirtual successor to the Monteverdi Safari. The Rayton Fissore Magnum, sold in the US as the LaForza, used an IVECO 4×4 chassis and a wie variety of engines. Initial clients included the Italian police, but European sales went south after a few years. Nevertheless, the Tom Tjaarda-designed SUV was built for (mainly US and Middle-East) export in Turin until 2003. Rayton-Fissore were also behind the aborted ’90s rebirth of Isotta-Fraschini.

In 1990, like several other deceased marques around that time, Monteverdi designed a brand new Hai model and voiced hopes of launching a small series of new cars, but it was not to be. That same year, Peter Monteverdi bought a 50% share of Onyx Grand Prix, a fledgling Formula 1 team, turning it into Monteverdi Onyx. Alas, the team was beset with issues and the project collapsed before the end of the year. Peter Monteverdi’s health was starting to take a turn for the worse. Though he never stopped his activities, he had to slow things down. Having managed to publicize and sometimes aggrandize his automotive achievements for the sake of posterity, Peter Monteverdi passed away in 1998, aged 64.

The paradox of Monteverdi is that the firm always remained a very small niche player, but tried different niches instead of sticking to just the one. The 375s were gorgeous, SUV move was inspired. The Deadly Sins might lie with the later saloons, the Sierra and the Tiara. The Sierra was a particularly poor excuse for a luxury saloon – even though its styling was still pleasant. After the 1979 sequel of the Oil Shock, nobody had any notion of Monteverdi as anything but a Scout with fancy trim – in Europe, the Sierra was dead in the water, with its gas-guzzling V8 and awkward road manners. In the Middle-East, it lacked prestige and off-roadability. In the US, it was a non-starter (and was never imported). The Tiara was too little, too late and too half-baked. Were they Deadly Sins? In some way, yes: Monteverdi did close shop. But the time for this type of niche artisanal production was up in any case, and there are two other points to consider.

The little shop of Felbers: the Oasis model (top right) was also based on the IH Scout.

 

Point one: the nefarious Willy Felber, whose little operation on the shores of lake Geneva probably stole a few dozen clients from his Basler competitor. Felber initially went for retro sports cars, but soon graduated to butchering Ferraris. By the late ‘70s, Felber was the anti-Monteverdi. He proposed his garish designs on a variety of American or European saloons and coupés (anything from Autobianchis to Buicks), as well as a deluxe 4×4 that would have irked Peter Monteverdi even more had the Binningen works not been at its busiest during this period. One wonders whence these ideas came from (and why he took them to such extremes). Another remarkable coincidence: Felber folded in 1984.

Monteverdi’s Benningen works, offices and showroom all fit in this small building.

 

Point two: Peter Monteverdi quit while he was ahead, financially speaking: the Range Rover, the Saurer license, the Safari and the Sahara had brought him more wealth than he had before. His ego had been satisfied and his wallet was still full – from then on, he polished his image and that of his cars. I’m not aware of any parallel in the automotive world: automakers have often merged, gone bust or retrenched to other activities, but the founder rarely just quit the business of making cars to enshrine his own legend and turn the place into a museum.

Hope this was as much fun for you as it was for me. Let us bid farewell to the mountainous Confederation and head back to the flatter parts of the continent for the big story of a little Dutch wonder called DAF.

 

Related posts:

Monteverdi Sierra – The Plymouth Volare Gets Some Italian Tailoring, by PN

The Scout Gets Seriously Tarted Up By The Swiss: Monteverdi Sahara & Safari And Felber Oasis, by PN

Carshow Classics: Highlights From MotorClassica 2017, by Don Andreina

 

* * *

European Deadly Sins series

French DS 1 (Hotchkiss, Panhard, Citroën) — French DS 2 (Bugatti, Facel-Vega, Monica)

British DS 1 (Jowett, Armstrong Siddeley, Daimler) — British DS 2 (Alvis, Lagonda, Gordon-Keeble)

German DS 1 (BMW, Borgward, Glas) — German DS 2 (Neckar, DKW, NSU)

Italian DS 1 (Autobianchi, Iso, Lancia)