This one is a real tear-jerker. A lovely little sports car with a sweet-looking body, orphaned from birth, fights for its life amid competitors that dominate it in terms of price and displacement. The plucky orphan outshines them, but dies before managing to create a dynasty. Fade to black, roll credits. OK, so that was the pitch. Want to see the whole thing? Get the popcorn, it’s about to start.
Act one: Modena, 1957. Enzo Ferrari, though at the height of automotive success, is still deeply affected by his son Dino’s untimely death the year before. Perhaps to occupy his mind and certainly with a view to keep his factory busy, Ferrari tries to design something a bit different than his usual V12-engined sports cars. But there is no need to reinvent the wheel, just make it smaller. Quite a bit smaller, in fact.
So Enzo Ferrari told his people to fashion a tiny 854cc straight-4 hewn from the Ferrari 212’s V12. He tested the little four in a Fiat 1100/1200 PininFarina coupé, using this car as his daily runabout in 1959-60. Ferrari was pleased with the result of Colombo’s work on the engine, whose displacement was eventually settled at 1032cc, and he soon started to think about making a chassis for it.
Emulating its V12 sisters in its relative conservatism and overall excellence, the baby Ferrari’s chassis was designed by Bizzarrini and built under his supervision. It then went over to Bertone where, thanks to young Giugiaro’s prodigious talents, it came out looking like this. Jaws dropped, hearts skipped, eyes bulged, wolves whistled. For once, the tailoring was going to be as enticing as what was underneath. But there was an immediate problem: Ferrari refused to allow the manufacture of the car if it bore his name.
Was he ashamed of his little car on the side, his baby born out of wedlock? Perhaps Enzo Ferrari knew that the Mille, as it was then known, was a high-risk bet and that it wasn’t worth upsetting the marque he had carefully constructed over the past couple of decades. But he was also keen to increase activity at the Ferrari factory, where the production of the putative little car’s chassis and engine would take place. What Enzo Ferrari needed was someone with deep pockets. Perhaps someone in his clients list? Let’s see… Giovanni Angelli? Probably not… Fernandino Innocenti? Hmm… Ferruccio Lamborghini? No, no, no…
Enzo Ferrari soon found what he was looking for in Oronzio de Nora, founder of the De Nora electrochemical empire, who was looking for a way to diversify the group’s activity. Signore de Nora’s son Niccolo, a Ferrari owner like his father, heard of the “Ferrarina,” which Bertone had displayed – as a badge-less mystery car – at the 1961 Turin Motor Show, and soon thought that this was the ideal product to launch a new car marque. Ferrari committed to making the chassis and engines – up to the usual high standards, of course.
Act two; Milan, 1962: the imaginatively called Autocostruzioni Società per Azioni (ASA, which can be translated as “Shareholding Company for Automaking”), was registered with the Italian authorities as a new automaker. The Mille was rebadged as the ASA 1000 GT and a handful were made in view of the car’s official launch at the 1962 Turin Motor Show. Now, the problem was finding a body-maker: Bertone viewed the whole enterprise with suspicion and pulled out of the deal, having assembled only ten cars.
That didn’t matter much to Bizzarrini, who pressed ahead with a sculptural aluminium racing version using the Ferrari four. Thus ASA was supposed to become known by way of the racetrack first, rather than the street. If only it could have won a race…
ASA’s struggle to get production going was finally getting somewhere by late 1963. The coachbuilder Ellena took over body production and a semblance of an assembly hall was organized in De Nora’s Milan factory. The ASA coupé was advertised to cost a little over 2.5m lire – a tough sell, even with the Ferrari genes. The car was now ready to take on… Well, they hadn’t really figured what to take on.
There weren’t many competitors in the “super-fast, super-small, super-expensive” category. There never really are. One of these epithets doesn’t belong there. Cars can be fast and expensive, but not small. Like a Ferrari. They can be small and expensive, like an Autobianchi. They can be small and fast, like a Fiat-Abarth. Combining all three was a novel notion. Within Italy, ASA had three main almost-rivals by 1965. First and foremost, there was Abarth, who proposed an array of Fiat 600-based cars for track or street use. These could be ordered in 700cc, 850cc or 1-litre flavours in various states of tune (some 1-litre cars could reach 200 kph!) and clothed either with the old Fiat body, or with lightweight carrozzeria styling. Thanks to their Fiat base, the Abarths were much cheaper than the ASA.
Another contender was the new front-drive 1.2 litre Lancia Fulvia Sport, with its zany Zagato aluminium body – way cheaper and less powerful (80 hp), but with better handling. Lastly, there was the elusive Bandini 1000 GT, one of the marque’s few road cars. It was introduced in 1963 with specs that seemed extremely close to the ASA – all-alloy DOHC 4-cyl. with a 987cc displacement and 94hp, mated to a 5-speed transmission. The Bandini, also front-engined / RWD, had a more sophisticated IRS set-up, compared to the ASA’s live rear axle. It was supposed to be a bit cheaper than the ASA, to boot, despite its limited production. Heck, even the Alfa Romeo Giulia SS was cheaper than the ASA – and it had a brilliant 1.6 litre engine that all Italian mechanics were familiar with…
Our little story has an interesting wrinkle in the rather sumptuous shape of the Innocenti 186 GT. Not content with chopping up his V12s into straight-4s, Enzo Ferrari also tried cutting the 250’s engine in half, creating a small 1788cc V6 producing about 176 hp (and quite distinct from the Dino V6). He discussed this with one of Italy’s newest automakers, Innocenti, whose important Milanese factory started churning out BMC cars under license in 1960 (more on that in tomorrow’s De Tomaso post). The Innocenti 186 GT was a pure Ferrari chassis, using the same solutions as the Mille.
Two prototypes were made and bodied by Bertone in 1963 – right when the ASA project looked like it was taking off. It’s unclear why the project never materialized, but I reckon Innocenti’s bean-counters may have caused the 186 GT’s stillbirth. Regrettable, but most probably a wise move…
But back to our attempt at finding the ASA’s true rivals.
There were no real contendors anywhere outside Italy, but that didn’t help ASA very much. France was a vital export market for all Italian carmakers, but it was difficult for the costly ASA to make much sense over the Alps – or pretty much anyplace. There were a few models that were somewhat in the ASA’s ball-park in 1965, when the advert above was published. These included the rear-engined Alpine A110 and the mid-engined Matra-Bonnet Djet, which both used souped up versions of the Renault 8’s 1.1 litre 4-cyl. Not exactly the Ferrari mystique, but these little fiberglass Frenchies were almost as powerful, yet half as expensive.
Another alternative were the last units of the Panhard CD “Rallye,” which were still up for grabs in early 1965. Sporting the marque’s famous race-proven 850cc flat-twin pushed to 80 hp (top speed 180 kph), this fugly front-driver had genuine Le Mans bona fides, unlike the ASA. The standard Panhard 24 CT, using a 60 hp version of that twin, was a mite slower (160 kph), but was the Italian car’s only rival in the looks department.
Although every enthusiast knew that Ferrari were behind the 1000 GT, ASA had their own distribution deals – well apart from Ferrari. This is quite puzzling, as Ferrari had quite a large stake in ASA’s success, being their sole supplier of oily bits. The only exception was the US market, where they were both imported by Luigi Chinetti.
Again, price was the elephant in the room: at US$6000 a pop in 1965, the ASA 1000 GT was a pretty crazy proposition, when the same money could buy you an AC Cobra – and, if you wanted to save about a grand, the Jaguar “XKE” was only too happy to oblige. Still, some sources claim that a third of all ASA 1000 GTs made were sold by Chinetti.
In 1964, a 1000 GT convertible entirely bodied in GRP (unlike the coupé, which was all-steel) went into limited production over at Bertone, as Ellena weren’t plastic-literate. It seemed that ASA were trying to develop something like a range. The next year saw the creation of the ASA 411, an all-alloy version of the ASA 1000 GT, which was destined to defend the fledgling marque’s colours on the racetrack.
And then, in about 18 months, the whole thing unraveled. Not that it was exactly very well “raveled” to begin with. Niccolo de Nora, the complete novice at the helm, was finding the business of building cars and selling them for a profit to be a real challenge. The ASA production chain was completely dependent on two suppliers, Ferrari and Ellena. This made any attempt at cost-cutting a virtual impossibility.
The organization of a sales network was also a major issue, and one with which Ferrari would have been in a very good position to offer some assistance. But Enzo Ferrari did not lift a finger for ASA. Selling chassis and engines to De Nora was fine, but at this point, his focus was almost entirely on the Dino V6.
Act Three: Geneva, early 1966. After having worked tirelessly for months, ASA presented a completely new car, the “Roll-Bar” RB 613 Targa. It was a very interesting design and it was taking ASA into a new direction – still with a small Ferrari-made engine, but it was now a 1290cc straight-6 (i.e. one half of the Ferrari 250’s V12, with a reduced bore). A 1.8 litre 4-cyl. version was also studied. I’m not sure how much the three or four RBs that were made cost, R&D, parts and labour included, but it probably burned through De Nora’s bank account pretty quick. Two were raced at Le Mans in 1966 by Luigi Chinetti, who was one of the car’s main champions. But again, neither finished the race…
The company was permanently teetering on the brink of financial collapse. The cars just weren’t selling in enough numbers to break even – despite their outrageous price. Niccolo de Nora, prodded by daddy, decided to shut the company down in September 1967.
Production numbers are a bit vague, but sources seem to agree that less than 100 ASAs were made in total, including a dozen Bertone-made convertibles and a handful each of the 411 and the RB 613 sports specials. A Deadly Sin indeed, tied with British DS alumnus Gordon-Keeble in the “ultra-rare Bertone ‘60s coupé” category, I should think.
The problem, as Enzo Ferrari probably understood a bit late, was that a hand-made 1-litre sports car, beautiful though it may be, was not a very logical concept. Folks who drop more than the financial equivalent of a new Porsche 911 or a Jaguar E-Type on an Italian sports car will not be tempted by a 1-litre four, even one made by Ferrari. It makes sense in hindsight, but in the freewheeling ‘60s, who knew?
Another big issue was ASA’s dismal performance on the racetrack. The creation of a tifosi-like fan base was crucial for the car’s image. Several ASAs were raced since 1963, but as 1966 came to an end, there were still zero podium finishes to brag about. I have no idea why the ASA racecars fared so badly, but the fact remains that selling an Italian sports car without the halo of the checkered flag was never going to fly.
Abandoned even before its birth, produced by inexperienced people, answer to a question no-one asked, the ASA 1000 GT was a Deadly Sin from beginning to end, not unlike the contemporary Gordon-Keeble and the subsequent Monica 560. But they did manage to build a few dozen of one of the most beautiful – and least sensible – cars ever to come out of Italy. So our little acronym aristocrat ASA deserves an all-caps BRAVO for making the world, on balance, a prettier place.
Well, two down and one to go. But it’s gonna be a whopper! Sleep well tonight, for tomorrow will bring De Tomaso – something like a Deadly Sin value pack…
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European Deadly Sins series