My Car Quest

April 23, 2024

One Artist’s Lifelong Obsession With an Obscure Italian Bolide

by Wallace Wyss –

So at least half a century ago I was a budding poet, had won a poetry award and thought this my life’s destiny. Then I went to a University library in search of a poetry journal only to find a copy of Autosport, a British magazine, which had a story on an obscure Italian car called Iso, this being their race car, separate from their four seater coupe, the Rivolta.

I had never seen a car so wanton, so rakish, almost obscene. I forgot poetry, and instantly became a car guy. A couple years later I was writing car ads in Detroit and a boss mentioned an obscure Italian car was down at a Corvette shop. I might want to take a look at it. It was a Bizzarrini targa. Long story short, the Iso company, which had started with the tiny Isetta “bubble car” during a Suez oil crisis, had hired an engineer (ex-Ferrari) named Giotto Bizzarrini to do a four seater coupe, which he did. But to keep him happy they indulged him by letting him build a two seater race car on a shortened Iso Rivolta chassis and it raced at LeMans where it hung in there with the Ferraris enough to finish 9th in 1965 and first in class.

Bizzarrini GT 5300 Strada

Bizzarrini GT 5300 Strada driven by Mike Gulett

But the owner of Iso, Renzo Rivolta, didn’t like the aluminum body — too expensive to build, so he had a tamer design, the Grifo, done by the Bertone’s designer Giorgetto Giugiaro and Bizzarrini eventually went off to his native Livorno to build the race car under his own name.

The car I saw was one of three, not regular models, and I tried to buy it but the young man who owned it wouldn’t answer my entreaties. Flash forward a few years, I’m in North Hollywood, driving down the street near a movie studio when outside a bar I see a Bizzarrini. I pull over and go in the bar and ask “Who owns that green car?” A craggy faced guy about 65 looks up from his whiskey and says “I do.” So I meet Carey Loftin, movie stunt driver, who it turns out, in succession, owned five of them, all maintained by Max Balchowsky, an eccentric race car mechanic who is famous for building a series of Buick powered race cars called “Old Yaller.”

Carey Loftin and one of his Bizzarrini GT 5300s, photo courtesy of Dave Loftin (from Darren Frank)

Carey Loftin and one of his Bizzarrini GT 5300s, photo courtesy of Dave Loftin (from Darren Frank)

Later on I join the fledgling Iso Bizzarrini club and started writing of Bizzarrinis and Isos. Then at a Ferrari owners convention I met a New York apartment house owner who periodically met with a cabal of fellow enthusiasts and the conversation would go like this.”

“Hey, Al, I gotta Ghibli comin’ in from the Coast,”.

“Manual or automatic?”

“Manual, SS, yellow,”

A price would be tossed out, accepted and somewhere in America an 18 wheeler would come to a stop and the car offloaded to another truck going toward the buyer’s city. They liked my knowledge of cars and would send me all over the country to look for cars.

So besides Rolls Royces, Ferraris and Maseratis, I bought at least four Bizzarrinis for them. The best one was a white one belonging to a club member, bought new in Italy. I didn’t even talk price, I just showed up at his desert house and said ”I’m here for the car” ” handed him a check for $60,000 and drove it away. That one I drove for three days prior to the long distance truck coming to pick it up and it was the most exciting three days of my life. I burned out the clutch doing burn-outs (Baaaad boy!) but it wasn’t held against me. After all these cars were just being discovered. A clutch made in the USA was no big deal.

Then there was one all apart, sold by a guy who had started a restoration but didn’t want to continue. I was damn lucky I got that one because I found the car listed in a Ferrari Owners Club roster. At that time owners would list the cars they owned and I saw it there. But unwisely loaned the roster to the co-founder of the Iso Bizzarrini Owner’s Club, a notorious barn finder. But thankfully he never noticed the listing and I retrieved the roster, called the owner and made the deal over the phone.

Bizzarrini No. 0258

Bizzarrini No. 0258 in front of the Loftin home – Source: Loftin family

The third was none other than one of Carey Loftin’s cars, he being the famous stunt driver who snuck his Bizzsrrinis into several movies. The Iso Bizzarrini Owner’s Club club was invited by his gracious wife to a lunch at his beach town house. At the party, I kept thinking that the party would end with him showing us his latest cars. But instead guests began to leave so I up and said “Do you still have any of your old cars?” He said “Yup” and led me outside to the garage and opened the door to reveal a dusty old Bizzarrini, with the dashboard all ripped up.

His wife had volunteered to sew it but probably discovered sewing leather was not like sewing cloth. I called my New York contact and a week later went back with a cashier’s check. His wife was crying as I towed the car out onto a flatbed. Realizing owning Bizzarrinis had earned her husband a lot of movie work, such as driving the Mustang in Bullitt. His counter argument was that he was over 80 and movie jobs weren’t coming his way anymore.

A fourth Bizzarrini I found in Ohio in a small town. Parked outside. In the snow. In the winter. Rusty under its alloy skin. But my New York customer wanted it. The local bank manager was incredulous that the car’s owner owned such a treasure that people would come from California to buy it. But they took the check and I took the car. That was one flaw in our buying arrangement. I would take a check and if the car wasn’t worth it, I couldn’t wait for a second check, I just bought it. Ya win some… ya lose some.

Eventually, some decades after I first tried to meet him, I met the owner of the Detroit-based targa. His father had bought the car from his business partner, an early investor in Bizzarrini. He had met Giotto Bizzarrini in a bar. His investment was rewarded with the open car. He sold it to my friend’s father who then gave it to his older son. The son, later needed a daily driver to drive in Detroit’s winters, so he sold it to his younger brother for the heady price of $3000 and the son kept it, restored it and now, in 2022, I’d say it’s worth what—2 to 3 million?

Bizzarrini 5300 Spyder Stile Italia

Bizzarrini 5300 Spyder Stile Italia – photo by Mike Gulett

In the early 2000s, I had a career change, by accident. Up until 2009 my title was publisher and car book author. One day I plan to go to a Beverly Hills car show, carrying my latest book. Prior to the show I decide to make an oil portrait of Carroll Shelby, the subject of the book. I go to the show, book in hand, and sell it. As I am autographing it I mention I have an oil portrait of Shelby back in the car and show the book buyer a photo of the painting. He says “Go get it. You sold that too.”

On the long walk to the car, I tell myself “You gotta learn to make prints. You can’t sell your originals.” So now it’s 2023, and I’ve painted over 100 car portraits, one in a museum. I have clients round the world that commission portraits of their cars. Most of my work are Ferraris, with the occasional Maserati or Porsche. I even did a run of prewar streamline moderne cars.

Then one day I had an epiphany. Someone asked: “Why is there no Bizzarrini art?” He didn’t mean art from me, just art in general. It figures. First, the car is ignored by all except a few cognoscenti for fifty years. Now that there’s some beautiful restored ones appearing, you would think there would be Bizzarrini art at every major car event (say Pebble Beach) But there’s no art, no jackets, no memorabilia. Books appear now and then but quickly go out of print. Not enough market.

It is a marque that, still only the cognoscenti know. The creme de la creme of Italian sports cars. I always know I am meeting a true enthusiast when they know about Bizzarrini. Say Ken Gross, the author, who puts together museum displays. I went to a display in Tennessee. Yup, Bizzarrini. Display planned by Ken Gross.

Then I go to the Petersen to see a display supervised by Bruce Meyer, Beverly Hills’ most knowledgeable car enthusiast. Now I knew about his passion for hot rods, Porsches, and Ferraris, and his Iso Bizzarrini Corsa.

There at the Petersen show was a silver T-top Bizzarrini. That he even knew about the car impressed me, yet all the decades I knew him, he never mentioned the marque…

So I’m painting them. Here’s a few from my portfolio.

Bizzarrini Spyder

GT5300 SI Spyder (targa) – I tried to buy this car in the early ‘70s when I found it a Corvette shop in Detroit, being serviced.

Iso Bizzarrini art by Wyss

Iso Bizzarrini A3/C – owned by Bruce Meyer, Beverly Hills’ most prominent car collector, who found it in Europe. It ran LeMans, winning its class in 1965.

Bizzarrini art by Wallace Wyss

GT5300 – This was a car fresh from a restoration in France. I was in Malibu at 7am and caught the car as the sun rose. I put this one on my True Religion leather jacket.

Bizzarrini Art by Wyss

I sold this painting to the owner of the car, who I met at 7 am while standing in a deserted parking lot in Malibu. It was an informal car show of ultra-enthusiasts and that was the first car that drove in, just as the sun was rising.

It may well be I’m going down a road no serious car artist goes on, at least one who wants volume sales. Here I am celebrating with oil on canvas a marque unknown to 99% of enthusiasts. But I feel a small sense of pride that, ever since seeing that car in Detroit half a century or more ago, I helped it out of obscurity, this car with the hard-to-pronounce name. A car that was lambasted for decades by Ferrari folk who sneered at it as being low class because, don’t cha see, it had a common-as-dirt iron block pushrod Chevy V8. It has emerged to become celebrated (and worth more than a lot of Ferrari models).

It’s the least I can do….

Let us know what you think in the Comments.

Wallace Wyss art

THE AUTHOR/ARTIST Wallace Wyss will have a booth at Concorso Italiano in Monterey in August. He can be reached at malibucarart@gmail.com

 
 
 
 
 
 

Bizzarrini 5300 Spyder Prototype Stile Italia

Bizzarrini 5300 Spyder Prototype Stile Italia – photo by Mike Gulett

Bizzarrini 5300 Spyder Stile Italia

Bizzarrini 5300 Spyder Stile Italia – photo by Mike Gulett

Summary
One Artist’s Lifelong Obsession With an Obscure Italian Bolide
Article Name
One Artist’s Lifelong Obsession With an Obscure Italian Bolide
Description
The Bizzarrini was lambasted for decades by Ferrari folk who sneered at it as being low class because it had a common-as-dirt iron block pushrod Chevy V8. It has emerged to become celebrated (and worth more than a lot of Ferrari models).
Author

Comments

  1. Excellent article, much enlivened by the personal involvement angle. The Bizzarrini story is such an interesting one and his automotive legacy is top notch. 5300s and A3/Cs are always such a pleasure to see. The misplaced snobbery about the engines seems laughable in this day and age – another of my most favourite cars is the (early) Pantera, and that certainly doesn’t suffer any demerit by having a Dearborn V8.

    I discovered quite a lot more about Bizzarrini when researching his ’71 Targa Florio entry, the 128P Barchetta – see https://davidbuckdenlooksback.blogspot.com/2022/11/one-last-time.html

    Bizzarrini – a great name, a great badge, great cars!

  2. John Shea says

    Wallace, very few individuals realize the privilege bestowed upon them with a lifelong passion. Your affinity with Bizzarrini is admirable. Life is more interesting when you have memories that last a lifetime.

  3. Et tu, Wallace?

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