Italian design — with all its passion and soul — is so often fetishized in the automotive world that it has become a cliché (see: passion and soul). Yet it’s for a good reason — there’s no denying that the Italians have consistently produced some of the best-looking cars of the last century. And we’re not just talking Italian cars, either; auto brands from around the globe — England, Germany, Japan and even America — have come to the Italians for their automotive design expertise.
Pininfarina, Zagato, Bertone, Italdesign Giugiaro and Carrozzeria Ghia are the five big design houses, and odds are their designs comprise the majority of anyone’s “best-looking cars” list. Logic would dictate that because of these machines’ desirable looks, their prices are astronomical. While for the most part that is true, there are some designs that have slipped into the affordable range on the classic car scale and are still reminiscent of their more expensive and exotic brethren.
Infamous Italian Design
Pininfarina was founded by Battista “Pinin” Farina (who later changed his last name to Pininfarina) in 1930. Having collaborated closely with brands like Alfa Romeo, Peugeot, Maserati and most famously Ferrari over the last 85 years, the name Pininfarina has become synonymous with good-looking cars. It’s Italy’s most well-known design house. Besides immaculate designs, the firm has also contributed greatly to innovative automotive manufacturing techniques, having pioneered unibody construction and aerodynamic testing utilizing full-sized wind tunnels.
Ferrari 330 GTS
The Icon: The partnership between Ferrari and Pininfarina has produced an incredible amount of beautiful cars, and the 330 GTS is without a doubt one of the best. Shortly after the 330 GTC debuted at the 1966 Geneva Motor Show, the GTS was unveiled as the open-top “spider” that — apart from the roadster profile — was identical to the coupe. The car’s body was assembled by Pininfarina in Turin before being shipped to Ferrari for the mechanicals, and its clean and elegant lines and details are emblematic of the design house’s language during the ’60s — from the round headlights and oval grille at the front to the tapered “boat-tail” rear end. Only 99 330 GTSs were built and thus they command a lot of money at auction — in 2014, an original (but dilapidated) 330 GTS sold for over $2 million.
Alfa Romeo Spider Duetto
The Alternative: Yes, the car was Dustin Hoffman’s costar in The Graduate and that role put it on the map, but there’s more to the Alfa Romeo Spider than its film cameo. The Spider was a product of various design studies and concepts from the ’50s and early ’60s, most notably the Alfa Romeo Superflow IV. The Alfa Spider ultimately eschewed the concept’s fixed roof, but retained some of the major design elements like the covered headlights and “osso di seppia” (Italian for cuttlebone) rear end. The Spider was the final design attributed fully to Battista Pininfarina, who died less than a month after the car debuted to the public at the Geneva Motor Show in 1966. The Spider was made all the way up until 1994, and thus its lack of rarity has made it a bargain, with later cars going for four figures. But it’s the Series 1 cars (1966-1969) that represent the car at its most elegant, and those come at a premium — expect to pay between $35,000 to $50,000 for a well-sorted car.
On the Forefront of Wedge
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, wedges were the future. While a couple Italian design houses helped pioneer the wedge movement, no one did it better than Bertone. In many ways Bertone’s distinctive design language was a result of their extensive work with Lamborghini, which yielded legendary cars like the Miura and the Countach, but Bertone’s distinctive cues made it on to Fiats, Citroens and even Volvos over the decades to come.
The Icon: The Lancia Stratos has the distinct honor of being one of the most successful and most beautiful cars in rally racing. It was spawned from Bertone’s Stratos Zero concept, a result of the “design wars” between Bertone and Pininfarina to see who could build the lowest concept car. The resulting Zero was not only lower than Pininfarina’s Modulo concept, it was also a fully drivable machine. Nuccio Bertone drove the Zero to a meeting with Lancia’s top-brass to hammer out a deal and — so it is told — drove it right under the security gates, earning the applause of the Lancia team. The Zero’s design eventually became the Stratos — a rare gem with a price that reflects that: they usually sell for over $500,000.
The Alternative: The Fiat X1/9 was designed and built right around the same time as the Stratos Zero and Lancia Stratos, and the resemblance shows. Marcello Gandini, the man behind the Stratos, was also the lead designer for the X1/9 and penned the design as a replacement for the Fiat 850 Spider (also a Bertone design). While the overall wedge shape, pop-up headlights and mid-engine design was reminiscent of the Stratos, its puny 1.3-liter engine didn’t even make a horsepower figure in the triple digits, and thus it’s become a bit of a lost oddball in automotive history. That’s good news for you, though: While the Stratos’ price continues to skyrocket, a pristine X1/9 can be yours for less than $10,000.
Inspired by Aircraft
Following a career in aeronautics, Ugo Zagato decided to turn his attention to cars in the late 1910s. Cars at the time were relatively heavy and bulky, so using his experience crafting planes, he aimed to build cars that would be both lightweight and aerodynamic. His drive to create lithe cars garnered the attention of Alfa Romeo who asked him to build a body for the Alfa 6C 1500 that would place second in the 1927 Mille Miglia. Zagato would continue to build early racers, building bodies for an impressive 36 cars that would compete in the 1938 Mille Miglia.
Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato
The Icon: In an effort to step up their racing program, Aston Martin signed a deal with Zagato to re-body their existing DB4 GT — already a race-ready version of the original DB4 grand touring car. By using more aluminum and removing unessential body parts (such as the bumpers), Zagato removed around 100 pounds from the DB4 GT and rounded out the car’s overall proportions to create a streamlined, aerodynamic profile. The improved DB4 wasn’t the racing success Aston Martin hoped for, but it was one of the most exciting designs to ever roll out of Zagato’s Milan facility. Only 25 DB4 GT Zagatos exist, of which 19 are originals, and six are factory-sanctioned recreations. Even the recreations sell for over a million dollars, with an even higher premium for the originals.
Lancia Fulvia Sport Zagato
The Alternative: Like the DB4 Zagato, the Lancia Fulvia Sport Zagato was a lighter, more aerodynamic take on a preexisting car by Zagato. The Fulvia Sport Zagato was based on the Lancia’s V4, front-wheel-drive Fulvia, a car that — like many other Lancias — was as ingeniously engineered as it was an oddity. The Sport Zagato version eschewed the original Fulvia’s three-box design for a more aerodynamic, fastback profile, and the edges were rounded out. The result is a car that doesn’t have the traditionally handsome looks of the DB4 Zagato, but is nevertheless a striking design. The Fulvia Sport Zagato was built in large numbers and is thus a reasonably priced collectable. Expect to pay somewhere between $30,000 to $50,000, with nowhere for the prices to go but up.
Good Design for the Masses
Giorgetto Giugiaro’s company Italdesign is the youngest of the five big Italian design houses, but that doesn’t make its designs any less prolific. While most design houses built flagship sports cars and limited-edition specials, Giugario’s designs made their way onto more pedestrian cars like the Volkswagen Scirocco, Fiat Panda and Isuzu Impulse, bringing good automotive design to the mass market. That isn’t to say Giorgetto Giugiaro’s genius didn’t breed more exotic designs; he’s still the man behind the look of the DeLorean DMC-12.
The Icon: The BMW M1 is best known as the company’s first and, until the introduction of the i8, only mid-engined production car. It was originally intended for sports-car racing and was the product of a botched partnership between BMW and Lamborghini. Lamborghini had to pull out of the project due to financial troubles, but the car eventually made it to production. The final design was penned by Giorgetto Giugario, who was told to retain BMW’s styling cues. The only parts reminiscent of BMW’s sport sedans were the kidney grille and “Hofmeister Kink”, but admittedly the final M1 takes heavy inspiration from BMW’s 1972 Turbo concept, designed by head BMW designer Paul Bracq. Only 453 M1s were built, and if you want to own one, they’ll cost at least half a million USD.
The Alternative: The Lotus Esprit’s development more or less coincided with the M1’s during the most prolific years of Giorgetto Giugario’s “folded paper” design language and it shows: the overall shape of the two cars are nearly identical, apart from BMW’s design details. The Esprit enjoyed a hearty 28-year run and, while it underwent multiple design changes from different designers, the same basic wedge shape remained. However, the cars built from 1976 to 1987 are the ones that were technically Giugiaro’s design and — frankly — are the best looking of the lot. They may not be as quick as the M1 (or even the post-1987 iterations of the Esprit), but at prices ranging from the low $20,000s to the mid $30,000s it’s a great, classic Giugetto design at a fraction of the M1’s cost.
Like Zagato, Giacinto Ghia’s aim when he founded Ghia in the mid 1910s was to build lightweight aluminum cars for early road racing. He even bodied an Alfa 6C — also like Zagato — that won the 1929 Mille Miglia. The firm has undergone numerous ownership changes, including coach builder Felice Mario Boano, race-car driver Alejandro de Tomaso and currently Ford Motor Company. But between 1954 and 1963, under the leadership of Luigi Segre, Ghia came into its own. Around this time designer Giovanni Savonuzzi penned the “Supersonic” design language: swoopy, rocket-inspired lines that have spawned some of Ghia’s most iconic design work.
Fiat 8V Ghia Supersonic
The Icon: When Savonuzzi created the “Supersonic” body it was only intended for one car: an Alfa Romeo 1900 racing in the 1953 Mille Miglia. That car literally crashed and burned in the event, but the body design ended up on 19 other cars and set the tone for Ghia’s future products. 15 of those were built on the Fiat 8V chassis, while three more ended up on a Jaguar XK120 and one on an Aston Martin DB2/4 — all the cars had nearly identical bodies, only the underlying mechanicals varied. The body is inspired by aviation, with a grille reminiscent of a jet air intake and rear fins that are admittedly more restrained than its American Jet Age brethren. Want one? It’ll cost you over $1 million at auction.
Volkswagen Karmann Ghia
The Alternative: In need of a high-end car after WWII, Volkswagen went to German coach-builder Karmann to create a car based on the Beetle with a little more pizazz. Karmann, in turn, went to Ghia for the design. Taking inspiration from their prior Chrysler D’Elegance project (penned by Virgil Exner), Luigi Segre redesigned the same lines and profile to fit the Volkswagen Beetle chassis. The result is one of the best-looking Volkswagens of all time. The flowing, clean lines of the Karmann Ghia don’t look as dramatic as Savonuzzi’s Supersonic coupes, but the styling was no less a hit. The car is one of Ghia’s most widely produced designs, and as such doesn’t cost a whole lot. A clean example will run you anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000.