Beauty and madness. It shouldn’t work, but when it comes to Zagato it does. Contemporary car designers understand the value and impact of incorporating a little disharmony or disruption; Zagato has been doing it for decades — 10 to be exact. In 2019, this most obstinately original of Italian carrozzeria will celebrate its centenary, family-owned and uninterrupted in business throughout. That’s a unique achievement. It’s also embarking on another of its revered collaborations with Aston Martin, yielding the DBS GT Zagato in tandem with a Continuation DB4 GT Zagato. As with the original, only 19 are being made — and they’re only available as a pair for £6m (plus local taxes). Called the DBZ Centenary Collection, it’s the beauty that predominates here.
Production of the DB4 GT Zagato Continuation is already underway at Aston Martin Works in Newport Pagnell, with first customer deliveries slated for the third quarter of 2019. Meticulously assembled by hand, using traditional methods and painstakingly recreated body panels, the 19 “new” DB4 GT Zagato Continuation cars will be a worthy addition to the history of the two companies.
Setting up Carrozzeria Ugo Zagato & Co in Milan in 1919, Ugo Zagato came to car manufacture armed with aerospace techniques, having worked on the Savoia Pomilio C2 bi-planes used by the Italian air force during the First World War. Zagato-bodied cars went on to contest every Mille Miglia — an open-road, 1,000-mile race — from 1927 to the event’s tragic demise in 1957 (when Spanish driver Alfonso de Portago crashed into a group of spectators), and the original incarnation of Scuderia Ferrari raced Zagato-bodied Alfa Romeos.
It would be tempting to nominate the 1964 Alfa Romeo TZ2 as possibly the single most gorgeous car ever made, were it not for the Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato, Aston Martin’s first project with the company, in 1960. Designer Ercole Spada, just 23 at the time, re-bodied the DB4 GT to mesmerising effect, following a call from Aston Martin’s then racing director, John Wyer, who had grown frustrated with the standard car’s lack of pace in GT racing. Clothed in wafer-thin aluminium, Zagato made it lighter, faster and, of course, beautiful almost beyond words. History records that not all of the original 19 found buyers. Failure may have helped its subsequent quasi-unicorn status: in July 2018, one was sold at auction for £10.1m.
Aston Martin has reprised its relationship with Zagato various times since then, always in teasingly low numbers. The voluptuary curves and expanses of glass gave way latterly to blocky modernism, 1986’s V8 Vantage Zagato a case in point, while 2003’s DB7 GT Z is a 99-only, 21st-century curate’s egg. Another V12 Vantage Zagato followed in 2011, its 150-unit run including a brace of racing versions that contested the 24 Hours Nürburgring race, nicknamed Zig and Zag. I was lucky enough to drive it, too, at the infamous Green Hell, although not at race speed…
Aston Martin has reprised its relationship with Zagato various times, always in teasingly low numbers
Most recently, the story was brought up to date with four Vanquish S Zagatos, announced at the 2016 Villa d’Este concours and comprising a run of 99 each of Coupe, Volante and Shooting Brakes and 28 Speedsters. Last year, the customer who had ordered the quartet — all in Lava Red, with anodised bronze accents — allowed me to drive them. The Vanquish S is a car of incredible dynamism, so the basis is strong. But for low volume, hand-built cars, the quality is also exceptional. The Speedster’s structural rigidity on even the most gnarly road surfaces is unimpeachable, the knowledge that you’re piloting a car of great value and even greater rarity less of a factor than it could be.
But the Shooting Brake is the iteration that commands the most attention. A true head-turner, it’s odd that the most ostensibly utilitarian version of the car should be the one that everyone goes nuts over, but in the UK — a nation of dog lovers, remember — perhaps it’s because you can imagine sticking the pooch in there. On the other hand, a carbon fibre floor isn’t the most practical surface, although Aston Martin and Zagato have truly performed wonders with the space.
“It’s an absolute privilege to have worked on these cars,” Aston Martin’s Director of Design Miles Nurnberger tells me. “Zagato were one of my passions when I was a kid and there’s definitely something left-field about them. They’re very personal designs; they create cars that look like the opposite of boardroom decisions. The proportions were often, shall we say, non-standard.”
The original plan, Nurnberger continues, was to do three cars. Then three became four. “Zagatos are often polarising, but the Coupe sold out before we’d even shown it. The rear lamps are probably the most extreme thing — they’re like splintered blades. Our supplier actually laughed when we first discussed them. That’s a sign you’re doing something right when it comes to a special project car.”
The new DBS and DB4 GT Zagato take the story both forwards and backwards in time. It’s part of a narrative continuum Andrea Zagato, CEO and scion of the family, is particularly proud of. I ask him which milestones in the company’s history he thinks are particularly significant. “Foremost, having maintained independence through 100 years of history. Then, having been able to design more than 440 different types of bodywork that have become running cars thanks to 44 different original equipment manufacturers. Finally, having been able to renew — every decade — the business themes while keeping the design approach consistent.”
How and why has Zagato prospered when other famous names in carrozzeria have faltered? “Being first functionalist and then rationalist, we have been able to develop a long lasting design philosophy,” he continues. “Being a kind of ‘lone voice’ in the automotive design scenario, we have created our own unique language and some somatic markers that make our signature almost immediately recognisable. Having been consistent in making only two-door sports cars, we have always found ourselves in the collectibles super niche.”
Few companies have worked together as long and successfully as Aston Martin and Zagato. Indeed, few marriages are as enduring. How does the relationship with Aston Martin work, I wonder? “Great. The teamwork method in design works better and better the more you experience it. With Aston Martin, we started working together in a way that Enzo Ferrari suggested many years ago — there is no more space for soloists.”
Zagato also talks about the importance of “functional” elements on its designs. One wonders if any of its creations could ever just be simply sentimental or indeed artistic just for the hell of it. Zagato ponders for a moment; Zagatos may look indulgent, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.
We remove all elements that are unnecessary and try to achieve a kind of evergreen design
“Functionalism and rationalism are the bases of bellezza necessaria — ‘essential beauty’ — that represents the typical Milanese approach of ‘less is more’. We do not add art to the products. We remove all elements that are unnecessary and try to achieve a kind of evergreen design. This doesn’t mean not being sentimental or artistic. It means trying to be true rather than marketing orientated, which would otherwise transform our products into consumables or, worse, false items. We try to be innovative, accessible and highly collectible.”
The new DBS GT Zagato will only enhance that philosophy.