In August 1996, 82-year-old Nuccio Bertone came home from a holiday in the south of Italy feeling poorly. Six months later, on February 26, 1997, he was gone. The man who had transformed his father's unnotable coachbuilding shop into one of the world's most respected automotive design houses, with a factory in Grugliasco capable of producing 70,000 cars per year, had died 11 days before the Geneva Motor Show.
Paolo Caccamo, who ran Bertone's factory, ordered the funeral procession to drive right onto the assembly floor. The workers stopped what they were doing and moved toward the hearse; Nuccio passed away, but the company would go on. Nuccio's widow, Ermelinda "Lilli" Bertone, made a vow that she would keep the family business going until at least 2012, the year of its 100th anniversary. Nuccio had required this promise of his wife despite the fact that he had never allowed her on the shop floor. But now, Lilli was in charge. It was around this time that everything started to go to hell.
Giovanni Bertone was born in 1884 and put to work 12 years later, first making wooden wheels, then wagons, then racing sulkies, and finally, car bodies. He opened a coachbuilding shop at 28, and his most noteworthy success was keeping the doors open through the two world wars and the Depression. It was his son, Nuccio, who invigorated the business.
"Two generations of a legendary name: founder Giovanni Bertone, left, and his son Nuccio at Bertone's headquarters in 1961."
In 1952, at 38 years old, Nuccio was on the hunt for contract work for Bertone. He had his designer, Franco Scaglione, create two bodies, a convertible and a striking, long-nosed coupe to fit over a pair of British MG TD chassis that Nuccio had procured from a dealer in Rome. On the first day of the Turin Auto Show, a blustery, thick-necked Chicago car dealer named Stan "Wacky" Arnolt swaggered onto the Bertone stand in a broad-brimmed Stetson and declared he wanted 200 of the cars. Stunned, Nuccio mostly tried to talk Arnolt out of the idea. The chassis would have to be shipped from England to Genoa, taken by train to Turin for the body, then back to Genoa, and finally, shipped to America. What would it all cost? Arnolt was unperturbed, and Bertone eventually produced about 100 of the so-called Arnolt-MGs before MG fell behind in production and begged off. Scaglione then designed a swoopy, definitively Italian body for a Bristol chassis, and Bertone went on to produce a limited run.
The second crucial deal was with Alfa Romeo, still a small automaker in the early Fifties. It was a near scandal. Cash-strapped Alfa announced plans for a small-displacement GT but had to raise the money by selling securities with a lottery feature in which a number of the cars would be raffled. The funds came in, but Alfa dawdled for a year and a half; when the car-less winners threatened lawsuits, Alfa went to Bertone and pleaded for a sporty GT car—and quick. The result was the Giulietta Sprint prototype, just in time for the 1954 Turin Auto Show. When the show ended, Bertone had several hundred orders for the car. The company was off and running.
Nuccio built a factory in Grugliasco. Over the next 11 years, it produced around 40,000 Giulietta Sprints, considered by many the first and perhaps best GT ever made. The factory eventually grew to 3.3 million square feet, with as many as 2500 employees at a given time. Nuccio began turning out bodies for special models, prototypes, show cars, one-offs. In the first year of the Sixties alone, Carrozzeria Bertone built 31,000 cars. Over the next two decades, the company designed, modified, engineered, or built 43 vehicles and concept cars. Nuccio's lifetime total stands at more than 90 models.
Along the way, Nuccio's designers became as famous as he was. Scaglione was known for the Arnolt-MGs, the futuristic Alfa B.A.T. (Berlinetta Aerodinamica Tecnica) cars, the Giulietta Sprint, and the first Lamborghini. After Scaglione, Giorgetto Giugiaro served as designer from 1959 to 1965 and created the Ferrari 250 GT SWB Bertone Berlinetta, the Iso Grifo, and the Fiat 850 Sport Spider. Marcello Gandini followed with the Lamborghini Miura, Marzal, and Countach, as well as the Fiat X1/9.
This is but a partial list of accomplishments. The firm's reputation became so exalted that, in the Nineties, General Motors CEO Jack Smith wanted to buy a stake in the company—anywhere from 5 to 30 percent.
"Nuccio didn't want it," says Caccamo, who often acted as an English translator for Nuccio. "It was his company, and he said no."
Instead, Nuccio left the company to his family. In a brilliant career, it was a rare misstep.
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On his death, Nuccio Bertone's personal wealth was divided, presumably, among his wife, Lilli, two decades his junior; his daughter Marie-Jeanne, then 29, and her husband, Eugenio Manassero; and his other daughter Barbara, then 28, and her husband, Michele Blandino. The Bertone holdings consisted of separate businesses: the Carrozzeria (factory), Stile Bertone (the design house), the holding company Bertone SpA, and a small safety-glass business. Lilli reportedly received a 65 percent stake in the factory and a 49 percent share of the design studio. Barbara and Marie-Jeanne split the remnant 51 percent of the studio, and Nuccio's sister's family, the Graccos, received the remainder of the factory shares.
In reality, the company was split along sisterly lines, with mama Lilli overseeing it all. Marie-Jeanne, who has an architectural degree, was made vice chairman of Stile Bertone, and her husband was a financial officer at the design house. Barbara, with a master's degree in business, became the factory's director of finance. Her husband wound up as an executive assistant to Caccamo, who had inherited the title of factory chairman upon Nuccio's death. Caccamo and Blandino did not hit it off.
"He pretended he was a big production guy," Caccamo says, "but he wasn't. He had no knowledge of how to run a company. Officially he was not, at first, in a position of authority. But in practice, through his wife, he dominated Lilli, and he made a mess of it."
"At its peak, the Bertone factory employed 2500 and produced iconic machines by the tens of thousands."
Caccamo says Bertone envisioned a future where his daughters would run the company, "but neither of them had the personality or the knowledge, or whatever it takes. Nuccio was not happy with the idea of Blandino; he did not see him as executive material." (Lilli, Barbara, and Blandino declined interviews for this article.)
At the turn of the century, the factory was still making money. The year of Nuccio's death, 21,000 cars rolled out of the factory, and Bertone had a multiyear contract to make convertible versions of the Opel Astra and Fiat Punto. But Caccamo missed his boss, and his relationship with the family grew strained. The situation came to a head when a joint venture with another coachbuilder was proposed to secure a contract for the BMW X3 and Blandino nixed the deal out of ego, saying "Definitely not! We can never be a Tier 2 supplier!" Caccamo cleared out his desk shortly after.
To fill Caccamo's vacancy, an executive headhunter sent Bruno Cena to meet with Barbara and Lilli. Cena was 57 years old, an engineer and assembly-line expert at Fiat who was credited with the Alfa 156 and its exceptional handling. He was hired as general manager, then named CEO a month later. Blandino became commercial manager. Cena found himself in charge of a well-organized company that lacked strong guidelines, with 400 unfinished Opel Astras parked outside.
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"Everything was a bit messy, because there were different trains of thought and internal conflicts between different managements," he says. "I solved the problems, made everything work, cut costs. I simply did my job." Cena says his Astras became a quality benchmark at Opel: "Our cars used to pass their quality tests at a rate of 98 percent."
The factory turned out 34,991 Astras in 2002, generating almost $500 million in revenue. Curiously, the net profit was less than $973,000—a fraction of one percent. In early 2003, the factory produced 150 Opels a day in two shifts; as the contract wound down, production fell to less than half that number, and 700 workers were put on temporary leave from July to November. The remaining 1000 employees were off duty every other week.
New manufacturing contracts were hard to come by, and Cena felt the pressure. His tenure saw a number of near successes. Bertone won a contract to design the four-seat Alfa GT coupe, though when it came time to sign the manufacturing contract, Fiat decided to build the car in-house. Cena had his eyes on the Lancia Fulvia concept, but the project never came to fruition. Alfa attached conditions to the production of its Brera coupe and cabriolet project that made it too expensive, and the deal eventually went to Pininfarina.
"Management started to expect things I couldn't deliver," Cena says. "I wasn't the commercial director, but some people expected me to bring new orders because of my contacts at Fiat. But the head of that unit was Michele Blandino."
Cena left in October 2003, slamming the door behind him.
"Part of the Bertone family showed deep ingratitude and was disrespectful," he says, though he excludes Lilli from that judgment. Cena had done well in his three years, even as he saw that the coachbuilding era was ending.
"When I left Carrozzeria Bertone in 2003, it was flourishing," Cena says. "We made a lot of money, our sales volume was about $680 million per year, and we had $170 million in cash. I don't know where all this debt came from—everything was owned by the company and there was no exposure with the banks. On the contrary, the banks were offering us money."
"Materfamilias Lilli Bertone kept her promise to keep the company alive to see its 100th birthday."
The family became more hands-on after Cena's departure. Lilli appointed herself CEO of the factory. Blandino remained commercial director. The design house, which had around 200 employees, had fewer projects than before, but wasn't in trouble—yet.
The last of the contract Opels were finished in 2005, and that spring, Opel ended a 20-year relationship with Bertone after corporate parent General Motors announced it would build next-generation Astras in-house. It then awarded a coveted Opel Tigra TwinTop project to Heuliez, a niche manufacturer from France. A GM Europe official rubbed salt into Bertone's wounds by telling the press that quality and cost issues were responsible for the break.
After a bad deal in which Bertone was stuck producing far more units of BMW's C1 motorbike flop than the Germans could sell, Bertone had a make-good project to build 2000 special-edition Mini Cooper S vehicles. The Minis were finished in the summer of 2006, and with only a reported $16 million in cash and no work, the plant went silent. Since Nuccio's passing, none of the three bosses had landed a single manufacturing contract. Talk of selling surfaced, as did talk of bankruptcy, to staunch the bleeding. Lilli, with that promise to her dead husband still hanging around her neck, remained resolute. She announced she was willing to spend $180 million to reel in a certain Lancia contract, explaining her thinking by saying, "We never bought expensive yachts, so we can afford to finance such a project." Yacht count notwithstanding, Lancia didn't bite.
In March of the same year, Barbara and Blandino quit the factory. They told the press they disagreed with the direction Lilli was taking the company. Lilli and Blandino clashed during an attempt to win the Fiat Grande Punto cabrio, a project that died in any case. Blandino was replaced by a personnel director named Vincenzo Tutino. He pushed for a deal in which the Fiat cabrio became a Lancia. That failed, too.
Offstage, Fiat watched closely. A corporate giant in Italy, Fiat owns Lancia, Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Maserati, Abarth, and, an eight-hour flight away, the Chrysler Group. It has also endured several fiscal crises, though the company's unorthodox boss, Italian-Canadian Sergio Marchionne, has turned it around since taking the helm in 2004 with $12 billion on the red side of the ledger. In a brilliant move in 2005, Marchionne activated a contract clause that required GM to either buy Fiat's car operations outright or hand over $2 billion. The cash infusion saved Fiat's neck.
Marchionne coveted Bertone's plant. He wanted to make niche cars at Grugliasco, though using only about half of Bertone's 1300-strong workforce, a proposal that was denied. This was at a time when the coachbuilding industry was collapsing. In 2007, Pininfarina needed to lay off 235 workers to break even; Karmann fired 1770. The world's major automakers had figured out how to produce low-volume, niche vehicles on their own assembly lines. Worse, says Cena, the OEMs "forced coachbuilders into unsustainable contracts that made them lose a lot of money." The partnership between Fiat and Bertone collapsed.
In May of 2007, Lilli rehired Barbara as managing director of the factory. It would now be her responsibility to find new business for a plant that had lost $50 million in three years on total sales of $437 million. Six months later, with no new work and 1300 workers still on the books, Carrozzeria Bertone filed for the equivalency of Chapter 11 protection to hold off creditors. Rather than declaring bankruptcy, the court appointed a three-person tribunal to find a future for the factory.
Enter Gian Mario Rossignolo, 77 years old, a former CEO at Lancia. He proposed to buy the factory for a single, symbolic euro; keep 990 workers at the plant; build 9000 total units of three luxury vehicles; and capitalize the company at a later date. Lilli, Barbara, and Marie-Jeanne had come to terms with the idea of selling on the condition they could become part of a reborn company. They signed a memorandum of understanding with Rossignolo.
Then, on December 31, 2007, Lilli bailed—without informing her daughters—in favor of a proposal by Domenico Reviglio, a 49-year-old who founded Gruppo Prototipo, an automotive testing-and-certification business. His plan involved Lilli turning over a 65 percent stake in the factory and 100 percent of Stile Bertone, even though she only controlled 20 percent in that part of the company. In return, she would receive 35 percent of the company he formed. Reviglio would cut the workforce to 305 people and produce a light commercial vehicle, a small electric car, and 2500 heavy trucks over two years. It was a far cry from making Lamborghinis, and puny output for a factory capable of turning out 70,000 cars per year.
"They were adversarial and moody. It was all devoid of analysis or rational basis."
The daughters howled that their mother was buying into Reviglio's adventure with shares that didn't belong to her. The tribunal agreed, finding that Lilli could pledge only the 20 percent of the factory she controlled unilaterally. (The remainder was controlled by a separate company, also owned by the Bertone family, called Nube.) Lilli fired Barbara and claimed she was chairman of the factory; Barbara insisted that the title still belonged to her. The point became moot: Court documents revealed the only assets in Reviglio's new company were those given to him by Lilli. The tribunal rejected the plan, as it had done with three others, and continued looking for a solution.
The unions demonstrated over the potential loss of more jobs. Some workers staged a kind of vigil over the silent factory, living in a camper van by the entrance for a year. Lilli, the factory "mama"—she considered the workers to be surrogate children to the Bertone family—was touched. She brought them a tray of cookies and offered her support. Massimo Gazzitano, a Bertone worker of 30 years, recalls the incident.
"She said, 'I am with you. I am like your mother. Hold on tight.' We still have those cookies. We wanted to give them back."
Fiat made its play. Marchionne proposed Fiat buy the factory and invest $218 million. The tribunal signed off. Fiat took its time, and the factory remained idle until 2012, when a huge Maserati façade went up out front and Quattroportes began pouring out. Consultants put the value of the land and buildings at more than $45 million, while sources say that Fiat, which had also received concessions from the unions, paid just $27 million, spread over five years. Marchionne had worked his magic again, and the money he was paying wasn't going to the Bertones, it was going to pay the Bertones' debts.
The factory wasn't the only struggling part of the Bertone company. As the factory work dried up, so did demand for the services of the legendary design firm. As vice chairman, Marie-Jeanne applied a light hand in overseeing day-to-day operations at Stile Bertone—some suggest too light. As one designer recalled, "it was like she wasn't there."
Others indicate the design firm's downward spiral began when Roberto Piatti, a former journalist hired as managing director, packed his bags in 2006 and took a major client, rising Chinese carmaker Chery, out the door with him. Chief designer David Wilkie, who had worked for years at Ghia, produced a fourth B.A.T. car with the financial backing of a Michigan dentist who had owned the third B.A.T. But Lilli, claiming the company was busy "restructuring," canceled the fourth B.A.T.'s debut at the 2008 Geneva auto show. The move caught Marie-Jeanne completely off-guard. It would be the first time in 50 years Bertone would have no stand at Geneva. Wilkie left that same year.
American wunderkind Jason Castriota, former chief designer for Pininfarina, came on as his replacement. He made a Corvette ZR1 derivative called the Mantide, then left to work for Saab. The design staff, once numbering 200, hovered around 95. The company hadn't been profitable since 2005. Suddenly, with the factory gone and Bertone's 100th anniversary approaching, Lilli turned her attention to Stile.
Barbara and Marie-Jeanne sold their interests to Lilli for a rumored price of $5.5 million each. Lilli then bought the Bertone brand and trademark from the bankruptcy court for $4.6 million. She was reportedly the only bidder. She created Bertone Cento, a holding company for the design house and engineering department, with guidance from a man named Marco Filippa. He was the reported architect behind Lilli's acquisition of the design center from her daughters and was rewarded with the title of CEO. Filippa described his role thusly: "Not being a designer, nor an engineer, nor a financial officer, but a global corporate coach." Apparently Lilli thought he was doing something right, as Filippa soon became Bertone Cento's co-owner. (This led to gossip regarding the precise nature of what Filippa was doing right, and to whom.)
Michael Robinson, an American who had worked in Italy for 30 years and had been the head of design at Lancia and Fiat, became Stile Bertone's final design director. When he came on board in April 2009, he says, "there were zero clients—not a single project." Robinson went hunting for clients in China, and over the next three years hustled up $35 million in business. Then, he says, Filippa declared that all financial transactions would go through him. Robinson was a designer, so he focused on the cars. He created the Alfa Pandion concept in four months, to make the show rounds in 2010, and in 2012, he unveiled Bertone's 100th anniversary concept car, the Bertone Nuccio. The company was barely breathing, but it was alive.
During a conversation in July, Robinson wondered aloud where that $35 million went. He's curious about the three mortgages taken out on the Stile business. "What happened to that money?" he asks.
Robinson says the design house had stopped paying its bills by late summer of 2013, that a lot of things looked fishy, and that he could name names, "but I can't prove it, and then I'd be sued for slander." Later that year, he was notified of his firing via a letter. When a journalist asked, after his departure, about the situation at Bertone, he replied, "Having turned that page, I can't afford to be dragged into this valley of tears," then followed up with "the real perpetrators should be hung on a tree."
"In a way," he adds, "I blame Nuccio for not appointing a competent successor before he died."
Meanwhile, Lilli was on a buying spree. She bid $6.5 million for the 90 Bertone cars in the Bertone museum collection, but the tribunal rejected the offer, declaring it wanted $8.5 million. A deal was struck: Lilli would receive 84 cars for $3.4 million, and the remaining six cars, all one-of-a-kind prototypes, including the Lamborghini Marzal, Chevrolet Testudo, and Lancia Stratos HF Zero, would go on the auction block. The sale netted $5.3 million, which went directly to the bankruptcy court; the other cars headed to the museum inside the design headquarters in Caprie.
This past June, that museum, along with the rest of the modernist design offices, was put up for sale. Today, a watchman behind a locked gate keeps an eye on those 84 cars, along with the wildflowers growing among weedy, overgrown grass. The façade is stained by streams of gutter runoff, like rust. Nuccio Bertone's fabulous enterprise, over a century in the making, has passed into time with remarkable speed.
Bruno Cena provides the wisest retrospective: "We should have had the opportunity to rationally, with a cool head, discuss the objective fact that coachbuilders were being surpassed. We couldn't go on the way we used to. But this deliberation should have taken place when things were going well. Bertone had strong social responsibility, and the shareholders should have taken drastic, if unpleasant, action. Lucid actions. [But] it was impossible to talk about selling the company, or converting it to a profitable supplier.
"You also have to [understand] the owners. When you're sentimentally linked to a brand, you think differently. Lilli Bertone made a vow: better bankrupt than sell the company. The rest of the family's positions on selling changed from morning to night, one day to the next. They were adversarial and very, very moody. When one said one thing, the other had to say the opposite. It was all devoid of analysis or rational basis."
In 2010, the tribunal decided that Nuccio's life's work had been undone by gross mismanagement—the factory had been technically dead since 2006, the books had been cooked to hide the debt, the refusal to declare bankruptcy had compounded the damage—and someone was going to pay. It began a civil lawsuit seeking damages against Lilli, her daughters, Blandino, and five other principals. The damages sought totaled $63.3 million.
Two years later, everyone named in the civil suit save Lilli and Barbara was off the hook. Barbara was ordered to pay a penalty of $3.4 million; Lilli, $6.8 million. Nuccio had been dead for 15 years.
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With additional reporting by Andrea Fiorello in Turin, Italy.