Launched at the 1968 Turin Motor Show, the Bizzarrini Manta was the fruit of a collaboration between two Italian motoring greats at opposite phases of their respective careers. Designer Giorgietto Giugiaro had just established his own company, ItalDesign, for which the Manta was the very first design. On the other hand the P538, on which the show car was based, represented the end of the line for Giotto Bizzarrini as an independent manufacturer. Judging from the result, the two men timed their collaboration just right.
Following spells at Fiat, Bertone and Ghia, the still very young Giugiaro felt it was time to set up his design studio in 1967. Thanks to the quality of his previous designs, he had few problems securing funding. All he needed was a spectacular project that would ensure the launch of his new company would not go unnoticed. In the workshop of the ailing Bizzarrini company, he found the suitable basis for his new show car. This was the mid-engined P538, which had previously been raced at Le Mans but now lingered in a corner waiting for a new purpose.
Conceived late in 1965, the P538 was the first clean-sheet design from Giotto Bizzarrini for his own company. Built for an American customer, the first two examples were fitted with Lamborghini's V12 engine; another Bizzarrini design. Intended for competition, the third chassis was equipped with the small-block Chevrolet V8 that was also used in the marque's front-engined cars. With very few test kilometres under its belt, the car was entered in the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans where it retired after a waterline burst during it pit stop. It was raced once more in October of 1966 and then set aside.
Taking advantage of the cutting-edge chassis, Giugiaro abandoned the traditional 'three-box' design, which had easily identifiable nose, cockpit and tail sections. Instead, the profile of the Manta consisted of a single line that ran from the tip of the nose to the cut-off tale. This was only because of the mid-mounted engine, which allowed for the very low required by this approach. A focal point was the windshield that had a rake of just 15°. Glass was also extensively used aft of the cockpit, showing off the engine and also aiding visibility.
The interior also broke with convention as it featured three seats, with the driver located in the middle. This had previously been seen on the Ferrari 365 P Speciale but considering the width of the chassis seemed more than the obvious route. To aid driver access, a relatively small gear-lever was fitted. The collapsable steering wheel featured a long column that extended from the centre of the deep dashboard. Little reminded of the car's racing heritage in the lavishly finished appointed interior that featured ample leather trim.
The Manta was finished in acid green with red accentuated louvres on the tail that resembled the gills on the Manta Ray after which the show car was named. Hard to miss, it was one of the absolute stars at the Turin Motor Show. The first ItalDesign creation also received universal acclaim in the world media, gracing the cover of the March 1969 Road & Track issue for example. Repainted red with contrasting white and blue racing stripes, it was subsequently shown at the Tokyo Racing Car Show and the Los Angeles Auto Expo.
During the return from Los Angeles to Italy, it was lost and not seen again until 1978 or 1979 when it appeared in a Port of Genoa customs auction. It was acquired by an Italian enthusiast, who had it restored by Carrozzeria SD, owned by former Bizzarrini foreman Salvatore Diomante. A few years later it was sold to a Swedish enthusiast, who showed the car at various events including ItalDesign's 20th and 30th year anniversary celebrations. Some years later he sold the car to a Texas-based enthusiast, who in turn sold it to the current owner in 2005.
At that time, the unique Bizzarrini was in the final stages of a thorough restoration to its original, 1968 configuration and colour scheme. Once completed, the Manta was shown at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance where it won its class. In the following years, it starred at a wide variety of events including the Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este and the ItalDesign 40th anniversary celebrations at the Geneva Motor Show. The owner has now decided to part with the striking machine and consigned it to Gooding and Company for their 2012 Pebble Beach sale. The estimate is a hefty $1 - $1.5 million.
Article by Wouter Melissen, last updated on August 08, 2012
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