|Bizzarrini P538 Duca d'Aosta Coupe|
A racer at heart, Giotto Bizzarrini set out to expand his line-up with a mid-engined racing car for the 1966 season. His production based GT racers had been mildly successful, but they could achieve class wins at best. It was a very ambitious project as the small company challenged the big boys Ford and Ferrari, who were engaged in their epic war for Le Mans glory.
After six months development, the first chassis was constructed late in 1965. Designed to cope with the very powerful Chevrolet V8 engine, the chassis was of a tubular design with triangle shaped tubes. With double wishbones and disc brakes added to the mix, the new Bizzarrini was a very conventional racing car. It was dubbed P538, for 'posteriore' or rear(-engined) and 5.3 litre V8. It would get a little more complex when the first customer ordered his car to be equipped with a four litre version of the Bizzarrini designed Lamborghini V12.
By January of 1966 the rolling chassis was merged with the Lamborghini engine and a fiberglass body constructed by a local boatbuilding firm. While some of the P538 cues were lifted from its front-engined road going cousins, the roadster design was somewhat unusual. The front and rear overhang were very short ending in a chopped off Kamm tail and vents were in abundance. Until this point, it had all gone very well, but fortune quickly ran out when experienced test-driver Edgar Berney flipped the prototype during one of the first test sessions.
Due to the extent of the damage, Bizzarrini decided to strip the first car of all its (usable) mechanicals and fit them to a second chassis. At the same time a third chassis was also constructed, which would serve as the Works car. Shortly after the second car was completed, with its 400 bhp Lamborghini V12, it was shipped to its customer in the United States. He briefly raced it, but with little success. All the available attention in the factory was now on the third car, which was readied for that year's 24 Hours of Le Mans race.
The hastily constructed car was shipped to Le Mans just in time for the race, but too late to do any real testing. Seven laps into the race the V8 engined P538 was brought into the pits with a vibration in the wheel. The car was jacked up to examine the problem, but in the process a water hose inside one of the triangular tubes was fatally damaged. It was raced again in the fall, achieving a fourth position in a local race. Bizzarrini returned to Le Mans with the same car in 1967, but for reasons unknown to this day, it did not pass scruteneering.
For the new season the big prototype racers, including the P538, were banned, so Bizzarrini was left with a virtually useless racing car. In an attempt to sell the P538 as a racing car, Bizzarrini had the roadster body replaced by a more practical coupe. One of his customers, the Duke of Aosta, was very interested in the car, but sadly he did not fit. Especially for the Duke a fourth chassis was constructed and fitted with a tailormade coupe body. This car was appropriately named the 'Duca d'Aosta' Coupe.
At around the same former Bertone and Ghia designer Giorgietto Giugiaro expressed an interest to build a striking show car based on the P538 chassis. The two men had already worked together on various Iso projects, so Bizzarrini was more than happy to supply the Giugiaro with a chassis. They agreed that when the car was sold, they'd split the profit. Instead of building a brand new chassis, the coupe body was removed from the Le Mans car and that was sent to Turin where Giugiaro had just formed ItalDesign.
Featured is the final P538 constructed; the unique Duca d'Aosta Coupe. The Duke did not hold on to the car very long and sold it to a collector in Firenze, Italy in 1972. He did cherish the one-off and kept it in his collection for almost three decades, but he rarely used it. Still in very original condition and with only 9000 km on the clock it was sold at an auction in Geneva in 1999. It is seen above in that condition at the 2005 Pebble Beach Blackhawk Exhibition and the 2006 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance.
Article by Wouter Melissen, last updated on November 27, 2006
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