Giotto Bizzarrini, who has died aged 96, was the creator of one of the undisputed masterpieces of Italian car design. Only 36 examples of the Ferrari 250 GTO were built between 1962 and 1964, but the coupe’s sleek alloy bodywork, its highly tuned three-litre V12 engine and its appearances on the world’s race tracks made it so highly venerated by enthusiasts and collectors that in 2018 one changed hands in a private sale for $70m.
The cost to its new owner, a Chicago businessman, was five times the value placed in the same year on a painting of the Madonna and Child by Giotto di Bondone, the Italian renaissance master from whom Bizzarrini’s parents took their son’s Christian name. At the time it was the highest price ever paid for a car, until surpassed last year by the $142m paid at auction for a special 1955 Mercedes 300 SLR coupe, of which just two examples were built.
Bizzarrini spent only five years of his long career working for Enzo Ferrari. He had departed by the time the GTO – as it became known – began its successful competition career, which included a hat-trick of class wins in the 24 Hours of Le Mans between 1962 and 1964.
Its record might have been even more illustrious had an accident at Goodwood (in a Lotus) not ended the career of Stirling Moss early in 1962, a few months after the English driver had tested the prototype at Monza with a view to driving it in endurance races that season. Amazingly, or so it seems 60 years later, the car was initially considered ugly, and nicknamed Il Mostro – the monster.
Later in the 1960s Bizzarrini built cars under his own name before designing the engine used by Ferruccio Lamborghini to power his company’s GT cars, including the legendary Miura, the first modern supercar.
A Tuscan landowner’s son, born in Quercianella, near Livorno, Bizzarrini was not the first member of his family to bear the painter’s name. His paternal grandfather, also Giotto, had worked with Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of the radio.
While studying mechanical engineering at the University of Pisa, young Giotto built his own streamlined two-seater coupe, based on a 500cc Fiat Topolino. After graduating in 1954 he joined Alfa Romeo, where he worked on developing the Giulietta models while becoming one of the company’s test drivers, diagnosing problems at first-hand. “I always needed to know why something fails,” he would recall, “so I can invent a solution.”
In 1957 he moved to Maranello to join Ferrari. Put in charge of the experimental department, he introduced Enzo Ferrari to Carlo Chiti, a former Alfa colleague, who became chief designer of the racing department. Together they developed the Testa Rossa sports car that won at Le Mans in 1958.
Worried about the challenge from Jaguar’s E-type, Ferrari asked Bizzarrini to improve the short-wheelbase competition version of the company’s road-going 250 GT. Taking his own car, the engineer lowered the engine and moved it further back, modified the suspension, added a five-speed gearbox, and commissioned Sergio Scaglietti to create streamlined bodywork with a longer nose and a distinctive small oval opening for the radiator. When Moss tested it at Monza in 1961, it proved several seconds faster than its predecessor.
Two months later, however, Bizzarrini and Chiti were among a group of senior employees who walked out in protest against interference in their work by Laura Ferrari, Enzo’s wife. The two engineers accepted an invitation from the Venetian enthusiast Count Giovanni Volpi to help form a new company, ATS, to race in Formula One and build GT cars.
Their efforts were unsuccessful, although the association had one memorable outcome. Ferrari, angered by the defections, had refused to sell Volpi a GTO, so the count commissioned Bizzarrini to turn another 250 GT SWB into a near-replica, with one notable difference: high-tailed bodywork that earned it the nickname of the Breadvan, by which it is still known on its appearances at the Goodwood Revival and elsewhere.
In 1964 Bizzarrini teamed up with Lamborghini to create the engine that powered the Miura, mounted transversely behind the passenger compartment. He was said to have received a bonus for every unit of horsepower in excess of that produced by the equivalent Ferrari engine.
Bizzarrini’s next patron was the refrigerator manufacturer Renzo Rivolta, for whom he built the Iso Rivolta and Iso Grifo GT cars, using big Chevrolet V8 engines and collaborating with a younger designer, Giorgetto Giugiaro. The Iso Grifo became the basis of Bizzarrini’s own 5300 GT and Strada models, built in Livorno. One of them won its class at Le Mans in 1965, driven by two Frenchmen, after which Bizzarrini himself drove it home to Italy. Other models included a small GT car with a two-litre Opel engine and the prototype of a three-seater coupe.
In 1969, however, the company went bankrupt and Bizzarrini turned to consultancy work for General Motors, Pininfarina and other clients, while teaching at the University of Rome. The Bizzarrini name and intellectual property passed through several hands until, in February 2023, a newly constituted company with Kuwaiti backing announced its intention to build a V12-engined supercar designed by Giugiaro’s office as a rival to the contemporary Ferraris and Lamborghinis, to be called the Bizzarrini Giotto.
His wife, Rosanna, died in 2020. He is survived by their two sons, Giuseppe and Pietro, and two daughters, Elena and Amalia.
• Giotto Bizzarrini, car designer, born 6 June 1926; died 13 May 2023