Back in the 1950s, with the world still recovering from World War II and getting ready to enter the 'Space Age', a new interest for aerodynamically efficient cars sparked the automotive world.
In the US, design pioneer Harley Earl was busy creating the new 'spaceship' trend with the GM LeSabre concept (1951). At the same time in Europe, Alfa Romeo commissioned two Italian design houses - Touring and Bertone - to design prototypes with low drag bodies. Touring came up with the C52 Disco Volante (1952-1953) while Bertone presented a series of concept cars known as the 'Berlina Aerodinamica Tecnica' Alfa Romeos (1953-1955), our main focus in this Design Review.
The man behind the BAT prototypes was Franco Scaglione (1916-1993), a very talented automobile designer from Florence who worked for Bertone from 1951 to 1959. Among his creations bearing the Alfa Romeo badge were the Giulietta Sprint (1954), Giulietta Sprint Speciale (1957) and the 33 Stradale (1967) which is considered one of the most beautiful cars of all time, while he also designed cars for Abarth, Fiat, Porsche, Maserati and other manufacturers.
All three BAT prototypes (their name had nothing to do with television's Batmobile, by the way) shared their chassis and underpinnings with the Alfa Romeo 1900, and were fitted with a humble four-cylinder 1.9-litre engine producing 75kW. Despite the lack of power, they could reach top speeds of 200km/h, proving the importance of aerodynamics in automobile design.
It's said that before Alfa Romeo got involved, the design study of the BAT concepts started as an in-house project at Bertone. The historic design house needed a way to retain its status after a lot of its clients started focusing on mass-produced vehicles, instead of low-volume coachbuilding commissions.
The BAT 5 was presented at the 1953 Turin Auto Show and caused a stir with its unusual design, clearly inspired by the aeronautical industry. Its body was full of curved lines and featured covered wheels, long front overhang, a curved windscreen and large fins sitting over the rear fenders. As a result, the prototype had a drag coefficient of only 0.23cd.
At the front, the dual air intakes (inspired by the 1952 Abarth 1500 Biposto Bertone Coupé) filled the space between the protruding fenders and nose, and helped in reducing the frontal area of the car. Below the Alfa Romeo badge, the nose was shaped like a solid-metal scudetto grille.
Two additional openings behind the front wheel covers and small air-intakes in front of the rear wheels channeled the air around the sleek body of the prototype.
The rear end actually looked like a bat, and was dominated by large fins which were tilted slightly inwards, and the dual rear windscreen divided by a protruding tail.
Small tail-lights with circular units and trapezoidal reflectors were integrated into the beautiful curve of the rear bumper. Below, the elegant dual tailpipes, finished in black, were separated from the bodywork.
Bertone launched the BAT 7, the successor to the BAT 5, at the 1954 Turin Motor Show. This light blue prototype was a design evolution of its predecessor, featuring a lower-positioned front end with narrower intakes housing a pair of retractable circular headlight units.
On the profile, the wheel covers were more integrated with the rest of the body and the side intakes moved backwards to make place for Bertone’s signature and emphasise the length of the bonnet.
The most striking characteristic of the BAT 7 was the enlarged rear fins which became sharper and taller. The fins started from the base of the A-pillar raising towards the back and tilting towards the centre with a single slit on each side. Their complex shape was never going to work in a production car, however it made them one of the coolest interpretations of aeronautical design elements in automotive history. The central bulge also received a fin extension, splitting the dual windscreen which got a more rounded shape.
Another beautiful design element of the BAT 7 was the chromed oval tailpipes which were now placed on each side of the rear bumper, right next to the circular tail-lights, inside two openings at the end of the rear wheel covers.
Thanks to all the design updates, the sleeker body of the BAT 7 not only looked amazing, but also had a drag coefficient of just 0.19cd which was quite an achievement for its time.
A year later, Bertone returned to the 1955 Turin Motor Show with its latest creation - the BAT 9 (below). The third prototype of the series was clearly intended to be less radical and closer to production, while retaining most of the aerodynamic innovations of its predecessors. Bertone also tried to make it more truthful to Alfa Romeo’s design philosophy so it could be recognised more easily as such.
At the front, the bulge on the bonnet was formed around a traditional Scudetto grille, finished in chrome. The Alfa Romeo grille sat between two elongated air intakes positioned lower on the bumper with a slight incline. The headlights were mounted on the protruding fenders with their glass covers following the shape of the bodywork, surrounded by a chrome strip which extended towards the rear.
Thanks to the demise of the side intakes, the character line continued uninterrupted to the rear, splitting the car in two, while the rear wheels were not as covered as in the previous prototypes, revealing the classy wire wheels.
The panoramic windscreen was also a feature on the BAT 9, however, unlike its predecessors, the A-pillar got a negative angle (thanks to the steep angle of the side windows), and became more parallel with the B-pillar and the C-pillar.
At the back, the air channels were still visible but the fins were less pronounced, and didn’t block the view from the side windows anymore. The dual rear windscreen got its best shape yet with rounded corners, blending nicely with the bodywork.
The single round tail-lights sat higher, above the bumper line which expanded in the corners. Below, there was a large single chrome tailpipe for the exhaust and a square diffuser.
What happened next?
Not long after the premiere of BAT 9 at the 1955 Turin Motor Show, all three prototypes were bought by Nucio Bertone’s business partner, American entrepreneur Stanley Harold Arnolt II. But far from storing them away in some sort of, ahem, BAT cave, Arnolt II drove them. He used BAT 5 as a road car for many years before the collection was eventually split up. BAT 7 ended up painted red and was used as a race car (!) while BAT 9 lived at a General Motors dealership in Michigan for many years.
The trio was reunited in 1990, making appearances in classic car shows and museums around the world. Today, the BAT prototypes are thought to be one of the most expensive and sought after collections in the world. All three cars have now been restored and remain in immaculate condition.
At the 1957 Turin Motor Show, Bertone launched the first prototype of the upcoming Alfa Romeo Sprint Speciale. Two more prototypes followed in 1958, before the production version appeared in 1959 (above). This beautiful coupe was based on a shortened Giulietta Sprint chassis with a new body designed by Scaglione. The Italian designer incorporated styling and aerodynamic elements from the BAT prototypes, achieving a drag coefficient of 0.28cd - an astonishing number for a production car back in the 1950s.
Today, the Sprint Speciale is considered a classic example of the unmistakable Alfa Romeo style and prices in the classic car market continue to rise.
Fast forward to 2008, the 'Berlina Aerodinamica Tecnica' nameplate made a surprising comeback in the form of the BAT 11 concept car (above). The idea came from an American dentist who used to own (and daily drive!) the BAT 9 prototype during the 1980s. He had actually bought the car from a used car lot, and only sold it a decade later in order to pay for treatment for his wife who was diagnosed with cancer. In her memory, he ordered Bertone to design a new concept inspired by the BAT series.
The resulting BAT 11 was presented during the 2008 Geneva Motor Show (outside the actual show due to issues with the Bertone family). The running prototype was based on a Maserati GT chassis with a futuristic body featuring a neo-gothic style with a strong visual connection with its predecessors.
Design elements like the dual air intakes at the front, the covered wheels, the panoramic windscreen and of course, the large fins on the rear fenders made it clear that BAT 7 (1953) was the main source of inspiration. Unfortunately, just like its predecessors, the BAT 11 (2008) never reached production status, and stayed as a one-off after Bertone filed for bankruptcy in 2014.
The original 'Berlina Aerodinamica Tecnica' Alfa Romeos were three astonishing concept cars that made grand debuts at the Turin Motor Show for three consecutive years. Their striking styling and exceptional aerodynamics were early signs of Franco Scaglione’s talent, and proved that something beautiful could also be efficient. Also, their year-to-year launches gave the world an insight to the design development, something usually left behind closed doors.
It is true that neither the BAT 5 or the BAT 7 resembled an Alfa Romeo, and even the toned down BAT 9 didn’t look close to production. However the prototypes were not only a successful advertisement for Bertone, but also featured various styling and technical innovations that would inspire future automobiles from both sides of the Atlantic.
So, which one of the original BAT prototypes do you like best? If I had to choose one, I would definitely go for the striking BAT 7.