In the 1950s, the heyday of wild concept cars began. In addition to the Americans, it was mainly Italian design houses that expressed their ideas for the automotive future in sheet metal and plastic in this way, without regard to series production opportunities and costs. Three special examples were created by Bertone and debuted at the Turin Motor Shows in 1953, 1954 and 1955. Under the direction of the then chief designer Franco Scaglione, the concept cars B.A.T. 5, B.A.T. 7 and B.A.T. 9 were built, each based on the then current Alfa Romeo 1900. The abbreviation B.A.T. stood for Berlina Aerodinamica Tecnica, roughly translated to aerodynamic and technical ideas for the sedan of tomorrow (or the day after tomorrow). Surprisingly, even today, 65 years after the premiere of the B.A.T. 9, this trio still seems coherent and by no means out of fashion. It is an automotive tryptichon that only completely unfolds its full effect, when all three cars are parked next to each other, since they are variations on the same theme. Moreover, these three vehicles made Bertone and Franco Scaglione world famous.
Alfa Romeo B.A.T. 5
It is difficult to imagine the effect that the B.A.T. 5 had on the public at the Turin Motor Show during its world premiere in 1953. Even those who learned of its existence through car magazines, therefore somewhat delayed, may have rubbed their eyes in amazement. To understand this, one only has to take a look at European production cars of the same year. Next to the ubiquitous Volkswagen, Fiat had the 500 called ‘Topolino’, Mercedes-Benz had the 170 S, which still looked like a pre-war car, and the 220 and BMW had the 501 with a six-cylinder engine. Customers had to wait a few more years for exciting sports cars such as the 300 SL ‘Gullwing’, the BMW 507 or the Ferrari 250 GT. Only the Fiat 8V was available at some dealerships, but remained rare.
The basic idea behind the B.A.T. projects was to significantly reduce air resistance and thus achieve higher speeds with identical engine power. Scaglione worked out his ideas on four clay models on a scale of 1:1, before having his final designs built from sheet metal by the Bertone coachbuilders and mounted on an Alfa chassis. For this reason, this first publicly displayed concept car bears the number 5. The pontoon-shaped, slightly overhanging front fenders are joined centrally by a rounded nose. Between the nose and the fenders there are air inlets with horizontal grids on both sides, which were highlighted red during a later restoration.
To represent the low, Bertone moved the carburettor system of the Alfa Romeo 1900 to the side of the engine. Behind the engine room is a drop-shaped passenger cell with a lot of glazed area, which ends in a point at the rear. On the rear fenders, large inwardly curved fins ensure that the airflow is well directed. Front and rear covers are used in front of the wheels to further reduce air resistance. A special detail are the headlights, which fold out from the inside of the front fenders at the touch of a button. Despite a relatively low engine output of only around 80 hp, this prototype achieved a top speed of 198.9 kph (123.6 mph) in tests thanks to its good aerodynamics.
Inside, the B.A.T. 5 offers space for two people on sports seats specially designed by Scaglione. Three large and two smaller round instruments are located behind the steering wheel. There are only six switches and the gearshift, nothing more. A car cockpit could hardly be clearer. In October 1953 Bertone sold the unique car to Stanley ‘Wacky’ Arnolt, their US importer, who showed it at several Herb Shriner Auto Shows throughout the country. After repainting the car to a darker silver color, Mr. Arnolt used it privately for several years, but also exhibited it repeatedly at his Hoosier International Motors showroom in Warsaw, Indiana. In 1956 he sold the one-off to his friend Joe Prysak in South Bend, who had it hung under the ceiling in his company building and kept it for 30 years. In 1987, Said Marouf from La Jolla, California, bought the Alfa Romeo B.A.T. 5, had it restored for a year and then won its class at the 1988 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.
Alfa Romeo B.A.T. 7
The gates of the 1953 Turin Motor Show hadn’t yet closed completely, when Bertone already started work on a new, wilder successor. Spurred on by the international success of the original, Franco Scaglione wanted to set new standards. A direct comparison between B.A.T. 5 and B.A.T. 7 reveals various similarities, but also new details. For example, the fold-out headlights moved into the central nose. The front air intakes are narrower, allowing the hood to be lowered by full five centimeters (two inches). The outlets behind the front wheels are larger. A third air guiding fin sits on the separation between the two rear windows, while the outer fins have been made even larger and more curved. Overall, Scaglione succeeded in reducing the air resistance even further.
Since the work on B.A.T. 7 took longer than originally planned, Franco Scaglione and Nuccio Bertone finally had to drive the car to the 1954 Turin Motor Show themselves on the night before the opening. There, and especially after the show, the new one-off attracted even more attention than its predecessor model and even made it to the cover of the ‘Automobil Revue’ in Switzerland. The car itself was bought by Alfa Romeo in January 1955 and sent to the USA to be exhibited on the factory stands at the motor shows in New York and Chicago. Afterwards Al Williams, an Alfa enthusiast from San Francisco, bought the B.A.T. 7 through the Alfa importer Charles Rezzaghi.
In March 1955 he took part in the SCCA races in Palm Springs with this car. Al Williams then had the side fins removed, as they significantly restricted the all-round visibility in road traffic. Three years later, the new owner Ken Shaff presented the car, which had been repainted in the meantime to sand beige and black, at the Concours d’Elegance in Pebble Beach. In the early 1960s, the new owner Col. James Sorrell brought the Alfa to the Van Nuys Shop of Sal di Natale for restoration work. At that time, this company was considered to be one of the best for rare Italian cars on the US West Coast. However, he never paid for the work done and also never collected the sports car, so in 1969 di Natale took legal action to claim ownership of the car. It wasn’t unitl 17 years later that he sold the one-off to a private customer, under whose supervision the car was completely restored for two years and the fins reconstructed.
Alfa Romeo B.A.T. 9
Franco Scaglione started work again from the end of 1954 on another concept car based on an Alfa Romeo 1900 to complete the B.A.T. theme. In contrast to the first two versions, however, he now gave additional thought to how the typical Alfa design could be incorporated into this draft in order to achieve a certain family resemblance. In addition, Alfa Romeo, as the company that delivered the technical donor parts, had asked that the new study be more suitable for everyday use. The rear fins therefore were significantly reduced in size and the covers in front of the rear wheels were removed. Next to that, the concept car, officially called B.A.T. 9d, for the first time showed headlights under clear glass covers and the typical Alfa radiator shield in the nose.
Following its debut at the Turin Motor Show in 1955, this car also crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the USA. There it appeared in March 1956 in the parking lot of an endurance race in Sebring. There the car dealer Harry Woodnorth from Chicago saw the B.A.T. 9d and waited together with Tom Barrett for the owner to buy it from him. One year later Barrett sold his shares in the car to Woodnorth and again one year laterthe unique car went to Ed Beseler in Lansing, Michigan, who had it repainted to red. After his death, Arlen Regis bought the car from his estate and displayed it at his Captain Motors dealership in Greenville, Michigan.
In 1962, Gary Kaberle, who was only 16 years old at the time, discovered the Alfa Romeo B.A.T. 9 there and subsequently begged Arlen Regis to sell him the car. Finally he emptied a gym bag full of money on the car dealer’s desk and received the keys and papers. For the next 28 years, Kaberle kept the Alfa and used it as an everyday car on his way to university, which he completed with a doctorate. In 1987 Dr. Kaberle received an invitation to the Meadow Brook Concours d’Elegance and therefore had the body of the B.A.T. 9d painted in fresh silver.
Although these three concept cars visually build on each other and together represent one of the most important trios in automotive history, they were never exhibited together by Bertone or Alfa Romeo when they were new. This only happened after 1987, when all three cars were privately owned by car collectors in the USA. Organizers of important Concours events soon dreamed of bringing these three cars together. When Nuccio Bertone visited the California Art Center College of Design in Pasadena in 1989 to receive an honorary doctorate, the planners of the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance invited all three cars with their owners as well as the aged design company boss from Italy. Bertone told some unheard anecdotes from his time with Franco Scaglione.
At the same event, a private car collector made an offer to each of the three car owners, thus uniting all three B.A.T. versions in one collection for the first time. In the early 1990s he sent the cars to Italy for the Genoa Autostory 1992, where Nuccio Bertone’s 80th birthday was celebrated. At the beginning of 1993 the three one-offs were also on display at the Retromobile in Paris. They spent the following decade at the Blackhawk Museum in Danville, California. Again and again they also came to special events such as Pebble Beach 2005, the Concorso Italiano 2009, Goodwood or the Concorso d’Eleganza at the Villa d’Este.
Now RM Sotheby’s is offering all three Alfa Romeo Bertone B.A.T. vehicles together at an auction in New York on October 28. The Canadian auction house hasn’t yet made any statements regarding the expected hammer price.
Images: RM Sotheby’s, Darin Schnabel, The Klemantaski Collection