Part 22: The Artistry of Carrozzeria Boneschi
By David Cavaliere
The Italian automobile industry has had a rich history of carrozzerias – the coachbuilders; the craftsmen and shops that produced custom and limited production runs of specialized car bodies and interiors. We have covered a few already – Boano was featured in Part 14 of this series. Colli was covered last week in Part 21. We have mentioned Carrozzeria Touring Superleggera and in future issues will cover many more – from Carrozzeria Allemano to Zagato; the list is extensive. Beyond the 60-odd car manufacturers in Italy, there have been more than two dozen carrozzerias. This is the story of one of them.
In the early days of motoring when mass production did not yet exist, the process of acquiring a new vehicle was complex. Those interested in buying a car would usually acquire the chassis, which included the engine, gearbox, suspension, radiator, brakes and wheels, then sending the skeletal machine to a coachbuilder requesting a personal design. Mass production changed this, as Ford put America on wheels, FIAT did much the same for Italy. Cars for the higher end of the market still used coachbuilders, with the car’s exteriors and interiors fitted with distinctive style and often remarkable craftsmanship. After World War II, series auto production ended put an end to many of the coachbuilders. Many went bankrupt, while others were purchased by the major automotive manufacturers. There were quite a few automakers that established their own design departments, customizing lines and styles to give a certain ‘look’ to their cars. In Italy, the coachbuilders and car body designers remained viable far longer than in any other country. Perhaps it was due to the beauty of their designs; perhaps in part to the workmanship. The results however speak for themselves. Some of the most enduring automotive designs were produced by the Italian carrozzarias from the 1930s through the 1960s.
Carrozzeria Boneschi S.r.L. was founded in 1919, by Giovanni Boneschi. He based his fledgling workshop in Cambiago, near a small airport. Initially, Boneschi focused on high-end automobile bodies and interiors. He did not establish any real success for the first few years of operation. The quality of the materials that his workshop used and high standard of workmanship that the shop performed caught the attention of Enrico Minetti, a Lancia commercial agent in Milan. In 1922, Minetti proposed a plan to sell a Lancia with custom coachwork by Boneschi to wealthy car buyers. Today we refer to this as the luxury car market. In the twenties, there wasn’t a lot of what we would consider luxury in an automobile – no power windows or seats, no power steering or brakes, no ABS or lane departure warning. In 1922, a high end car offered two things – reliability and durability. Automatic chassis greasing was the pinnacle of technology at the time (by Packard, Duesenberg and Rolls Royce). The Lancia Lambda was a huge innovation when it was introduced in 1922. It was the first car to feature a load-bearing unitary body. The car pioneered the use of independent suspension (a front sliding pillar with coil springs) and had excellent four wheel brakes. In short, when introduced, the Lambda was the most advanced chassis design in the world. Having an innovative chassis was one thing. Clothing the car with an attractive body and appointments would also be a key for the success of the carmaker and coachbuilder.
Boneschi became very interested in the project and soon his workshop began to produce a limited run of coach bodies for the Lambdas. The cars were a success. Since it was a limited run, Boneschi had to seek additional work to keep his operation viable. Shortly after the contract for the Lambdas concluded, Boneschi was able to contract with the newly-formed Citroën Italian and to produce bodies for the Italian-made, French-designed automobiles. Although no where near as prestigious, innovative or beautiful as the Lancia design, it was work. But in 1924, Giovanni received a call from Vincenzo Lancia. He wanted Carrozzeria Boneschi to design and manufacture the car bodies for additional Lancia models. This was the golden era of the coachbuilder and it was during this period that Boneschi produced his most celebrated creations – custom coachwork for the Lancia models Dilambda, Astura and Aprilia. The cars that the carrozzeria produced were stunning. The chrome work trim for the exteriors are examples of some of the most beautifully executed designs of the era. The interiors were finished with the finest materials and polished veneers. During the 1930s, Carrozzeria Boneschi reached its high point with its designs for the Lancia Astura models.
When the war came to Europe, Boneschi survived by making various fittings for armored cars, but as happened throughout much of Italy, the factory was bombed and destroyed by the Allies. As soon as he could, Giovanni rebuilt his factory and by 1946, it was in production again. Time and the war had taken its toll on the factory owner and late in the year Boneschi succumbed to illness. One of the company’s directors, Bruno Pezzaglia stepped in to replace Giovanni and soon began a working relationship with Alfa Romeo. That was the age of the Alfa Romeo 6C 2500, a car destined to be bodied by all of the coachbuilders in Milan. Carrozzeria Boneschi built some examples of an Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 sedan for numerous political figures of the time and in 1953 produced a small series run of the Alfa Romeo 1900. This was the same year that it introduced a successful interpretation based on the Lancia Aurelia B53. In 1960, the company created a limited production run of both the convertible and coupe models of the Alfa Romeo 2600.
In the early 1960s, industrial designer Rodolfo Bonetto designed numerous cars for Boneschi. Bonetto was to become one the greatest Italian names in the fields of architecture and industrial design, creating everything from household appliances to furniture. He had a great eye for scaling and determining what looked ‘right’ and was a talented technical draftsman. He worked with numerous companies, designing bodies for Vignale, Viotti and Boneschi. In 1962, he drew the Lancia Flaminia Spider, a compact and very attractive design. He also designed the Boneschi Maserati 3500 GT, which was given the curious name “Tight” in 1962. Bonetto also penned the lovely Boneschi OSCA 1600 GT “Swift” in 1963.
During this period of the company, Boneschi produced a limited series of an Alfa Romeo Giulietta station wagons, but at this point, the activity in the coachbuilding industry diminished. There was more demand for industrial utility vehicles, such as buses and trucks and the company was adsorbed by Savio of the FIAT group.
In the 1970s, Boneschi was converted to design industrial vehicles, based on OM and Iveco. Boneschi remained active in the fields of sanitary fittings, commercial and armored vehicles and in the rail sector. However, at the end of 2006, the factory at Cambiago, rebuilt by Giovanni Boneschi after the war, was sold by Savio. Today, the Boneschi name only remains as a brand, owned by the Savio Group.