Part 32 Carrozzeria Castagna
By David Cavaliere
In the early days of auto manufacturing, cars were a new and rather disruptive technology. Most people relied on old metaphors to describe and make sense of the news vehicles. As the twentieth century began, many people thought of automobiles as a horse and buggy conveyance, without the horses. It was much easier to find a farrier or a blacksmith than to find an auto repair shop. We still most often describe the brute force (or lack thereof) in an automobile as horse power and there is a craft that exists even to this day that we call the coachbuilder.
Historically speaking, the manufacturing of custom-built vehicle bodies is an old trade that dates back to the days when the rich and the royal had special carriages built for them. That practice of elaborate coachbuilding carried on, especially in Europe. WWII marked a turning point in coachbuilding as carmakers began to mass-produce vehicles with a monocoque design, rather than a body on a separate chassis. Many coachbuilders disappeared under the new realities of manufacturing, while others diversified into engineering, or design. The very few legacy coachbuilders that are still around today survived by evolving and operating as outside designers for companies such as Ferrari and Alfa Romeo. The demand for custom, hand-built luxury vehicles, although limited, still exists. The work now is spread among a few carrozzeria, who will fill custom orders – for the right price.
The Castagna coachbuilding company was founded near Milan in 1849. Founder Carlo Castagna’s bought the Ferrari coachbuilding company (no, not that Ferrari), which had been crafting horse-drawn coaches for Europe’s aristocracy for a century. It built its first coach with an internal combustion engine near the end of the 19th century.
Carrozzeria Castagna has created some amazing creations. In 1914, the Milanese count Marco Ricotti commissioned the carrozzeria to build a coach atop an ALFA 40/60 HP chassis. It was to be called the Siluro Ricotti, but everyone knows it as the Aerodinamica. It was not a race car, if anything, one might describe it as the forerunner of the minivan, but with the strong ALFA engine, the prototype model reached a top speed of 86 MPH, a truly frightening speed for a passenger vehicle a century ago. A replica of the Aerodinamica was built in the 1970s, and now on display at the wonderful Alfa Romeo Historical Museum in Milan.
By 1915, following the death of Carlo Castagna, the company was taken over by his son, Ercole. During that period, orders increased steadily from abroad and the decision was made to move to a larger factory within Milan. Today, there is a plaque at 19 Montevideo Street commemorating the company. By 1919, the carrozzeria became the first in Italy with 400 employees, including its own chrome plating department, also the first in Italy. At this time, Castagna was also deeply involved in the outfitting of custom railway cars and collaborated with numerous companies to produce outstanding examples, including those used on the famous Orient Express.
Ercole focused on producing coachwork for top-of-the-market chassis and soon managed to make Castagna Italy’s largest carrozzeria. It began working with some of the most famous manufacturers of luxury automobiles. These master works were created for companies that included Isotta Fraschini, Lancia, Daimler-Benz, Hispano-Suiza and of course, Alfa Romeo. In 1924, Castagna received a substantial order to build the Alfa Romeo 2000 RM Sport Cabriolet. Ultimately, it was to build 500 bodies for the cars. The following year, Ercole produced the Alfa Romeo RLSS. It was one of the most elegant automobiles of the 1920s. Attention to detail and superior craftsmanship were the standard for this motorcar.
The undoubted masterpiece, from the design genius of Vittorio Jano, was the eight cylinder, supercharged Alfa Romeo engine, which made its first appearance in April 1931. This engine was to power both the sports and racing cars. The 8C was available in two standard chassis lengths with the longer wheelbase used for touring cars with luxuriously appointed coachwork. The favored coachbuilders for the Alfas were, Touring of Milan, Zagato and Castagna. Castagna was noted for extraordinary build quality and stylish interiors. The car was styled at the drawing board of Emilio Castagna, who headed the design team until 1933.
During the 1930s, as many companies struggled to stay in business, Castagna thrived and produced some of the most iconic luxury automobiles of the decade. The Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8 and 8A models had an enormous chassis, powered by the most powerful mass-produced straight-8 engine in the world at that time. The Tipo 8A was offered only as a chassis with engine. It was up to the coachbuilders to create the bodies for the cars. About one out of every three of these models were sold into the U.S. At the time, a new Isotta Fraschini Model 8 was more expensive than the fabled Duesenberg J.
Castagna produced fantastic bodies for these chassis, gleaming chrome everywhere, exceptional build quality and as you can see in some of the pictures, these were absolutely stunning cars. Their dual cowl phaetons and limousines were purchased by royalty, captains of industry and even the Vatican. Castagna was at the top of its game. It even built an enormous Mercedes Benz limousine at the behest of Mussolini to impress the Nazis. Regardless of politics, the cars were extraordinary.
In 1939 the company came under the control of Ercole’s brother, Emilio. This led the company in a new direction. Where Ercole was an artist at heart, Emilio was an engineer. He sought ways to make the bodies lighter, but stronger, easier to manufacture, but still visually stunning. He took his cue from the aircraft industry and invested heavily in patents that would allow the Carrozzeria to thrive in the post war years. Unfortunately, even though Emilio had the vision, the company’s reliance on outside firms for engineering support left a vacuum once the automotive industry moved away from separate chassis and bodies. There were many outside influences that led to the slow decline of Castagna, the first being the closure of Isotta Fraschini Automobili, which stopped automobile production in 1949. Carrozzeria Castagna shut its doors in 1954.
Carrozzeria Castagna Today
Castagna is now actively engaged in the auto industry as both a tuner for car models and as a manufacturer of custom-built cars. In 1994, the great name was revived by Gioacchino Acampora and Umberto Pietra. They built several unconventional one-off cars based on models by Alfa-Romeo, Ferrari, Bentley, Maserati and the Chevrolet Corvette. It has become best known for their larger version of the Mini, which was launched years before Mini came up with its own version, called the ‘Clubman’. Castagna also produces a killer version of the Fiat 500 called the Cinquino. It features two-tone paint, a custom interior, tuned turbo engine producing 155 hp, revised suspension and Brembo disc brakes.
The resurrection of Carrozzeria Castagna is proof that even in this age of mass production, there is still a place in the world for the craftsman who can build a better mousetrap and find that in this case, the well-heeled world will beat a path to its door.