Restoring a 1953 Fiat 8V Zagato Berlinetta

In this story we’d like to share one of our earliest and most exciting restoration projects, the Fiat 8V Zagato Berlinetta.

Historical picture of the car in Sestriere rally 1957

For the full background to this story, we should take you back about 10 years prior to starting the restoration. It was around 1997 when we met up with our good friend, fellow car enthusiast and racing driver from the San Francisco Bay Area.

As is often the case with vintage car fanatics, we ended up visiting one of his friends in Oakland, California, for some good old ‘car talk’ and to admire his collection. As he opened the door to his garage, we were struck with amazement to see a genuine 1953 Fiat 8V Zagato. This car, with its iconic lightweight alloy body, had the serial number 000026 and had been sitting inside for over 30 years.

As found and stored for decades

Only about 25 of these Fiat 8V Zagato Berlinetta variants had been individually made specifically for motorsport purposes, so it was not only a rare specimen but entirely unique because no two of these cars were the same. Customers would buy a brand new Fiat 8V from the factory with the standard body by Rapi and then Zagato replaced it with the incredibly beautiful, lightweight body. This process came at a price, however, and only very few could afford to spend this amount on a coach-built body – the equivalent it would cost to buy a house – shortly after the Second World War. These alloy-bodied Zagato variants were around 80-100kg lighter than the Rapi versions and this made a significant difference when racing along steep Alpine roads, or on racetracks at maximum speed.

This Fiat 8V Zagato Berlinetta car came with a low nose, a higher air intake bulb on the bonnet and the iconic ‘double bubble’ roof which none of the other 24 examples have in the combination. This ‘double bubble’ was a rudimentary and lightweight solution to add structural rigidity to the car and contrary to popular belief, it was not a way to create space so the occupants could wear helmets.

For the first time out in the California Sun after all those years

Minimalistic, attractive, sophisticated, lightweight and speed are the words that spring to mind to accurately describe this unique Zagato design. They were true masters of the ‘less is more’ motto and just opening one of the slim, beautifully crafted doors on these early Zagatos was an event in itself.

Even a decade on from our first encounter, the impression that the Otto Vu Zagato had made was still fresh in our minds and the thought of restoring this precious piece of history had never left us. This car had now been sitting in a garage for 30 years, patiently waiting for the right moment to undergo a restoration. What made it extra special was the fact that chassis 000026 was the only Fiat 8V Zagato Berlinetta fitted with a very different ‘Corsa’ engine with two large Weber 36IF4C four-barrel carburettors. Only five of these rare Otto Vu racing engines were ever produced and only one was fitted in a Zagato – this particular car!

Another factor that made us fall in love with the car was knowing it had raced in the 1957 Sestriere Rally on behalf of the Spanish Scuderia Barcelona. It still had the original altitude gauge in the dashboard, most likely for the co-pilot to read the altitude in the mountains to re-adjust the two large Webers. The Sestriere was one of the greatest Italian road races of that era, covering 1,800km to Rome, crossing the Italian Alps on dangerous and snow-covered mountain roads. This race was even longer than the famous Mille Miglia and only 10 of these rallies were held as part of the official European rally championship.

This was truly an amazing purchase by our friend, who is an outstanding mechanic himself. When he bought the car in around 1976, it already had a reputation for being exclusive and exciting yet hardly anyone knew anything about it. So it was with some trepidation that we asked if he would be willing to part with his Zagato. Because our friend had owned the car for so long and had plans to restore it himself, it certainly wasn’t an easy decision for him. As two young brothers taking their first steps in the restoration business, we were incredibly excited about the prospect of taking on this project. Later, we concluded that he must have ultimately granted us the opportunity as a result of our commitment, enthusiasm and friendship. At last, an amazing project could begin!

Shortly after the purchase, we returned to Oakland to begin the more tedious sorting process of the parts and to check how complete the car was, and to prepare and pack it for the boat trip back to Europe. On completion, we happily realised that it was hardly missing any items, which is very unusual for a car that has been dismantled for so many years. Our expectations were further exceeded when we pushed the Zagato out of its shelter and into the Californian sunlight for the first time in decades – viewing it from all angles out in the open, we were stunned by its beautiful shape and character.

The partly-dismantled car was shipped from the US to Strada e Corsa in the Netherlands and then further dismantled in the workshop in sections, part by part, so everything could be restored one piece at a time. The dedicated and meticulous restoration process would take over one and a half years of continuous work. At that time it was only the two of us working at Strada e Corsa, but the advantage of such a small team is that it’s easier to stay focused which ultimately results in producing the best quality through to even the smallest details.

Removal of paint stage before Christal sand blasting

We were aware of the expected restoration costs of such a project and decided to look for the right type of customer for both this car and this project – someone who would understand this type of enterprise and who shared our ambition and passion. Thankfully, we found the right collector who we would do the restoration project for, and so a great collaboration began. 

To get a better understanding of the condition of the car and gain more in-depth knowledge, we started making a detailed inventory, visually checking and documenting every single part down to the very last nut and bolt. Taking over 2,500 photos, we recorded all the details about original surface treatments, surface plating, used materials, colours and traces of wear and tear. It has always been our passion and obsession to study each car part in an almost archaeological way, to be able to bring it back to exactly how it had been in the right spirit. The accuracy of the restoration should not only be technically correct, but also historically precise in order to reflect the time in which it was made, and the craftsmanship of the artesan who made it.

With this comprehensive approach we try to avoid any modifications or misinterpretations, as this would spoil the integrity of the original. Making aesthetical or even obvious technical changes is the last thing we want to do during a restoration. As classic car enthusiasts we love driving period correct cars and it is important to preserve their unique character. This makes a restoration more intense and significantly more difficult, but the satisfaction of seeing the final result is really worth it. Theoretically speaking, the pinnacle of our restoration success would be to present the car to the very first owner from 1953 in the exact same condition as when he bought it all those years ago.

Restoration of the wheel suspension

Restoration of the 8V Zagato Berlinetta engine

The only changes that we do allow are hidden deep inside the engine where we do a series of specific upgrades such as the use of improved forged pistons and high-end valves to not only create more performance, but also increase strength and reliability. The same goes for the implementation of a limited slip differential to improve handling for a better driving experience without altering the character of the car. These are very thought-through decisions and are not visible from the outside.

Incredibly, after a tremendous effort and with huge luck on our side, we managed to locate all the original RIV bearings in Rome, from a never-used stock from 1953 and still in the original boxes. These bearings were only used for the Otto Vu and since only 114 examples were made, these are ultra-rare and almost impossible to find. With the highly advanced crankshaft and specially ordered, tailor-made camshaft, it turned out the engine delivered an additional dose of performance, even more than we had bargained for. It was screaming on the test bench with these two huge and rare racing carburettors. All our efforts and dedication paid off with a fantastic but very load result.

All the mechanical work was done at Strada e Corsa including the project management, machining and building, and the body and chassis went to our partner in Italy for a complete body-off restoration. For the restoration of the 2-litre V8, the 4-speed gearbox, the differential and all the related parts, we went into as much detail as we possibly could. Thanks to our Italian friends, we even managed to restore the entire gearbox using original stock parts, never used and still wrapped in the original brown grease paper from 1953 – something which is virtually impossible to find nowadays. Just matching the correct colour for the car’s body took us close to twenty hours of research and trials. To restore only a handful of the original nuts and bolts can easily take up an entire day, so imagine having to do hundreds of items for the entire car! We made sure that every single part of the car was checked to resolve all the clearances. Each shaft, joint and rod was individually and carefully tested to make sure there was no play.

Restoration of carburettors before and after

During the project we understood that the car had been accepted for the Villa d’Este Concours d’élégance at Lake Como, instantly increasing the time pressure for completion. This was particularly stressful when it came to finding rare parts, as these have a notorious disregard for time and deadlines. In total, almost 70 people were involved in the restoration of this Fiat 8V Zagato, each playing a role and having a distinct responsibility which added to the logistical difficulties of ensuring everyone could accomplish their tasks in time.

Restoration of the original ignition keys

Making new key-fob as per the original model and to match the interior
Key-fob made from the same material as the seats, to match the dashboard

Restoration of the interior

Dashboard after restoration of the interior

Inner door panel 1 restoration of the door panels

Some television programmes give viewers the wrong impression that restoring a car is a very romantic endeavour that can be completed in a matter of a few weeks. In reality, it’s a long, physically and mentally demanding process, putting a lot of stress on everyone involved. At certain points we were working on the car until well into the early hours of the morning, returning to the workshop only a few hours later to begin another full day’s restoration work. To finish a project like this in time for one of the most prestigious events in the world, you can only succeed with solid determination, commitment and dedication.

Purchased old original Italian road map from the year of the Sestriere rally (1957) in the colour of the interior to match

Wallets hand made wallets to fit the new registration title of the car and made from the same material as the seats and the key-fob to match the intiour as a pair

In the finishing stages, when the restoration was about 99 percent complete, we were anxiously waiting on the delivery of the two unique and beautiful ‘open style’ Zagato seats from Italy. We were also keen to take the car for its first test drive, after over 30 years in hibernation. Driving the Fiat 8V Zagato Berlinetta without a seat wasn’t really an option, of course, so as we were on such a tight schedule, one of our friends suggested the slightly mad idea of driving to Italy to pick up the seats – a 14 hour drive in each direction! So while he was on his continental endurance race, only stopping for a few hours to get some sleep, we finished the car so it could be tested upon his return with the car seats.

Making by hand the original FIAT 8V oil line hose fitting exactly as original, one by one

Testing a freshly restored car and putting miles on it is a vital part of the project’s completion, as it shows what needs to be done next to produce a perfectly functioning car. It’s important to take great care when gently running in a rebuilt engine. Expecting the car to run superbly and without flaws from the first start-up is a mistake. Usually there’s a list of small adjustments that need to be made and we check them off one by one over the course of a few days, although it can sometimes take weeks.

Making socks for the velocity-stacks from the same material as the interior to avoid anything to fall in the engine during storage

Beautiful final result

All in all we drove the Fiat 8V Zagato Berlinetta for about ten hours on mostly open roads before transporting it to Villa d’Este Concours at Lake Como in Italy. The first public appearance of the Fiat 8V Zagato Berlinetta was at Villa d’Este in 2009 where it won first in class. It also won first in class at Pebble Beach, Uniques Special Ones in Florence, Zoute Concours Belgium, Chantilly Concours in France, followed by a number of successful Mille Miglia Participations that were the crowning glory of a project that had been an ultimate labour of love.

Winning Villa d’Este Concours

Finish at the Mille Miglia

We hope you enjoy reading about our exciting adventures and endeavours and please feel free to contact us if you are interested to join us on one of these adventures in the future. Please also visit our Fiat 8V parts shop.

Best regards,
Lennart & Jurriaan Schouwenburg

Photo courtesy of Michel Zumbrunn Classic Car Photography