One is the automotive equivalent of an Emperor. The other, the exact opposite. Surely, it is virtually unthinkable that they should share any common ground whatsoever. But they do.
Journalism is often littered with superlatives, and some may feel that calling a car an Emperor is just that. But the case of the Maserati 5000 GT it really and truly is a valid comparison. The model is after all rarer than the legendary Ferrari 250 GTO, it cost more to purchase when it was new, and it was no doubt driven by more influential and wealthy people too. It’s a fascinating car, and I too find myself terribly impressed by all its splendour. So much so that I have previously written about the crème of Maserati on our Danish site.
I of course realise that my Danish article won’t be of much use for all of our readers here on the English site. But take my word for it: The fifties really didn’t have anything else with wheels on quite as exclusive as the Maserati 5000 GT. As a whole, Maserati were at their very pinnacle up through that decade, and the 5000 GT from 1959 was their effort to produce the very fastest and most refined GT-car in the world. Despite all of its virtues, they only built 33 examples making it one of the world’s rarest cars. They were all handbuilt and every one was unique – some more so than others: Allemano were responsible for 22 cars, while the other carrozzeria which were permitted their own interpretation of Maserati’s masterpiece were limited to Touring, Frua, Monterosa, Pininfarina, Bertone, Michelotti, and Ghia.
And then there was the FIAT 126. A car which belongs at the very opposite end of the automotive ranks. To the best of my knowledge, the 126 didn’t set a single record or milestone in the history of the automobile, and it probably wasn’t the transport of choice for many Royals, tycoons of industry or moviestars. But nonetheless, it has to be considered a markedly greater success as a car and commercial product: From its introduction in 1972 until they finally ceased production in 2000, they manufactured almost five million of the little rear-engined FIAT. My own father purchased one too when he grew tired of riding his motorcycle or scooter through the cold Danish winter. It’s fair to say that even the FIAT 126 was a step up for him in that regard.
So what can the Emperor and his minion possibly have in common? Well, they were in fact designed by the same man!
Okay, so you could of course question the validity of that claim, as the Maserati was – as already mentioned – designed by a handful of designers who each presented their own variant of the GT theme. Yet, don’t forget that one 5000 GT designed by Ghia and introduced in 1961. While a Ghia design, its elegant lines were actually penned by Sergio Sartorelli who worked for Ghia at that time.
It was a special order, and it was specifically given to Sartorelli rather than just Ghia in general. The order came from none other than Ferdinando Innocenti – the man behind Lambretta scooters. Sartorelli had previously both built a prototype scooter and finished design proposals for Lambretta, just as he had deigned to prototypes for Innocenti cars. Clearly, Ferdinando Innocenti was a satisfied customer, and he made sure that it had to be Sartorelli who was to create the bodywork for his new 5000 GT. From that, we can also easily establish that both the Innocenti and the Lambretta companies must have been doing very well indeed. In fact, during Innocenti’s prime, they were the second most sold marque on the Italian home market – only beaten by FIAT. Apropos: Giovanni Agnelli from FIAT was one of the few colleagues who equally owned a Maserati 5000 GT. It truly was a GT for the elite!
Later, it all went downhill for Innocenti: Their Lambretta scooter sales slowed and the cooperation between Innocenti and British Leyland didn’t live up to expectations. Even before British Leyland took over all of Innocenti, Sartorelli had swiftly moved on. Of course that really didn’t have anything to do with Innocenti, but rather with the death in 1963 of Luigi Segres, owner and chief stylist at Ghia. Segre had also owned part of carozzeria OSI, where Sartorelli was now made head of the design department. When OSI later was reorganised, their design department effectively ended up becoming FIAT’s new Centro Stile, and Sartorelli was thereby in charge of all of FIAT’s design and prototype development from 1967.
That’s how Sartorelli during the very late sixties found himself in charge of the enormous challenge of updating FIAT’s golden egg – the little Nuova 500. As we all know, the 500 had been a massive sales success and its popularity meant it was already well on its way towards icon status. It was a heavy role to live up to, but Sartorelli executed the very bound task with flair and confidence. The new FIAT 126 debuted in 1972, and despite still being technically based on the old 500 model, it looked fresh and modern while fitting in perfectly with the design language of FIAT’s broad model range.
As mentioned already, sales of almost five million cars is naturally a smashing sales success. Yet the 126 has never come close to the same status as its predecessor. This is probably largely down to its modern, cubistic and stringent design as dictated by that era – that, and the fact that the story of Italy’s biggest car success had of course already been written. However, if we allow ourselves to look beyond the borders of Italy, the 126 actually managed to repeat history by mobilising a whole country – only this time it was Poland, where well in excess of three million 126’s were assembled under license by Polski FIAT; later to become FSO. In the meantime, Western Europe had moved on during the seventies and now expected more of their superminis. The Renault 5 and first-generation VW Golf had taken over the market, leaving very little column space for a car which was only one step up from a scooter.
For unexplainable reasons, there hasn’t really been much column space for Sartorelli either. Which is odd considering just how broad his talents reached; as perfectly demonstrated in this article. Slotting in between the FIAT 126 and the Maserati 5000 GT, he also gave birth to other significant and well-resolved designs such as the FIAT 1100 Giardinetta, the 2300 Coupé and not least, the 1978 Car of the Year: FIAT Ritmo.
With such a vast portfolio, what was then the highlight of his career? Was it perhaps as a very young designer, to be given the opportunity to pen the ultimate super-GT? Or was it as a wiser and more mature man, when he gave us his interpretation of the ideal family hatchback to conquer the Car of the Year title? There will obviously be varying opinions on this. Personally, I would point towards the impressive Maserati, while others would no doubt argue the case for the Ritmo. But despite that honourable Car of the Year title, less than two million Ritmos were produced. On that note, there could even be those who would vote for the diminutive 126. Maybe there’s a statue of Sergio Sartorelli in a town square somewhere in Poland?