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Bertone Testudo

Il Maestro and ‘The Turtle’, by Richard Heseltine

By Richard Heseltine

Giorgetto Giugiaro is nothing if not an overachiever: a man with a gilded resume that includes umpteen landmark post-war design icons. Nonetheless, ask him to comment on his past efforts and he will invariably dismiss them out of hand. However, there are exceptions, the car you see here being one of his favourites from a bulging back catalogue. 

In many ways, the Testudo was among the most important concept cars to emerge during the 1960s. Based upon a shortened Chevrolet Corvair platform, complete with a 2372cc air-cooled six-pot slung behind the rear axle, it marked the emergence of its chief designer as a trendsetter. ‘I wanted to give something of myself, from my mind alone, [to prove] that I was no longer following a chain, following other ideas,’ he told Automobile Quarterly. ‘With the Testudo, I proved to myself that I was able to break with the past and begin with something coming from my own imagination. I believe it was a radically new kind of car, a new concept. In my opinion, it seemed to provide a new source for car designs. That was a car with which I felt I contributed to car designing.’

Bertone Testudo

The name, a literal translation meaning turtle, was chosen to symbolise the design theme. A sharp crease ran down each flank, dividing the body, with the radically glazed ‘bubble roof’ being more akin to Stateside custom cars from the likes of Ed Roth or Bill Cushenbery. The canopy hinged forward for access to the cabin with its equally wild rectangular steering ‘wheel’.  Work on this brave new world began on January 3 1963 and, just to emphasise the speed in which the Turinese carrozzeria could turn out a new car, it was completed in time for March’s Geneva Motor Show. What’s more, studio chief ‘Nuccio’ Bertone drove it to Switzerland. 

Reaction to this 1060mm (41.7in) high device was largely positive, although Road & Track labelled it ‘awkward’. And while no replicas would be forthcoming, many cues were transposed intact on to the Lamborghini Miura while Anatole Lapine admitted to being influenced by the car when he penned the Porsche 928. As for the sole prototype, it suffered severe rear-end damage during a promotional shoot for Shell. It was subsequently put into storage where it remained until the early 1990s when newly-incumbent chief designer Luciano d’Ambrosio initiated the car’s restoration.

In an agreeable twist to the story, Giugiaro had long since wanted to own the Testudo. He had driven the car back from Geneva following its show debut, and later used it as his wedding car. So it had huge sentimental value. After leaving Bertone for Ghia in late 1965, his attempts to buy the car were rebuffed. He finally got his chance during RM Auctions’s sale of Bertone concept cars in May 2011. He had to pay 336,000 euros for the privilege, though. 

If you have a taste for concept cars, look out for the first in a series of books from Porter Press covering one-offs and show-stoppers. It will be arriving in the New Year…

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