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Was the first Porsche built in Italy?

For those of you who think they know all about Porsche and its cars, here is a fascinating story that may surprise.

On my travels I came cross a cute red car with a double-bubble roof, sitting in Northern Italy. It was so beautiful and perfect that I kept going back to have a look, wondering what it was. The name of the car, I was told, was ‘Castiglioni’, or ‘Il Bolide’. I had never heard of it.

With few expectations, I dug deeper into its history, simply because the car had an effect on me – I found the design intriguing and the build quality surprisingly high. I also thought that there might be a good story behind it. My suspicions were proved right, and there was a real jewel of a background story. The car proved to be a unique masterpiece, a real SuperFind!

So, here is that story.

The current owner kept telling me that I was standing in front of the very first Porsche, which was built in Italy. As proof, he showed me the tiny Volkswagen engine in the back. I was intrigued, so I kept researching and found out the following details, with the very generous help of the Italian magazine Auto d‘Epoca.

The builder of the car was Dottore ‘Chicco’ Castiglioni, who had an adventurous life. During World War II, he was one of the heroic divers of the Decima Flottiglia MAS (Motoscafi Armanti Silluranti), a famous Italian commando frogman unit. When the war in Europe ended, in May 1945, he was assigned the task of clearing mines from the harbours of the River Po. This was a very dangerous job, but it paid him enough money to buy his first car. He chose a Kübelwagen, which he purchased directly from the ARAR facility (an Italian government agency selling surplus military equipment) near Bologna.

Il Bolide

Above: Dottore Castiglioni and friends with his beloved Kübelwagen, which later became ‘Il Bolide’.

Castiglioni took the Kübelwagen all over Italy, loving it so much that he promised himself that he would one day use it as the basis to build a sports car. Around 1946, he turned to Carrozzeria Menarini in Bologna, which was well known as a leading producer of bus bodies, and finally commissioned his dream sports car, based on his Kübelwagen. He drew the designs himself, including the double-bubble roof, and helped personally to build the body and tubular frame.

For the rear screen, he used Plexiglass material from surplus aircraft parts, and for the front central light, he used the landing light from an American bomber, which he found in the fields. Some of the car’s instruments came from American aircraft too, as did parts for the modified gear-change linkage. The whole body was made out of thin aircraft aluminium, clothing the original Kübelwagen chassis, for which the original paperwork still exists.

tubular frame

Above: The tubular frame, built in 1946 by Carrozzeria Menarini, Bologna.

The engine was modified using various obsolete Fiat components, but Castiglioni was not satisfied with the result, which is why he made direct contact with  the Porsche company in Gmünd to ask for advice. Following these discussions, he obtained parts such as a reprofiled camshaft, high-compression pistons, lightened connecting rods, plus a carburetter and inlet manifold, all of which duly arrived by military aircraft directly from Austria. These original components are still fitted to the engine today.

Later, Ferry Porsche and Castiglioni became good friends, and it is known that they spoke about the possibility of a small production run for the car, probably around 1948. However, nothing came of the potential collaboration, and Castiglioni moved into aviation, and lost interest in the little coupé. The car remained in his possession and was stored in the dry underground garage of his house in Bologna until his death. In the late eighties, Castiglioni’s family discovered the car, and gave it to a family friend, who kept if for 35 years.

double-bubble roof

Above: ‘Il Bolide’ on a drive through Northern Italy. Note the headlamp from an American bomber, and the double-bubble roof.

The car was only shown once in public, but was the subject of many Italian motor magazine articles, and so was quite well known in its day. Thank goodness it was never used regularly, which helped to preserve the car for the future, and to this day it has only covered a few thousand kilometres.

Clearly, Castiglioni foresaw the Porsche 356, but his concept was much lighter and more agile than the early 356A, and light-years ahead of anything else at the time.

original paperwork

Above: The original paperwork from the Volkswagen Kübelwagen, bought in 1945 from a military-surplus compound.

I am pretty sure that Castiglioni influenced many designers, including Allemano, Zagato, Abarth and Michelotti. At the end of the 1950s, his influence could still be seen in the now rare and much sought after Porsche 356 Carrera GTL Abarth, the concept of which is virtually identical.

Castiglioni ‘Il Bolide’ today

Above: The Castiglioni ‘Il Bolide’ today – beautiful lines and suicide doors.

I am glad that I had the great pleasure of driving the Castiglioni, and I can tell you, it goes like a rocket ship! It would have made a great sports car in its day.

A lovely interior

Above: A lovely interior with some aircraft instrumentation and bespoke steering wheel.

Ahead of its time

Above: Marvellous from every angle, the car was ahead of its time.


Article by Michael Kliebenstein

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