At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Piero Dusio - sportsman and entrepreneur

His Cisitalia company revolutionised automobile design


The Cisitalia 202 set new standards in sports car design that changed the way automobiles looked
The Cisitalia 202 set new standards in sports car design
that changed the way automobiles looked
The footballer, racing driver and businessman Piero Dusio was born on this day in 1899 in Scurzolengo, a village in the hills above Asti, in Piedmont.

Dusio made his fortune in textiles but it is for his postwar venture into car production that he is most remembered. Dusio’s Cisitalia firm survived for less than 20 years before going bankrupt in the mid-1960s but in its short life produced a revolutionary car - the Cisitalia 202 - that was a gamechanger for the whole automobile industry.

Dusio played football for the Turin club Juventus, joining the club at 17 years old, and was there for seven years before a knee injury forced him to retire at the age of only 24, having made 15 appearances for the senior team, four of them in Serie A matches.

Piero Dusio was a former footballer who made his fortune in textiles
Piero Dusio was a former footballer
who made his fortune in textiles
He kept his connection with the club and from 1942 to 1948 was Juventus president. In the short term, though, he was forced to find a new career. He took a job with a Swiss-backed textile firm in Turin as a salesman. He took to the job immediately and made an instant impression on his new employers, selling more fabric in his first week than his predecessor had in a year.  Within a short time he had been placed in charge of sales for the whole of Italy.

In 1926, at the age of 27, Dusio opened his own textile company, producing Italy's first oil cloth.

By the 1930s he had a portfolio of business interests that included banking, tennis racket manufacture and racing bicycles. In the textile business he branched out into uniforms and casual clothing. He made his fortune after landing a contract with Mussolini to supply military uniforms for the Italian army. Demand for his waterproof canvas products also soared.

His personal wealth enabled him to indulge his passion for motor racing. He bought himself a Maserati and regularly raced. He finished sixth in the Italian Grand Prix of 1937 and won his class in the Mille Miglia in 1937 driving a 500cc SIATA Sport.

In 1938 he finished third overall in the Mille Miglia and won the Stelvio hillclimb. War then intervened but once it had finished Dusio was eager to resume his career in the cockpit.

The Cisitalia D46 was the first car to be produced by Piero Dusio's new company
The Cisitalia D46 was the first car to be produced
by Piero Dusio's new company
Yet Italy’s economy was on the floor at that stage with most of its industry destroyed. Dusio realised that it might be unrealistic to expect the expensive sport of motor racing to pick up exactly where it left off.

With that in mind, he created his new company - the Consorzio Industriale Sportivo Italia, Cisitalia for short - with a plan to produce a single-seater racing car cheap enough to tempt the amateur.  He commissioned the Fiat engineer, Dante Giacosa, famous for the Fiat 500 Topolino to design it and soon the Cisitalia D46 was born.

Dusio's dream of a one-model series featuring only the D46 came to nothing, but the car scored multiple successes, particularly in the hands of drivers as talented as the brilliant Tazio Nuvolari, winner of 24 Grands Prix in the pre-Formula One era.

He overstretched himself somewhat with his next project, paying a fortune to extract the legendary German engineer Ferdinando Porsche - a Nazi party member - from a French prison. Porsche’s innovative but complex mid-engined Cisitalia 360 was a triumph of engineering but ultimately proved too expensive for Dusio to support.

Battista 'Pinin' Farina is said to have made his reputation with his work on the 202
Battista 'Pinin' Farina is said to have made
his reputation with his work on the 202
Yet Dusio was not done.  In 1945, he took on another Fiat man, their young head of aviation, Giovanni Savonuzzi, with the idea of building a two-seater commercial coupé based on the D46.  Their project was taken up by Battista ‘Pinin’ Farina, who came up with the Cisitalia 202 Coupé.

The car was not a commercial success. It was priced higher than rival cars from Jaguar and Porsche that offered better performance. In the end, fewer than 200 were built.

Yet its design - the one that made Farina’s reputation, although it closely followed Savonuzzi’s preliminary sketches - is credited with changing the way cars look, setting an entirely new standard - a template for the way sports cars look even today.

Whereas road cars traditionally had been a collection of elements - cabin, hood, grill, fenders, headlights etc - with no real thought for aerodynamics, at least until the late 1930s, the Cisitalia 202 was a single unit. The headlights and the grill were perfectly aligned elements of the hood, the wheels were entirely inside the body, removing the need for separate fenders, and the cabin tapered in a smooth line to the rear.

Savonuzzi had applied to his sketches all he had learned about airflow in his aviation work and Farina had put his ideas into practice. The result was a beautiful design that was likened to a sculpture.  When the Museum of Modern Art in New York became the first museum to exhibit automobiles as examples of functional design, the 202 was the first vehicle to enter their collection.

For all that, Dusio could not sell enough cars to rescue his ailing company and the only way he could continue his career was to accept an offer of support from the government of Argentina to set up in car production in Buenos Aires, where he would remain until his death in 1975 at the age of 76.

Cisitalia continued to be run by his son, Carlo Dusio, but was made bankrupt in 1965.

The cathedral in Asti dates back to the 11th century
The cathedral in Asti dates back to the 11th century
Travel tip:

The village of Scurzolengo is just over 15km (9 miles) northeast of Asti, a city of just over 75,000 inhabitants about 55 km (34 miles) east of Turin. The city enjoyed many years of prosperity in the 13th century when it occupied a strategic position on trade routes between Turin, Milan, and Genoa. The area between the centre and the cathedral is rich in medieval palaces and merchants’ houses, the owners of which would often compete with their neighbours to build the tallest towers. Asti was once known as the City of 100 Towers, although in fact there were 120, of which a number remain, including the Torre Comentina, the octagonal Torre de Regibus and Torre Troyana.

The strikingly modern Museo Nazionale dell' Automobile is a major tourist attraction in Turin
The strikingly modern Museo Nazionale dell' Automobile
is a major tourist attraction in Turin
Travel tip:

With a long history in motor vehicle design and manufacturing - Fiat, Lancia, Iveco, Pininfarina, Bertone, Giugiaro, Ghia and Cisitalia were all founded in the city - it is hardly surprising that Turin is home to Italy’s most important automobile museum, the Museo Nazionale dell’Automobile (also known as MAUTO).  Opened in 1960 and dedicated to Giovanni Agnelli, founder of FIAT, the museum’s building and permanent exhibition were completely renovated in 2011. The MAUTO, in  Corso Unità d'Italia, is today one of Turin’s most popular tourist attractions.

More reading:

Was Tazio Nuvolari the greatest driver of them all?

The 'smallest brother' who became a giant of the car industry

The brilliance of engineer Vittorio Jano

Also on this day:

54AD: The suspicious death of the emperor Claudius

1815: The execution of Napoleon's military strategist Joachim Murat


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