The ATS Story
(above photo: 1963 ATS 2500GT)
“It all began over a woman. In 1961, eight key figures at Ferrari quit, known to some as the “palace revolt” (brought about by what the racing team regarded as inappropriate meddling in their affairs by Ferrari’s shareholder wife, Laura). Among the eight to quit were all of the top racing engineers including Carlo Chiti (designer of the famous Ferrari 156 Sharknose), and Giotto Bizarrini (start-of-project engineer of the 250 GTO, fully engineering the Breadvan). They were then all hired by Counte Giovanni Volpi to work as mechanics and design engineers in the creation a new sports car and company called the ATS Serenissima (Automobili Turismo e Sport Serenissima). Volpi’s investment partners were Giorgio Billi, an industrialist from Florence, and Jaime Ortiz-Patino, a Bolivian tin mogul.
“To stay away from the dominion of Ferrari, they found a factory facility south of Bologna (about 40km south of Modena), in a little country suburb town called Sasso Marconi. It’s located on the south side towards Florence, right off the Autostrada. Their goal: develop and build the ATS, enter LeMans, and beat Ferrari.
“To the fledgling company, it all sounded great but soon fell apart as personalities clashed: after only a few months, Bizarrini pulled out, then Volpi pulled out. The company name ATS Serenissia then became simply ATS. This left ATS financially on the high seas, teetering on bankruptcy. Billi and Chiti wanted to continue and then called in Alf Francis, a Polish émigré’ to Great Britain and a mechanic. Francis agreed to go to Bologna, to Sasso Marconi, to help develop the remaining cars.
“As Volpi’s vision for ATS never quite materialized, a LeMans entry for 1962 seemed not to be. So, through political connections Bizarrini still had to Ferrari, he went to him in hope of acquiring two factory GTOs that he had previously ordered in 1961 before the walkout. 1961, to add, was the world debut of the GTO, unveiled at the Ristorante Gatto Verde in the Maranello hills (painted red with a red, white, and green racing stripe). That is when and where Volpi made his order of 2 GTOs.
“However word somehow got back to Enzo Ferrari. Once he learned that Volpi had started a new company with the walked-out ex-Ferrari personnel (namely Chiti and Bizarrini), the GTO orders were cancelled and Volpi and Ferrari didn’t speak again for 20 years.
“So, for 1962 (the debut year of the GTO at LeMans), Volpi created a car based on a 250 SWB, using the ‘Kamm tail’ theory: a flowing and sculpted aerodynamic body that ends at an abruptly cut off tail section. This specific shape reduces drag, which can clearly be seen on the ‘Breadvan.’ When entered at LeMans, it was beating the GTOs but retired early in the race. Although controversial in its looks, the Breadvan is legendary today.
“It was after the creation of the Breadvan that ATS began in full. And as I said earlier, the ATS project was continued under Billi and Chiti. It was a mid-engined car, having a 275 LM flavor (aka ‘250 LM’), with a body by Giovanni Michelotti. The engine was a carbureted, 2.5L V8, designed by Chiti. It was mated to a 5-speed ZF gearbox taken from a FWD, front engine, Alfa Romeo van. At a point, Chiti was replacing it and gave me this ZF gearbox. I put it in the Thomassima II.
“They also created a foundry at the ATS factory. I made 275 LM racing wheels there, the star mags, for David Piper –one of the most famous privateer Ferrari racing teams. We used to share a workshop together in Modena. He’s one of the oldest private racing teams in the world, very fast, very efficient, a wonderful guy.
“It was in 1975 that Giorgio Billi finally pulled out of ATS. They were having very bad luck in the racing world. They even made an F1 car designed and built by Chiti: the 1963, 1.5L V8, 4-cam (with 6-speed gearbox by Colotti), Tipo 100, but it never finished a race. They only ended up making about 10 or 12 coupes. Only a few remain today.”
“I remember one day, around 1965, when I was at ATS, Chiti and Alf where there. I was somehow one of Chiti’s favorite people. I don’t know why –he was always asking me what I was doing. They were talking about ‘what are we going to do with all these cars?’ Chiti said: ‘Tom, would you like to own an ATS?’
“That’d be my wildest dream!,’ I said. Chiti then pointed to one outside in the staging area of the factory, in a line of them. He said: ‘You see that blue one there in the line? –take it.’ So I got an ATS for free. That car is in LA right now, owned by Bruce Milner. I sold the car in 1976 in Houston. From Texas it went to the east coast, to South Carolina, then back to LA. They’re worth about 5 to $600,000 today.
“Chiti designed the V8 after a Ferrari design; the origin had the ‘smoke’ of Ferrari about it. Mauro Forghieri was hired by Ferrari after the big walkout, replacing Carlo Chiti. Forghieri thereafter designed Formula One engines for Ferrari. He worked at Ferrari up until the late 1980s where he then went to Lamborghini Engineering, a racing department created by Lee Iacocoa who was the CEO of Chrysler at the time. Forghieri developed an F1 engine for a Larrousse chassis.”
My hand is tired from the furious note-taking, and I ask Tom if we can take a break. He continues talking anyway and I just sit there as he recounts another experience involving Lee Iacoca. I tell him I’ll backtrack and take notes after eating something. He agrees, all is well, and this is what followed:
Scuderia Serenissima: Tom Meade’s Basic Schooling in Car Building
A well-built house has a solid base, a foundation. Likewise, any successful performance car design begins with a comprehensive and solid understanding of basic engineering principles. In the pursuit of one’s vocation and life’s work, there are no short cuts to gaining and imparting this experience, in the emergence of applied skills.
As raw talent is never enough, Tom was fortunate and lucky enough to have been tutored by the most renowned group of race car engineers working in the world at the time. One such organization was the Scuderia Serenissima:
“It goes back to the ‘60s, concerning Scuderia Serenissima of Venice, and Medardo Fantuzzi of Modena, whose body workshop I slept in. He was very gracious and inviting, letting me sleep on a small army cot in front of an oil-burning heater. This was over 50 years ago. I literally ate, drank, and slept the experience --watching 8 to 10 hours a day the turning of every last nut, bolt, and screw, in the complete design and building process. This included learning the art and craft of metal shaping and hammering of the exquisite bodies.”
Tom pauses and motions down to sip his cappuccino. After a swallow, he looks up and briefly encounters an unguarded moment of reflection, seemingly caught in a wistful glance back to Fantuzzi’s shop. A thousand things fill the silence as he brings the decades back to life --50 years and thousands of miles away from Modena. I can feel the setting of the old shop, with the smell of oil and wood. The old days’ sun filters through the ambience, filling dark corners, glinting off metallic shapes, hand tools, and multi-valved engines. Tom wipes the froth from his beard and retrains the topic:
“The emblem of Venice is a lion with wings, with a foot atop a book. The Serenissima is a main section of Venice. Speaking of scuderia, which means ‘stable,’ Giovanni Volpi’s Scuderia Serenissima denotes ‘Stable of Tranquility.’ To give you an idea of his position, Count Volpi di Misurata lives in a palace in Venice where he hosts the annual Venice Film Festival.
“Counte Volpi came to Modena in the 1960s and went to Sasamotors, around the corner and in back of the old Asistenza Ferrari (Ferrari Assistance) building (which is gone now and moved to Maranello 20 to 30 years ago). A man by the name of Signor Gerolama Gardini was the coordinator/supervisor at Sasa. He was the colleague of a super engineer named Alberto Massimino. Massimino, who used to work at Maserati and Ferrari in the racing design departments, taught me much about automotive and race car engineering.
“The crème de la crème of Modena’s mechanics worked at Ferrari and Maserati at one time or another. After a time they would leave to branch out on their own. This was a natural occurrence as people came into their own levels of skill and success. But sometimes the parting of ways was acrimonious.
“For example, when Volpi parted ways with Ferrari he went to Sasso Marconi to create the company “ATS Serenissima” (Automobili Turismo e Sport Serenissima). But this lead to an eventual falling out with Enzo: Volpi’s exit coincided and occurred in 1961 when there was a mass walkout at the Ferrari factory, lead by Carlo Chiti (a friend of mine). Chiti was chief of the racing department at Ferrari. Bizarrini, engineer of the GTO, also walked out.
“Having left Ferrari during the walkout, Volpi wanted two GTOs and, out of spite, Enzo Ferrari would not provide them. So Volpi changed his tactics: He took a 250 SWB to Bizzarrini, had it re-bodied by Drogo, and modified it to super GTO spec. What resulted sealed history. Volpi’s iconic race car became known as the Ferrari Breadvan. It often outperformed the GTO.”
The living history unfolds as Tom recounts the events. As I furiously write in an ever sloppier shorthand, I try to envision what it must have been like to live in Italy in the 1960s while pursuing a life of racecar building. All of the names and people fly over my head.
“Counte Volpi went to Sasa and requested engineer Massimino to design the mechanicals, including the engine and gearbox, for a new car. What followed was 3 liter, 4-cam, 2-valve, V8 developed by none other than Alf Francis. Francis was the ex-mechanic for Sterling Moss. The new engine was developed on the ‘brake’ in a town just outside of Modena, near Maranello, called Formigine (between Modena and Maranello).
“The car was simply called Serenissima.
“Alf was a dear friend and mentor to me; I learned so very much under him. He and his fiancé would come over to my house and have dinner two or three times a week. During these meetings he taught me about basic racecar mechanics. He helped Volpi to develop his creations, too. The open-bodied version of the Serenissima, by Fantuzzi, was Volpi’s masterpiece (see photo below). It was originally metallic teal in color. I was at Fantuzzi’s shop at the time where I saw the Serenissima’s body being shaped and hammered out.”
(above photo: the Serenissima)
Recap: From ATS to Serenissima
- Counte Volpi wants to compete in LeMans and orders 2 GTOs before the factory revolt.
- Mass walkout occurs at the Ferrari factory, the “palace revolt,” lead by Carlo Chiti (engine designer). Several key personnel leave Ferrari at once.
- When Chiti walks out, Volpi convinces Chiti to collaborate with him to create ATS.
- Ferrari finds out that Volpi is involved with Chiti (who, having lead the revolt, is seen by Ferrari as a traitor).
- Ferrari denies Volpi the fulfillment of the order of 2 GTOs.
- Volpi, instead, buys 2 250 SWBs. Out of one of these he creates the Breadvan.
- ATS goes bankrupt.
- Volpi goes to Sasa Motors and has the Serenissima built.
- 1966 is the first outing of the Serenissima car at LeMans.
“By 1966 I was invited to LeMans, at the behest of engineer Massimino at Sasamotors, as a pit mechanic for Volpi and Team Serenissima. I worked directly under master ex-Ferrari mechanics Johnny Diena and Aldo Silingardi. Unfortunately, the Serenissima never finished the first lap as the right side rear half-shaft broke. Aside from that, it was probably one of the most important races in the world, being that it was a direct and official challenge to Ferrari with the Ford GT40s (with the Ford GTs preceding the GT40s). And they beat Ferrari. Ferrari’s P-cars just couldn’t keep up with the pushrod 7.0 liter Fords.
“The story around Modena goes something like this: Ford made a handshake deal to buy Ferrari’s factory for $12 million. Everything seemed fine until Mr. Ford was walking out the door and turned to Enzo and said ‘By the way, I’m going to send some engineers over in a few weeks to reorganize the racing department.’
“Enzo corrected Mr. Ford by saying ‘No, I’m only selling you the production part of the factory, not the racing department.’ After months of discussion, the deal blew right there and was cut off. Infuriated, Mr. Ford stomped out of Ferrari’s factory totally pissed off and immediately drove to Milano and caught a plane to England to visit Eric Broadley, owner and creator of Lola.
“With Broadley as the creative engineer with Lola, Ford would build what would become the GT40, to present to the world. And back in those days Ferrari or Maserati was not yet a household name. They were small boutique Italian automakers. But Ford, ironically, put Ferrari on the map when it made its intentions very clear by taking out large double-page spreads, in full color, printed in the newspapers around the world to publicize the coming LeMans challenge of the Ford GT40s against Ferrari.
“The goal was to embarrass Ferrari at LeMans by winning with a ‘lowly’ American, single cam, 7.0 litre pushrod V8. It would be an ultimate insult and Henry Ford’s vendetta. Ferrari was racing the P3, with its 4-cam, multi-valve, V12 P3/P4 engine being, in my opinion, the most aesthetically beautiful engine ever made.
(above photo: Ferrari P3/P4 V12)
“Dan Gurney drove one of the GT40s, and, at the time, 7 or 8 of the most famous drivers on the planet drove for Ford. For LeMans three of the Ford GT40s beat Ferrari as they came across the finish line in formation: 1-2-3 –an incredible slap in the face.
“You could hear Enzo Ferrari screaming from his office throughout Modena, he was so angry.”