Car artist’s admission to lifelong obsession
By Wallace Wyss
Car artists have their favorites, sometimes too much. They like Porsches but hate Mercedes. It’s like that. Having been a car artist since 2009, I gravitated toward Italian cars but stuck to brands like Ferrari where I knew there was a market.
A bit of background. So at least half a century ago I was a budding poet, had won a national poetry award and thought “This is my life’s destiny.” Then I went to a University library in search of a poetry journal only to find a copy of Autosport, a British magazine, which had a story on an obscure Italian car called Iso, this being their first race car, separate from their four-seater coupe, the Rivolta.
I had never seen a car so wanton, so rakish, almost obscene. It was like a streetwalker in 8-in high heels. What amazed me then was that it had a Chevy V8 as an engine, iron block, pushrod. Detroit crudity in an exotic. I forgot poetry and instantly became a car guy. A couple years later I was writing car ads in Detroit and a boss mentioned an obscure Italian car was down at a Corvette shop; I might want to take a look at it.
It was a Bizzarrini Targa. Long story short, the Iso company, which had started with the tiny Isetta “Bubble Car” during the Suez oil crisis, had hired an engineer (ex-Ferrari) named Giotto Bizzarrini to do a four-seater saloon, which he did. But to keep him happy they indulged him in building a two-seater race car on a shortened Iso Rivolta chassis that raced at Le Mans where it hung in there with the Ferraris enough to finish 9th in 1965.
But the owner of Iso, Renzo Rivolta, didn’t like the race car’s aluminum body – too expensive to build, so he had a tamer design, the Grifo, done by the coachbuilder’s in-house designer, Giorgetto Giugiaro, and Bizzarrini went off to his native Livorno to build the race car under his own name.
The car I saw was one of three, not regular models, and I tried to buy it but the young man who owned it wouldn’t answer my entreaties. Flash forward a few years, I’m in North Hollywood, driving down the street near a movie studio when outside a bar I see an emerald green Bizzarini. I pull over and go into the bar and ask “Who owns that green car?” A craggy-faced guy about 65 looks up from his whiskey and says gruffly “I do.” So I meet Carey Loftin, a movie stunt driver, who it turns out, in succession, owned five of them, all maintained by Max Balchowsky, an eccentric race car driver and mechanic who is famous for building a series of Buick powered race cars called “Old Yeller.”
Later on, I join the fledgling Iso-Bizzarrini club and started making rosters of Bizzarrinis and Isos. Then at a Ferrari owner’s convention I met a New York apartment house owner who met weekly with a cabal of fellow enthusiasts. Conversations would go like this:
“Hey, Al, I gotta Ghbli comin’ in from the Coast”
“Manual or automatic”
“Manual, SS, yellow”
A price would be tossed out, accepted and somewhere in America an 18-wheeler would come to a screeching halt and the car offloaded to another truck going toward the buyer’s city. They liked my knowledge of cars and would send me all over the country to look for them.
So besides Rolls Royces, Ferraris, and Maseratis, I bought four of these Bizzarrinis. The best one was white, belonging to a club member, who bought it new in Italy. I didn’t even talk price. I just showed up at his desert house and said ”I’m here for the car” handed him a cashier’s check for $60,000 and drove it away.
Then there was one all apart, sold by a guy who had started a restoration on it but didn’t want to continue. The third was none other than one of Carey Loftin’s cars. The Iso Bitz club was invited by his gracious wife to lunch at his beach townhouse.
At the party, I kept thinking that the party would end with him showing us his latest cars. Instead guests began to leave, so I up and said “Do you still have any of your old cars?” He said “Yup” and led me outside to the garage and opened the door to reveal a dusty old Bitz, with the dashboard all ripped up. His wife had volunteered to sew it but probably discovered sewing leather was not like sewing cloth.
I called my New York contact and a week later went back with a cashier’s check and a flatbed truck. His wife was crying as I towed the car out onto a flatbed, realizing owning five of those exotic Bizzarrinis had, over the years, earned her husband a lot of movie work, such as driving the Mustang in Bullitt. His counter-argument was that he was over 80 and movie jobs weren’t coming his way anymore.
The fourth Bizzarrini I found n a small Ohio town, parked outside for at least two winters. Rusty under its alloy skin. But my New York customer wanted it. The local bank manager was incredulous that the loser car owner had such a treasure but they took the check and I took the car. That was one flaw in our buying arrangement. I would take a check and if the car wasn’t worth it, I couldn’t wait for a second check, I just bought it.
Eventually I met the owner of the Detroit-based Targa. His father had bought the car from his business partner, an early investor in Bizzarrini. The partner had met Giotto Bizzarrini in a bar. His investment was rewarded with the open car. He sold it to my friend’s father who then gave it to his older son. The son, needing a daily driver for Detroit’s winters, sold it to his younger brother for a hefty price of $3000 and the son kept it, restored it, and now, in 2022, I’d say it’s worth what — 2 to 3 million? Give or take.
Flash forward to 2009, I am a car book author. One day I plan to go to a Beverly Hills car show, carrying my latest book. Prior to the show I decide to make an oil portrait of Carroll Shelby, the subject of the book, I go to the show, book in hand, and sell it. As I am autographing it, I mention I have an oil portrait of Shelby back in the car and show the book buyer a photo of the painting. He says “Go get it. You sold that too.”
On the long walk to the car, I tell myself “You gotta learn to make prints. You can’t sell your originals.” So now it’s 2022, and I’ve painted over 100 car portraits, I have clients around the world that commission portraits of their cars.
Most of my work is Ferraris, with the occasional Maserati or Porsche. I even did a run of prewar streamlined modern cars. Then one day I had an epiphany. “Why,” I ask myself, ” is there no Bizzarrini art?” It figures. First, the brand is ignored by all except a few cognoscenti for fifty years. Now there are some beautifully restored ones appearing, But there’s no art, no jackets, no memorabilia. The books that appear now and then die off, and go out of print.
So I’m painting them. Here’s some of my favorites::
- Blue GT5300 Paradise Cove, Malibu. This was a car fresh from a restoration in France. I was standing in an empty car lot in Malibu at 7 a.m as the sun rose to reveal my favorite car.
- GT5300 side view, at the beach Same car. I also painted the owner’s Maserati Ghibli spyder.
- GT5300 rear 3/4 red T-top Targa. I tried to buy this car in the early ‘70s when I found it at a Corvette shop in Detroit, being serviced. I didn’t realize then how incredibly rare it was.
- GT5300 rear 3/4 blue t-top Targa. I saw this car at Monterey when they displayed all three Bizzarrini Targas at the Pebble Beach concours d’elegance.
- Iso A3C race car, red. Imported by Bruce Meyer, Beverly Hills’ most prominent car collector, who found it in Europe. He owns beaucoup Porsches and Ferraris but this is getting to be his favorite driver.
I’ve even started copying the paintings onto leather jackets for those clients who order a big canvas. It may well be that I’m going down a road no serious car artist goes on, celebrating a marque still unknown and unrecognized by 99% of enthusiasts. But I feel a small sense of pride when I sell a work depicting Bizzarrini –pride that this obscure marque, once lambasted by Ferrari folk as being low class because it had a common-as-dirt Chevy V8, has emerged to become celebrated.
It’s the least I can do…
Wallace Wyss, a car book author and fine artist portraying collector cars on the West Coast, is available for commissions for oil on canvas. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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