Monteverdi Octet

Swiss-made cars are as rare as tasteful cuckoo-clocks; Laurence Meredith drives the one which made it to Britain

As a nation the Swiss are something of an enigma; women in the Confederation Helvetica weren't eligible to vote until 1972, unemployment in the country at around the same time rose to double figures — 11 to be precise — which some citizens regarded as a national scandal, and for most Swiss, but by no means all, the motorcar, and especially those capable of greater speeds than an average cuckoo at the top of the hour, has been Public Enemy Number One for the best part of 40 years. Motor racing was outlawed there after the Le Mans crash in 1955, which resulted in the death of more than 80 spectators, as well as Mercedes driver Pierre Levegh.

However, there have been a number of exceptions to the general rule that the Swiss do not share our love of motoring, including Peter Monteverdi, who not only raced a variety of quick cars but also went on to confuse and bewilder his compatriots by manufacturing them.

His first effort came in 1951. This was a Monteverdi special based on Fiat components, and an open two-seater (now in Monteverdi's museum) followed a year later. He then raced a BMW at the Nurburgring and, until 1956, by which time he had become Switzerland's Ferrari importer, he dabbled in competition with Fiat Topolinos and a DKW.

Besotted by Ferraris, however, Monteverdi went on to race a Testa Rossa and a four-cylinder Monza, mainly in hillclimb events, with varying degrees of success between 1956 and 1959. He even built a special body on a Monza chassis in 1958 — a coupe with 'gullwing' doors — but aesthetically it was an unhappy marriage which certainly didn't result in the Commendatore inviting Peter to join Ferrari's styling department.

During 1959 he used a number of cars in Swiss hillclimb and German circuit events, including a 250F Maserati, 300SL Mercedes-Benz coupe and a DKW Formula Junior single-seater. At this time his Ferrari business was doing rather well, but Monteverdi's restless and mechanically creative spirit, not to mention his infectious enthusiasm for motor racing continued to lead him in the direction of his workshops.

During 1960 he worked feverishly to produce a Formula Junior single-seater — the Monteverdi MBM — which had a neat spaceframe chassis, DKW rnechanicals and Porsche 356 wheels. A rear-engined version quickly followed which he raced himself at Albi and Monaco, but neither outing was successful. In the same year Monteverdi also produced his first 'proper' sports car, a pretty open two-seater with an Osca engine and very Lotus-like wobbly-web wheels.

But 1961 was the year in which Monteverdi's fairly undistinguished driving career came to an end. Like so many wealthy privateers during the days of the 1-litre Formula, he decided to enter the glamorous world of Formula One, in Peter's case with a Porsche-engined car. He finished 10th at the non-championship round at Solitude, where incidentally Dan Gurney won in the works Porsche (the second of just two Grand Prix victories by the Stuttgart manufacturer), but crashed heavily at Hockenheim. Eight year later Monteverdi acquired a large mechanical digger, which he used to create a large hole in the floor of his Basel workshop and buried the crashed car. It has never been exhumed.

A new building was opened in 1961, Garage Automobile Monteverdi, at Oberwilestrasses 20, Binningen-Basel, and its colourful proprietor continued life selling and dealing in Ferraris. Until the inevitable happened and Peter and 'uncle' Enzo had a difference of opinion, resulting in Monteverdi losing his Ferrari franchise and switching to Jensen by 1963.

This was an interesting and auspicious move, because for the first time Monteverdi was introduced to the power advantages of the big lazy American engine fitted to the then-current Jensen CV8 model. For brake-horse power the Jensen was almost on a par with contemporary Ferraris, but was without the fussiness that so many had encountered with some pure-bred Italian exotica. Jensen power impressed Monteverdi, Jensen styling less so Ferrari's styling was just about perfect, but the really clever thing to do according to Monterverdi's fertile mind was to combine the beautiful lines of a Ferrari with reliable American muscle in one car, much the same way that Bizzarrini had.

Monteverdi made a decision; he would become a manufacturer of beautiful high-performance sporting cars — Swiss sporting cars — which would be more exclusive than a Ferrari, faster than a Porsche and as reliable, if not as cheap to run, as a VW Beetle. And on 11 September 1967 his plans came to fruition when he launched the first 'production' coupe, the MBM. A. two-seater that looked a little like the offspring of a Maserati Ghibli and a Fiat Dino Coupe, it had a 7.2-litre Chrysler V8 developing 375bhp up front — a mighty impressive first effort.

A little later it appeared under his own name as the Monteverdi GT, with coupe styling by Frua of Italy. A four-seater prototype was constructed in 1968 and launched in 1969 as the High Speed 375L. This appeared at the same time as the 375S two-seater coupe, which unlike the four-seaters 'cheese-cutter' radiator grille and twin headlamps had single headlamps and a broad mouth which made it look like an exotic marine animal.

The 375L cabriolet joined the line-up in 1971 and the 375/4 four-door saloon arrived in the same year. A mid-engined prototype, the Hai (German for shark) also appeared in 1970, but only two of these good lookers are thought to have been built. The 375S was succeeded by the Berlinetta in 1972, there was the 450GTS Hai for 1974 and, in 1975 Monteverdi produced the Palm Beach model, a convertible version of the 1972 Berlinetta.

All were handbuilt and wickedly expensive, but in 1976 Peter Monteverdi turned his back on sportscars to work on other projects, including the building of four-wheel-drive Jeep type vehicle and a four-door version of the Range Rover. After a long and distinguished career in automotive design, Peter Monteverdi now contents himself with running his car museum. But while it lasted, his venture into the world of sports car manufacturing was a most interesting one, as Monteverdi's cars were just so very different in many respects from their exotic counterparts produced by Maserati, Ferrari and Lamborghini. Featured here is the 375S, a 1969 example and the only one of its kind to reside in Britain.

On the Road

One of the loneliest spots on the face of our planet is the City of London on a Sunday morning. Apart from conducted tours around the interesting buildings for the benefit of foreign tourists, it is an apparently people-free zone. But having parked the Monteverdi outside the famous Lloyd's building — once a coffee shop but now more in the design of a coffee percolator — crowds and crowds flocked seemingly from nowhere to gawp at the sensational lines of this Swiss-American hybrid.

Among the many who asked "What's all this then?", there was one colourfully dressed lady with a clear weight problem who, in a desperate rush to get a closer look, tripped over and nearly demolished a rear wing panel. This is the effect that this amazing motor car creates. And it was the same trundling through the streets of London before heading off down the M4 — there were chin-dopped gawpers. Everywhere.

A car with a large presence, its Fissore-built steel body closely resembles the Frua designs for the Maserati Mistral and AC 427, with squared off razor-like edges, and lots of chrome trim to highlight the metallic silver paintwork. Attention to design detail is exemplified by the subtle swage lines close to the outsides of the gently curved roof panel, which may have been influenced by Paul Bracq's treatment of the 'Pagoda' roof Mercedes SL series launched in 1963. Whatever, the overall styling is more 'German' than ornate and so is the . . . ssshhh . . . build quality.

Italian contemporaries feel delicate by comparison, and it's interesting that Monteverdi drew on Daimler-Benz's parts bin for some components. So well made is it that it is little wonder this car, which has less than 30,000 miles recorded on its odometer, has never needed restoring.

Under the bonnet is the all-iron 7.2-litre V8 with its orange painted rocker covers. Orange? Very Jimi Hendrix. And most fitting for 1969. Ford's were blue, incidentally. Like the Bizzarrini's, the engine is positioned well back in the chassis to give the tail end a chance to stay where it's supposed to in high-speed corners. The separate chassis frame, which is built from a number of box-section tubes, which might once have been intended as the sturdier structural sections of the Forth Bridge, is a little like a typical German bicycle — 17 times as heavy as the person it's meant to carry, and wouldn't as much as bend if it was walked over by the entire population of the Chinese Republic. Twice!

Originally built for a client in South Africa, the speedometer is calibrated in miles, rather than kilometres per hour, but Monteverdi refused resolutely to bear the pain of seeing 'his' 375S suffer the ignominy of having its steering wheel positioned in the 'wrong' place. Which is why this example is a left-hooker. Getting behind the wheel into the leather clad seat with its neat sliding integral headrest is, despite the considerable breadth of the alloy-covered outer sill panel, easy on account of the terrific amount of cabin space.

The seat squabs are too short even for vertically challenged pilotes, and the wood-rimmed steering wheel — an admittedly slim, elegant comfortable piece from the bespoke craft world is, like the 15in Borrani wire road wheels, somewhat incongruous on a car from this modern era. And there's a similarly absurd plank of wood that suffices for the facia. Between the top and bottom bars of the dashboard there is also a horizontal step — and naturally it's a large one — as prominent and distracting as a copy of Mein Kampf in the Kremlin library.

And another piece of Monteverdi eccentricity. The rear seat. It looks like a seat, is shaped like a seat and is upholstered to match the two in the front. But it isn't a seat. So, when is a seat not a seat? When it's a dummy which conceals secret stowage compartments, and is hard enough to test the comfort threshold of Ranulph Fiennes. Weird.

On the other hand there's a splendid Bosch-Behr air-conditioning system, electrically-operated windows (and they work properly), and a lovely old Becker radio set, all of which contribute to the 375's image and role as a Grand Tourer. Confirmation of this purpose is delivered in no uncertain terms when the fat Pirellis are revolving quickly, which they are apt to do, of course, with 380 raw horsepower to command.

As a high speed inter-city express, the Monte is almost peerless, but it also excels in heavy traffic. The big Chrysler lump, which relies on a single four-barrel Carter carburettor to deliver four-star to the bores — at an impressive average of 14mpg too — is a real torquer. It suffers from none of the wheezing, gasping and plug-fouling antics of some Italian contemporaries, and delivers raw, red-meat power from walking pace to well past 150mph, the benchmark figure of 60mph arriving from rest in 6.3 seconds.

Power comes easy to this car — an inherent part of the Monte's make-up — and is dispensed through the automatic three-speed TorqueFlite gearbox with superior confidence, evidence for the engine's unequivocal purpose manifesting itself in the characteristic flatulent V8 bellow from the exhaust system. One or two examples were made with manual transmission, but their owners reckon that operating the clutch pedal is akin to kicking a heavy piece of basalt, with the same kind of foot damage afterwards.

The front suspension is a traditional double wishbone and coil-spring set-up, with a De Dion axle and Watts linkage at the rear. Monteverdi had neither the money nor the time to invest in developing a suspension, and understandably took the attitude that what was good enough for Aston Martin was good enough for him. Where the handling is concerned, it's a competent arrangement, intervals between tyre changes being dictated largely by driver restraint or otherwise, with the forte pedal.

The chassis adopts a reassuring and commendably neutral stance through both low and high speed corners, the Pirelli boots exercising a python-like grip on the tarmac — until it's time for a little frivolous indulgence with that throttle pedal again. Well, it's there to be used, isn't it? Bang it hard and the scenery in the rear view mirror changes dramatically as the fat rump moves rapidly into waltz mode, the back tyres simultaneously orchestrating an accompanying rhythm.

It's all very catchable, though, a touch of opposite lock being all that is required to return a more familiar view through the rear view mirror of the road behind rather than the hedgerows. However, at 1686kg this is no featherweight, and it isn't difficult to imagine that whopping tail slides — 'hooliganesque' fun that they are — would be interestingly less controllable in wet weather. Fun and games of a different type...

The disc brakes are powerful because they have to be. Not too much pressure needed at the pedal either. Surprising. Bite? Instant. Fade? Non-existent. Which was just as well when the dismal numpty in a Metro decided to risk an early arrival in the next world by pulling out in front of us into the outside lane of the M4 without signalling. 'Struth, the things you see when you haven't got a blunderbluss handy.

Time and again, this old campaigner never failed to impress. It can be as daft as Basil Brush or as sensible as the Six O'clock News, and which comes first is entirely up to the fellow behind the wheel. Boot it, feather it, do what you want, it forgives and forgets. Kill the engine for a couple of minutes, or a few hours, and it churns into life again instantly afterwards. And more than this, no-one else (in Britain) has got one. Its rarity appeal is, therefore, high. But not when it comes to replacing body panels, because spares don't exist. Just seven of these enigmatic Swiss temptresses are thought to exist worldwide; this one allowed a rare and invaluable insight into the wonders of the Monteverdi world.