Driving the gorgeous Touring Disco Volante
Jeremy fell in love with the coachbuilt Alfa. And it's not hard to see why...
Posted: 24 Feb 2014
First, you need a lot of money. An awful lot of money. Piero Mancardi, boss of Carrozzeria Touring Superleggera - the Italian firm behind the gorgeous Disco Volante - won't reveal exactly how much you must pay to have a Disco Volante on your diamond-studded driveway, partly because the exact price will vary by customer's specific demands, but mainly because, y'know, if you have to ask...
However, he politely highlights the four thousand hours of handiwork that goes into every car and the "tens of thousands of hours" of engineering. Which means a serious six-figure sum, if not seven. But possessing a chequebook long enough to incorporate an enormous number of zeroes is just the start.
Next comes the really fun bit. You'll have to lay your hands on an Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione coupe. Yeah, the only-500-ever-built, entirely-sold-out Alfa 8C. "We can help a customer source the 8C," says Mancardi. "But it's not our business. We are not trading cars."
So, assuming you can purchase an 8C - about £170,000 or so for a fresh one - here's the real kicker. Now you have to hand over your 8C - a car widely regarded as the most beautiful of the 21st century - and allow Touring's artisans to set their angle grinders to its luscious bodywork, stripping it back to its chassis and drivetrain before crafting a new aluminium skin around the Alfa's skeleton. Just as matter can be neither created nor destroyed, so you can't have the masterpiece that is the Disco Volante without murdering the masterpiece that is the Alfa 8C.
"I'm crying a little every time I see that, honestly," admits Mancardi. "I love the 8C. It's a beautiful car. But it was important for us to have an... aristocratic base. And there are not so many cars that fit what we needed."
Forged in the fires of, er, Milan
If any company has earned the right to have its wicked way with Alfas, it's Carrozzeria Touring. Formed in 1926, this Milanese company quickly set about establishing a reputation for making beautiful, aerodynamic race and road bodies around the chassis of the day, often Alfas. Touring pioneered the superleggera (Italian for super-light) construction technique in the Thirties, in which lightweight aluminium panels are bolted to a steel spaceframe, and gave us some of the most iconic designs of the pre- and post-WWII period: the BMW 328 Touring Roadster that won the 1940 Mille Miglia, the Alfa Romeo C52 that inspired this Disco Volante, and the Aston Martin DB4. Oh, and it had a hand in the styling of the first Lamborghini, the 350 GT. Not a bad CV, eh?
In the Sixties, the art of coachbuilding was decimated by mass-production techniques and the shift to monocoque design. Carrozzeria Touring entered hibernation for half a century, re-emerging six years ago with a series of outrageous estate-ified versions of posh cars you really wouldn't expect to be estate-ified: a fastback Quattroporte, a shooting brake Bentley Conti GT and a booted Gumpert Apollo - just as weird as it sounds.
But this, the Disco Volante, is Touring's first clean-sheet design in half a century. If you're going to destroy the prettiest car of the last 20 years, you'd better build something pretty special in its place, and, in the metal even more so than in photos, the Disco Volante is traffic-stoppingly unique. It looks like nothing you've ever seen on the road, doing away with the pared-back, sharp-edged aesthetic of just about every other modern sports car, in favour of curvaceous, Coke-bottle lines.
"It's a connoisseur's car," says Mancardi. "We don't do bling-bling cars. Not at all." Touring design director Louis de Fabribeckers, who describes the Disco Volante as a "pirate project", one cooked up by his design team in their spare time, accepts it's a shape that as many may hate as love. For what it's worth, TopGear thinks it looks sublime. And we're not alone: it won the top design award at the glitzy Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este in May.
The references to the Disco Volante's 1952 inspiration are clear: the aluminium strip running from the doorhandles right around the front of the car, the flat-top wheel arches mimicking the original car's enclosed fenders, the wide hips. But this isn't a shamelessly retro design, rather a reinterpretation of how the future looked in the Fifties. Disco Volante means flying saucer in Italian, which goes some way to explaining the 2001: A Space Odyssey and Flight of the Navigator influences.
Welcome to the mothership
That past-meets-future theme permeates Touring's workshop, glamorously situated on an industrial estate overlooking a major Milan motorway. As well as cooking up extravagant new creations, the company also restores classics: not a bit of filler and a respray, but literally reviving them from the dead. In one corner, a Lamborghini 4000 GT is nearing completion, jostling for floorspace with an Aston Martin DB5. In another, a post-war Bristol tourer is being painstakingly rebuilt, panel by panel, the originals rusted far beyond repair. There's an original Maserati QP, a Seventies 911 and - inconspicuously - a body-in-white Gallardo (Touring paints many of Lambo's limited editions). But front and centre sits Touring's second Disco Volante, half-built and a neat metaphor for cutting-edge tech colliding with coachbuilding tradition. The car's carbon-fibre bonnet is already in place, around which a pair of craftsmen are hammering, by hand, a giant sheet of aluminium into the complex shape of a front fender. It is mesmerising to watch, the sort of artisan technique I assumed had died out decades ago. Very nearly, says Mancardi.
"There were old guys who, when they finished working for coachbuilders, set up a small business, doing a bit of restoration in their spare time. There were not many left, but we are creating a new generation of these guys. It's about eyes and hands and heart. There is a lot of heart."
Craftsmanship as standard
It's not just about tradition, but necessity. Hand-beating is the only way to create panels so phenomenally complex as those on the Disco Volante. Take a look at that rear section: the rear arches, rear bumper and boot deck are formed of a single piece, no welds. It'd be impossible to engineer a stamp so complex. But, says Mancardi, it's only 21st-century tech that allows Touring to revive such traditional methods. The march of technology that pretty much wiped out coachbuilding after the war is now bringing it back.
"Our design is done on computer, CAD," says Mancardi. "We can do in hours what would, 20 years ago, have taken months to make in clay. Of course, we have guys who are good at hammering the metal panels, but it wouldn't work if we didn't first apply all the state-of-the-art technologies. Now 80 per cent of testing of a new car is done virtually. And our cars are homologated on simulation only. We don't have to crash cars. It makes these low volumes possible."
Tiny production runs are hardly revolutionary. Ferrari and Lamborghini have long realised the money to be made in low-number special editions. But Mancardi refuses to lump the Disco Volante in the same bracket as his Italian compatriots.
"We are different. We are tailors. Savile Row compared to very expensive, high-end prêt-à-porter. It's exactly the same. When you get the top-line Armani suit, it will still be built in the thousands, like the most expensive Ferrari ever, the LaFerrari, is built in 500 units. You will still be one of the 500. With us, if you want a unique car, you get a unique car."
The Disco Volante will be limited to a production run of eight, something Mancardi says actually helps guarantee its collectability. "It is not necessarily true that a one-off car will be better protected than an eight-off series, because it is not a single man's fancy. If it's shared with seven other collectors, it's not only me that likes it."
Mancardi expects a fair proportion of Disco Volante owners never to drive their cars, instead to garage them as a cast-iron future investment. But TG has driven the Disco Volante, and can report it drives, maybe unsurprisingly, like an Alfa 8C... only more so. Like the 8C, the experience is dominated by that vicious, whipcrack V8. Like the 8C, the Disco serves up the full-fat Italian front-engined supercar experience. And, like the 8C, the Disco Volante isn't without its foibles. The six-speed sequential gearbox remains inescapably clunky, the ride as unforgiving as a Guantánamo Bay interrogator.
Bad meaning good
But so immersive is the Disco Volante experience, so decadently characterful, that such rough edges only serve to heighten its personality. Especially when you wind it out and bathe in the extraordinary deluge of sound from its new go-louder exhaust, which growls and booms and sings like every overwrought Italian opera metaphor you've ever read.
But despite plentiful reserves of fastness - Touring quotes 0-62mph in 4.2 seconds and a 182mph top speed - most of the time, you don't feel the need to drive the Disco at Maximum Stig. Partly because it's a very expensive, very wide slice of exotica that would necessitate a very expensive, very wide wallet to repair in the event of a crash, but mostly because this is a machine to waft around in, enjoying the bass-to-soprano range of that V8 and the sheer occasion of the thing. The cabin is predictably opulent - Touring's interior upgrades bespoke and immaculately executed. Naturally, you may have any shade or texture of trim you desire, but also the option of your own inimitable leather.
"We have this material, it is many, many different strips of leather woven manually," explains Mancardi. "There is only one place in the world where this is done. There are 26 ladies who come from Vietnam, where this process was born in the Seventies. They were so good at doing it because they have very tiny fingers. You can have thousands of different patterns because you put together so many strips of leather. When you select your combination, it is yours forever. We put it in our library and commit to only make this pattern for you. Your own leather."
A coachbuilt.... Nissan?
Copyright leather, hand-knitted by tiny-fingered Vietnamese ladies? Very Bond villain, no? But such flamboyance is what the Disco Volante is all about: this is an event of a supercar like no other, making the Veyron feel mass-produced, even a Zonda seem strait-laced. An 8C could be sacrificed to no finer end.
So what next for Carrozzeria Touring? Mancardi refuses to be drawn, only hinting that there are "many projects under consideration", but Touring's designer offers a tempting hint. "We look at many pirate projects. For one, we looked at the Nissan GT-R," says de Fabribeckers. "That is an incredible machine, with some very good shapes. We know we could do something with that..."
A coachbuilt Italian fastback with a 550bhp V6 twin-turbo and 4WD? We wouldn't say no. The retro-future's looking bright...
Words: Sam Philip
Pictures: Mark Fagelson
This feature first appeared in Top Gear magazine