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An Italian road trip in the Disco Volante Spyder

How do you change an Alfa 8C into a one-off special? With artisans and many, many hours. It’s hammer time...

Published: 25 Sep 2016

You need some balls to take a car as beautiful as the Alfa Romeo 8C and junk it. But for Touring’s Disco Volante Spyder to live, that’s what has to happen.

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Under a scorching Tuscan sun, on a corner of the Passo della Futa that would have thrilled to the sight and sound of the Mille Miglia back in the day, Touring’s design boss Louis de Fabribeckers muses on this act of sacrilege. Behind him sits his masterpiece, metal pinging and zinging after a spirited drive. (The DVS is no gelded show pony.) “Actually we’ve proposed to our clients that they put the 8C’s body on a jig and display it as a sculpture,” he says. “I have huge respect for the 8C. It would make a great piece of art.”

Words: Jason Barlow

Photography: Mark Fagelson

This feature was originally published in issue 286 of Top Gear magazine.

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Louis is Belgian, his fluency in English only rarely offset by the odd Clouseau-esque turn of phrase. Of greater relevance is his fluency in design, for if a more striking car than the Touring DVS has appeared in the past five years then it’s passed me by.

Visitors to the Villa d’Este Concorso d’Eleganza in May obviously agreed, awarding it the prize for best concept or prototype. As Touring celebrates its 90th anniversary, it’s a welcome shot in the arm for one of the best-loved names in Italian carrozzeria, a firm whose greatest hits include the Aston Martin DB4, Ferrari 166 MM and Lancia Flaminia GT.

In fact, that’s partly why we’re here. Although it looks like pure conceptual eye candy, the DVS is a production car, albeit in an extraordinarily limited run: the vehicle you see here is currently one of one, although six more will follow.

Its owner, UK businessman Clive Beecham, has asked TG to collect it from Bologna airport and drive it to Florence, where we’ll meet him. He’ll meet the car he started thinking about two-and-a-half years ago, and then take part in a weekend-long catch-up with Touring luminaries and owners. Thirty months of anticipation, and he wants us to do the honours? Is he mad?

We meet Louis the fabricator by a roundabout outside Guglielmo Marconi airport. The DVS is such a vibrant assault on the senses that I may have spotted it as we came in to land. In fact, if I’d spied it through the window of the plane at 37,000ft it would have been apt: Disco Volante means “flying saucer”, and the car’s “ceruleo blu” (sky blue) exterior colour was chosen because the sky (shock) is where flying saucers spend most of their time.

The Disco Volante Spyder generates so much charisma, it’s difficult to know where to begin.

One of the earthbound originals lives in Alfa Romeo’s wonderful new museum; it’s arguably the best-known example of Touring’s patented superleggera lightweight manufacturing technique and aluminium-beating artisanal prowess. Alfa’s factory test driver Consalvo Sanesi first took to the track in a Disco Volante on 11 June 1952, eventually piloting the thing to a streamlined, aero-assisted speed of 140mph.

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One can only assume that, back in Coventry, William Lyons and Malcolm Sayer were paying close attention, because the Jaguar D-type that emerged two years later and went on to dominate Fifties sports car racing bears a notable resemblance to the Italian.

Clive actually owns an Ecurie Ecosse D-type, along with an ex-Stirling Moss Ferrari 250 GT SWB and an ex-Gianni Agnelli (and Touring-bodied) 166 MM Barchetta. The man clearly has exemplary taste, and his latest acquisition is further proof. One only has to look at some of the questionable Ferrari special projects cars to know that, even with creative freedom and bountiful resources, some people still manage to fall into a field full of aesthetic booby traps.

Not here. The DVS generates so much charisma, it’s difficult to know where to begin. As wide as a Range Rover, its body really is almost saucer-shaped and flaunts the basic tenets of stance and proportion so flagrantly that it simply shouldn’t work. But it does, brilliantly.

It’s also much more than just an open version of the Touring Disco Volante coupe (driven in TG issue 250). The roof is a two-piece carbon-fibre creation (the panels weigh 3.5kg each), the design of which necessitated a complete reworking of the windscreen. The top half of the car now flows seamlessly into dramatic seat fairings which are reinforced with carbon, resolving into a rear end whose volumes look almost impossibly cool.

Cool or not, the sculpted taper on the DVS’s rear really would be impossible if it weren’t a handcrafted, bespoke special. “It’s one of the reasons I love working at Touring,” Louis says. “I can do things like this. It’s also a 360° job. We have to take care of everything, and the finished car represents 10,000 hours of engineering effort.”

We visited the Touring HQ back in February to see the DVS in final assembly during the countdown to its Geneva show debut, and met the guys who take sheets of aluminium and fashion them into heart-stopping curves armed only with a hammer and expertise. This is what you’re buying, and buying into. The DVS is more than a car, it’s part of a priceless continuum.

It’s also why Clive elected to go this route, rather than pick up an ‘off-the-peg’ supercar. “I’ve never owned one, and I have no intention of ever doing so,’ he tells me firmly. “I visited Touring to look at the coupe and asked Piero [Mancardi, the boss] why they hadn’t done a spyder. He said, ‘Well, why don’t you?’ So I fell right into that one…”

Beecham, as I’ve discovered over the years I’ve known him, is a stickler for detail. The DVS is well-nigh perfect in this regard; although the cabin is Alfa 8C, there are ally strips on the sills, unique body colour inlays in the doors, and even Plexiglas inserts in the seats that pulse gently with light when you unlock the car. The seats themselves are trimmed in buttery-smooth Connolly leather. There’s a little wing between the fairings, inspired by the Spitfire. Louis likes that detail, but not as much as Clive. “I pushed them a bit on that one,” he concedes.

Few things are more likely to induce heart palpitations than driving someone else’s multi-million pound one-off supercar...

It’s also meant to hark back to the days when Agnelli and his jammy playboy ilk genuinely did tour grandly, usually on nocturnal assignations with willowy heiresses or casino croupiers. So there’s storage space inside, and a frankly huge boot under that vast, sweeping rear canopy (also made of carbon composite). The luggage matches the interior, natch.

Best of all, though, is the quality of execution. Touring’s in-house paint-shop is so good Lamborghini and Rolls-Royce frequently use it, and the rest of the car is as glossy and lustrously finished as the exterior. There’s one teeny squeak, and that’s your lot. I guess perfection is part of the deal, as it would be if you were having a suit tailor-made or even forking out for a pricey kitchen, but cars can be tricky things to get right.

Few things are more likely to induce heart palpitations than driving someone else’s multi-million pound one-off supercar onto an Italian tangenziale rammed with hire cars and mercenary 18-wheelers. But despite its size, the DVS is user-friendly.

And fast. It’s powered by the Alfa 8C’s Maserati-derived, Ferrari-assembled 4.7-litre, 450bhp V8, so there’s huge personality here, too, the basso profundo soundtrack amplified by the absence of a roof. Even the gearbox – the 8C’s Achilles’ heel – is quicker-shifting and less lurchsome than I remember. Besides, you can drive around the torque interruption, and somehow it feels OK in this car anyway.

Over the rhythmic thump of superstrada expansion joints, there’s no sign of any serious or even semi-serious structural wobbles. This is a beautifully engineered motor car, underpinned by 90 years of tradition (there was a gap from ’66 to ’08, but let’s not dwell on that). There’s no reason why it shouldn’t work; Touring has all the CAD tools and runs all the industry-standard CFD analyses.

But as we pass from Emilia-Romagna into Tuscany, and the roads tighten, our pace intensifies. We meet a trio of old Italian gentlemen, one of whom points to the car and says, “Numero uno!” Turns out he’s good friends with Italian rallying superstar Sandro Munari. Into and out of the little villages and towns, it’s almost as if a flying saucer has landed. Touring’s Disco Volante is more than just another car. It’s out of this world.

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