The Rise and Fall of Monteverdi – Switzerland’s Forgotten Luxury Marque
By Andy Bannister
In fact, in recent times it has become somewhat notorious as the home of some of the toughest legislation aimed at curbing emissions and controlling speed. This single-minded zeal has been greatly to the frustration of driving enthusiasts who love the country’s well maintained and beautifully engineered mountain roads.
Long before such concerns raised their head, however, for nearly two decades Switzerland was also home to one of the world’s most exclusive and glamorous car companies, Monteverdi, a firm which once had aspirations to become the Swiss Ferrari.
Monteverdi cars are today nowhere near as famous as their exotic rivals from Italy, Germany or Britain. I first came across them in a childhood game called Top Trumps, which consisted of comparing the specifications, power output and top speed of rival cars, and Monteverdi cars always scored well and intrigued me because I’d simply never heard of them.
The company was founded back in 1967 by Peter Monteverdi, who was a car
dealer and well-known Swiss racing driver forced to give up motor sport after a bad accident. He then expanded his dealership to offer a range of prestigious marques before deciding he could take on the likes of Maserati and Ferrari at their own game, aiming to offer Italian style with the luxury interiors of Jaguar or Rolls-Royce.
By all accounts he was quite a truculent character, and the decision to go into the manufacturing business itself could have resulted from a disagreement he had with Ferrari, which ensured he lost that particular franchise in 1965. It is a scenario very similar to the genesis of Lamborghini, who also had a row with Ferrari and then started his own car company.
His first effort, the two-seater Frua-styled Monteverdi High Speed 375S coupé, featured a very elegant body with Chrysler V8 mechanicals. Launched at the Frankfurt Motor Show to a rapturous reception, it quickly put Switzerland on the luxury car map and was soon joined by a four-seater. Both were priced very ambitiously, reflecting the country’s image as a producer of high quality goods.
In a complex cross-border operation, the cars’ chassis were made in Basel in Switzerland and then transported to Turin in Italy for the bodies to be assembled. They were then returned to Basel for the mechanicals and interior to be fitted by Monteverdi craftsmen.
If the 375 was an impressive debut, the next Monteverdi milestone, the mid-engined Hai 450SS of 1970, was even more striking at first sight. The name means shark in German, and the short-wheelbase Fissore-styled car was aggressive and ultra-quick. Unfortunately, however, it was also super-expensive, and total production can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
In the 1970s, Fissore took over from Frua as the company’s main styling house, giving the 375 range a distinctive new look which gradually evolved, with later versions of the cars featuring a crisp, angular front end.
The line-up had expanded to include a convertible and later a four door
limousine, the 375/4, which managed around 150mph thanks to its huge 7.2-litre Chrysler V8. Although rather more prolific than the Hai, the 375 range – sometimes given additional model names like Palm Beach and Berlinetta – were still pretty rare cars produced primarily for a very well-heeled clientele living in some of the world’s most exclusive locations.
By the mid-1970s, however, the company was worrying about the effect of the global economic slowdown and fuel crisis, and whether in the future there would be enough playboys to go around. Some rivals like Iso in Italy and Jensen in Britain, which also relied on exotic bodies clothing heavy and unsophisticated American V8 mechanicals, were visibly failing.
Monteverdi therefore began to diversify into producing some of the earliest luxury SUVs, with two models known as the Sahara and Safari. These were by no means Swiss from the ground up, being heavily based on the tough, American-built International Scout.
Loaded with extra equipment and hand-built interiors, these 4X4s were vastly more expensive and arguably much uglier than the Scout they derived from. Despite this, sales did well in markets including the Middle East.
Monteverdi also spotted the potential of the original British Range Rover, then only available in two-door form due to the incompetence of its manufacturer, British Leyland. Monteverdi engineered and began marketing a very attractive four-door version which worked so well stylistically that the British promptly decided to make their own factory-built model at much lower cost, pulling the rug out from under the unlucky Swiss concern.
By then, the “parts bin” appeal of dressing up another manufacturer’s basic product, was proving irresistible to Peter Monteverdi, even though such a move was starting to take his well-respected company down the road of being a customiser rather than a true manufacturer.
Whilst the 375 series had been a true GT and at least as appealing as rivals from the great Italian companies, its successors would be anything but.
In 1978, taking the established link with Chrysler to another level, the Monteverdi Sierra arrived on the scene to a generally indifferent reception from press and public alike.
The looks hardly helped its cause. The Sierra was a very conservatively styled and square-looking four-door which did, however, successfully disguise its very humble origins. Underneath the bespoke body of the 120mph saloon lurked a humble Plymouth Volaré.
Monteverdi ditched quite a few Chrysler components but then in turn raided other big manufacturers for parts for the Sierra, with the front and rear lights being from the Fiat 125 and Renault 12 respectively. A two-door convertible, effectively a decapitated Volaré coupe, followed.
Neither version of the car proved to be a great success. Like the Volaré it had a reputation for being rust-prone, which hardly fit the Monteverdi image. When production ended in 1980, Ford promptly stole the Sierra name for its new European family car.
Car production at the Basel factory limped on until 1984, with the last attempt at a commercial product being the Monteverdi Tiara, a ludicrously expensive and badly disguised Mercedes-Benz S-class whose main distinguishing feature was an upright front end apparently inspired by the elderly Alfa Romeo Alfetta.
By 1985 Monteverdi as a car manufacturer was no more, and the factory was converted into a museum housing examples of the company’s best-ever products.
In his later years, Peter Monteverdi returned to motor racing, acquiring a not-very-successful Formula One team in 1990, Onyx-Maserati, which failed to complete the season.
This led on to his final automobile fling, reviving his best-remembered model name for an all-new supercar prototype, the Hai 650 F1 of 1992, which sadly soon disappeared without trace. The man himself died in 1998, aged just 64.
In production terms Monteverdi was laughably small, and the company’s cars were not even the only Swiss automobile products, with other marginal companies like Enzmann and Sbarro also deserving of mention in the Alpine hall of fame.
Nevertheless, in the company’s heyday – around 1972 – nowhere was there a more glamorous place to be than the Monteverdi stand at the Geneva Motor Show. The world is a poorer place without mavericks like Peter Monteverdi.
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