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Book review: Love that body: the untold story of Britain’s Italian auto romance

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All said, Italians haven’t had a bad year. They blasted their way to the final of the Euros to beat some other team whose name escapes me now, they out-glammed and out-shone every other contender to win the Eurovision Song Contest and, most importantly of all, one of their own sufficiently seduced the tastebuds of Britain’s steeliest culinary critic to run off with the gong for the Great British Bake Off.

And let’s face it, who’s surprised? There is something perhaps a little elusive in Italian style and culture that has us hooked. Just look at our love affair with cars: from the everyday runabout to the pampered pedigree rarely seen outside a motor show, Italy’s hand in design is a long and lustrous story that’s hard to ignore. Yet curiously it’s not a story that has been neatly articulated, as yet, within the covers of one comprehensive tome.

If ever a Brit car hack was going to redress this scandalous omission, it had to be Chris Rees. The affable editor of Auto Italia magazine is a confessed nut for anything four-wheeled from south of the Mont Blanc tunnel and, after nearly 40 years in journalism, Chris clearly decided it about time someone produced an authoritative guide to the long-standing auto dalliance between our nations. He also not only owns, among other exotica, an Alfa Romeo SZ (go Google, it’s a semi-mythical beast) but has been brave enough to steer it around the furthest-flung corners of the British Isles.

Encyclopaedia Britalicar: The Story of British Cars & Italian Design is a gorgeously glossy exploration of why we Brits simply can’t get enough of Italian automotive culture and, for me, a key pleasure to this work is the way it operates on different levels. 

If you’re mechanically minded, there’s a depth to this historical narrative you’ll find riveting, so to say; if you’re more of a fan of the auto couture, there’s a feast of delicious imagery and supporting detail on every page. And if you think you’re barely fussed about cars and car design? Pick this up from a coffee table near you and you’ll maybe, just maybe, begin to understand why some grown men and women quiver at such words as Zagato, Pininfarina, Bertone and Innocenti.

Spoiler alerts aside, the story of Aston Martin’s emergence to become arguably the most stylish of British brands is one of Italian influence and collaboration from inception. And it’s not unique: throughout these pages Chris explores the inseparable strands of British and Italian engineering and design that form the history of our auto industry. Is this a romance made in heaven? It’s certainly had its moments of bliss (Aston Martin DB5, anyone?), though Chris also charts some of the wobblier moments – not least the decline of BMC, from the marriage of Austin and Morris in 1952, via such howlers as the ‘land crab’ Maxi through to the gear-crunch of Rover’s eventual demise. 

Ultimately, the value of this work lies in how much it unearths to illustrate its main point: not only do us Brits and those Italians share similarly shaped bits of the globe, we both equally suffer from an insatiable hunger for motoring. At last, someone’s shepherded this unruly herd of a story and squeezed it into one tidy publication. And as they say in Newport Pagnell, it really is bellisima!

Encyclopaedia Britalicar: The Story of British Cars & Italian Design is available now, priced £48, from quillerprint.co.uk  

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