Italian beauties on four wheels

Dream cars
Dream cars 04:32

Driving in style is easy if you’re behind the wheel of a car that’s a work of art.  Anthony Mason has been kicking some tires: 

A parade of Italian beauties rolled into Nashville recently. Nineteen classic automobiles, each more irresistible than the next, arrived at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts for the opening of “Bellissima!” -- an exhibition celebrating Italy’s post-war automotive renaissance.

Dr. Thomas Mao kept a close eye as his Lancia Stratos was unloaded, and sat behind the steering wheel as the one-of-a-kind wedge car was pulled into the gallery.

Climbing in can require gymnastic skill. (“When you’re young enough to get in and out of it, you can’t afford it,” Mao said.)

Dr. Thomas Mao climbs into his million-dollar Lancia Stratos. CBS News

Mason asked, “Do you escort your car wherever it goes?”

“It’s a bit like attending you daughter’s graduation or wedding; you just gotta be there,” he said.

Mao, a management consultant and renowned watch collector, couldn’t resist the Stratos when it unexpectedly came up for auction in 2011. He paid just over a million dollars for it.

He told Mason that, once he got over the shock of his purchase, “I was driving around for a couple of days in a state of euphoria and like, ‘Oh my God, what did I do?’”

Buyer’s remorse?  “Never buyer’s remorse,” Mao asserted. “But a kind of sanity check!”

The chrome and the curves on these Italian classics inspire that kind of crazy passion.

“These cars still look modern,” Mason said.

“They look they haven’t been built yet!” said Mark Scala, chief curator at the Frist.  “They look like they’ll be built in the next decade. They’re pretty incredible!”

A “BAT” car. Peter Harholdt

The perfect examples are in the exhibition’s front hall: A trio of cars commissioned by Alfa Romeo in the ‘50s called the Berlinetta Aerodinamica Technica, or “BAT cars.”

The BAT cars, said Scala, were designed by Francesco Scarleoni, who had been both an aviator and a fashion designer. “And so these are kind of like Milanese gowns on wheels. They’re really, really meant to be beautiful.”

Some of the cars created in Italy were aimed at America, like the creamsicle-colored Lincoln Indianapolis. Legendary car guy Ken Gross, who curated the exhibition, says the Italian coachbuilders Boano designed its body on a Lincoln chassis in 1955.

The 1955 Lincoln Indianapolis, created by Boano. Only one was built. Michael Furman

“It was done this way because Boano wanted to get the lucrative business of the American market,” Gross said. “It appeared on the cover of Auto Age magazine and the headline was: “Is this the new Lincoln?’ But Lincoln was working on its own two-seater personal coupe, the Continental. So when this was finished, there was really no market for it.”

So, it ended up being one-of-a-kind.

The Chrysler Ghia Gilda, also introduced in 1955 in Turin (as “the car of the future”), would have a more lasting impact. Commissioned by Chrysler, the Ghia Gilda and its fabulous fins would influence a decade of Chrysler styling. 

Which brings us back to the 1970 Lancia Stratos. The first and ultimate expression of the wedge shape, the car -- which appeared in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video -- was designed on spec by Nuccio Bertone, who arrived at the Lancia security gate without an appointment:

“They wouldn’t raise the barrier for him,” said Dr. Mao. “And he just drove right underneath it.”

With its highest point being 33 inches, the Lancia Stratos still holds the world record for the lowest fully-functional vehicle ever made.

Dr. Mao has had a life-long love affair with the car:  It still takes his breath away. “It still does. I come back in the gallery and see it, and I’m just head over heels in love again.”

“If you can dream it, you can do it,” Enzo Ferrari famously said.  This summer and fall, the Frist Center in Nashville is a parking lot full of dreams.

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