This could never happen today. The automotive editor for the Daily Telegraph decides he wants to commission a new concept car, and gets Bertone to do the styling and Jaguar to provide the running gear. The car bows to great fanfare at the 1967 Earl’s Court Motor Show, and not one year later, Lamborghini debuts a car with almost identical bodywork. This is the strange story of the Jaguar Pirana.
John Antsey, the editor who conceived the car, wanted it to be a showcase for the British motor industry. Jaguar boss Sir. William Lyons agreed to supply the chassis and engine from a Jaguar E-Type 2+2 for the project, but rather than go with an English designer, Antsey reached out to Nuccio Bertone to clothe the Jaguar. Bertone gave the job to young designer Marcello Gandini, and the whole thing was done in around six months.
The car debuted in London in 1967, and made further appearances in Turin and New York later in the year. The Pirana—intentionally spelled without an H—was intended to be the ultimate GT car. Something for a rich playboy living in London who was keen on driving. It was thoroughly modern, with air conditioning and an AM/FM radio with a tape deck. And despite borrowing running gear from the E-Type 2+2, the Pirana was a true two-seater.
But the bodywork was far more interesting than the mechanical components. It’s hard to believe there are just six years between the E-Type and the Pirana. Both are beautiful, the E-Type the apogee of one era of automotive design, the Pirana showing what was coming next. Other than the long dash-to-axle ratio, the Pirana isn’t typically Jaguar, but it is very much a Bertone design. Don’t forget that this the firm that gave us the Alfa Romeo Giulia coupe, the Iso Grifo, and the Fiat Dino coupe.
And, around the time of the Pirana’s debut, two incredibly significant Lamborghinis—the Miura and the Marzal. You know the Miura. One of the prettiest cars ever built, and the first mid-engine supercar. The Marzal is less well-known. It was a mid-engine, six-cylinder, four seater with wild glass gullwing doors, a psychedelic silver interior, and hexagonal trim that came to be a Lamborghini signature.
Gandini designed both the Marzal and the Pirana, and the shared DNA is readily apparent, and not because both wear similar matte silver paintwork. The similarities between the two are remarkable given that the Marzal is mid-engine and the Pirana has its engine up front. The Marzal is particularly unusual for a mid-engine car, with its long hood.
Ferruccio Lamborghini didn’t love the Marzal, but he did like the idea of doing a practical four-seater to sit above the company’s 2+2s. That car, the Espada, debuted at the 1968 Geneva Motor Show, just months after the reveal of the Jaguar Pirana. The similarities are obvious—even the badge on the rear fender uses the same distinctive font. One imagines that work on the Espada was already underway when Antsey commissioned the Pirana. Given that the Jaguar had to be created in a short timeframe, Bertone did the practical thing and adapted a design it already had in the works.
Today, automakers are very protective of their design language, and most use in-house studios rather than companies like Bertone. But in the Sixties, things were different. This wasn’t the only time Bertone concepts made for one brand led to a car from another—the Gandini-designed Alfa Romeo Carabo and Lancia Stratos Zero were direct influences on the Lamborghini Countach.
So what happened to the Pirana? According to RM Sotheby’s, the Daily Telegraph sold it around a year after its debut. The sale price wasn’t disclosed, but the car was once insured for £20,000—three times more than a Ferrari 275 GTB/4. The buyer was an American who kept the car until 2011, installing an automatic gearbox and rear seats at some point. It was restored by the next owner and brought back to look exactly as it did in Earl’s Court in 1967. Last year, RM Sotheby’s auctioned the Pirana in Monterey for $324,000. A lot of money, but ironically, the auction house sold a Ferrari 275 GTB for nearly $2 million at the same event.
And, if you dig the Pirana’s looks, you can pick up an Espada for around $150,000.
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