Monteverdi High Speed – a masterpiece from Switzerland

| 18 Dec 2013

George McCulloch Bell doesn’t sound like your typical 1960s GT man. This Chicago-born playboy with a mischievous sense of fun and a passion for fast cars and motorbikes was built as big as his character. Thanks to the success of the family paper business, he headed for the fast lane across the Atlantic in the early ’60s. Determined to get involved with motor sport, Bell hooked up with German sidecar-racing legend Helmut Fath and followed the World Championship season in a succession of glamorous, super-fast V8-powered GTs. 

Bell’s new Iso Grifo became a regular feature of the GP motorcycle paddocks but, frustrated by the lack of cockpit space, the bulky Bell eventually replaced it with a Bristol 411. The pace of the traditional British cruiser wasn’t enough for the American, so he contacted John Woolfe Racing about a power upgrade. Even after an engine transplant with a Keith Black Chrysler 8.3-litre and an aero package that would have given Tony Crook nightmares, Bell was soon bored and looking for a replacement. Money wasn’t a problem and, after considering all of the exclusive GT options including Jensen and Gordon-Keeble, Bell set his sights on a Monteverdi 375L. The Swiss machine’s fabled performance and sleek styling proved irresistible – even at a hefty £10,250 in 1969, enough to buy four Jaguar E-types, or a pair of Porsche 911Es with £1764 change. Rather than order through the UK concessionaire in London, Bell went straight to Binningen, a suburb of Basel, to test the Monteverdi at the factory. 

Switching from the noble Bristol to the rakish looks, spectacular acceleration and sporty handling of the Monteverdi must have been like swapping an evening with Judi Dench for a date with Swiss supermodel Julie Orden. Not surprisingly, Bell did a deal and gunned the metallic sky blue 375L back to Britain. With its ability to dash from 0-60mph in 6.3 secs and a maximum speed of 152mph, few cars could have lived with the Monteverdi on the autoroute, but back in London Bell craved even more performance. Drag racer and V8 specialist Colin Mullan had already worked on Bell’s Bristol after a recommendation from JWR, and so was employed to hop up the Monteverdi. “I’d read about this Swiss supercar but never seen one,” says Mullan. “After George’s Bristol, the 375L was sensational. It was a real head-turner and I loved the looks. George was a fantastic character with a wicked way for practical jokes. He was a hot-rodder at heart and wanted it to go quicker, so we fitted a 512cu in (8391cc) Chrysler and lowered the back-axle ratio. From the lights the acceleration was amazing, but it lost a little top speed.”

Bell and Mullan became great friends and, after Fath retired following a big accident in Finland, the American was looking for a new motor sport interest. After a few trips to Santa Pod to support Mullan’s Vauxhall-backed drag racer Invader, the two hatched the idea of running a pair of Pro-Stock Mopars in Europe. With Bell’s sponsorship, a Duster and a Challenger were bought from top US team Sox & Martin and shipped to Europe. With Adrian ‘Yogi’ York and Mullan as drivers, the new team blitzed the competition. “The Monteverdi became the team’s pool car and I used it all the time,” says Mullan. “Amazing performance aside, I loved the way it drove. The ZF steering was very precise and it handled better than a Jensen. It’s still heavy but, thanks to its stiff chassis and de Dion rear end, it corners really flat without compromising the ride. The car had a dual personality: with its phenomenal torque it would cruise around lazily when you wanted, but burn off pretty much everything at the lights. With that three-speed TorqueFlite, it’s also great for long trips: I remember George using it to visit Helmut in Switzerland. To match the extra pace we replaced the Girling front discs with AP Racing brakes. Whenever I worked on it, I was always impressed by the build quality.”

The domination of Mullan’s team began to irk rivals, who eventually had both cars banned after insisting that the latest Lenco transmissions were an unfair advantage. Bell became disillusioned with the British scene and in 1975 decided it was time to return to Chicago. Mullan was so smitten with the Monteverdi that he couldn’t let it go, so traded his ’71 Pontiac Formula 400 for the Swiss beauty – minus its 512cu in engine: “As soon as I had enough money I bought the original 440cu in ‘Magnum’ engine, refitted it and started using the car.” In the late ’70s, Mullan swapped drag racing for offshore powerboat racing with the ex-Tommy Sopwith Telstar. The 375 was often driven to these glamorous events where it was much admired by other crews. 

Mullan had the body resprayed Moonraker Blue but, ever the perfectionist, decided to paint it again himself when he was unhappy with the finish. Once the car was off the road, the respray became more involved as he discovered rust on the poorly protected steel body. Unsurprisingly, the hand-made Fissore panels aren’t available so Mullan made his own, learning new techniques as the job slowly progressed. One look at the panel gaps and razor-sharp swage lines along its flanks prove Mullan’s talent. To repair splits in the original leather trim, he sourced an industrial sewing machine and taught himself. The renovation was interrupted by the restoration of his old race boat, but when that was sold the Monteverdi could be completed and enjoyed. 

The Swiss stunner has made many trips to Brooklands, but now Mullan plans to go overseas: “This year we’re taking it to French Alps to see friends and hopefully visit the Monteverdi Museum. It would be great to take it home, but my dream is to drive it coast-to-coast across America. I’d love to track down George again.”

Owning, running and restoring a 1972 375L is a solitary task because contact with other owners is a challenge and information scarce. Other than Alexander Fyshe’s earlier 375/S, sold at Goodwood last year, Mullan has yet to see another. Even production numbers are a mystery. When these Swiss rarities are written about, build is estimated at around 200, but Mullan reckons his, chassis 2056, is one of the last and that the total is closer to 50. Peter Monteverdi died at 65 in ’98 without revealing the truth, nor will museum curator Paul Berger disclose it. 

Today the cars have a cult following and proud owners include US TV host Jay Leno and Swiss-born GM supremo Bob Lutz. When they do come on the market sales don’t reflect the exclusive original price. Awareness of the 375 is growing and values are creeping up, with the ex-Fyshe car making £40k, but they’re still bargains compared to pure-bred Italian contemporaries. “Mechanically, everything in the driveline is available but the bodywork is unique,” says Mullan. “The bumpers were bespoke and made by Frua and later Fissore. I hate to think what I’d do if the glass cracked. Later cars like mine had flush Fiat doorhandles and the tail-lights are shared with the Maserati Merak and Indy.”

The 375’s origins can indirectly be accredited to Enzo Ferrari, who dumped a furious Peter Monteverdi as Swiss importer after he refused to pay up-front for a 100-car order from Maranello. Like Lamborghini, the short-tempered Swiss dealer planned revenge the hard way by building his own car. Monteverdi’s production experience prior to 1965 was a series of single-seaters and sports-racers, but he started drawing up the ultimate gran turismo in his home in Merlischachen on Lake Lucerne. Inspired no doubt by the Jensens that he already sold alongside Lancia, Bentley and Rolls-Royce, Monteverdi went for a Chrysler V8 to power a massive – the four central longerons alone weighed 160kg – multi-tube chassis. While a steel construction company in Muttenz was contracted to build the chassis, Monteverdi turned to Pietro Frua in Moncalieri to build the body from his drawings. 

The new car’s international debut was set for the Frankfurt Show on 14 September 1967, but three days earlier the patriotic constructor unveiled the High Speed 400SS to a hand-picked group of local journalists in his Binningen showroom. At close to midnight, Monteverdi proudly pulled away the enormous Swiss flag that hid his blood-red prototype. The next day’s edition of Zurich’s Blick newspaper described Switzerland’s first motor car since the 1946 Rapid 350cc roadster as ‘the most beautiful shape ever seen between the Alps and the Channel’. With a low swage line slicing the top of the big wheelarches and an elegant slim-pillared top, few GTs even south of the Alps can rival its beauty. But this super-cool coupé wasn’t just a looker, with its engine set well back in the chassis, double-
wishbone front suspension and a de Dion rear with parallel trailing arms and Watt linkage. 

Like many exclusive Euro-American hybrids, production was a disjointed affair. Chassis were transported to Studio Frua for body fitting, before a return to Binningen for engines, wiring and trim. Production was restricted to one a week and the 375L was the most popular of Monteverdi’s eclectic collection from 1967-’82. A disagreement with Frua over copyright resulted in Monteverdi switching to Carrozzeria Fissore’s small works in Savigliano for bodies, with the Fissore cars reputedly better built.

The 375L’s performance was legendary, making it a Top Trump favourite. In September 1969, Autocar was loaned the £10k GT and set astonishing figures. The 35cwt (3920lb) four-seater left Aston DBS, Jensen Interceptor and Porsche 911 all breathing its exhaust fumes – of which there were plenty from 11.6mpg fuel consumption. Finish and detailing didn’t impress the testers and, although the 36-year-old Swiss tycoon pledged that later cars would improve, few were sold new in the UK. Had you seen one on the move, you’d never have forgotten it’s cool beauty and probably lusted after one for the rest of your life. Mullan is a lucky man.

This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images.

Words: Mick Walsh; pictures: Peter Spinney