The Monteverdi Hai – behind the wheel of the most elusive classic of all

| 21 Oct 2013

The ’60s is littered with small men with exotic names who relentlessly lusted after global automotive domination, obscure but fabulously wealthy industrialists with money to burn in pursuit of immortalising themselves in a car badge. Hindsight bathes them in an almost Bond villain-esque romance, but the reality of how they tried to turn their mundanely made millions into a supercar legacy is usually rather more run of the mill. Hard work and luck – no techno-hideaway in a hollow mountain – brought Peter Monteverdi his rewards. 

And Enzo Ferrari. Thank heavens Il Commendatore was such a difficult man. He might have an impressive roll-call of great cars to his name, but just as mouthwatering for historians and enthusiasts – and rather more intriguing – is the list of debauched GTs and supercars born out Ferrari’s mendacity. Without his famous intransigence there might have been no Lamborghini, no Bizzarrini, no De Tomaso, no ATS and no Monteverdi. In 1995 Peter Monteverdi, the first Swiss Ferrari owner and concessionaire for 12 years from the tender age of 21, related a familiar-sounding tale to C&SC: “Enzo insisted I buy 100 cars at a time and pay for them in advance. I wasn’t prepared to do that so he said he’d find another importer. I didn’t think it was fair but he did it anyway so I decided to build my own car.”

It was a messy end to the relationship, but the birth of one of the most fascinating, often baffling, motoring stories. The entire Monteverdi marque is shrouded in a certain amount of mystery, production and performance numbers traditionally bandied around with scant regard for fact, creating one of the most charismatic of the supermarques that burned brightly but briefly. In retrospect, it seems that Monteverdi wanted to be Ferruccio Lamborghini but turned out as a less successful Alejandro de Tomaso. That’s no bad thing, bearing in mind that – ATS aside – De Tomaso’s Vallelunga was the real mid-engined trailblazer. Monteverdi’s Hai wasn’t far behind – only Vallelunga, Miura and arguably Dino beat it into ‘production’ – with the added, delicious incongruity of being Swiss. From such a car-hating nation, it was as unlikely as it was sensational and it remains an enigma, a suicidal business venture that, even today, is hotly disputed whether it was ever actually intended to be sold.

Its downfall may have been the very reason it worked: the crated Chrysler engine that pumped away faithfully amidships and bestowed upon the Hai the hybrid status of such marques as Jensen and Gordon-Keeble rather than the purity of the Italian thoroughbreds it sought to vanquish. Yet none of the above comes with quite so many difficult questions as the Hai. Who really styled it? How many were built? Which is which? Was it ever for sale? And the biggie: does it work?

To dispatch the first, the paperwork might be copyrighted to Peter Monteverdi – who never relented in his ownership claims over the shape – but Trevor Fiore (Frost) has unequivocally stated that the Hai was his own. Which makes sense, Fiore being a familiar figure at Fissore at the time. He was working on an unrealised Alpine A110 replacement before a visiting Monteverdi – who then had a 50% stake in the firm – saw the sketches and ‘borrowed’ them. Certainly there is a resemblance to the A310, but no more so than to a Mangusta or Pantera in some aspects. 

Either way it is something to behold, the front end plunging towards the floor, the sculpted haunches rising over the wheels with sharp-edged brutalism. From that angle it so lives up to its name – hai is German for shark – that it seems as tautological a sobriquet as if the current Mercedes CLS were called the Giant Grouper. Elsewhere, it looks less carcharian than crustacean, that hunched, crab-like rear end in bulbous contrast to the crisp minimalism of the front. From the side this juxtaposition works perfectly, the triangular rear quarterlights adding to the arrowhead effect. And rounding it all off is a quartet of exhaust stubs that burst out of the back like cooling towers for the fires of hell.

Next up, questions two to four inclusive. Peter Monteverdi claimed that 12-14 cars were built, but we now know that there were four, of which two can easily be dismissed, perhaps generously, as ‘continuation’ cars. This example was the first, the ‘prototype’ betrayed by its centre-lock Borranis and 50mm shorter wheelbase. First shown at Geneva in 1970 as the Hemi-powered 450SS (450 for its claimed horsepower, SS for Super Sports), its colour and trim were changed several times as it strutted its stuff on the show circuit. It finally escaped Monteverdi’s clutches in November ’71 when it was sold to Karl-Heinz Schuberth. It passed through a succession of European owners before being sold in the ’80s to Norbert McNamara, who had it restored at Fissore, sprayed copper and shipped to the USA. A decade on it was acquired by Bruce Milner, who paid nigh-on $300,000 for it and embarked on a programme to return it to 1970 spec. 

The colour then, as now, was Monteverdi’s own Purple Smoke (though Haze might have been more appropriate given the era). Also reinstated were the chromed glass surrounds, the off-white interior, black engine cover, facia detailing, Blaupunkt Köln radio and refabricated three-spoke Personal wheel with Monteverdi-crested horn-push. It appeared at Pebble Beach in this guise last year – third in class – having previously graced those exclusive lawns in 1989.

The second ‘true’ Hai was the 450GTS that took a bow at Geneva in 1973. Powered by a 7.2-litre Magnum engine, it had alloy wheels and a longer wheelbase. A clone of that GTS was added to the fold in 1990 and the final Hai (if in name only) was the all-new, DFV-powered car that appeared at Geneva in 1992. 

This car remains the only one not in captivity, which brings to the fore the question of whether the Hai was ever intended for sale. The period price (SFr90,000, or two Aston DBS Vantages) suggests not, a suggestion backed up by Paul Berger, Peter Monteverdi’s right-hand man for 40 years: “We only sold one. We could have sold much more but Mr Monteverdi he say ‘This car is so special you can’t deliver it to everybody’. We made it more to get the name Monteverdi to the public.” So Monteverdi simply continued repainting and detailing his Hais for the shows – a not uncommon practice at the time among low-volume marques – in a charade of bombast that implied bulging order books, ongoing development and efficient production. Yet every time an entranced millionaire deserted the pineapple and cheese on sticks in hospitality long enough to be hooked by the Hai, they were soon coerced into buying a different Monteverdi, a more practical Monteverdi, instead. 

That would be a great shame if it turns out the Hai really did work, even half as well as its looks suggest. So does it? On paper, yes. With sculpted steel body over sturdy tubular steel spaceframe, it is far from a flimsy flyweight. It also has a short wheelbase, a wide track and an astonishingly low centre of gravity, while the 426cu in Chrysler big-block is as solid as the trucks it came out of and sits so far forward it gives pretty even weight distribution (54:46). There are discs all round and a unique ZF ’box with unusual dog-leg first. There’s all mod cons including electric windows and air-conditioning, even a heated rear ’screen. Nothing to scare off potential owners there.

Getting in, you have to adopt the Caterham method to step over – or balance on – the chrome sill covers. It’s no lower or harder than many a British special, but hardly awash with surplus comfort over a Ferrari, as Peter Monteverdi claimed Europe’s wealthy elite craved. Inside all that muscle and menace is a car not dissimilar in feel to the Dino. There’s white leather trim and a dimpled headlining, an open, chromed gate, a sprinkling of Monteverdi badges and shields offsetting simple, neatly arranged switchgear. The dials are branded too, the speedo reading to 325kph, the tachometer straked by a redline at 5500rpm and oil pressure deemed unnecessary.

At rest it is comfortable for a small fella, with a waif-like yet supportive seat and surprisingly good visibility – except directly rearwards. The footwell handbrake is slightly intrusive, the single wiper less so on the steeply raked ’screen.

Finally, you must start it. If you want to know what Armageddon sounds like, this is it. Two four-barrel Carters pour fuel into those eight big pots, the resultant detonations shattering the peace of the cabin and making you realise what lies beneath the big black mound between the seats. At idle every machination of the engine, even the tug of belt on pulley, is audible. In a mid-engined Lamborghini or Ferrari the engine is separated from the driver by engineering and consideration, but with the Hai it is central to the car, the pulsing heart around which all else must fit. There is no question that the placement of the driver was a secondary concern. And, try as you might to avoid clichés, when that engine cover is off – which requires the removal of a seat – there is no other way to describe being in the Hai than like being locked in a tumble dryer.

Feed in the huge organ-pedal throttle and the clutch – which comes in high and hard – and it picks its way off the line as if such gentle treatment is anathema. Despite the rangey first gear there’s still phenomenal punch as the Hai catapults itself forward like Enterprise hitting warp speed. The sluice gates stay open through the gears, the ’box responding deftly to changes at high revs but obstreperous in traffic.The steering is better than expected, a light touch all that is needed to guide the Hai and wheel-spinning merriment on tap if you’re pushing it. But you’re probably not, because the handling displays rather less neutrality than the nation of the Hai’s birth. Even then, its evil has been overstated: caution is advised, but it is no more capricious than can be bested by common sense.

That’s partly thanks to the 15in Avon radials (205/70s up front, 225s at the rear), but with such a square wheelbase and track, logic says it should be hard to spin. Yet throw the Hai into a corner and there’s always an unnerving sense that the whole car could turn around that central fulcrum like a frenzied gyroscope. Otherwise, in normal driving, it is remarkably accomplished. The cabin is a furnace, the turning circle is appalling and the brakes worryingly weak – plus you are mindful of getting your feet wedged under the pedals – but it corners without roll, that solid frame keeping it firmly planted, and the ride is communicative without being harsh.

Then there is the soundtrack. When the revs rise and the mechanics of the engine are drowned by the noise of its efforts, the glorious V8 cacophony is so close you might be listening to it through Sennheisers. And above all else is the sheer brutality of it. With confidence built enough to give it its beans, the Hai propels with immense force, the tyres feeling as if they are grinding down the tarmac as it shreds through the gears. Absolutely, uniquely awe-inspiring.

Switch off – ears ringing, backs of the hands itching, heart hammering – and pause for thought. There is no question that, by fair means or foul, Monteverdi came up with a worthy rival for any late-’60s car in terms of looks, speed and raw sex appeal. Yet in consigning it to history as a show pony, a mere billboard for his more rational products, Monteverdi not only proved himself wrong in his assumptions about what the wealthy wanted in their garages but also, in denying them this car, proved himself every bit as truculent as the very man he sought to usurp, Enzo Ferrari. Now, Ms Morissette, that really is ironic. 



Sold/number built 1970-’92/4 Construction rectangular steel tubular spaceframe chassis with steel body Engine mid-mounted, all-iron 6974cc Chrysler ‘Hemi’ V8, with two Carter four-barrel carburettors Max power 450bhp @ 5000rpm Max torque 490lb ft @ 4000rpm Transmission ZF five-speed manual, driving rear wheels Suspension: front independent by wishbones, coil springs and telescopic dampers rear de Dion axle with Watt linkage, twin trailing arms, coil springs and telescopic dampers; anti-roll bars f/r Steering worm and roller, 3.76 turns lock-to-lock Brakes ATE ventilated discs all round, inboard at the rear, with servo Weight 2844lb 0-60mph 4.9 secs Top speed 180mph Price new £12,950


For two generations, Peter Monteverdi was Switzerland’s only car maker. Born in ’34, in the Basle suburb of Binnengen, he was apprenticed at Saurer before joining his father’s truck repair shop. He built a Fiat Balilla-based special aged 17 and, when his father died in ’56, he gave the firm a car bias before launching Monteverdi Basle Motors (MBM). Lancia and Ferrari sales, plus go-kart and FJ manufacture, raised cash for him to play motor magnate. His first effort was an Anglia-engined, Heron-bodied sportster. He also created an OSCA-powered sports car, then built the first Swiss F1 car using a Porsche RSK engine. An accident at Hockenheim in ’61 ended his patchy competition career so he concentrated on manufacture, bar almost being lured back to F1 in ’91 before the Onyx team imploded.

His BMW agency funded plush premises and at Frankfurt in ’67 he launched the High Speed 375S, intended to be the antithesis of a Ferrari. “A Ferrari is a young man’s car but no young man can afford it,” he told Giles Chapman. “Older people want things like auto transmission, but Ferrari refused to give [it to] them.” The Frua-styled coupé used a tubular chassis, steel body and Chrysler V8 with Torqueflite ’box. Each car took six weeks to build: chassis were shipped to Frua (later Fissore after Monteverdi bought a 50% stake) for the body, then back to Basle for mechanicals. In various forms – saloon, convertible, 2+2 and coupé – the 375 was produced in limited numbers until the ’70s oil crisis. 

Seeing the emerging wealth in the Middle East, Monteverdi began making ostentatious four-wheel drives aimed at oil potentates, with names such as Safari (’76) and Sahara (’78). The underpinnings were rather more prosaic than the SFr40k price suggested – beneath the bling were International Harvesters in drag. Realising that rebodying was easier – and more profitable – than manufacture, Monteverdi’s next road cars were based on the Plymouth Volare (Sierra) and Mercedes S Class (Tiara). But his real stroke of genius was making the Range Rover a five-door without extending the wheelbase, an innovation for which the UK firm paid Monteverdi a royalty on every unit sold.

Apart from a catastrophic ’90s attempt to revive the Hai – as the F1-inspired 650 – Monteverdi’s post-’84 work encompassed boats, customising and all manner of design projects. It is telling that when he died in ’98, childless and aged just 64, Monteverdi had stashed 60-plus cars bearing his name in his own museum. That percentage of total production (3000 at most) suggests a career driven as much by vanity as business acumen. In that sense, Peter Monteverdi could never be called a failure.

Read James Elliott's blog on the background to this feature here.

This article originally appeared in the December 2007 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images.

Words: James Elliott; pictures: Mick Walsh