The asymmetric racer

More than half a century after its debut, Chris Bangle, former chief of design at BMW, reviews the Bisiluro, the legendary but ill-fated racing car designed by Carlo Mollino for the 1955 Le Mans 24-hour endurance race.


Design / Chris Bangle

This article was originally published in Domus 950/September 2011

They say that the earliest design language for the primitive is that of repetition and symmetry. Regarding the design of "things that move", history gives us quite a catalogue of proposals to improve the breed by echoing a form across some sort of bridging element. With names like "twinpod", "twin-boom", "twin-fuselage", "doublehull", or "catamaran", the designer's fascination with mirroring a good idea has been around ever since the Garden of Eden, when God decided two breasts looked seriously cooler than one.

Car Designers owe the origins of their craft to the hull-lofting techniques of naval architects, and while it is true that for centuries there have been parallel-hull designs for boats (from a Tahitian out-rigger to a divided hull that Da Vinci sketched), the real inspiration for modern twin-fuselage wheeled machines are the aircraft of World War II. (To be fair, the twin-boom Fokker M.9 was of World War I vintage.) Pilot and aircraft aficionado engineer Mollino must have been highly influenced by innovations from the War, and perhaps he knew that German engineers had prototyped a Messerschmitt Bf 109Z-1 "Zwilling" with a single pilot flying a two-fuselage fighter. Certainly, the sexy Lockheed P-38 inspired his generation of Car Designers as did the F-82 "Twin Mustang", which was built from 1946 to 1953.

The left-hand body section houses the engine and transmission, while the righthand side contains the highcapacity fuel tank and the narrow cockpit. The two body sections are joined together by reticular structures in lightweight tubular metal.

However, despite the sense of orderliness the latter aeroplanes share with the elegant Nardi- Giannini 750 Bisiluro ("Twin Torpedo"), they are truer to the principles of symmetry given that they had two engines and/or two officers aboard. Perhaps a more correct muse for his race car would have been the German Blohm & Voss BV 141, a German recon plane built with the engine and propeller and tail fins in one fuselage and the pilots next door in the neighbouring pod. In fact, looking at the images of the Bisiluro racing at Le Mans in 1955 one finds a closer visual connection to modern motorcycle sidecar racers than to aeroplanes. (It was not the last four-wheeled race car to work this asymmetry scheme either. A notable composition was the Smokey Yunick sidecar racer attempt at Indy in 1964). In any case, the concept from Nardi and Giannini seems to have been established when engineer Mollino came on board the Bisiluro project as designer.

Conceptually, the car appears distinctly inspired by the Tarf bisiluro. Made by Piero Taruffi in 1948, the record-breaking Tarf exploited the excellent results achieved on two wheels with streamlined motorbikes. Hence the coupling of the two car bodies.

Looking at his creation today one sees much more pre-war heritage in the lines and details than one associates with the 1950s' Car Design scene around him. From the "Baleen whale" strainerteeth of the front surface cooler to the vertical side gills for the engine cooling, the car is very 1930s' Carrozzeria Touring-esque in its execution. By 1954, cars had a mix of open and closed wheel fairings but in general there was more emphasis on the tailfin; the Bertone BAT of the time put it all together quite nicely. A bit more fin on the Bisiluro could have come in handy, for despite the care and attention invested in the project—from the fuselage shapes to the wonderful details such as the retractable rear-view mirror—the innocent application of aerodynamics was its undoing. That the lightweight racer was literally sucked off the course by a passing Jaguar must have been doubly frustrating for the team. Car Design-wise, the Bisiluro fits into a category I would call "Non-Car Cars", those purposeful objects that stir the imaginations of Car Designers by allowing them to incorporate a new proportion, perspective, form, structure or detail into their concept of a "Car" without having to carry all the functional and cultural baggage of being "automobiles". The phylum contains a wide variety of (mostly) man-made constructs, including aqueducts, medieval clocks, aeroplanes such as those mentioned above, V2 rockets, submarines, pistols, racing cars and land-speed record vehicles, the Graf Spee warship and even the Eiffel Tower. The world of Car Design is richer for the visual metaphors and appropriations lifted from these "Non-Car Cars", even though it is usually not possible to make a direct link between inspiration and effect.

Design-wise, the Bisiluro fits into a category I would call “Non-Car Cars”, those purposeful objects that stir the imaginations of Car Designers.

The connection between the two bodies was substantially thickened to make room for an aeronautical-type radiator, formed by an air-water thermal exchanger made with thin copper fins.

But as an "aeroplane on wheels" the Bisiluro makes a nice showpiece. First of all it presents itself as two long shafts of red, the colour de rigueur of anything fast and Italian. Although Car Design loves sexual innuendos, admittedly the image of Mr Macho Racer climbing in his aluminium phallus gets a bit wonky when there are two of them. Proportionally speaking, the car seems a tick on the stubby side; it is not helped by the fact that in those times the dogma of aerodynamics called for the side view of a sports car to be a closed ellipse, flattened on the bottom like an aerofoil section. This required enough upward slope to be planned into the front overhang to make the curve a natural one, a form that in reality is not helping the aerodynamic downforce and blunts the torpedo shape. (I recall that when we were making the BMW Z8 in the late '90s we took the classic BMW 507 and "modernised" it, including totally flattening the underbody to minimise the air build-up there. Chuck Pelly, who designed the Scarab racer in the '60s, criticised me roundly for having violated the canon of the "side-view ellipse".)

The lower half of the steering wheel is flat, allowing the driver easier access to the cockpit.

The engine fuselage has a nice bulge about the rear wheel, although the relationship to internal wheel-movement requirements is not so clear. But it gives the car some direction on that side and visually balances the large statement of the helmet fairing that dominates the pilot side of the car. The carrozzeria is the work of artigiani, the classic handworker-metal-beaters, and so one celebrates the minor diversions in fillets and radiuses rather than search in vain for perfection in every joint and line.

The central part of the car houses an ingenious aerodynamic brake consisting of a pair of flaps. The mechanism is operated via a system of levers actioned by a pedal to the left of the brake pedal.

The mid-section "wing-bridge" that joins the two torpedoes is a bit busy with the ins and outs of cooling air, but overall the effect is not too dissimilar to that of the later Can-Am and Le Mans race cars. Effectively they enlarged this wing-bridge of the Bisiluro to sit the driver in the middle. The curving intersection between it and the fuselage is a classic Car Design problem: too much "negative" curve makes the vehicle look hollow, too little and the torpedo sections become flat. Here engineer Mollino made an elegant compromise, and the single round headlight eyes flair nicely back into the tall oval section of the body. One cannot help but think of Tintin and his pals when confronted with shapes like these!

The Bisiluro was the product of a collaboration between Carlo Mollino and Mario Damonte, Enrico Nardi and the Giannini brothers.

A wonderful car made by special people for a celebrated race in a glorious Age of Car Design Innocence, what more can one ask for? Designers everywhere have been finding excuses to homage the Bisiluro and its kind in every possible project including Star Wars, and we should all be thankful that this unique example is well cared for and still here to inspire us.
Chris Bangle, car designer

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