Gilco: The Secret Weapon of Italy’s Success

June 6, 2022

The 1950s were the Golden Age of sports car and Grand Prix racing in Europe, and Italian manufacturers were at the forefront. The Italian cars of that era account for a large number of the most desirable and expensive cars in the world. It was a time when Italy was at the forefront of innovation, and little-known Gilberto Colombo had a great deal to do with it.

Colombo revolutionized how chassis were constructed, both from a technological and production perspective. While he didn’t invent the tubular space chassis, he perfected it. So much so, that most of Italy’s top car builders of that era outsourced their chassis building almost exclusively to Gilco, Colombo’s company based in Milan. 

Many tend to think that Ferrari, Maserati, Alfa Romeo, and Lancia built their cars from the ground up, but that was not the case. Gilco provided the skeleton for these great cars that were strong and lightweight chassis, and carried famed race car drivers like Farina, Ascari, Fangio and others to World Championships and countless race wins.

The ‘Cold’ Secrets

The Gilco story gets its start with Angelo Luigi Colombo, Gilberto’s father. In 1919, he opened a metalworking shop in Milan. The shop originally focused on making steel tubing for bicycle chassis, but then added products for use in aircraft and even rationalist furniture (which was all the rage in Italy during the '20s).

What the elder Colombo had mastered were revolutionary techniques for forming and shaping metal tubes. The shop did “cold-drawn” tubes that were seamless, formed by hydraulic pressure rather than high heat. Secondly, he also applied the “cold forming” process to tubes which allowed curved tubes to be precisely formed without any welding.

By eliminating joints, and the resulting weaknesses brought about by the heat of welding, these designs were much stronger and lighter. The shop became a leading producer of furniture in the 1930s, and also became the leading provider of steel tubing for bicycles, a reputation the company still holds today, sold under the brand name Columbus.

Gilberto was born in 1921. By age 17, he was working alongside his father at his business. He researched the characteristics of using different types of alloys and perfected the company’s chrome-manganese and chrome-molybdenum products. Further, he developed an innovative way to taper the tubes.

Building a Gilco chassis.

While attending Milan Polytechnic, Gilberto Colombo heard a lecture by a motorsports engineer. He saw an opportunity in 1946, and immediately set out to design lighter racing chassis in a design studio inside of his father’s plant. In 1947, Gilco Autoelai (Chassis) was officially created as a separate business.

Fateful Meeting with Enzo

Gilberto Colombo started creating chassis of his own design, the first being the Gilco 203, designed for small-displacement road racing that became popular immediately after the war. He also began collaborating with upstarts Stanguellini and Cisitalia on their race cars. 

The biggest moment came from a chance meeting with Enzo Ferrari in 1946, as recounted by Martino Colombo, Gilberto’s cousin. In response to a classified ad selling milling machines that he wanted for his shop, Gilberto traveled to Modena, to meet the seller -- a fellow by the name of Enzo Ferrari. Ferrari had licensed the rights to manufacture milling machines, so he was selling some off to finance his not-yet-formed automobile company. 

The price for the milling machines was outrageous, which Ferrari revealed was due to his need for capital. The ensuing conversation would change both men’s trajectories. Ferrari shared some details on his new car endeavor while Gilberto spoke about the lightweight chassis he was making at his father’s shop. 

The pair went into the back where Gioacchino Colombo, Ferrari’s right-hand man in the early years, joined the discussion. The session went until midnight and ended with a handshake deal between Ferrari and Colombo to build the very first 125 S chassis, the first to bear the Ferrari name. Over the next decade, nearly every Ferrari was constructed in the Gilco shop.

Illustration from Gilco: Le Macchine di Gilberto Colombo

Boom Times

Business took off because if one needed a chassis, Gilco would build it. The list includes the aforementioned “big names” but all of the “etceterini” went there too. At its peak, the shop employed just 20 workers, but they were still able to keep up due to Colombo’s efficient manufacturing processes. 

1952 Gilco 750 Berlinetta concept.

At around age 30, Gilberto Colombo was running the show, yet he was a young man filled with ambition who wanted to build a car of his own. From the start, he had developed multiple designs under the Gilco brand for both motorsports and road cars. After the formative 750 Sport race car design in 1946, he had plans for the Gilco 203 (1950), 205 MM (1950), 240 Competizione (1951), and 750 Berlinetta (1952). None of them made it beyond the prototype stage.

Gilco wheel

One contribution that Gilco does not get credit for, but should, was one of the first designs for an alloy wheel. Colombo developed it as a replacement for complicated and heavy wire wheels. His design had a series of reinforcing ribs to strengthen the wheel with minimal weight. The wheels were made by Amadori in Bologna. When Amadori was bought by Campagnolo, and after Gilco’s patent had expired, these became the iconic Campagnolo wheels -- all originally designed by Gilberto Colombo.

By the end of the 1950s, the car business was moving beyond them. The death of Ascari and the Le Mans tragedy in 1955 put a damper on the company’s racing activities. Ferrari’s last project was a Testarossa in 1958. The need for differentiation through proprietary designs became paramount. At one point, Enzo Ferrari asked Columbo to come work for him in Maranello, but he declined the offer because he wanted to have more creative freedom, a decision he admitted later may have been a mistake. 

He left his father’s factory in 1966 and continued with Gilco independently. He acquired Trafiltubi, which continues to this day, and is where the Gilco archives are kept. Colombo consulted with Lamborghini on cars ranging from the 350 to the Diablo, with Alfa Romeo on a Group B rally car, as well as with Daimler. Gilberto Colombo died in 1988 at age 67.

Ferrari 250 GT Testarossa chassis

The Innovations of Gilco 

Gilco’s contributions hardly get the recognition they deserve. They provided cutting-edge technology and made it accessible to all the big names in Italy as the country was rebuilding after the war. 

The use of cold-drawn and cold-formed steel, made from their proprietary alloys, produced a stronger and lighter chassis that made a huge difference on the track. Additionally, they pioneered new shapes, such as ovalized tubing and tapering, that further improved cars.

As Serena Omodeo Salè wrote, “Gilco made an impact on automobile racing, but became synonymous with a method of designing and building which is characteristic of Italian industry: a blend of innovative initiative in developing new technological solutions and deft agility in the use of bare-bones manufacturing facilities markets by extreme specialization.”

Next time you see a 1950s Ferrari race car command $40 or $50 million at auction, spare a thought for Gilco. Gilberto Colombo made a significant contribution to making not only that car a success, but also lifted the entire automobile industry to new heights, including the most famous name of all: Ferrari.

Sources:

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