Zagato Zele. Electric mobility in 1972 according to the Milanese coachbuilder

Zagato is one of the most famous Italian bodybuilders and possibly the author of the most extravagant and personal designs ever seen on sports models from brands like Abarth. Alfa Romeo or Aston Martin. However, at the beginning of the seventies it tried to enter new market niches in the face of the onslaught of popular sports cars manufactured in series by American and Japanese companies. A context where the Zagato Zele appeared. An electric microcar born on par with FIAT's experiments with the X1 / 23.

In 1972 FIAT presented the 127. A model that allowed the Italian company to continue at the forefront of urban mobility, continuing in the wake of the 500, 600 and 850. In addition, something revolutionary was done with this new vehicle. Changing the schema "All behind" By the "All ahead" to keep the 850 only the engines. A leap to the future very well received by the market, which entered a new decade with renewed solutions for segment A. However, beyond these mechanical changes, generalist companies such as FIAT began to consider whether or not fossil fuels were appropriate.

At least in the cities. A fact that came from the awareness of the problems derived from pollution in a metropolis increasingly collapsed by traffic. In addition, the sum of different political factors heralded for the most seasoned the first oil crisis in 1973. A trance that put on the table the fragility of the West by depending on the crude extracted in a region as unstable as the Middle East. Thus, FIAT commissioned Giovanni Michelotti to test the idea of ​​an electric urban vehicle with different prototypes.

Something that was about to reach series when in 1972 the X1 / 23 was presented. Perfect to move agilely through intricate historical centers with its 13'5CV and small size. Nevertheless, Despite crude oil prices, the market was not yet ready to switch to electricity. For this reason - and like other projects signed by Michelotti such as the 126 Urban Vettura- serial production of this model was ruled out. Fortunately, the Zagato Zele of that same year did not run, reaching approximately 500 units during its two years in production. Mind you, Zagato's reasons for making an electric were different than FIAT's.


General manufacturers have to offer all kinds of mobility solutions adapted to the times. Based on this, Brands such as Ford, Renault, Citroën or FIAT have experimented with designs that emerged as society changed and evolved. In fact now more than ever. With a combination of demographic explosion and climate crisis capable of putting us before a scenario never seen before in the history of humanity. However, while these companies have to satisfy the demands of the global market, other more particular ones can dedicate themselves to a world apart.

This is the case of Zagato. The Milanese bodywork founded in 1919 with a solid tradition of artisan manufacturing and daring designs focused on the field of sports cars. In this sense, its activity has been based on working on Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin, or Lancia bases creating short-run or even unique models. Quite the contrary to the test of electric formulas for urban mobility. Then, Why did the Zagato Zele appear? As well. The answer is not in the reasons of FIAT and its necessary adaptation to the global situation. But in the push for new, affordable sports cars in the early XNUMXs.

And it is that, still dedicated to a market niche far from daily needs, Zagato's accounts also had to add up. A maxim that in the fifties and sixties could be done without much problem due to the constant orders from Italian and English brands. Queens of sportsmanship in those years with models ranging from the Abarth 750 to the Aston Martin DB4 GT. A domain that began to waver when entering the seventies. With the appearance of models covered by Japanese or American capital as attractive as the Datsun 240Z, the Opel Manta A Turbo or the Ford Capri Mk1.


In this context, artisan bodybuilders specialized in short runs were left between the sword of series production and the wall of their own limitations. For this reason, with the arrival of the seventies, the second generation composed of Gianni and Elio took the reins in Zagato in order to reorient the business. Situation in which the Zagato Zele emerged in 1972. A car that, as we have seen, it would never have reached series in a massive company but in a small one. For which a few hundred units are not something ridiculous but rather a success in its billing. Regarding the design, it sits on a steel chassis made up of parts taken from the FIAT 500 and 124.

From there, the Zagato Zele is dressed in a simple fiberglass body. Enclosure of the small cabin with a running bench for two people, who have to fit into the gap left by a distance between axes of 1 meters. In fact, in total the Zagato Zele measures only 2 meters. A perfect microcar for urban performance that also delivers a measured 300 kilos on a scale. Very interesting figure, since in these electric models power is not usually a virtue. That of the Zele is in the 4CV of its Marelli electric motor with four 8-volt batteries.

Regarding charging, it is done through any point of the network with a plug that goes directly to a transformer. In autonomy, the Zagato Zele can reach up to 80 kilometers with a maximum of 40 km / h. Nothing to write home about, but more than enough for its purpose in short trips through urban centers. Mission that they fulfilled for a time, before falling mostly victims of the scrapyards. Which is why today it is so difficult to find one of these electric for sale. Which is presented to us not only as a pioneer of mobility without fossil fuels but also as a true rarity in the history of Zagato.

Images: Dirk de Jager Courtesy of RM Sotheby's

P.D. The Zagato Zele used to illustrate this article went up for auction last 2018 as part of the auction Weird & Wonderful Collection from RM Sotheby's.

What do you think?

Miguel Sánchez

Written by Miguel Sánchez

Through the news from La Escudería, we will travel the winding roads of Maranello listening to the roar of the Italian V12; We will travel Route66 in search of the power of the great American engines; we will get lost in the narrow English lanes tracking the elegance of their sports cars; We will speed up the braking in the curves of the Monte Carlo Rally and we will even get dusty in a garage while rescuing lost jewels.


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