The origins of the Manta concept go back to the mid-sixties when legendary engineer Giotto Bizzarrini began to develop the P538 competition prototype to race against the likes of Ford's GT40, Ferrari's 250 P, and Porsche's 906.
With that caliber of competition, Bizzarrini plowed maximum resources into the project, picturing a Le Mans win that would provide professional acclaim and serve as a personal triumph over Ferrari. The two parties had awkwardly parted company in 1961, following a disagreement between Enzo Ferrari and many of his most talented staff.
Although it started the 1966 Le Mans race, the P538 lasted just half an hour on the track before being hindered by a ruptured radiator pipe – but not before setting one of the highest speeds on the Mulsanne Straight. This did little to counter Bizzarrini's disappointment, but his problems were soon to grow unbeknownst to him. A regulation change in the prototype category soon afterward – which limited engine capacity to 5,000cc – immediately rendered the 5,359cc Corvette-engined P538 obsolete, and with the finances of the company resting on its success, the end was nigh.
The death of one so often leads to the birth, and such was the case with the P538. Bizzarrini's former collaborator and long-time friend Giorgetto Giugiaro, after several successful years at Fiat, Bertone and Ghia, was forming Italdesign. Giugiaro needed a platform for his first independent project, and Bizzarrini needed cash, so the redundant P538 chassis (number 003) swiftly changed hands, Corvette engine, etc. On 13 February 1968, Italdesign was formally created. A deadline for the inaugural project was set for the Turin Motor Show – allowing just 40 days for transformation from forgotten chassis to show-stopper.
Suppose there's one characteristic that differentiates the great from the good. In that case, it's the ability to work under pressure – and despite the seemingly impossible window, Giugiaro duly presented the new car in Turin. Resplendent in Acid Green with Orange accents, the Manta (named after the Manta Ray, thanks to its flat, aggressive profile) stunned show-goers. It was the world's first 'one-box' GT; the constant curve from bonnet to roof was unconventional, to say the least, and resulted in a 15deg rake to the windscreen. Giugiaro devised an ingenious solution to overcome the visibility issues: a 'venetian blind' system at the foot of the windscreen. It could be opened manually during low-speed maneuvers through cityscapes and closed to preserve aerodynamic integrity at the high speeds allowed by the racing car underpinnings.
The low, wide stance afforded by the car's racing pedigree also meant there was a generous amount of lateral space for the talented designer to play with. Perhaps inspired by the 1966 Ferrari 365 P Speciale by Pininfarina, he gave the Manta a three-seat configuration with a central driving position – though some remarked that the encroachment of the front arches gave the driver-flanking occupants little legroom. The driver was a little more spoilt, and he also knew the steering column wouldn't impale him in an accident, given its collapsible design.
Having done the rounds as a highly successful PR tool for newly formed Italdesign, a decade of mystery shrouds the Manta's fate. It went missing in 1969 on the way back to Europe from an event in Los Angeles, only to resurface ten years later at a customs auction. After that, it remained in Europe before making its way to the States, and it has since won multiple awards, including a class win at Pebble Beach.
Though it was a 'rush job,' the Manta not only skyrocketed Italdesign into the automotive stratosphere and inspired countless other designs (penned by Giugiaro or otherwise), it is also remembered as one of the most representative concept cars of the seventies, if not the 20th Century. Its existence may be easily explained as 'one man's trash is another man's treasure,' but the truth is that there are few designers on the planet as talented as Giugiaro. And to prove that, bear in mind that he was just 28 when he created one of the most memorable concept cars in history...
Source: Joe Breeze - www.classicdriver.com
Images: ItalDesign; Mario Buonocunto Concept Cars Page; Gooding and Company