His creations defy belief as much as description, and are often the standout stars of the Geneva Motor Show each year. Franco Sbarro’s eponymous motor cars exist in their own little bubble, and in many ways they mirror their creator in being enigmatic and hard to pigeonhole. Over the past half a century, he has produced more than 100 different models, yet production of all cars combined barely stretches into four figures. He wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Of humble farming stock, Francesco Zefferino Sbarro was born in Presicce, a small village located on the ‘boot’ of Italy, in February 1939. An intuitive engineer, he began work on his first car while barely out of his teens. That was in 1959. Sbarro had by then upped sticks and moved to Neuchâtel, Switzerland, where he ran a Borgward agency prior to a spell as a technician at a BMW dealership. He subsequently joined Scuderia Filipinetti and built a couple of VW-based sports cars in his spare time prior to forming Atelier de Construction Automobile in April 1968.

Sbarro touted the Wankel rotary-powered Coupé “Safety Vehicle One” in the early 1970s. However, the car remained unique and he became better known for crafting replicas starting with the BMW 328. He would go on to make 138 2002-based cars along with a further 15 turbocharged, wide-body variants. But this was merely the opening salvo. He went on to create a physically-convincing facsimile of a Mercedes-Benz 540K, a twin-engined Bugatti Royale clone, and a lot more besides. Nevertheless, he soon tired of being categorised as a copyist.

And few thinkers are more original than Sbarro, whose back catalogue also includes everything from the cute Pilcar electric city car to the infamous TAG-Cadillac Function Car six-wheeler. And while his name may polarise opinion within the automotive design community, his wider reputation was bolstered in the 1970s by his association with fashion legend Pierre Cardin. Together, they conceived the Coupé Stash, the prototype breaking cover at the 1975 Paris Motor Show. However, both parties had bigger fish to fry so just three were built with BMW and VW K70 power plus a lone 6.3-litre Mercedes-Benz V8-powered, Targa-roofed Super Stash variant.

Sbarro was perhaps at his most prolific in the 1980s, witness VW Golfs with Porsche engines stuffed up their rumps, gullwing-doored Mercedes coupés, monstrous off-roaders, and the loopy, teardrop-shaped Challenge supercar. He launched his self-styled design school in Switzerland in 1992, with further affiliated faculties being added along the way. And while some of his handiwork stretches credibility (we give you the incomparably-named Assystem), to criticise Sbarro for that is to miss the point entirely. Whether you like his cars or not, you cannot ignore them. To his patrons, that is all that matters. The quietly-spoken Sbarro isn’t one to crow but he is that rarest of things – an unrepentant individualist. The automotive world would be a much duller place without him.

Richard Heseltine