It’s been a while since Roberto Donati showed a Zagato-bodied Lancia at a car club event held at the Lime Rock race track in Connecticut, where the guest of honor was none other than Andrea Zagato, grandson of the founder of the famed Italian coach builder and design house.
Donati also is a third-generation Italian vehicle specialist. His grandfather built carriages and his father worked for carrozeria in Modena. Donati learned from his father, worked in the trade and, in 1986, came to the United States to visit family in New York.
Donati liked it here so much that he decided to move.
“I went back and did my papers,” he said.
A couple of years ago, Donati and Robert Salter, an enthusiast with experience in motorsports and sports cars, launched Volante Classics, a restoration shop and exotic car dealership that recently moved into new and much larger facilities in Wilmington, just north of Boston. Not only has business been good, but it’s become the only authorized Zagato agency in North America.
At that Lime Rock car show, Zagato admired Donati’s car and mentioned that his father had one just like it.
“We started talking. He had fond memories of his father’s car,” Donati said.
Zagato asked what Donati did for a living. “I told him and who I’d worked for and where I came from and he said, ‘Would you be interested in being a support person for us here in the United States?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’”
Donati remembers Zagato telling him, “We have to do more talking. Next time you come to Italy, visit me at my place.”
Donati goes to Europe several times a year to inspect and often to buy cars for Volante and its clients. Over the course of a few such visits, he and Zagato talked more. Finally, Zagato told him, “We would like you to be the guy.”
“I said, ‘Sure.’ ”
What it all means, Donati said, is that, “If someone from the United States or Canada wants a special-bodied Zagato car, I’m the agent.” He said he also has access to Zagato’s archives should a Zagato-bodied classic car need accurate restoration.
Zagato was founded in 1920 by Ugo Zagato, who did a metalworking apprenticeship in Germany and then returned to his native Italy, where he became a department manager in a company that built aircraft. After World War I, he and a partner set up their own shop in Milan, specializing in aluminum bodywork, at first for Alfa Romeo and then for other auto companies.
Zagato not only did body construction but design as well. Zagato’s sons, Elio and Gianni, would join the firm, as did designer Ercole Spada. Eventually, Ugo’s grandsons, cousins Andrea (Elio’s son) and Luca Zagato, would take over the company which today focuses on design.
“They design not only cars but planes, watches, whatever you want them to design for you,” Donati said.
Meanwhile, Volante will sell you a car or restore the one you already own.
“Some people don’t want to wait the long time to restore a car,” Donati said. “They want something they can get in and drive right away. And it’s much less money than to restore a car in the same model. We like to give people a choice.”
While buying may be less expensive than restoration, Donati said that one recent restoration customer made quite a bit of money while his car was undergoing its restoration.
“It took 14 months to restore a vintage Ferrari and while it sat there, he almost tripled his money (because the car increased so much in value),” Donati said. “And I’m talking millions, not hundreds of thousands.
“That’s one of the beauties of getting into the vintage European car market. It’s a great investment and in the meantime, you can enjoy your car.”