Tuscan Run

We sample internationally renowned jeweler Nicola Bulgari’s rare export C4 in an idyllic Italian setting

February 11, 2016
Tuscan Run 1
Tuscan Run 2
Tuscan Run 3
Tuscan Run 4

Ask yourself: What are the chances of finding a rare export Corvette in a medieval Italian village? Not great, of course, unless you have a chance conversation with Mark Rodino, who offers that one resides in the Tuscan city of Sarteano. Rodino has lived in Europe for many years, and is a friend of this very special Corvette’s owner, internationally renowned jeweler Nicola Bulgari. We were naturally intrigued, so Rodino arranged for us to speak with Bulgari to learn more about the car. Bulgari, the car’s original owner, proved a gracious and knowledgeable interlocutor, leading us to suggest a full article on this unique C4. Much to our pleasant surprise, he agreed.

In performing our research for this story, we contacted Betty Hardison at the National Corvette Museum, who provided us with the car’s factory build sheet. Built on January 17, 1984, our subject is one of 51,547 produced for that model year, and one of 238 ’84s built for export. Interestingly, it carries the NM5 Canadian emission code, not the NM8 code that was typically used for Europe-bound cars. It seems the NM5 ’84s were equipped to use unleaded fuel, while the NM8s ran on traditional leaded gas. At the time individual European countries were slowly transitioning to unleaded, and Italy was not among them. However, this car was slated to be shipped to Switzerland, a nation whose laws required no-lead fuel. GM was therefore compelled to equip it with the NM5 gear, even if the buyer was from another country. The car arrived at the Auto-Koch dealership in Lucerne and then was driven to Italy, where it has remained for 31 years. With a little history established, we were on our way to Rome.

Upon our arrival, Paolo Ciminiello, Bulgari’s car curator in Italy, arranged for us to drive a Chevy Suburban north to the picturesque region of Tuscany. Our destination was Sarteano, 167 km (103 mi) outside of Rome, and we arrived in less than two hours. Sarteano is an ancient walled town comprising a labyrinth of small streets and alleyways. An archway gives visitors access to the medieval Sarteano Castle, built in 1038 but still open to the public. The town is a popular tourist destination, though one not known as a haven for Corvettes. Instead it has a reputation for its history, landscapes, excellent cuisine and superb wines.

Soon we arrived at the site where the Corvette was located and were met by the facility manager. The recently completed garage is a modern structure that includes a lift so cars can be stored on the second level. Bulgari has two Corvettes here—our subject ’84 and a Sebring Silver ’63 split-window coupe. The Bright Red C4 was driven out into the Tuscan sunlight so we could take photos. It was immediately apparent that the 30-plus-year-old car remains in excellent condition, with lustrous, blemish-free paint. The interior is in exceptional shape as well, making it clear that this Corvette has been well cared for over the course of its 67,704 original miles.

After our first photo session, we drove the car to the town square in Sarteano. Unsurprisingly it received a great deal of attention from the locals and tourists, as Corvettes are a rare sight indeed. The old-world setting served as a perfect backdrop for more photos, after which we headed out of town for some scenic highway shots.

The countryside around Sarteano is hilly, curvy, carpeted with vineyards and dotted with tall Italian cypress trees, allowing us to put the car through its paces in a way that the byzantine streets of Sarteano would never allow. With its eye-catching looks and quick handling reflexes, the C4 Corvette fits right into the Italian driving milieu. Italians are known for their passionate love of all things automotive, and this rosso ’84 was much admired during our drive.

We especially enjoyed the boldness and tempo of Italian motoring, which is much more aggressive than anything we see on our side of the Atlantic. And yet, statistically, driving here is much safer than doing so in the States. Italy, with its superb network of B-roads and the high-speed Autostrade, is a country where you can experience the total performance envelope of your early or late-model Corvette. After taking in as much of the delectable Tuscan scenery and weather as we could, we completed our photo session and had lunch at La Taverna del Patriarca in nearby Chiusi. At last, we returned to the garage to finalize a few story details before returning to Rome.

In a subsequent meeting with Bulgari in his Rome office, he noted that the rare export C4 it is still one of his favorites. This is all the more notable when one considers that he possesses one of the world’s most impressive car collections (sidebar). Bulgari is a big fan of Chevy’s supercar, having owned fourth-, fifth- and sixth-generation Corvettes. Recently he purchased a Shark Gray eight-speed automatic C7 Z06, which he’s anxious to drive when it arrives in Italy.

Our Tuscan Corvette run taught us that nothing compares to driving our favorite sports car on these beautiful Italian roads. Even better, it’s actually very simple—and surprisingly inexpensive—to ship your own car to Europe for an unforgettable driving vacation. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience that no Corvette owner should miss.

Sidebar: Italian Enthusiast with an Eye for GM's Gems

Nicola Bulgari is the grandson of the founder of the famed Bulgari jewelry company (www.bulgari.com), and he is best known for his skillful stewardship of the iconic luxury brand. But while compiling our story on Bulgari’s export Corvette, we learned of his passion for American automobiles, and especially cars made by General Motors. (His favorite brands are Buick, Cadillac and Corvette.) He has an impressive collection of these vehicles, with vintages ranging from the 1920s all the way up to the latest C7 Z06.
One of the collection’s more notable features is a fleet of GM-built Vatican limousines that were used to transport various Popes over the years. Bulgari bought them when the Vatican converted its fleet to European brands, and they now reside in his garage in Rome. Other collection-storage sites include the ancient Tuscan town of Sarteano (shown above) and the eastern Pennsylvania city of Allentown. All of the cars are kept in drivable condition so they can be enjoyed at a moment’s notice.
While growing up in Italy, Bulgari would marvel at the styling, power, durability and low cost of American cars, especially as compared with European offerings of the day. Today he finds it puzzling that American manufacturers don’t have a larger presence in Italy. After all, car companies based in the UK, Sweden, Italy, Germany and elsewhere have successfully penetrated the American market with their products. He believes that with more-effective marketing, Cadillac should be capable of regaining its former status as a top-tier luxury brand in Europe. We hope he’s right—and that the Corvette isn’t far behind.

Also from Issue 104

  • "Undercover" 660-HP C7
  • Restored '60 Ex-Drag Car
  • Buyer's Guide: $25K
  • 1998 Indy 500 Pace Car
  • Jordan Taylor's '65 Coupe
  • Top Flight LS5 Convertible
  • Styling the Stingray
  • Corvette Challenge Reborn
  • Racing: Season Preview
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