It was in the 1960s that the Italian sports car industry reached its pinnacle and established the mystique it enjoys today. After the rapid development of the racing scene in the '20s and '30s, Italian engineers, designers, and pilots came back from the World War with greater technical knowledge and an insatiable hunger for the thrill of serious track action. Not long after life returned to normal, a new Italian renaissance birthed legendary names like Ferrari, Maserati, and Alfa Romeo.
Those few were not the only names that established the Italian racing scene that was so rich and advanced at the time. Dozens of small racing car manufacturers tried their luck, and often competed with a surprising level of success. Names like Bandini, Moretti, or Stanguellini may sound exotic today, but in fact they were the brands that moved the game forward for the Italian racing community in their home country and in the U.S. These small Italian jewel-like race cars didn't necessarily look like they had much in common with each other, but in fact, they were all nearly identical underneath; they shared the same underpinnings stacked together on similar shoestring budgets. Historians now refer to these rare cars as "etceterini," the label coming from the etc. phrase, as if they're putting them in an addendum to the standard history of Italian sports cars.
After the war, spirits were high but resources were low. The only available components a constructor had, no matter whether he wanted to build a truck or a single-seat race car, were some small pre-war Fiat engines and chassis. Auto Avio Costruzioni 815, Enzo Ferrari's first car, was in fact based on a cheap Fiat and had a straight-8 engine made of two Fiat engines put end to end. Abarth started the very same way.
ATS (coming from Automobili Turismo e Sport) wasn't just another company of that type, though. It was founded in 1962 by Carlo Chiti and Giotto Bizzarrini, two very talented race engineers who worked for Ferrari, where they created some of the best cars to ever come from Maranello. They created the Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa and 250 GTO before they famously organized a revolt against their infamous boss and left his company together with some other key staff members. They sought revenge by creating a scuderia that could compete with Ferrari both on track and on road. While they had a very promising start bringing to market a fairly advanced and rather splendid-looking ATS 2500 GT and participating in Formula 1, they never managed to repeat the success of Lamborghini or pose a threat to their archrival. Ultimately, the etceterini faded away, as the small and meager garages couldn't stand the competition from the rapidly developing big players.
ATS would be just another forgotten name if not for Daniele Maritan, a young Italian who revived the brand in 2011. Maritan set up a new facility in the small city of Borgomanero, in the foothills of the Alps. Asked for the reason why he chose the ATS label, he admits that he looked for a name with proper Italian legacy that would also be free for the taking. After thorough research, he came across ATS and decided to build his modern heritage around it. He has taken the job very seriously. The company's headquarters look surprisingly modern and high tech. In the finely executed showroom, the clients can inspect all three models forming the current lineup, browse through the official merchandise, and examine the fine materials that are used to trim the cabins. The overall feeling is that it's a serious, albeit small, car manufacturer; because ATS really is.
Before embarking on the road-car business, the company established itself as a player in the track car industry, successively implementing a full line of LMP-like racers simply called "Sport." Still very much a niche product, they quickly became a credible alternative to Radical or Caterham. That success gave ATS the ability to move into the business of craft-built road cars. Soon the company will offer a modern reincarnation of the legendary mid-engined ATS 2500 GT called the GT, but its first endeavor is what you see here, a simple back-to-basics roadster—or barchetta in Italian speak—called Stile50 (pronounced steel-ae chinquanta in your best Italian impression).
Even if the original ATS never made a car similar to this, the new Stile50 looks like a very accurate translation of the '60s sports car concept to 21st century eyes. It's not necessarily purely Italian: The purposeful stance of the muscular lines garnished with some neat Italian touches creates an AC-Cobra-meets-Lotus-XI-cum-Ferrari-166MM feeling (or is there a hint of Miata in it, too?), which may seem confusing at first but eventually appears to be a pretty sumptuous proposition. Stile50 is like an eclectic mix of our favorite hits from the past, and even Daniele sees it this way, admitting that he wanted to have a suggestion of typical British sports car in the lines, but with more of Southern gravitas. "If we re-create history, why not do it in the way we want it, right?"
Stile50 may look like a lithe and delicate vintage classic at a distance, but once you come closer, it instantly becomes clear that it's a track beast, just like the fragile, yet fearless, etceterini cars of the past. Don't let the cute Fiat 500-sourced headlights and the old-school luggage rack fool you. Look beyond that and you'll see an exhaust pipe running along the body on the passenger's side, an aluminum intercooler lurking beneath the front air intake—it must be there for some reason, as there's an additional hoodscoop just over it—and then you spot a set of track-focused Tarox 10-inch, six-piston brakes. Once you realize getting the best lap times is the goal, it's easier to understand why you get what you get, or rather don't get, inside the cabin. Occupants are just barely isolated from the elements by the low-slung body and a small wind deflector. Pop inside over the fiberglass handbuilt body (the doors stay on the option list) and you are welcomed by little more than what racing drivers of the '60s had at their disposal: Smiths gauges (just like the ones you'll find in the classic British roadsters), a Nardi Torino wooden steering wheel, and leather-quilted transmission tunnel. They do their best to create a classy feeling, but there's no getting around the fact that this is one very crude and spartan cabin. But you know what? That's all the better! We need more honest and pure cars like this. Over the decades, even the gearheads have grown accustomed to a lot of creature comforts that isolate the driver with successive layers of insulation, assists, and aids. Stile50 takes you back directly to the etceterini times, when you didn't need big engines and even bigger budgets to drive fast—and get properly scared.
The compact roadster is powered by an unassuming 1.6L turbo four, but it's a rotary 210hp GM unit found in the European Opel Corsa OPC hot-hatch. ATS has mounted it North-South behind the front axle for a front-mid-engine configuration for perfect weight balance. Optionally, it is aided by a dry-sump lubrication system. The torquey motor sends its efforts to the asphalt through a five-speed gearbox—also a mass-market piece and a proper limited-slip differential provided by the industry legend Quaife. ATS offers another powertrain option: 280 hp coming from a naturally aspirated Honda S2000-sourced F22C engine tuned by the legendary Spoon garage. In reality, the standard GM motor provides more than enough for superleggera body, tipping the scales at just 1,430 pounds, but some owners will like the naturally aspirated response of the Honda.
The ultra-low weight was achieved, following in the footsteps of the Stile50's predecessors from half a century ago. The body is built around a lightweight stainless steel tube frame. If you want a true track-day monster, you can choose chrome-moly tubing for additional rigidness and weight reduction to an even slimmer 1,323 pounds. For actual race use, it can be equipped with carbon-fiber seats, sequential gearbox, FIA-approved safety gear, and adjustable suspension arms with rose joints. Together with a double-wishbone suspension with adjustable Ohlins TTX shocks, antiroll bars, and in-house built exhaust system, the car has solid foundations, but, to be brutally honest, it is not something a skilled engineer couldn't design in his own shed. Then again, it's exactly because of this that Stile50 feels like an authentic vintage race car. It shows what's wrong with the current generation of sports cars. While today's cars can be compared to frozen lasagna, which imitates the real thing, Stile50 is like authentic ravioli from a restaurant in Naples. You appreciate all of the carefully selected ingredients, you can sense each of them, and feel all the unfiltered nuances.
There's something very human about this machine; driving a Stile50 is a visceral experience. It's the first road car of ATS, but it still feels like the company gathered most of its knowledge at the racetrack. Compared to this, even a Miata feels synthetic and digital.
The engine wakes with a harsh mechanic clatter, and the car moves forward slowly, while the driver struggles with the enormously heavy clutch pedal linked to a single-plate competition unit. On the third attempt, we're off. With a proper track-car background and next-to-no weight, Stile50 instantly does exactly what the driver wishes and transmits an HD image of what's happening with each wheel directly to the driver's palms. The pinpoint steering suits the stiff architecture and the precise closely stacked gearbox creates perfect conditions for getting the maximum out of this snappy powerplant. Rev it, let the wind gush over your face, and throw the thing into the corner. It'll be happy to obey, exiting each bend with a hint of LSD-aided oversteer.
When people think of what shaped iconic cars, not only sports cars but American muscle, Australian utes, Soviet 4x4s, or Italian exotica, they tend to think of the personalities of their makers, economic context, or brand heritage. What virtually no one realizes is the huge role of the roads surrounding the factory. Think of the derestricted autobahns in Bavaria, a B-road in the U.K., or the Alpine passes between Italy and France. Stile50 is a car that's ideally suited for the narrow winding roads meandering through the mountains around the ATS headquarters; it feels at home here because it really is its home. Case solved for Italian spirited drivers then, but how can the rest of the world benefit from it? With a $65k price tag, it has much to prove against a similarly priced Porsche Boxster or Camaro ZL1. But think of it as a handbuilt roadster from an Italian boutique maker and it suddenly becomes a bargain alternative to the fantasy multimillion-dollar hypercars. ATS's little gem is a true etceterini in and out; it's rough and expects much sacrifice from the owner. Thanks to this, however, its price stays within reach of an average car guy and it can put a smile on the driver's face in a way that, until now, only the classic cars knew how to do.