April 23, 2014
Automobile Quarterly
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FEATURED ARTICLE | Brass Era - 1907 Fiat Targa Florio Corsa | Leigh Dorrington

Brass Era
1907 Fiat Targa Florio Corsa

Fiat’s return to North America partnered with Chrysler will write new history. But what of the past? Most Americans may be surprised to learn about Fiat’s early greatness.

By Leigh Dorrington

In order to fully understand history, it is often necessary to first place history into the context of what was unknown at the time and what is familiar today.

Take auto racing, for example.

Today the red cars of Italy are recognized throughout the world. There may hardly be a person aware of the automobile who would not name Ferrari as first among equals. Those of an age born following World War II might quickly add the names of Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Lancia and perhaps OSCA. All won memorable auto races and championships in the postwar years.

Those with a longer memory would declare Alfa Romeo’s singular success in the two decades between world wars. First with the legendary P2, the first automobile to win the Automobile World Championship, and then the innovative P3 or the sports cars that dominated the Mille Miglia and won the 24 Hours of Le Mans four times running in the hands of drivers including Luigi Chinetti and the great Nuvolari. For many, it was Tazio Nuvolari’s unexpected victory against the German’s Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union Silver Arrows at their own German GP in 1935 in an aging and overmatched P3 that established Italy’s immortality in auto-racing history.

But before any of these, there was the mighty Fiat – not the diminutive Fiat known to postwar Americans as an inexpensive, frequently unreliable though sometimes sporting car, but the great Fiats that dominated early racing history.

Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino

Fiat historian Michael Sedgwick described Italy in 1899 as “saddled with a diet of rocks and desert,” referring to Italy’s lack of natural resources. Italy itself had been a nation for only 38 years when a group of young Piedmontese motoring enthusiasts gathered in Torino in 1899. Sedgwick wrote that Italy was not yet even a “car country”; the major proponents of the automobile were centered in France, Germany and Britain.

Among the group gathered in Torino to discuss automobiles was Giovanni Agnelli, who would become the legendary chairman of Fiat until his death in 1945, and father of Gianni Agnelli, who succeeded him as the principal shareholder of Fiat until 2003.Giovanni Agnelli was born to a landowning Piedmontese family in 1866 and passed from a formal education to the Pinerolo Cavalry School, which preceded his commission to the Italian army in 1886. During his service, he had the opportunity to conduct mechanical experiments in military workshops, where he was influenced by Enrico Bernardi, who was responsible for the first gasoline-powered Italian “auto” built in 1896.

 
 

Others in the group included “aristocratic socialists” and tinkerers, as well as attorney Cesare Goria-Gatti, banker Gustav Deslex and Giovanni Ceirano, whose patents and early prototype were acquired by Fiat.

The environment Fiat in which was founded was not promising, either. “The Italian social structure, with a great gulf fixed between rich and poor, did not make for a healthy economy,” Sedgewick wrote, “while Italy’s prospects in the realm of heavy industry were equally discouraging. Nobody expected much from Italy. The Government knew precious little of motor cars, and cared little for what it saw. While the first Fiats were being assembled in their new factory, a Royal Commission for the regulation of automobiles was propounding the kind of suggestions one might expect of a panel composed entirely of railway engineers.”

Nonetheless, Agnelli and his band persevered. Agnelli set about modifying the Ceirano prototype and produced the Tipo-A, the first Fiat. Agnelli was assisted by two new hires who would would also contribute significantly to Fiat’s early racing history. They were Vincenzo Lancia, who would later launch his own car company, and Felice Nazzaro, who quickly rose to the rank of “specialist mechanic.” Fiat’s first chief engineer, Aristede Faccioli, also came from Ceirano’s workshop.

Twenty-four cars were sold in 1900, perhaps hampered by the commission’s recommendation for draconian speed limits that made Britain, in Sedgwick’s words, “sound like a scorcher’s paradise.” The Tipo-A was unremarkable, and Faccioli continuously frustrated Agnelli with his conservatism. Agnelli was constantly striving to improve his new automobile and make Fiats the equal of Italy’s notoriously bad roads. Faccioli produced the 1901 Fiat that was essentially a Panhard copy, but he continued to reject the influence of foreign designs and was replaced in April 1901 by the more progressive Giovanni Enrico. Under Enrico’s direction, Fiat introduced its first 4-cylinder engines and Mercedes-style vertical radiator and began to attract export attention.

Fiat joined the ranks of automotive leaders in the years between 1901 and 1906. Fiat built 73 cars in 1901, 107 in 1902 and 134 in 1903, when Fiat became the leading Italian automaker. Fiats were sold first in the United States and Portugal in 1902, and in Britain, France and Germany in 1903. Fiats also were becoming a force with which to be reckoned in local Italian events, although not a single international victory had been won as late as 1906.

Targa Florio

None of the great races that have defined motorsport history yet existed – not Le Mans, not Indianapolis, the Mille Miglia, Monza, and not the Targa Florio.

The earliest motoring competitions were city-to-city affairs, with the 1894 Paris-Rouen event considered to be the world’s first automobile race. These events often took place in France, the early leader in automobile development, or started in Paris and ended in other European cities. City-to-city racing came to an abrupt end when the 1903 Paris-Madrid race was halted at Bordeaux following carnage that resulted in the deaths of a score of spectators and participants, including Marcel Renault, one of the three brothers who founded the Renault automobile company that continues to this day.

Twenty-year-old Vincenzo Florio had planned to participate in the 1903 Paris-Madrid race until he was forbidden by his elder brother Ignazio, who feared for Vincenzo’s safety. This act of sibling intervention may have altered auto-racing history forever.

Ignazio, Giulia and Vincenzo Florio inherited a vast fortune when their father Ignazio Sr. died in 1898. Family interests included a virtual monopoly on shipping from Italian ports, property, banking, a foundry, glass production and wine. The family seat was in Palermo, the principal city of Sicily. Mario Spataro, writing a preface for Targa Florio-20th Century Epic, described, “Palermo of the early 20th century exerted a special attraction on the aristocracy and was the meeting place of royals, captains of industry and people of culture.” Vincenzo Florio saw himself at the center of Palermo’s influence.

Florio purchased an early Fiat, which was delivered to Pallazo Florio by Felice Nazzaro as part of his special duties. A friendship developed between the two young men, and Florio offered employment to Nazzaro to maintain the family’s growing fleet of automobiles. When Florio determined to enter the 1902 Padua-Bovalenta race, he first approached Giovanni Agnelli who refused to sell him a Fiat for the race, perhaps for reasons of family friendship. Florio instead ordered a French Panhard et Levassor and won the race, beating Vincenzo Lancia, who was driving a Fiat. Little grass grew under young Florio’s boots.

So it is not surprising that, again in the words of Spataro, “The ‘Targa Florio’ burst onto the scene in 1906.” Florio, still only 23 years old, laid out the racecourse, which covered 148.823 kilometers around Sicily, with three laps providing a total distance of 446.469 km. Rules were established for cars powered by 4- or 6-cylinders. There was a minimum weight, but engine capacity was unlimited.

Entries in the first Targa Florio included four Italas, a Berliet, a Clement-Bayard, a Hotchkiss, a La Buire and a Fiat driven by Vincenzo Lancia that was the first car to start, while others followed at 10-minute intervals. The course was brutal, dry and rocky and climbing from the rugged coast into the mountainous Sicilian terrain that harbored bandits. The race was won by Cagno driving one of the Italas, defeating the French entries.

In spite of the small field, “the Sicilian race immediately became a centerpiece for the coming season, especially as the Gordon Bennett Cup had come to the end of its cycle.” The 1907 Targa Florio included 51 entrants from all of the major European manufacturers, including Darracq, Itala, Fiat, De Dietrich, Benz, Berliet, Gobron-Brille, Daimler, Clement, Junior, Star-Rapid, Zust, Diatto-Clement, Radia, Ajax, Isotta-Fraschini, Rolland-Pilain and Opel as well as a privately-entered Mercedes.

 
 

Nazarro won the race on the Fiat carrying number 20-B for the 1907 Targa, followed by Lancia on Fiat number 20-A finishing in second place just 12 minutes later after nearly 8½ hours of racing. Lancia also posted the fastest lap of the race on 20-A, leading the first lap at a speed of 2 hours, 43 minutes, 8 seconds. A third Fiat, number 20-C, finished in eighth place driven by Aldo Weilschott. The other two Fiat team cars do not appear in the race results, adding a bit of mystery. But Fiat had been established as one of the leading automakers in the world.

Fiat Targa Florio Corsa

The history of this 1907 Fiat Targa Florio Corsa chassis is well documented. A letter from Fiat Centro Storico to American collector and dealer Ben Moser in 1976 confirmed, “This very special car called by the factory Targa Florio Corsa (60cv) is one of five supplied for the 1907 Targa Florio race in Sicily.”

The Centro Storico letter also confirms that “the engine and chassis was based (on) a 28/40 but increased by engineer Guido Fornaca to 60hp. On this car a large capacity radiator, Peugeot type shock absorbers and Bosch high tension magneto were installed while used for racing until 1908.”

“One of five” supplied for the 1907 Targa Florio is an essential detail. Unlike race cars today where a car’s history is recorded in minute detail, early racing cars were handled with virtually no thought for the cars after their racing days. Cars were wrecked. Major components, including engines and chassis, were rebuilt and returned to one car or another without regard for their origin. For these reasons it is often difficult, if not impossible, to confirm the provenance of many early race cars with complete accuracy.

With the benefit of the Fiat Centro Storico letter, however, it is known that this car was one of the five Fiat team cars that raced in the 1907 Targa Florio. History has not recorded which team car won the race, or some combination of their components.

Fiats were raced from early on. Three 10.6-liter Fiats were listed as competitors in the Fifth Gordon Bennett Race in 1904. The highest finishing Fiat was Lancia’s in 8th place. This improved the following year when Fiats driven by Nazzaro and Cagno finished 2nd and 3rd while Lancia was forced to drop out with a punctured radiator.

The 10.6-liter Fiats figured in the First Vanderbilt Cup Race on Long Island in 1904 as Fiat’s U.S. importer Hollander and Tangeman—Hol-Tan—in New York City quickly saw the benefit of Fiats racing in America to establish sales for the Italian automaker. The initial result was disappointing, as both Fiats were shown out of the race with clutch trouble, but Fiat would shortly be established as a force in American racing.

Five Fiats figured in the Second Vanderbilt Cup Race in 1905, including Lancia in 4th and Nazzaro in 6th on enormous 16.3-liter machines as well as Sartori, Louis Chevrolet and Cedrino on 10.6-liter Fiats. This may have been Chevrolet’s first race in America after arriving from Switzerland by way of Canada and immediately seeking work with Hollander and Tangeman in New York as a mechanic. Lancia was 2nd in the 1906 Vanderbilt Cup with Nazzaro and Weilshott finishing further back, all on 16.3-liter cars. Fiats were a headline entry at top American races of the day—in Boston, New York and Philadelphia.

Following the 1907 Targa Florio in April, the 7.4-liter Fiats continued to be actively raced both in Europe, winning the prestigious Kaiserpreis, and in America through the efforts of Hol-Tan. Another of the Targa Florio Fiats finished 2nd in the 1909 Vanderbilt Cup Races. The Fiat Cyclone, further modified by Hol-Tan, competed on the sands at Ormond Beach, Fla. and was prepared for Ralph DePalma to challenge the Land Speed Record in 1910.

The Centro Storica documentation states that following the end of the 1908 racing season: “(This) Fiat was exported with a two-seater sports body but from your photograph we think the body was changed in Argentina for road use.” The photograph was one provided by American Ben Moser, who had discovered the Fiat in South America in the 1970s. Moser was at the time well known as both an automobile collector and a dealer and ferreted many great cars out of South America beginning in the 1960s.

Although Moser was interested enough to contact Fiat Centro Storica in 1976 and inquire about the Fiat’s history, it was not until 1990 that he was successful in buying the car. Following decades of effort, the Fiat proved to be the last car Moser acquired, as he passed away before the car could be shipped from South America to the U.S.

Restoration

Collectors of early automobiles George and Manny Dragone purchased the Fiat from Moser’s estate, and it was shipped to their Bridgeport, Connecticut shop in the early 1990s.

The Fiat arrived in the U.S. carrying the touring body described in the Centro Storica letter. The body combined the original tufted leather seats for the driver and passenger, with similar seating for additional passengers mounted in the rear. A graceful top covered both sets of seats. Additional information provided with the Fiat indicated that the car had been stored in a barn on an Argentine ranch since the 1920s, and still rode on the original grey rubber tires.

There was never a question of restoring the Fiat to its 1907 Targa Florio form. This plan was enhanced by the car’s remarkably complete and original condition. The chassis, engine and other major components were intact, including the oversized radiator, racing carburetor and shocks. “There was 90 percent of the original car,” said Manny Dragone.

 
 

The project languished for a number of years while the new owners learned about the car’s complete history before restoration was finally undertaken in the late 1990s. One of the unexpected surprises was that “the car was never red,” according to Manny. “The early Fiat race cars were all painted in dark colors. Many were black.” This car was found to have been blue originally, but was restored to a corso rosso shade more in keeping with its character.

The restoration was completed after nearly ten years of patient work that revealed many details long forgotten, or unknown to modern enthusiasts. George Dragone pointed out many of the unique features incorporated into the design of the Fiat.

The 7.4-liter T-head engine used in the Targa Florio cars is a masterpiece of metallurgy. Polished copper and brass are combined with alloy and cast iron. The iron jugs that contain the enormous pistons bolt to the alloy crankcase. Valve stems and springs are openly visible on both sides of the engine actuated by a pair of camshafts mounted in the crankcase below.

Fiat used the high tension magneto to replace a ‘make or break’ ignition more typical of the era. Two spark plugs per cylinder improve starting. The hot spark from the magneto is concentrated to one set of plugs to start the engine, and then evenly distribute across both sides of the vast combustion chambers using both sets of spark plugs for more efficient running. Fuel flows through a special updraft racing carburetor developed by Fiat, while finely turned brass flutes mounted at the top of each cylinder serve to prime the starting process.

A polished brass box mounted on the dashboard and topped with beveled glass encloses a novel oiling system. Fine ball-chains pick up oil from a reservoir and deposit drops of oil into a series of tiny ‘buckets’. Each of these is connected by a brass tube directly to an individual oiling point mounted on the engine or chassis.

Two men are required to start the automobile. One works the brass hand pump mounted between the two bucket seats to build up fuel pressure, while the second drips gasoline into the flutes to ‘tickle’ the carburetor. The spark box is set to ‘1’, while the long, brass-topped shifter and hand brake mounted on the outside of the chassis rail are checked for correct position. The second man—and it is still man’s work to start the Fiat—hand cranks the big engine to turn it over. As the motor rattles to life, the first pumps the round brass, center-mounted accelerator to coax the engine to idle while he deftly flicks the spark box toward ‘2’ to engage both sets of spark plugs.

Power is delivered by a short drive shaft that connects through a gearbox to a perpendicular shaft mounted with large sprocket gears located outside of the chassis. Chains connect to gears that drive both rear wheels.

The foot pedal operates brakes mounted on the transmission shaft. In an astonishing discovery, the brakes are watercooled! A tank mounted on the driver’s side of the chassis looks like an oil reservoir, but is filled with water to cool the brakes via brass lines that spray directly onto the braking faces. The emergency brake lever operates mechanical brakes mounted on the rear wheels.

One other distinctive feature of the Fiat is most apparent viewed from either side. A barrel-shaped belly pan extends from beneath the engine to the gearbox. The tray keeps stones and grit out of the works. But the primary function is to enhance cooling for the engine. A large, circular fan is fitted to the rear of the crankshaft to draw hot air away from the engine, aided by a draught created by the belly pan.

Driving a Piece of History

The Fiat was presented in its Targa Florio form for the first time in over 100 years at the 2009 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance where it was rewarded with 1st in Class. On the previous day, Manny Dragone and his son Alex drove the Fiat on the Tour d’Elegance along a stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway that could have been a portion of the Targa Florio. “It was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had,” said Manny. “The most fun was passing a Speed 6 Bentley at 80mph!”

The Fiat was shown at the 2010 Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, where it was awarded “Best Pre-WWI Racing Car.” Days later, George and his son Shane drove the Fiat on Ormond Beach as part of the Centennial of Speed celebration that marked the 100th anniversary of the 1910 Land Speed Record competition.

Nothing can prepare the lucky passenger for the experience. Like some mythical beast, the Fiat is a glance into an unknown place. The sound at idle is like standing beside an airplane. The big car rolls forward easily, as the driver works the shifter through the open gate. Revs come quickly and the power is at the top, while the sound builds to a crescendo and the machine feels as though it might shake itself apart.

Riding atop the ferocious machine, the wind buffets the driver and passenger from side to side. The rocky coastline becomes a blur. The roar of the exhaust rises with the speed of the wheels until the driver finally lifts his boot, afraid the fury will blow the jug right off the block.

Bring it on!

Read more about Brass Era - 1907 Fiat Targa Florio Corsa | Volume 50 No. 3