About twenty years ago I was rather intimately acquainted with a 1,500-c.c. Ceirano. It was rather a pretty car, with a 4-seater body and well-pronounced shoulder line from radiator to short, streamlined tail. The 4-cylinder engine had inclined push-rod-operated overhead valves and, one way and another, it followed the most up-to-date design of its day. But I do not remember that its performance was particularly dramatic; and the reason for this, I believe, was that it was too new. Of course it was thoroughly run in and all that; but I am inclining increasingly to the view that cars have to be really very thoroughly run in indeed before they can be persuaded to give of their best.
The reason which prompted my thoughts to turn to the Ceirano was a recent criticism of an article which appeared in these columns in February, 1935, by the present owner of the 1908 Grand Prix Itala, which has shown itself, in his hands, so vivid an exemplar of the capabilities of the powerful Edwardians. After all these years, time, I thought, had earned immunity from criticism for that particular effusion. But not a bit of it. I had, complained the owner, insinuated that a modern baby sports car could run rings round his Itala, and he was determined to demonstrate to me that this was not so. (As if the ltala’s recent performances were not themselves sufficient demonstration!) He took me out in the monster on one of those brilliant deceptive autumn afternoons which make you start as if it were July, without a coat, and finish by making you wish that you were dressed for the Monte Carlo Rally, and whirled me round the roads of Surrey until I was only too willing to admit that any baby sports car which could run rings round his machine would be a very remarkable baby sports car indeed. Whereupon, honour being, I suppose, satisfied, he allowed me to go and try to unfreeze myself in the interior-drive Bugatti.
All of which was, in my opinion, exceedingly unfair. Because in the first place, the criticism in question was only made possible by divorcing my words from their context. What I actually said about my 1934 run in the Itala was this: “The driver was obviously enjoying himself, and no wonder! A modern baby sports car could probably run rings round the Itala, but what did he care? In his high seat, grasping the massive steering wheel, with the mighty beat of the engine in his ears, any driver must feel a king.” Which, if it means anything at all, appears to me to mean simply that even David’s potentially superior performance could not reduce Goliath’s superiority complex.
And in the second place, I am not so sure but that, in 1934, simply because the Itala and its driver were not thoroughly well run-in together (the days being long past when Mr. Wil-de-Gose used to run the car so successfully at Brooklands) David might not have had a pretty good chance; the Ceirano, for instance, of which I had long since lost sight, but which by then may have thoroughly settled down in the hands of a sympathetic owner.
There is nothing surprising in my thoughts turning so particularly to the Ceirano, for the name takes one back to the very earliest days of the marque Itala. It is really extraordinary, in view of her subsequent performance, how late Italy was in getting started as a motor car producer. Something to do with her lack of coal, I suppose, although this is, perhaps, hardly the moment to say so around here. At any rate a solitary Fiat put in an appearance in the light-car class of Paris-Madrid in 1903, and in 1904 it was followed, in the same category, by the 24-h.p. Itala. By the next year the latter had graduated to the big-car class, with a 100-h.p. model, 185 by 155-mm. bore and stroke, which quickly distinguished itself by winning the Florio Cup at Brescia. “The Itala cars,” said The Autocar, which evidently expected them to be unknown to its readers, “are constructed by Genoa capitalists who have established works in Turin.” One of the capitalists, presumably, was Signor Raggio, who drove the winning car, and who was described as “a gentleman from Genoa, who has had no previous experience in racing, and until he got possession of his racing machine about six weeks before the event had handled nothing speedier than a 24-h.p. car.”
The first part of which statement was not strictly true, as a matter of fact, because he had run an Itala in the light-car class of the 1904 race and finished second on it; but certainly it was only a 24-h.p., so that perhaps this was hardly considered racing.
It is not stated whether Ceirano (we have got to him at last), who drove another of the 100-h.p. cars in 1905, came from Genoa, nor, for that matter, whether he was a capitalist. Signor Raggio, incidentally, does not look particularly bloated at the wheel of his racer, in spite of his smart check cap, stiff collar and leather gaiters. As to Ceirano, I am without even a contemporary photograph, and all that transpires about him in the report of the race is that he won the Italy Cup by covering the first 300 kms. at 70 m.p.h., and then broke a wheel on the last lap. In 1908, however, in the course of one of his not infrequent letters to The Autocar, Mr. S. F. Edge described him as “responsible for so much in the design of the Fiat, Itala, Spa and Scat cars,” and if his efforts in this direction included the 1905 Coppa Florio Itala, his success was considered by our contemporary to be well deserved. “The engine,” it remarked, “develops 100 h.p. and is said to be geared for about a hundred miles an hour. It is a remarkably well-constructed car, much stronger and of better finish than we are usually accustomed to see in racing vehicles.”
Chevalier Vincenzo Florio himself drove a Mercédès in the race, and finished ninth; but, being an excellent sportsman, he “was so delighted with the success of the cup event, that he announced his intention of organising a great competition for touring cars in his native isle of Sicily.” It took the form of the first Targa Florio race over the Madonie Circuit (the old, or “long” Madonie Circuit, of course), and was run in 1906. The rules, somewhat curiously, stipulated that it was open only to standard models, weighing not less than 1,300 kgms., and costing not more than 20,000 francs, so that, if nothing else, you were assured of getting full weight for your money. At that date, apparently, you could buy a 40-h.p. Itala for your £800 and one, moreover, which in the hands of Cagno succeeded in winning the race, a performance which must have seemed very satisfactory to any intending purchaser.
I do not know how much this 130 by 140-mm. model, or the subsequent Grand Prix cars, owed to Ceirano. His movements during 1906 are not readily apparent. But in 1907 he seems definitely to have moved on from Itala because he appears in the second Targa Florio at the wheel of an Italian car with the not very Italian name of “Rapid.” (Not very Italian, incidentally, and not very apt, as it seems to have gone exceedingly slowly.) Now this car was made by Fiat and differed from those which bore the name of the firm that made it particularly in that it had shaft drive. This had been a feature of Italas from the first, and it rather looks as if the Rapid represented a cautious means on the part of Fiat, where chains had always been in favour, to let Ceirano demonstrate his theories without doing his new patrons any harm. The Rapid, as already mentioned, wasn’t; the race was won by Nazzaro’s Fiat, with Lancia’s the runnerup; and the doyen of the Italian industry continued happily with its chains until the days of those monster anachronisms of the 1912 Grand Prix.
As to Ceirano, he seems to have moved on again. He seems to have collected a second Ceirano, and, moreover, he seems to have detached Raggio from his allegiance to Italas. Together they appeared in the Coppa Florio races at Brescia at the end of the year on S.P.A. cars. Unfortunately my researches have yielded singularly little information about the Societa Piemontese di Automobili. But that they have been thorough will, I think, be admitted when I say that they include reference to Moody’s “Manual of Industrials,” that Bible of Wall Street, which informs me that S.P.A. is now a subsidiary of Fiat. Whether this was the case from the first, I frankly do not know, but as in any case the fastest S.P.A. in 1907 was even slower than Gallina’s Rapid, perhaps it does not greatly matter.
The next year, 1908, the new marque did better. Ceirano was third in the Targa Florio, the next day an energetic gentleman of the name of Eros was second in the 130-mm. class of the famous St. Petersburg-Moscow race, and at the end of the year an S.P.A. was second in the Targa Bologna. But Ceirano himself, evidently, had once more moved on; and, of all curious places, it was in the Isle of Man where the car called after him made its first public appearance.
Whatever may have been thought of Ceirano and his products in his native Italy, English opinion at this time was tremendously impressed with the design and performance of Italian cars. Not, indeed, without reason. In 1907 Fiat had won the Grand Prix, the Targa Florio and the Kaiserpreis; Isotta-Fraschini the Florio Cup, and Itala the Coppa della Velocita, which was the other great event of the Drescia meeting. Even the Mercédès victory in the 1908 Grand Prix could not blind observers to the tremendous speed of the Fiats, which had afterwards won the Florio Cup and the American Grand Prize race in Savannah, while this time the Targa Florio had gone to Isotta-Fraschini. In any case the firm of Newton and Bennett, of Manchester, was thoroughly convinced of the skill of the Italian designers, and the Societa Ceirano di Automobili Torino seems to have been the result of their conviction. The S.C.A.T. was to be made in Turin, but Mr. John Newton was to be the managing director of the company, and Mr. R. O. Harper, the firm’s engineer, had, I think, a hand in the design of the car. As a kick-off, three of them were to be entered for the forthcoming race in the Isle of Man.
Having run three Tourist Trophies with a fuel consumption limit, and having tried to slow the big cars up still more in 1907 by making them carry around with them an erection with the frontal area of a limousine, the R.A.C. decided, in 1908, to say farewell to all that, and plump for the bore limitation, as they were doing on the Continent. The rules for the race, it was stated, would consequently be simple, and confined to two straightforward points, as follows :
1. The race is for cars the D²n of whose cylinders shall not exceed 64 (sixty-four), i.e., whose R.A.C. rating is not greater than 25.6. Cars fitted with internal combustion engines shall not have less than four working cylinders.
2. The minimum weight shall be 1,600 lb. (sixteen hundred pounds), which shall exclude the driver, mechanic, petrol, oil and water, spare parts, spare tyres, and tools.
These simple rules having been explained by Messrs. Newton and Harper to Signor Ceirano, the new S.C.A.T. was duly provided with a bore which, as in the case of the majority of the competing cars, is almost invariably stated to have been 102 mm. Now 102 mm. actually gives an R.A.C. rating of 25.8, and with my usual passion for accuracy, I must state that the correct figure was 101.6 mm., or thereabouts; in other words, four inches. The other unfortunate Continental competitors, such as Darracq, Berliet and Westinghouse, not being able to call in the expert advice of Messrs. Newton and Bennett, had, for the most part, to be content with a mere 100 mm., and even Piccard-Pictet, in spite of the Swiss reputation for precision, did not dare approach more nearly to the magic figure than to choose a bore of 101 mm.
Strokes varied enormously, from the 8 or 9 inches of the Huttons, which gave them a stroke-bore ratio of 2 to 1 or more, down to the 110 mm. of the Rover. The S.C.A.T.’s 120 mm. was among the shortest, they weighed about 2,000 lb., which is what in America they call a ton, although I should think that in this context there was not the slightest significance in the fact, and their designer, in common with the other entrants, doubtless hoped that plug trouble or the like would not reduce the number of their working cylinders below the stipulated four.
R. O. Harper drove one of the cars, F. Ward and H. S. Buckley the other two; but none of them was as fast as their long-stroke rivals, and perhaps they were too new to be reliable. In any case, none of them finished. Neither Ceirano nor his English friends, however, were unduly disheartened. Profiting from experience, the stroke of the 22-h.p. model was increased to 140 mm., and from the Isle of Man they turned to Sicily.
Their reward came in 1911, with a victory in the sixth Targa Florio. Not but what the English historian of that famous race is confronted by some pretty conflicting evidence, at times, it must be admitted. “The Targa Florio has just been held for the sixth time,” reports the usually so reliable Autocar of May 20th, 1911; ” . . there were sixteen entrants this year and thirteen starters. Three finished the 450 kms. of the run in the following order: (1) Ceirano (S.C.A.T.) in 9 hr. 32 min. 22.4 sec.; (2) Cortese (Lancia) in 9 hr. 58 min. 20.2 sec.; (3) Soldatenkoff (Mercédès) in 10 hr. 23 min. 23.4 sec.” “Continental tyres scored very decisively in the Targa Florio race,” it adds a week later, “the winner (Ceirano on a S.C.A.T.), the second (Cortese on a Lancia) and the fourth (San Domino on a S.C.A.T.) all using them. The race is one of the most trying events of the year, covering as it does a distance of over 300 kms. over some of the worst roads in Europe.” Well, of course, 450 kms. is a distance of quite considerably over 300 kms. and did one S.C.A.T. finish or two? Or did they change their Continental tyres at the end of two laps of the long Madonie circuit and San Domino fall by the wayside on the third?
Frankly, I wouldn’t know. But at least there seems to be no doubt but that Ceirano won the race, or that the S.C.A.T. began to make a habit of it. However many times the Madonie circuit had to be covered in 1911, too, Chevalier Vincenzo Florio decided to abandon it altogether in 1912 in favour of a single circuit of Sicily, which would give the enormous racing distance, having in mind the nature of the Sicilian roads, of 1,050 kms., or say 656 miles. The cars were started at midnight on Saturday, all Sunday they careered round the island, and it was only the fastest of them that got back to their starting point before the not so small hours of Monday morning. Lamps as well as everything else were to be tested in a way which was not repeated until the coming of the Grand Prix d’Endurance at Le Mans.
The field varied from a powerful team of Fiats to a Ford, which acquitted itself rather creditably and finished sixth. Vincenzo Florio himself drove his usual Mercédès. The three S.C.A.T. cars had full-length chassis, as befitted competitors in a “touring car” race; but otherwise their headlamps contrasted rather strangely with their generally stark appearance, and in the tonneau they carried three spare wheels instead of a seat. The engine stroke was still 140 mm., but the bore had been increased from 101.6 mm. to 104 mm. Again I suspect English influence: 104 mm. gives an R.A.C. rating of 26.9 h.p.; 105 mm. would have brought the engine above the 27-h.p. mark.
In the very early days of the Newton and Bennett connection, Cyril Snipe bad gone from Manchester to Turin as a sort of ambassador, to convert millimetres into inches and the like, I suppose. There he had remained, thence he had possessed himself of the wheel of one of the racers, and thus he assured himself of the still unrivalled distinction of being the only Englishman to win the Targa Florio. His time of 23 hr. 37 min. 19.8 sec. gave him a lead of just over an hour and a half over the Lancia which came in second, followed fairly closely by a Fiat. The last driver whose time is recorded took over 33 1/2 hours over the circuit of the island. In no case is the name of more than one driver given for each car, and one is left to wonder whether these giants of the past really stuck at it for anything up to a day and a half without a respite.
In 1913 neither Ceirano nor the S.C.A.T. did any good at all. The designer, at least, seems to have started, but none of his cars appear among the finishers. Instead a new name is in evidence, in eighth place — Bordino; and it was his future team-mate, Felice Nazzaro, on a car of his own make who was the winner. But were Messrs. Newton and Bennett, the S.C.A.T. concessionnaires, downhearted? Not a bit of it — they were concessionnaires in England for the Nazzaro too
And in 1914 they scored a grand slam. In the Targa Florio, Ceirano himself on his S.C.A.T. Won by nearly two hours, reducing the time for the Sicilian “tour” to 16 hr. 51 min. 31 sec., 6 1/2 hours less than Snipe’s of only two years before. The stroke of the S.C.A.T. had, I think, by now been increased to 150 mm., and the roads had doubtless been improved in the meantime. For all that, his average of 36.85 m.p.h. does not compare too unfavourably with that of the winning car, with two drivers, over the same circuit, some fifteen years later. And then in the Coppa Florio race, held a week later over the Madonie circuit, instead of winning again, he lost, by less than five minutes — to Nazzaro’s Nazzaro! Behind them, at a respectful distance and in fourth place, came one Campari, driving an Alfa, which had still to acquire the additional appellative “Romeo.”
But where are the snows of yesteryear? And where is the Nazzaro, or the S.C.A.T., or the Ceirano, or what you will, today? Well, they seem to be making such rapid progress in Italy with proving that it pays to lose a war, that I shouldn’t be surprised to see either or any of them reappearing before long — before you can get delivery of a car from Coventry or Birmingham way, anyhow!