A Fiat Fiasco

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A Fiat Fiasco

The most monstrous single-engined car built to attack the “fastest-ever”, or “LSR”, was undoubtedly the enormously high, short wheelbase, chain-drive Fiat S76 built at the Turin factory around 1909. It was clearly Fiat’s challenge to the Blitzen Benz, and although it never achieved its objective, I naturally included it in my recent book on aero-engined racing cars. Since when, thanks to Ugo Fadini of Padova, who has kindly copied and translated some material from 1914 editions of the Fiat house-journal Rivista Illustrata Mensile, relating to racing driver Arthur Duray’s association with this memorable motor-car, there is more to add.

Very briefly, what Fiat was after was to beat the “fastest-ever” records set up by the 21.5-litre 200 hp Blitzen Benz cars. By 1909 the official “LSR”, so far as Europe was concerned, was that established by Victor Hemery at Brooklands, of 125.95 mph. However, in America, timed by apparatus not approved in Europe, Barney Oldfield did an alleged 131.27 mph at Daytona the following year, which Bob Burman topped, at the same venue, with a run at a claimed 141.37 mph. It was these Benz records that had got up Fiat’s nose. So they took one of their enormous 28.3-litre four-cylinder oh-camshaft airship engines and shoe-horned it into a light chassis endowed with well-streamlined two-seater bodywork (more in the book), regardless of the fact that the car was unduly top-heavy, its radiator so tall that the mechanics had to stand on the dumbirons to fill it (5′ 9″, they say). No wonder

that this giant car, with its stub exhausts streaming flame and smoke, was dubbed “The Beast of Turin”. Several famous drivers tried to tame the Fiat on public roads in Italy but Nazzaro declared that having conceived it, Fiat did not quite know what to achieve with it. Perhaps this is why their London agent, d’Arcy Baker, seeing good publicity ahead, arranged for it to be sent to England in 1911, to make appearances at Brooklands and at a Saltburn sand-race meeting in Yorkshire. He had hoped that the most famous Fiat driver of the time, Felice Nazzaro, who in 1908 had won that Match Race against Edge’s Napier “Samson” at Brooklands and the 1907 French GP for Fiat, would drive this “LSR” contender. In the event it was Bordino who came with it. At the Track he gave an unimpressive demonstration at the 1911 BARC Whitsun Meeting. Rumour has it that before that there had been an attempt to beat Hemery’s record but that the weight distribution of the Fiat made it unstable on the Track’s bankings. It was then driven on the road to Saltbum, apparently attended by a big Renault car for the Italian mechanics, who broke their journey at Doncaster and stayed at Saltburn’s Zetland Hotel, the giant Fiat being garaged at the local electricity works. It seems that there was another attempt on the “LSR” before the race-meeting took place but that some valve defects intruded, the car coming to rest at the end of the course. It had been timed at 125 mph, but seven horses had to be called for, to drag it out of the soft sand. In any case, the runs would not have been

accepted officially by the AIACR, because the electric timing set-up had broken-down and the hand-timing only recorded to the nearest 1/5th of a second. There was also the difficulty that in 1911 the AIACR introduced the rule that the “LSR” had to be the mean of runs over both directions of the course, with the return done within a reasonable time (specified, and later extended), to stop any advantage from wind or gradient to lucky, or cunning, drivers. This could have presented Bordino, at Brooklands, with problems. (Hemery. in the more stable-looking Benz, had made the record in one direction). The Fiat’s trouble was cured in time for the Yorkshire AC’s speed trials, which included flying-start kilo and mile runs, and Bordino made FTD, at 115.5 mph over the shorter distance, but again hand-timed. So far the S76 had proved a very large white elephant, although Fiat claimed that it had done 154 mph at Saltbum! It was rumoured that the great American racing ace, Ralph de Palma, was then buying the car but nothing came of this. However, in 1913 a buyer was found in the Russian Prince Boris Soukanoff, who had the Fiat shipped to Moscow. But after driving it he sensibly realised that to fully extend it was beyond his capabilities, and he came to France, seeking someone who could. He chose Arthur Duray, then 32, as his professional pilot and according to a letter in the Rivista Illustrata Mensile the car was shipped to England, and tried out again at Brooklands. Duray says that he telephoned the Prince, who accompanied him on this test-run, but

that after two laps at about 125 mph (the lap-record stood at 121.77 mph) he was called on to stop. Duray says they were both convinced that to continue would be dangerous, the Fiat having gone within “just ten cm” of the top of the Members’ banking, where Percy Lambert had been killed. The Prince then asked Duray to find a suitable course where the “LSR” could be attacked. (At this time weekly notes of happenings at the Track were available but, although I stand to be corrected, I can find nothing about this visit, although one might have expected the arrival of a Prince from Russia with a well-known racing driver to have caused some comment? Could it be that Duray was fantasising? — he could have heard from Bordino how unsuitable Brooklands was for the the huge Fiat, . .). Anyway, Duray wanted to use the ArlesSalon road in France, where Hemery’s Darracq had taken the “LSR” in 1908, but the ACF would not recognise records established “off staged meetings”, whatever that implies. Duray then looked for a course in Italy, without success. He then “at last discovered” a road at Ostend, in Belgium, where his parents had been born, which seemed suitable — actually the “LSR” had been broken at Ostend four times in 1903/4, once by Duray himself with a Gobron-Brillie. The road he had found was too short for the Fiat, and after making 14 test-runs at over 125 mph and being timed at over 140mph, the tapes of the electrical gear were found to be too indistinct to be accepted and the good one, for December 8th 1913, recorded only 132.287 mph (211.661 kph). At the end of the kilometre Duray said the Fiat, fitted with a narrow slot radiator cowl, doing 145/50 mph after which, “when you cut off the gas the car tends to turn sideways and with just 1500 metres left the brakes are not able to stop the car at all. When 1 cut off, oil pours from the exhausts

and the riding mechanic (the Prince himself) turns from white to black. After engaging top gear at 120 mph you have to pay attention not to jump on the sidewalk, and the acceleration causes the seat to hurt your back, the smallest bump makes all four wheels airborne, and I am reminded of the time when I was an aeroplane pilot. . .”

Duray had had only two days in which to prepare, lay the timing cables etc, and the Director of Tramways, “an earnest ‘autophobe’ “, called the Police whenever he knew they were out for a record attempt. So he never made the required return run. . . The weather was bad for several weeks, and Duray and his mechanic H Matthys were forced to abandon the assault on the Benz records. (Matthys called on the A1ACR in Paris to confirm that the official record stood at 125.95 mph, to Hemery in 1909, not to the American Burman at 141.37 mph, which was confirmed by that body and the ACF, which the loyal mechanic wrote to Velo Sport to confirm. Then, in 1914, at Brooklands, “Cupid” Homsted, driving a Blitzenengined Benz, set a two-way record of 124.10 mph.

So the biggest car of all, to that date, failed to gain the “LSR” or vanquish the might of the Blitzen Benz. The great S76 went back in the Turin factory. Another attempt on the record was contempleted after the war, but Duray discovered that the Germans had stolen or confiscated spares left at Ostend and although Fiat had instituted a world-wide search via the Consular service the Russian Prince could not be traced — perhaps he had perished in the Revolution, or was a victim of the war, or had fled as a refugee. They kept the car until 1925, when another purchaser appeared and the car was shipped to Mexico, never to be seen again. . ,It was thought to be languishing in Tampico in 1928 (a search perhaps?) Fiat

had to wait until 1924 to claim the covetted “LSR”, and then it was set at 146.01 mph by a private-owner, Ernest Eldridge, with his 21.7-litre aero-engined Fiat “Mephistopheles”, on the Arpajon public road, under rather stressful conditions, following a protest by the Delage driver Rene Thomas that the Fiat had no reverse gear, which the A1ACR rules quaintly required, and re-runs after a “means of reversing” had been installed. Today, Fiat does not have so much as a photograph of the “Beast of Turin”. W B

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