A 1908 “GRAND PRIX” ITALA c••)
MY interest in Motor cars of a more heroic age is shared, the Editor tells me, by quite a number of the readers of MOTOR SPORT. Unfortunately, this enthusiasm extends to comparatively few members of the motor trade. For the vast majority, any motor car, once it has passed the age which renders it an ordinary commercial proposition, loses all interest. It is always pleasing to find an exception to this rule, and when Messrs. F. G. Smith (Motors), Ltd., of Ilford, informed me that they had acquired a giant Itala of 1908 vintage, it did not take me long to realise that I had to do with a firm possessing just those qualities which single such enthusiasts out from the common herd. It was therefore with particular pleasure that I accepted an invitation to go and have a run on the Itala.
When first the supremacy of France in motor construction and racing was threatened, the challenge came from Germany, in the shape of the Mercedes, and from England, represented by the Napier. Italy, later to become so important a factor in motor racing, was slow to enter the lists. It was not until 1904 that she sent a team of cars to the Gordon Bennett race. But in 1905 she had already attained the position of France’s chief competitor when two F.I.A.T.’s achieved second and third places in the Auvergne race. That same year an Itala car, also from Turin, beat all the French cars in the Coppa Florio race. at Brescia. . Italy’s growing pretensions to be recognised as among the leading motor manufacturing nations readied their apogee in 1907. In that year two F.I.A.T.’s took the first two places in the Targa Florio in Sicily, with an ttala third ; a FIAT. won the Kaiserpreis at Hamburg, with the ltalas and lsotta-Fraschinis well up ; a F.I.A.T. won the French Grand Prix Itself; and the two classes in the Coppa Florio were won by an Isotta-Fraschini
and an nab, respectively. At that time, in contemporary English advertisements, it was only necessary to feature the word Italian for a car to be regarded as firstclass. Automobileengineers from the peninsular were regarded as the best in the world.
The following year, 1908, resulted in so crushing a defeat for France that the Grand Prix was not held again for four long years. But it was almost as black a year for Italy. Nevertheless, when the F.I.A.T.’s and Italas arrived at Dieppe for the French Grand Prix the hopes of their drivers were doubtless high. In 1906 the rules for the race had stipulated a maximum weight Of 1,000 kilos. ; in 1907 this had been abandoned for a fuel consumption limit ; now in 1908 manufacturers were given a limited bore for 4-cylinder engines, of 155 mms., from which to work, and otherwise a free hand. I have Already hinted that the Italian cars were never at the head of things in this race, and with the wisdom that is so easy after the event (and especially easy, perhaps, a quarter of a century afterwards) it is not impossible to detect the reason. In the first place the Itala engineers adopted the maximum bore for their 4-cylinder engine of 155 mms., but, although the rules permitted them complete freedom in this respect, they fixed a stroke of only 160 mms.., giving a capacity of 12,081 c.c. At this date successful racing voiturette engines were, already being built with a Stroke-bore ratio of as much as 1.7 to I, but the designers of large cars for the most part held to the view that to lengthen the stroke merely reduced the engine speed, and tints defeated its object. Nevertheless, while not ping so far as their colleagues in the voiturette world, the Mercedes engineers had the temerity to employ a stroke of 180 mm. in the engine of one car of the team, and a stroke of 170 mm. in the other
two—and were rewarded for their courage by winning the race. The Italas were thus handicapped at the outset by the use of a smaller engine than that of several of their competitors. In spite of this, however, the cars were excessively heavy. All three of them weighed, in racing trim, over 1,400 kilos., whereas the winning Mercedes was content with a weight of 1,121 kilos. In 1905 Italas themselves had built a racing car with A larger engine-185 x 155 mm. (16.666 c.c.)—but which weighed only 1,006 kilos. (7 kilos. over the 1,000 kilo. limit was allowed if a magneto was used), and which won the Coppa Florio. Incidentally the prediction for a big borestroke ratio may be seen thus early ; it was supposed, I believe, to give the best power-weight ratio. It is true that these 1905 racers, presumably to save weight, had only three speeds, but the addition of an extra gear-ratio in 1908 need not have resulted in an increase in weight of 400
Having criticised the 1908 Itala for having an engine which was too small, and a total weight that was too large, our carping can cease. The beautiful workmanship and the purity of design for which the Italian cars had become famous were still there. The four cylinders, cast in pairs, had their exhaust valves at ‘the sides, and the inlet valves, operated by push-rods, each in front of or behind its cylinder, and rockers vertically above them. The Bosch low-tension magneto, used since the first appearance of the marque in racing, was retained, with the Itala interrupters placed in the centre of the hemispherical cylinder heads. A single Itala carburetter was used, and the water was circulated by a pump through. a Megevet honeycomb radiator. From the engine the drive was through a multi-disc clutch to the 4-speed gearbox already mentioned. No Hata, I believe, has ever been built with chain
drive, the firm having used a propeller shaft, even for powerful cars, long before the majority of its competitors, and the 1908 racers were no exception to this general rule.
Three of these cars were duly started in the French Grand Prix at Dieppe, driven by Cagno, who, incidentally, was still driving racing cars a dozen years ago ; Henri Fournier and Piacenza. The lastnamed, after extensive trouble on the first lap, retired on the second with a strained radiator, a trouble which beset both the other cars, although to a smaller extent. In spite of it, however, Cagno finished creditably in the eleventh place, at an average speed of 58.6 m.p.h. for the 478 miles ; while Henri Fournier, who averaged 54.4 mp.h., was placed eighteenth.
I had since heard of the latter’s car in Italy, where during the war an attempt was, I believe, made to use it as an ambulance. As to the fate of the other two since the day of the race in 1908, I was entirely ignorant. When, therefore, Messrs. F. G. Smith (Motors), Ltd., informed me that they had discovered in Norwich, and acquired, a 1908 racing Itala, I strongly suspected that one of the other two cars of the team had lain hidden in England for a quarter of a century, and I gladly accepted an invitation to go and see it. At the moment, I was informed, it was not possible for me to have a run in the car. It had come under its own power in fine style from Norwich, but in the course of the journey the radiator had strained and sprung a serious leak. I expressed not the slightest surprise. When I went down to Ilford to see the car the radiator was being mended, and Messrs. Smiths were taking the opportunity of repainting the bodywork in its pristine glory of brilliant scarlet. In the efficient calm of the workshop it was possible to inspect the chassis minutely. My first surprise was occasioned by the length of the wheelbase. The winning Mercedes in the 1908 Grand Prix had, I felt sure, a wheelbase of something under 9 ft. Reference to some figures which I had noted down before going to Ilford told me that the Itala’s wheelbase should be 9 ft. 6 in. Measurement of the chassis before us, however, disclosed the fact that its wheelbase was a half-inch over the round 10 ft. From this circumstance, and from other information which I have been able to glean subsequently, I am inclined to think that the car which forms the subject of this article was not one of those which actually ran in the Grand Prix at Dieppe. It appears that about half-a-dozen cars of Grand
Prix type were built, and doubtless those that were not intended to be used in the race itself were built with a slightly longer wheelbase, the better to carry touring bodies.
Not that in this Itala mechanical considerations were unduly sacrificed to the coachwork. Having in view the size of the engine, with the consequent length of bonnet, and the good rake given to the steering pillar, the wheelbase is not excessive for the accommodation of a fourseater, side-entrance body. The coachwork, which was executed by Messrs. Vincents, of Reading, contains the ingenious feature of two divided front seats, of which one-half swings aside with the door, thus facilitating access to the tonneau.
Apart from the body-work, we were able to admire the beautiful finish of the Itala. The very nuts used in the engine were concave-headed, and a delight to any true mechanic. We looked forward to returning when the repairs were finished for our promised run.
When I did again put in an appearance at Messrs. Smith (Motors), Ltd., it was to find the Itala resplendent in a new coat of paint, occupying the place of honour in the centre of the showroom window. From this position, however, she was soon removed, in order to take the road. The first thing was to get the engine started. Unfortunately it seems, in this modern age, we are made of less stern stuff than those who habitually started racing engines in 1908. Even with the halfcompression device in action no one was found who could swing these twelve litres of engine from cold. An unfortunate light car was therefore found, and attached to the Itala by a rope. Thus we moved out into the road, but the engagement of the Itala’s clutch with the tow-car all out in bottom gear merely resulted at first in locking one of the giant racer’s back wheels, although the speed selected was third. We tried once or twice, and then without the slightest warning the Itala engine fired, hesitated, and ran.
As we hastily uncoupled the tow-rope, the road was filled with such a babel of sound as to raise the enthusiasm of the most blasé. The four huge cylinders, each capable of burning three litres of gas at a charge, thumped out their message of power. Now we were away, surging up the road as if the first corner were too sharp to be negotiated on the low speed. It soon proved that as mechanician my job was no sinecure. The Itala, unlike the actual racers, which presumably had one of ” bolster ” type, has an ordinary petrol tank slung between the back dumb irons. In addition, a large supplementary oil tank is attached to the chassis alongside the bonnet. A hand-operated pump, situated outside the body, supplies pres sure, before the engine is started, to both these tanks, by means of which petrol is forced to the carburetter from one and oil to the sump from the other. As soon as the engine starts it is supposed to take over the job of maintaining pressur pin both these tanks. Unfortunately it proved that there was a leak somewhere in the system, with the result that the pressure had continuously to be assisted manually. The pump provided being, as already mentioned, outside the car, we attached a tyre pump to the pipe, and this pump the mechanic had to operate vigorously throughout the journey. I think most people will agree with me that pumping up a tyre is a sickening enough job, but at least one can stand up to it, instead of having to sit down and depend entirely on arm work. Also, when one is “blown’ one can take a breather ; in the Itala I did not dare cease pumping for fear of the weakened mixture consequent on the stoppage of the petrol supply resulting in a blow-back, and a sheet of flame from
the carburetter. Besides, heaven knows how we were to restart the engine once it had stopped. But it was worth it. We reached that first corner, and behold the ancient war
rior lurched round it with no trouble. Second speed was engaged, and third as we swung on to the Southend Road. At last top was in, and we were surging along with the engine beating out its slow, measured rhythm. At first I was content to abandon myself to the charm of old fast motor cars, and succumb to the impression that I had never travelled so fast in my
life. At last an inspection of the hedges, in the brief intervals of working the pump handle, suggested that we were doing about a mile a minute. But what a 60!
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. All too soon we were back whence we had started. Not even the labours of the tyre pump saved me from regret that the run was over. It is lucky, I thought, as I climbed down from the Itala,, that there are still firms such as Messrs. Smith (Motors), Ltd., who appreciate heroic motor cars. Any of my readers who share my reverence for them has only to journey to Goodmayes, Ilford, to inspect the object of his enthusiasm. It is worthy of a more arduous expedition.