Veteran to Classic - Forgotten Makes No 97: The Chiribiri

Some cars gain fame, some have fame thrust upon them. The Italian Chiribiri deserves to be remembered because Tazio Nuvolari, whom many people think was the greatest racing driver of his time, gained some of his early victories at the wheel of one, after he had foresaken racing motorcycles for cars. This car was the product of Antonio Chiribiri, was born in Venice in 1865 and who had worked at Bernardi’s and then at Zust and Isofta-Fraschini, a good grounding for a man who was to become a noted engineer. He had moved to Florence to study automobile engineering, becoming Technical Director of Officine Aeronautiche Ing Miller in 1909. The following year Chiribiri joined Ramassotto and Verga at the Via Don Bosco in Turin, making aeroplane parts, and one aeroplane which was damaged irreparably during trials in 1914. He started producing cars under his own name at a factory in Turin, in 1914, encouraged by the wealthy aviator Count Brunefta d’Usseaux, Chiribiri’s finances having been enhanced by building 100 Gnome et Rhone aero-engines under licence. He dabbled in four-cylinder light-cars, known as Sivas of 8/10hp and 10/12hp. He also had a stab at a cyclecar, rather an unusual move in Italy. These cars were turned out in small numbers and when war came it is said that Chiribiri made aero-engines, although I have never seen any pictorial evidence of this; he has also been named as a pioneer of aluminium-welding. All of which must have been useful to him when he resumed car production after the war. By this time the Count had lost money, allegedly due to gambling, but Chiribiri was able to move to a larger factory in Via Cavaglio after the war.

Chiribiri liked motor racing because he made some fast small cars in the 1920s, well suited to the Latin temperament. But he also had the good sense to manufacture more utilitarian models, to sustain the finances of his business. At least one of these early models came to England, a 1916 Chiribiri being advertised by Baines garage in Oakham in 1922 for £200 (painted red naturally, and possessing a clock) which they were prepared to drive the 100 miles to London for a prospective buyer to view.

However, what really established the make, if briefly, in this country was the desire of Major Frank and Lt Percy Vandervell to gain a footing in the motor industry. This couple were the adventurous uncles of Tony Vandervell, who will forever be remembered and admired, not only for his business acumen in founding his Thinwall Bearing Co, but for his great love of motor racing, culminating in the victorious Vanwall F1 team. They formed a company called Vandy’s Ltd (a contraction of Vandervell’, as was CAV, the great concern founded by Tony Vandervell’s father, CA Vandevell) with the intention of assembling the Vandy car, mainly from American components, using a six-cylinder side-valve Rutenbar engine, but making the bodywork here. By coincidence the premises where assembly took place and where six cars a week were produced for a time, 27a, Pembridge Villas, Noting Hill Gate, W11, were much later occupied by racing driver Jack Bartleft who traded in the better used sports cars, with a high reputation for honesty.

The costly Vandy was sold as: “The last word in automobile construction” but was short-lived. Before making it, the Vandervell brothers imported the well-established 17/22hp (3167cc) 25/30hp (4398cc), and 35/50hp (6082cc) SPA chassis, also from Turin, and equipped these with English bodywork and, as later on the Vandy, with CAV electrics. Naturally it must have been obvious to them that in the post-war depression years a less expensive car than those SPAs would be desirable and so they also brought in the Chiribiri. Maybe they had seen the aforementioned 1916 model or more likely they became aware of this make while negotiating the SPA importations.

All this was in place ready for the first post-Armistice British Motor Show at Olympia in November 1919. The Vandervells took stand No 106 on which the little Chiribiri was exhibited alongside the bigger Italian cars, of which the six-seater tourers on the different horsepower chassis were priced respectively, at £995, £1150 and £1500, the impressive biggest model arriving just in time. In contrast the Chiribiri was a humble little offering. It had a 12hp four-cylinder side-valve engine of 65 x 120mm (1593cc), its wheelbase 8ft 6in, and it ran on 710 x 90 tyres.

It did have the merits of a disc clutch, a four-speed (rear-axle) gearbox and half elliptic springing, but the dashboard carried only two instruments and the tourer on the stand was described as not in any way Show-finished. With its disc wheels and simple concept it looked rather like the 10hp Citroen; it had simple cushions, very few accessories and the central gear and brake levers protruding through the floorboards. It was significant, however, that the price of the four-seater was £550, compared to £500 asked for the mass-produced Citröen tourer, in this age of much inflated values.

Technically there was not much of note about the 12hp Chiribiri. One valve cap covered both valves, the compression-taps passed through the water-outlet manifold to the radiator, surely a source of leaks in old age, and the crankshaft ran in two ball bearings. The lubrication system was rather ingenious; a brass disc on the back of the crankshaft flung oil into gutters, from which it fed the big-ends and main bearings. Much was made of the camshaft driving helical gear being in the crankcase and thus supplied with oil-mist. The iron crankcase, cast in one with the cylinder block, had side extensions that stiffened the engine mounting, kept the engine clean, and supported the radiator. At first ignition was by coil but a magneto was specified on later cars. Only the 12hp model seems to have been handled in England, of which a partly dismantled example arrived here early in 1920, but in Italy this ‘Normale’ model was replaced in 1921 by the 1½-litre Roma and Monza sports models.

So far as Vandy’s, who now had showrooms at 40 Albermarle Street, off Piccadilly, was concerned, it was much the same in 1920, when a stand was taken at the White City (overflow from the Olympia Show), on which were shown an SPA chassis and engine, a Chiribiri two-seater and two of the new 28.5hp (3453cc) Vandys. The latter car was sold with a guarantee that it would give 20 mpg and it cost £675 as a chassis and £795 as a five-seater tourer. The cost of a Chiribiri four-seater had risen to an astronomical £695. (The new 11.4hp Citroen tourer cost only £495). By 1921 Vandy’s had abandoned both their Chiribiri agency and their Vandy assembly venture, although they retained the SPA distributorship, until handing it in 1924 over to SPA Motors Ltd of Earls Court. Lyon was trying to dispose of two Chiribiris in 1920, from his West End premises, for £550 each, eventually advertising in desperation that the special super-sports model would do 36 mpg and 50 mph and had done only 2000 miles — Vandy’s demonstrator, perhaps?

A new lease of life for the Chiribiri came with the post-war sports cars, because young (and old for that matter) Italians loved fast cars. The sports Tipo Monza had a twin-cam 1486cc engine developing 45 bhp at 3500 rpm or 65 bhp at 5000 rpm in hotter form, the top speeds being 120 kph and 150 kph respectively. Moreover, Antonio Chiribiri started to build racing cars, which led to the Nuvolari participation. At the factory on the outskirts of Turin a team of about 18 men set about building the racing cars, under the draftsmanship of Verga. Jack E Scales, an Englishman who had been working for Fiat at Wembley before going to Italy for that company, and driving for them in the 1914 GP, was put in charge. The sports cars were also developed there, front-wheel brakes being fitted to the second of the Tipo Monza Chiribiris. A team of three racing cars was built at a cost in 1920s values of some £6000.

Like the sports cars these had 1½-litre engines of the popular dimensions of 65 x 112mm, with twin overhead-camshafts Operating two-valves per cylinder, in hemispherical heads. Chiribiri disliked dry sump lubrication, but it was adopted after bearing failure in the first races the cars competed in. Scales secured KLG sparking plugs and the Borgo brothers, motorcycle racing friends of his, made very light aluminium-alloy pistons. These racing Chiribiris had no differentials, and their engines had two carburettors and a compression ratio of 6 to 1. They were claimed to have a power output of 83 bhp at 5700 rpm and Chiribiri is said to have used his aviation experience to design fully streamlined bodies for them, although the push-rod ohv car built for the 1921 Voiturefte race at Brescia, which Scales drove, had a slab tank. It retired after 15 laps when in 6th position, due to a broken push-rod.

The prototype racing engine ran 20,000 km on test without having to be strapped down. It is sometimes suggested that Nuvolari won his first car race with a Chiribiri. This is incorrect, because he was at the wheel of a 2-litre Bianchi when he won the 1924 Circuit of Tiguillo. However, he had made fastest lap in a Chiribiri the previous year, at Garda, and it was in these cars that he won his class in the Circuit of Savio and the Circuit of Polesine during 1924, prior to going on to establish his great career with Bugatti, Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Auto-Union cars. Apart from this claim to fame, the Chiribiri company achieved other racing successes, at first in the hands of `Deo’, who was in fact Chiribiri’s son Amedeo, Deo’s younger sister Ada, Scales, Ramassotto, Binda and Saccomanni. Many of the successes were gained in speed hillclimbs and the lesser Continental road races.

Later Marconcini joined Nuvolari in these cars and in 1925 Gigi Plate bought a Chiribiri with which he finished 2nd at Tripoli and Rome, was third in his class in the Targa Florio and scored a number of minor victories, including a class win at Tripoli in 1926. Another driver who acquired a car of this make was Serboli, who gained numerous hillclimb victories and class wins in races with it, up to 1928. His car suffered a spectacular fire, however, during the 1926 Italian GP.

Valpreda was yet another Chiribiri driver who was successful in the 1½ -litre class in four road races, during 1926 and 1927. It was a fair record for a small concern, but unfortunately finances ran low and it had ended by 1928, the plant being sold to Lancia. Before that, after a successful year in 1925, the company name was changed to Auto Costruzione Meccaniche Chiribiri Soc. After failing car sales, brought on by the sluggish side-valve 1½-litre Tipo Milano, Chiribiri turned for a time to making industrial and railway diesel engines.. Long before that, Vandy’s had been twice reorganised under different titles and eventually Tony Vandervell took his garage-business over. Jack Scales left Chiribiri in 1923 to become a tester with the STD combine, in which capacity he also drove the racing cars, winning the 1924 >em>GP de L’Overture at Monthlery from Segrave and Boulier, in one of the team Talbots at over 100 mph, won that year’s Route des Pavé race in a 12hp twin-cam sports Darracq, and made ftd at the Gaillon hillclimb. He left STD in the 1930s and I last met him at the garage he was running in Streatham, S London, in 1953. WB