In trying to decide which make to feature this month I thought of the Maxwell, but I expect you have had quite enough of that name for the time being! So having dealt with the Diatto, let’s take a look back at another Italian car, the Ansaldo.
Both makes had some things in common. Both came from Turin. Both had aspirations to go in for mass-production and tumble Agnelli’s great Fiat empire. When overhead-camshaft engines were used, these each had extra cams to damp out valve-gear fluctuations; whether this was co-incidence or liason between the designers, I do not know. That neither make made any impact on Fiat domination does not surprise me. When I was in Italy some years ago I was reminded by a companion that the wine I had drunk the previous night was undoubtedly from a Fiat vinyard, that the newspaper I had been handed was run by Fiat, and that the hotel we were in was Fiat-owned.
Later I was being taken from one factory to another by a Fiat driver, when he asked if I would like to see inside the new building that was in preparation for the Olympic Games. “Would it be allowed?” I questioned. “There will be no difficulty”, replied my driver, “after all, it belongs to Fiat!” And of course, there wasn’t…
Ansaldo cars were made by what in 1918 represented one of Italy’s biggest engineering concerns. During the war it had made aero-engines and when these were no longer needed for military purposes it was left with surplus capacity, and the mass-production of a popular car was the obvious answer. They engaged lng Soria as the designer. He put an ohc power-unit into otherwise undistinguished cars. If the Ansaldo of 1918/19 resembled a Chevrolet and had only three centrally-controlled forward gears and wooden artillery wheels; it is said that you could wind it up to around 65mph. That from the first of the series, the Type 4A 1.8-litre tourer.
The Ansaldo achieved recognition in insular Great Britain sooner than did the Diatto. Why was that? I like to think that it stemmed from appearances in competition events quite soon after the make had been marketed. Tazio Nuvolari in only his second appearance as a car-participant was second in an Ansaldo, in the 2-litre class in the Circuit of Garda race of 1921, beaten only by the other Ansaldo driver, Corrado Lotti. Nuvolari was not yet the immortal figure he was to become, to car folk, although successful on motorcycles. Nor would these and other Ansaldo successes have had much impact on the English, in spite of their weekly motor journals keeping them informed of such excitements, when you might have expected them to devote such space to articles on how to drive and maintain the new play-things of the post-war period. It was, I suggest, more likely that the Ansaldo became known here through its appearances in our speed-trials and hill-climbs that were then more easily understood by new and would-be car owners.
The successes in such competitions and in those far-distant Continental races and hill-climbs were owed to the next Ansaldo model, the 1980cc Type 4CS, which retained an overhead camshaft engine. With it, at Leghorn, Lotti won the Montonero Cup race of 1921, took a class victory at Mugello, and was successful in an Ansaldo at the Consurna and Guan-Moncenisio speed hill-climbs the following year. Indeed, in such far-away places these cars won more honours when driven by Palte, Marinoni, Lazzaroni and Bacchetti in the years up to the 1930s.
English followers of the sport would have been more aware of the way in which Bentley drivers Barlow, Ivy Cummings, ES Mayers, HD Coates, who vanquished Cyril Paul’s famous Beardmore and Keen’s fast Morris at Caerphilly in 1923, and W Dickie, whose Ansaldo took one time win and two formula wins at Kop Hill that season, performed. RF Oats, later to become the respected OM concessionaire and racing driver, was second fastest to the Beardmore at Thundersley hill climb, and this same driver defeated two Bugattis at South Harting, with a fastest ascent in 29.8 sec, only 0.6 sec slower than Humphrey Cool’s Vauxhall, which was second best to Dario Resta in a GP Sunbeam. Such performances brought Ansaldo to the attention of the sporting public, especially as Oats ran his very frequently, beaten mostly only by the Beardmore and, at Brighton speed-trials along the Madeira Drive, by Joyce’s single-seater AC that scored so many FTDs. At that last public road speed hill-climb, at Kop near Princes Risborough in 1925 Oats’ Ansaldo was third quickest, beaten only by Segrave in one of the 2-litre 1924 GP Sunbeams and Giveen driving Mays’s Brescia Bugatti “Cordon Bleu”, which ran off the road, broke a spectator’s leg, and caused the RAC to ban such events from then on.
Down at Brooklands the public, who were flocking there in increasing numbers, would have seen a red 2-litre Ansaldo driven by none other than millionaire Capt Woolf Barnato. This was a 70 mph car in normal form; at the 1922 Whitsun race Barnato’s went round at just less than 80mph in winning the 75mph Long Handicap, in which it finished ahead of a Hampton and a Crouch, before the steeplechase jockey/racing driver George Duller took it on in 1923. And Rex Mundy, the KLG plugs representative, did well in trials with an Ansaldo.
This must have pleased Watkins & Doncaster Ltd of Great Portland Street, who had the Ansaldo agency and who exhibited the cars at the 1921 London Motor Show, with a 70mph guarantee for the sports two-seater. At that time the standard Ansaldo had a 70mm bore (1847cc) and the tourer sold for £550. Compare this with the Austin Twelve at the same price, and which many English motorists preferred, £595 asked for a Talbot-Darracq 12, £620 for the 114hp Humber, and £725 for the Sunbeam 14 tourer.
The Ansaldo was more advanced than these, with its ohc engine, the camshaft driven by a vertical shaft and skew gears at the front of the block, operating slightly-inclined valves through rockers, the rocker-shaft above the camshaft receiving oil from the main pump-fed supply. The head was detachable and a cross-shaft drove the magneto and water pump. A Westinghouse generator was driven from the nose of the crankshaft. The brake pedal operated on the back wheels, the lever on the transmission, but very soon front brakes were standardised, some time before they became commonplace. The wheelbase was nine feet and the tyres on the steel wheels 765 X 105.
In the winter of 1921 a test car was available and at Brooklands it covered the mile at 48mph although the engine was not fully run-in, climbed the Test Hill at 13.35mph, and Kingston Hill in the 4.5 to 1 top gear. It was regarded as a comfortable, practical car, rather more spacious than many cars of £13 tax rating, and the power was there, although like other Italian cars, the Ansaldo was overcooled, which had a deleterious effect on the Zenith carburettor in the cold weather, even with a blanking plate on the rather American-shaped radiator. A three-speed gearbox was to hamper the sports models to some extent and the tourer weighed just over 19cwt 2grs.
The dashboard petrol tank, which held 8 1/2 gallons, was apt to drum (the mpg was 20 to 25), the steering was light, the clutch and gear change easy to use, and the foot brake pulled the car up sharply on the downhill 1-in-4 Brooklands Test Hill. Criticisms were the tall hand-brake (both levers were central) being set a little too close to the passenger, and that the speedometer, on the left of the dash, could be obscured by the passenger’s coat, an important point in those days of a 20mph speed-limit and frequent police traps.
Later The Times had a stab, finding the three bearing engine with its aluminium pistons, said to produce 36bhp at 2900rpm, flexible, but objecting to the inter-connected throttle and ignition, which was later to be replaced by automatic advance-and-retard. The 13hp model was soon known as the 13-40hp, and the wheelbase had been increased to 9ft 10in. A 65 x 100mm six cylinder ohc engine was available in much the same chassis, known as the 18-50hp Ansaldo, the bore later enlarged by 3mm, giving a capacity of 2180cc. With a 13-45hp car The Times got up Dashwood hill near Oxford at 13mph in top gear and ascended Amersharn hill at 32mph in second gear.
Various minor improvements kept the Ansaldo up to date, the straight-cut back-axle gears were replaced by Gleason spiral bevels, prices came down, and some fine bodywork was put on these chassis, of both English and Weymann fabric types. All of which seems to have profited the British Concessionaires, who by 1923 had moved to fashionable Albemarle Street, in London’s West End. Coil ignition, with a vertical distributor replaced the magneto and 48bhp was extracted from the production 4CS. But Soria resigned in 1927, design deteriorated although luxury straight-eights were tried, and by 1932 sales had slumped. The end came when CEVA absorbed the automobile side, Fiat the aircraft plant of the Ansaldo armaments and engineering company. WB