A slice of history
I was most interested to read an account of the Itala after it left my possession, and I thought you might be interested to hear a little more detail of its history when I knew it.
I first set eyes on it in 1921. I had stopped for lunch at that most picturesque of inns, The White Hart at Scole, near Norwich, and before leaving I wandered round the back to admire the architecture. Across the yard was a shed with one dilapidated door half open, and sticking up over some crates I saw the corner of an enormous cape cart hood. A closer look revealed what was obviously the southern aspect of an absolutely monumental touring car, covered in old crates, bottles, all sorts of rubbish. I scrambled and pushed my way along the side until I could get to the bonnet, which I managed to raise. I could scarcely believe my eyes when I first saw the towering cylinder blocks of that dusty, rusty power unit ! I went back into the inn and sorted out the proprietor. Yes, the car was his, it had belonged to a friend of his, a brewer, who had given it to him after the 1914 war. This, I imagine, was about 1921. The innkeeper, one Wade-Palmer, drove it down to Scole from London and by the time he got there, as he told me, he realised that the only thing to do with such a machine was to give it to somebody else. This however he found impossible, and the car therefore remained in his shed. He showed me the enormous Bleriot headlamps, I remember, fixed up in the public bar and shining on the dartboard. Incidentally, they were still there in 1946.
Well, time passed on, and about 1935 I became infected with the early car virus. My previous interest had been quite general, and I was moved by no desire to possess the car. I remembered the Itala and rushed off to Scole. I went round to the yard with heart wildly beating, had it been tidied up, sold for scrap, acquired by some other enthusiast? No, there it was, filling the shed to capacity as before and, thanks to countless generations of chickens, looking more like a guano island than ever. I went into the inn and entered into negotiations with the proprietor. Yes, he was willing to sell, and after a little dicker the car changed hands for £25. I then made a closer examination still, over and through the piles of crates and firewood, and decided that the car was complete, but beyond that I couldn’t decide whether it would ever go again.
I went home and formed a committee of ways and means with a friend, and a fortnight later we departed with a 30-cwt Morris truck and every conceivable thing we might possibly need, with the avowed intention of driving the Itala home under her own steam if humanly possible. We allowed ourselves a week to do the job. We were each allotted vast panelled rooms in the inn and the next morning we started work. Our first thrill was to get the car out of the shed and for the first time realise its noble proportions. The first job was to get it standing on four good tyres. We had to remove the old ones in bits with a hammer and chisel, I remember. They had set like concrete. We worked all that day and the next cleaning and checking, and tracing oil, petrol and ignition systems which resembled nothing we had seen or heard of before. We saw what appeared to be an incomplete magneto at the front of the engine, with one miserable thin wire meandering from it to a copper strip on top of the cylinder blocks. No sparking plugs or anything like that !
We found a pipe screwed into No 4 exhaust pipe. We followed this pipe, like bloodhounds, down behind the scuttle, down into the cellar (the car was shut in underneath with an undershield), along the chassis, and with unbelieving eyes saw it disappear into the petrol tank ! And as for oil ! Figure to yourself a large tank under the scuttle with a big pulley on the outside. A spring belt to the end of the camshaft. Seven pipes from the front of the tank connected respectively to the three mains and the four cylinder walls. On the driver’s side of the tank I seem to remember a cat’s cradle of plumbing, with oil, petrol, and air pipes meeting in a kind of brass Piccadilly Circus festooned with little taps. Oh yes, and an extra helping of brass knitting was contributed by an auxiliary oil tank on the running-board.
At last, on the third day, we decided we could do no more without a trial. We found that air pressure made the petrol and oil systems supply their respective fluids to where they were needed. The ignition system appeared to be as original, though how it worked or whether it still worked we just didn’t know. I decreed that first of all the Morris truck was to tow me in gear in the Itala for a few miles, just to make sure that everything went round and that oil was pumped to the right places. Now one rather simple thing which I had failed to notice, or had forgotten, was an earthing wire to the ignition system which was operated by pressing a button under the scuttle, ie, the ignition was permanently “on” except when the button was held pressed. Secondly, the last thing we tested out was the petrol system, so that the carburetter was flooded. Remember those two points.
Then the great moment arrived, we backed up the Morris, hitched up the towbar and out we went on to the main road. I remember we just had time as it was getting dusk and this was the main London-Norwich road. I engaged third gear and at about 15-20 mph I cautiously let the clutch in. What followed was nerve shattering ! The whole car seemed to writhe and twist under me with those first few revolutions, and then with an car-splitting report from the silencer the engine roared into life, definitely not according to programme. Remember the flooded carburetter, the ignition “on” ? And, what’s more, the hand throttle was about half open. The poor Morris truck got a kick in the pants, via the solid tow-bar, from which it never recovered. Its chassis got such a twist that the bottom of the gearbox fell out into the road there and then, together with all the oil. But you can imagine my excitement at hearing the song of that great engine for the first time. And what a deafening song it was. I declutched at once and kept it going, and I remember being blinded by the clouds of dust and dead spiders that arose from the engine, the bonnet being off.
The next morning practically the entire hotel staff got on the car at once and had a short blind up the road with me. To my dying day I shall regret not photographing them all on board. There were about twenty, chambermaids, waiters, kitchen staff, and all in their respective working garb. It looked like a Roman tram. They were clinging on everywhere.
Then, as so often happens on these occasions it started to rain, but we decided to get back home, and so the triumphant journey started. The only untoward thing on the return trip was tremendous leaks in the water system, and we had to keep stopping for water. The rain deluged down on us the whole time, but we did about 90 very interesting miles on that first trip. We hit a cock pheasant fair and square but couldn’t stop to pick it up.
In due course the car was painted and a new hood made, and it was put back into original condition. I wrote to Malcolm Campbell for information, as I believed he had something to do with Italas at one time. but he couldn’t help me. Then I wrote to Itala’s in Italy and had a rather pathetic letter back saying they regretted they were in liquidation but, according to their records, it was a racing model. I remember their letter started off; “Dear Sir, Nobody among present people remember anything about so ancient model.” And then the so ancient model passed out of my hands and a new era didn’t half dawn on it ! The chicken roost in Norfolk—Silverstone in 2 min 7 sec ! And perhaps one day a chicken roost again ; who knows ? [We hope not !—Ed]
I am, Yours, etc.,
JS Pour. Dunmow.