Misguided missile

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Gordon Cruickshank

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ASA 1000 GT

It was the small car Ferrari never made. It was always known as “Ferrarina”, but neither the prancing horse nor the name appeared on it. Instead it bore a triangular badge with the letters ASA, symbol of an undertaking fuelled by enthusiasm but ultimately misguided.

It was Ferrari who presented a tiny 850cc four-cylinder engine to the press in 1959, but claimed that it was merely a technical exercise and that the company was not interested in selling cars in this class. Interestingly, in the same year Fiat concluded an agreement with OSCA to supply twin-cam engines for a new 1600S Coupe by Pinin Farina, while Ferrari’s 850cc unit was later seen being tested in a Fiat 1100 “mule” chassis clothed in a Pinin Farina coupe body. Whether this was the deal Ferrari had wanted for his new SEFAC company (both engines were in-line fours of around 100bhp) is not clear, but it might explain why Ferrari should be devoting development resources to a project he repeatedly avowed he had no intention of marketing. He apparently thought well of the result, because he was using the Pinin Farina coupe as everyday transport around Modena and Maranello as late as 1961.

Initial engine development began in 1958 with an 850cc unit running downdraught carbs which was squeezing out 86bhp by 1959. Perhaps in an effort to reduce the strain it was expanded to 950cc and a more relaxed 80bhp, though still at 7000rpm, before settling on the production 1032cc by 1960. At the same time the breathing changed to two twin sidedraught 38 DCOA Webers. Horsepower claims for this version range from an unlikely 100 down to 91; given the larger (40mm) carburetters on later cars, around 95bhp seems a reasonable assessment, equating to a very high specific output for the period.

It was a straightforward design, using a single chain-driven cam, with inclined valves in hemispherical heads. Its unusual power came more from a high compression ratio of 9.0:1 and free-flowing crossflow head than technical innovation. But Ferrari was proud of the high output of the little four, and it seemed a shame for it to languish. Project 854, as it was known in house, reappeared on the Bertone stand at the 1961 Turin Show, but this time in a brand new coupe body carrying only the name Mille, with no references to Ferrari anywhere nor any suggestions about its future.

Enter the de Noras, wealthy industrialists owning important chemical plants in Milan. Oronzio de Nora was a good friend of Enzo, and his son Niccolo, an enthusiastic Ferrari customer, already had commercial automotive interests through SNAP, a small company manufacturing exhaust manifolds. Opinions differ on whether the idea came from Enzo or from the de Noras, but in 1962 Niccolo became the focus of a new company — Autocostruzione Societa per Azioni or ASA. The new outfit would assemble the car in Milan, at premises near the family’s chemical plants, bringing together the body/chassis structure from Bertone, power unit from Modena, and gearbox from Britain.

De Nora’s new organisation included his two chief colleagues from SNAP: Luciano Masseroni ran production, and former Maserati GP driver Count Gerino Gerini looked after commercial matters. Despite being in its infancy, ASA boasted a strong-looking team, particularly for road-testing: Giorgio Bassi (later to have a single GP outing in a BRM at Monza in 1965) was in charge, with two other Grand Prix drivers, Lorenzo Bandini and Giancarlo Baghetti, helping him.

Technical development was in the hands of Giotto Bizzarrini, also late of Ferrari and working simultaneously on the ATS Formula One project with Carlo Chiti and Romolo Tavoni, who had been racing director at Maranello. The latter were the leading figures of the disaffected group who left Ferrari in 1961 to form the rival (but spectacularly unsuccessful) ATS team, which might have been expected to make for some discomfort in the de Noras’ relationships with the Commendatore. Yet the close contact between the two concerns continued: Baghetti tested the 1000GT during the week and drove a Ferrari at Grands Prix, Bandini was recruited by Enzo in 1962, and another Ferrari pilot, Ritchie Ginther, had an ASA coupe as his road car. In addition, Ferrari himself recommended to the de Noras that they employ Romolo de Stefani, who consequently left Autobianchi to become ASA’s general manager.

By Autumn 1962 the compact GT was ready to be revealed in its definitive form at Turin, complete with ASA badges and the designation 1000GT. Little had changed otherwise, save that the original faired-in plexiglass-covered headlamps had been replaced with conventional protruding lights, without however spoiling the overall harmony of the shape. Again there were no overt references to its parentage, but the twin-opening snout ostentatiously recalled the distinctive nose of the Type 156 GP Ferrari. Already the car had become widely known as “Ferrarina”, or little Ferrari, and it was to carry this tag all its short life. It was not the only car to conceal a Ferrari engine beneath another badge — even the Dino did not carry the prancing horse — but the others such as Fiat Dino and Lancia Stratos all had the F-word emblazoned on the power unit. This time only the ASA name was cast into the cam-cover.

1963 was a year of getting the production set-up moving, and of intensive road-testing. Bassi, in charge of the test programme, had a daily route from Modena to Rome, while Baghetti, alternating with Giampiero Biscaldi from the Scuderia S Ambroeus, pounded from Milan to Rome and back day after day. He would check top speeds on the autostrada between Milan and Bologna, and then throw the tiny machine through the demanding bends of the Futa Pass, where the handling was honed until the ASA became what Baghetti described as “a perfect car”. In the language of the day, he meant one which oversteered easily on the exit from a turn, but contemporary reports do agree on the predictability of the chassis and the delicacy of the steering.

To match its sporting handling, the diminutive engine responded best to hard use: the power topped out at the 7000 maximum, while the torque peak was only 1000rpm below this, and only made 79Ib ft. To keep the unit singing the driver could work his way through six ratios, thanks to a four-speed Sunbeam Rapier gearbox with a Laycock-de Normanville overdrive on third and fourth. 0-60 occupied about 14 sec.

Suspension was pretty much what Modena was offering at the time: double coil-sprung wishbones to the front, and a live rear axle with radius arms, though the ASA used coils where half-elliptics were still to be found on Ferraris. Gaining especial praise were the brakes: all-round servo-assisted Dunlop discs, and heartily-sized, too — 9.4in at the front. They could pull the far-from-flyweight little car up impressively from speed without locking, an example of the principle that more weight can sometimes give better braking through increased bite.

Contributing to the “Mille”s stocky build, its tubular steel chassis was generously sized and followed the twin-rail-plus-triangulation pattern of the 250-series Ferraris Bizzarrini had worked on. This was clad with steel panels which were heavily sound-proofed to help with the refinement De Nora wanted in his tiny tourer. Interior appointments were good for the time without being lavish — comprehensive instruments, Momo wood-rimmed steering wheel, simple pleated leather seats with carpeted luggage space behind — and the control layout was praised, with the usual reservations from the British press about the Italian driving position.

Steel Borrani knock-off wheels with Michelin X or Pirelli Cinturato 145 tyres, the normal hot wear at the time, kept up the competition image, and gave the car the grip to complement its well-balanced handling.

To keep public interest high until the first cars were available, ASA showed a GRP-bodied spider at Geneva in March 1963. By the Turin Show in the autumn several production coupes were running, and potential customers could experience them on a closed circuit provided for exhibitors. ASA’s three Bs took turns as chauffeurs, and Baghetti proudly claimed the lap record ahead of larger-engined machines.

It was only in 1964 that cars began to reach customers in small quantities, and numbers barely improved in the year following. Like many small car manufacturers wobbling into production, ASA hinted at generous figures, but the reality was not encouraging. As so often, the US market was the critical one, and American distribution was handled by Luigi Chinetti, the official Ferrari importer. But American buyers could not see anything very special about a car which was both small and more expensive than home-grown muscle-cars; a total of 30-40 were sold in the USA.

De Nora and his loyal and enthusiastic team ploughed on, tackling the power to weight deficit with a revised and lightened version for 1965, the 411 coupe, which had an alloy body and an 1100cc engine. They also attempted some racing, entering a pair of 1000GT coupes in the 1965 Targa Florio, still in the Prototype class due to their meagre production rate. In fact Motoring News described them in its report of the event as “appearing at motor-shows for several years now without seeming to get beyond this chrysalis stage”. Pianta, ASA’s chief tester, shared one entry with Bassi; Kim/Babbini formed the second crew, while Baghetti and Bandini were both there too, but in serious cars — P2 Ferraris. Both ASAs finished, third and fourth in the under-1600 Prototype class; in other words, nowhere. But they did finish, which, ironically, was more than Baghetti did in his Ferrari. After lying second to his other ASA colleague Bandini, who eventually won sharing with Nino Vacarella, the battery went flat and left Baghetti to walk in. The ASA’s performance seemed to sum up the car: predictable but uninspiring, compared to the superlight racers from Abarth which showed the way in the small-capacity class.

Abarth, of course, built race cars in handfuls or single units, and charged his customers the actual build cost; no question here of economies of scale. ASA, on the other hand, had contract quotas to fulfil with both Ferrari on engines and Bertone on frames. Cars were essentially hand-built to high quality levels, yet its survival depended on quantity production to reduce unit cost — a figure of 100 cars a week was mentioned at one time to make the company viable. Obviously it would be impossible to get rid of that many sportcars, so the company would have needed a volume model to support it — the whole thing seems now an unrealistic spiral. The first rumours of financial problems surfaced in 1966.

As if in realisation that the small capacity was a pointless restriction, there were two more engine developments. The first was a 1.3-litre six-cylinder based on the original 850cc dimensions and offered only in Italy; the other was an export-only 1754cc four giving a hearty 140bhp. Geneva in 1966 provided the last flicker of publicity for ASA with the “Rollbar” spyder, equipped with the 1300cc engine. The company ceased production in 1967. As always for small ventures, production figures are vague, but seems to have reached a total of around 70 coupes, plus seven spyders. Which makes it all the more surprising to meet a man who owns two open-topped ASAs, and in this country, too.

Gehan de Silva uses one of his scarlet convertibles fairly regularly. Although the other one is potentially the better of the pair, after it has received some attention, the one we inspected looked very straight and original, with all its details seemingly complete. Its fibreglass body is substantial and solid, with tidy panel fits, going against the story that the Italians couldn’t handle this novel material in the Sixties. Within the sleek chopped tail, the boot is surprisingly large, unaffected by the hood which folds away fairly neatly into the luggage space behind the seats. It’s a neat design, too, needing little effort to swing it over and lock it down, and complementing the attractive lines in either position. Close to, the car looks tiny — it measures only 12ft 9in long and 4ft 9in wide — but with its wide doors and tall screen it manages to feel quite roomy inside. Once settled inside the feeling is a sporty one, as your bottom is flat on the floor with feet stretched out, and the large slender wheel is at arms’ length.

Tiny cylinders crack promptly into life, accompanied by the typical sidedraught snort of two twin-choke Webers. It accelerates with a tailpipe rasp and obvious willingness; the pulling power may be best at high revs, but it’s not nearly as peaky as you would imagine, which makes the double overdrive an advantage, not a neccessity.

Most impressive of all is the ride quality; the thick chassis tubes only have to bridge a 7ft 2in wheelbase, so there is little flex, and the springing is gentle. Wind intrusion is not pronounced, while the plain semi-bucket seats hold you well. Long journeys suddenly look enticing rather than endurable. Yes, it rolls a bit (the track is only 4ft), but that gives plenty of feel about how the skinny tyres are coping. And the brakes lives up to their contemporary reputation — a relief given the impossibility of finding parts.

Its sporting heritage shows in the engine’s eagerness to keep the big tach needle cranked over towards the high figures, though it will equally burble along on light throttle openings. Somehow there’s an impression of being cleverly fooled. It feels bigger than it is, it rides better than it should, and it goes faster than you thought. For de Silva, it’s a pleasant alternative to the lovely 246 Dino which rests outside his house for when he wants an electrifying drive. If it were your only toy, I have a feeling you would always be thinking wistfully of the extra guts of the six-cylinder or the big four which surfaced at the end of this motoring adventure.

It wasn’t that these more powerful models were too late, for in a sense it was always too late for the ASA. It was a pretty car, it was rare, it was efficient for its size; but sportscar buyers are rarely concerned with efficiency, and a good all-rounder, which it was, needs to be stunning to look at, or relatively cheap, or based on simple, reliable parts to pull in volume sales — and preferably all three. The ASA was a hand-built car with a small highly stressed engine of conventional layout, not staggeringly fast; as rare as a Ferrari but with only reflections of the glamour, and as dear to buy as a Porsche but lacking the tuning and competition potential of the German product. You can’t help asking yourself what it was all about; why they didn’t make it a bit larger and give it more poke. It could have been — well, it could have been a Ferrari.

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