Charge of the light brigade
Cisitalia might be a relative footnote in automotive history, but for a fleeting time it created quite an impact. We tried a 202MM Spider, one of its greatest creations
Writer: Richard Heseltine, photographer: Lyndon McNeil
It could be down to the buffeting, more likely the frenzied backbeat, but normal synaptic firing has been interrupted. This glorious Cisitalia 202MM Spider is everything you expect it to be and more, but you don’t so much drive this car as wear it. And it trumpets your arrival from about two miles away, maybe more depending on wind conditions. Lord above, it’s loud under load. Nor is it a car that responds to tactility, yet in many ways it feels more modern than the year of its manufacture might suggest: 1947 puts it straight into the catch-all category of ‘post-vintage’, but you would swear it was from a more recent decade.
This is more than just another ‘etceterini’; much more. The model’s other alias, ‘Nuvolari Spider’, offers a significant clue as to the car’s worth, as opposed to its value. You see, Cisitalia and The Flying Mantuan almost pulled off an upset win on the 1947 Mille Miglia. Nuvolari wasn’t in the best of health, yet somehow his Cisitalia was eight minutes clear of the chasing pack at the halfway point in Rome. His drive was all the more remarkable given that the car was packing all of 1098cc and maybe 65bhp. Not only that, the first post-war running of the great race may have been held in June, but there was nothing summery about the weather. Nuvolari and his wingman Francesco Carena manfully battled monsoon conditions on the closed autostrada between Turin and Milan, only for the Cisitalia’s ignition system to take on water. Valuable time was then lost while the distributor dried out. The lead might have changed, but Nuvolari wasn’t yet done. Once up and running, he pressed on as only he knew how but ultimately had to settle for second place behind the Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B duo of Clemente Biondetti and Emilio Romano. Class honours were some consolation.
Stopped short of an unexpected win, Cisitalia had still more than made its mark. If Nuvolari’s performance wasn’t enough to ensure banner headlines, Cisitalias also finished third and fourth overall. Not bad for an upstart operation that had built its first car barely a year earlier. But then marque instigator Piero Dusio was nothing if not ambitious. Even now the grandiosity of his vision takes your breath away.
This fascinating character was born in Scurzolengo, south west of Turin, in October 1899. A natural sportsman, his footballing career with Juventus was curtailed by a knee injury but he found a perfect substitute in motor sport. A savvy businessman, Dusio earned more than one fortune in real estate and the textile industry. Supplying uniforms to the Italian army, in addition to less business-like attire, paid for his racing exploits. A gentleman driver in modern-day parlance, he was sufficiently talented to place sixth overall in the 1936 Italian Grand Prix at Monza aboard a Maserati 6C.
Becoming a manufacturer in his own right was a natural step, Dusio establishing Consorzio Industriale Sportive Italia in 1944. By his own admission, he was not an engineer, but he did have a knack of recognising and enabling burgeoning talent. The D46 single-seater, the model that established the marque trackside, was largely the work of the brilliant Dante Giacosa. And despite packing only a 1.1-litre four-banger, this tiny device punched above its weight with Nuvolari winning the Coppa Brezzi in September ’46 – and this despite the steering wheel famously working loose in the closing stages.
Cisitalia is a marque whose legend was forged on the global stage by the 202 coupé. This landmark design prompted jaws to drop collectively in 1947, and chin-stroking pseuds have been hailing it as a masterpiece ever since (one example has been on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York for more than 40 years). Yet it was, in essence, a Fiat 1100 ‘special’, albeit one that fully exploited the talents of former aero engineer Giovanni Savonuzzi. Subsequent variations on the theme would also influence designers on both sides of the Atlantic. However, by the time the Voloradante model broke cover in 1953, Savonuzzi was long gone. As, indeed, was the firm’s founder, if only in the physical sense.
While the D46 earned valuable revenue, and the 202 road car caused the motoring media of the day to gush, other schemes proved anything but successful. Dusio over-extended himself in an attempt to build a Grand Prix challenger and it almost ruined him. With a brains trust that included Ferdinand Porsche, Rudolf Hruska (the same man who later engineered the Alfasud) and Carlo Abarth, the resultant single-seater – known as the Type 360 in Porsche lore – featured a mid-mounted 1493cc flat-12. Unfortunately, it was undone in part by a lack of finance and failed to take on the Grand Prix elite (although Clemar Bucci later braved the largely untested design to claim an Argentinian flying kilometre speed record).
By the dawn of the ’50s Cisitalia was on the ropes. Dusio had by now also become embroiled in – or maybe sidetracked by – the Péron government’s bid to establish a mainstream motor industry in Argentina. This he partially achieved, even if he was ultimately elbowed out of the resultant Autoar concern. Meanwhile in Turin, it was left to his son Carlo to halt the brand’s slide into oblivion. Cisitalia was, however, now entering its twilight years with plans to build a car with Ford backing ultimately coming to nought following much expenditure of both time and money. Similarly, bold plans to equip the 202 with an adapted marine engine made by BPM (Botta & Puricelli Milano) also proved a costly distraction. The Aldo Brovarone-penned Voloradante coupé, by comparison, was a more conventional proposition. There was nothing complicated about its make-up; there would be no reaching for the stars here. Nonetheless, it too failed to find favour with just four being made. At some point during 1954, the Voloradante was quietly dropped. Cisitalia was now in limbo.
Down but not out, in 1959 Dusio Jr made a concerted bid to revive the marque with a four-door Fiat 600-based saloon but this too was aborted. Altogether lovelier was his elegant 750 roadster, which featured 735cc Fiat power. Variations on the theme continued into the ’60s with larger-displacement engines, most cars going to South America. However, the profit-making aspect was rarely factored in. Manufacture ended in 1964 after Carlo Dusio threw in the towel. His father simultaneously wound down the affiliated Cisitalia ICSA concern in Buenos Aires, the marque’s glory days by now all but distant memories.
But what memories. Nuvolari’s drive on the ’47 Mille Miglia merely burnished an already gilded CV, but it did much to establish Cisitalia’s reputation as a serious player. As is so often the way with small-series Italian marques, exact production figures are something of a mystery, but it is widely held that Cisitalia made as many as 30 202MM roadsters that were promoted as ‘Nuvolari Spiders’. The car pictured here was number 21 in the series and packs an extensive competition career, if only at minor level. Sold new to Sicilian Ignazio Salonia, it was campaigned on the island in events such as the Catania-Etna hillclimb, but wasn’t road-registered until April 1949 (the RG prefix denotes Regusa, Sicily). By 1959, it was on its fourth owner, Milanese enthusiast Angelo Beretta retaining the car until 1986. Two changes of custodian later, the 202MM made its Goodwood debut at the 2012 Revival Meeting. It is currently owned by Mark Cooper who engaged DTR European Sports Cars to rectify one or two eye-watering bodges effected by previous ‘restorers’ (not least to the steering) and drove it on the 2014 Ennstal Classic.
Photographs really don’t lend a sense of scale. The Cisitalia is tiny, but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in otherworldly beauty. Given that most sports cars of the day were warmed-up pre-war models – hence cycle-wings and square-rigged bodies – here it’s fully enveloped and achingly pretty. From front on it’s much like a regular 202 coupé, right down to the deceptively simple oval grille (it’s a one-piece casting, slats and all). It’s only when seen in profile that it bids farewell to subtlety. Style’s triumph is often substance’s loss, but here the tailfins are more than designer affectations. Savonuzzi was an engineer, not a stylist, and he insisted that they were there to aid stability.
Inside, it’s equally striking. Climb over the bracing bars that run across the door apertures, and the transmission tunnel bisects the bench-backed seat. You sit bolt upright, and there is little in the way of lateral support. Ahead, the alloy-spoked, cork-rimmed steering wheel fronts a body-coloured dash.
The gauges are works of art in themselves: in typical Italian fashion, the most important instrument is the rev counter with inset functions bearing the legends Term Acqua (water temperature) and Manometro Olio (oil temperature). On the left (on the passenger’s side) sits the speedo, which also incorporates a fuel gauge and a clock, the gear knob and minor controls being made of rather groovy amber-coloured plastic.
Push in the ignition key and, with the fuel pump engaged, you’re obliged to fumble beneath the dash for a lever; the one that moves the starter motor’s contacts together. There’s nothing so sissy as solenoids here. The motor whirs and then whirs some more before the engine catches with surround-sound fanfare. It may be a prehistoric OHV Fiat unit, but only the block was retained during the Cisitalia makeover. Slot into first – the four-speed ’box gained more modern internals somewhere along the way – and there’s a pronounced ker-klunk. Release the parking brake, let out the light(ish) clutch and the Cisitalia clearly isn’t a happy bunny. It pops and fluffs before finally, reluctantly making it past the magic 3000rpm mark. The two single-choke downdraught Webers then gulp greedily as you slot into second, the gearchange having a longish throw but the addition of synchromesh makes all the difference. Now it’s moving, and how.
At 4000rpm, there’s a distinct hardening of tone as the high-lift camshaft makes its presence felt. The Nuvolari Spider barks like a proper racing car. Hit 5000rpm and it sounds far more powerful than it actually is (with a few tweaks, it’s currently producing at best 90bhp) although the narrow power band and widely-spaced gear ratios means you have to pick and choose your moments to get the most of the Cisitalia cross-country. As is to be expected, the worm-and-roller steering is a little vague and really dates such a forward-thinking design, but it doesn’t detract from the driving experience, at least not with familiarity. This is a light car, weighing about 760kg minus driver, and the 0-60mph dash takes an estimated 13sec. By modern standards, that might not seem quick, but consider its engine size and vintage and the Cisitalia’s turn of speed is revelatory. The finned aluminium drum anchors, however, aren’t the last word in stopping power. They’re not even the first. And the live rear end on semi-eliptic leaf springs doesn’t like bumps, but that rather goes with the territory.
This really is a mouse that roars. Top speed is estimated to be about 90mph, which on paper doesn’t exactly set your pulse racing, but it’s all relative. Off paper, it focuses your attention more than its meagre stats might have you believe. This isn’t a particularly easy car to drive. It’s fun, but to pilot this car well requires forethought and commitment. It’s worth the effort, though. To drive one flat out for 1000 miles – and in all weathers – would require super-human talent and reserves of obstinacy. Which is why Tazio Nuvolari remains a legend and motoring writers, by and large, are not.
Thanks to: car owner Mark Cooper and Paul de Turris of DTR European Sports Cars (www.dtrsports.com)