It is really extraordinary, as I remarked in these columns recently, how late Italy was in getting going as a motor car producer. And almost more extraordinary, I might have added, that, in spite of the native genius which seems to inspire Italians when it comes to designing motor cars, they should, when production did at last begin, have tended so strongly to build to designs evolved abroad. F.I.A.T., as far as I know, was from the first a native product, but Alfa Romeo, today the very essence of Italianism, was once nothing more than a naturalised Darracq. They built French Cléments and Peugeots under licence, too; they even built English Daimlers, which seems highly unsuitable, and even made them run in the Targa Florio in 1907, which seems positively indecent. The linguistic difficulties involved were obviously terrific; they got round it in the case of the Darracq by calling it an Alfa, they called the Clément a Diatto and the Daimler a De Luca. But what on earth did they call a Peugeot? The name is difficult enough in England, where the average garage mechanic calls it a “Pew-jot.” But it must be child’s play for him compared with his Italian opposite number. My knowledge of the Italian language is rudimentary, but I understand that it is axiomatic that every letter must be pronounced and that it is practically impossible to end on a consonant. (I remember being taken round Pompeii by an English speaking guide, who observed this latter rule so faithfully that he invariably called a “plaster cast” a “plasta casta”). Well, just think of applying this to Peugeot; it is a problem whose solution I must leave to certain of my friends who in recent years have become more conversant with Italian than perhaps they altogether wished. Unless, of course, Peugeot, like the others, hid behind a cognomen — or should I say “cognome” ?
Be that as it may, Isotta-Fraschini, one of Italy’s most famous marques, certainly has the appearance of being racy enough of the Milanese soil — so much so that the name causes almost as much trouble in England as does Peugeot; I knew a man who used to insist on pronouncing it “I shot a frar sheeny.” But even in this case I eventually came to have my suspicions. They all really centred around the doings of Sorel, who was well known about 40 years ago as a De Dietrich driver, not so much in races as in long-distance “raids” and the like, and those of Minoia, who in those days was equally well known as a driver of Isotta-Fraschinis, not so much in “raids” as in races. Now in the 1905 Coppa Florio, one of the Isottas was driven by Trucco, who went on driving Isottas, usually with Tamagni and Minoia, pretty consistently at least until 1908. But in the 1907 Targa Florio, four Isottas started, and the fourth, rather strangely, was driven by Sorel. Then in 1908, when Gabriel deserted the De Dietrich team to go to Bayard-Clément, it was Minoia who joined Rougier and Duray to drive the third car in the Grand Prix. This was rather remarkable, because Minoia’s defection left a gap in the Isotta-Fraschini team which was running in the voiturette race at Dieppe, and Trucco and Tamagni had, in order to fill it, to recruit a driver, of whom I have either never heard since, or else I have heard a good deal. His name, according to The Autocar, was Mazzerati; can it be that our contemporary made a very excusable mistake in its spelling?
Well, all this at first made me wonder rather idly as to whether there was any significance in all this chopping and changing of drivers between houses apparently so little connected as De Dietrich and Isotta-Fraschini. I did not, frankly, suppose that I should ever progress beyond the stage of idle wonder. I failed entirely to heed the words of Robert Herrick (of “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may ” and “Cherry-ripe, cherry-ripe,” fame) who remarked in an optimistic moment:
“Attempt the end, and never stand to doubt,
Nothing’s so hard, but search will find it out.”
As a matter of fact, I did not search at all; but as I chanced to look through a volume of The Autocar for 1908, I hit, quite without any industry on my part, on the following remark:
“In view of the favourable impression made by the Isotta-Fraschini car in the race for the Coupe des Voiturettes, Messrs. Lorraine Dietrich have decided to build a number of these cars.”
So that, then, was the cat that had been lurking in the bag: Isotta-Fraschini was nothing more or less than the Italian for Lorraine-Dietrich. I am at least relieved that Milan was spared the necessity of trying to pronounce the curious Tedesco-French evolved in the Kingdom of Lothair. (I would refer those of my readers who think that “tedesco” is not an English word to the Century Dictionary; it is, and it means “German,” that’s all.) But what a curious alliance. Lorraine-Dietrich, from the early days of the Grand Prix right down to the Le Mans era, was an outstanding exponent of push-rods (and rather untidy push-rods at that, if the truth be told). Isotta-Fraschini, on the other hand, seems to have been a very early addict of something quite different. I am prepared to believe that 40 years ago De Dietrich owned Isotta-Fraschini, or at least was very closely allied with it; but this hardly seems to have been another instance of Italians building French cars under licence.
According to a recent article in The Motor, the house of Isotta-Fraschini was founded in 1899. Admittedly, Moody’s “Manual of Industrials” gives the date as November 24th, 1904, but then I am decidedly hesitant about contradicting The Motor under its present editorial direction, and Moody may well be referring to the date of incorporation of an existing private firm. At any rate, it was around the turn of the century that “Signor Bugatti of Milan” was called in to try to design a car for the firm of De Dietrich. Was there, I wonder, any connection between this fact and the De Dietrich-Isotta liaison ? If Herrick is right, I might have big news in this matter one of these days. For the moment I will only remark that you have got somehow to move Ettore from Milan to Alsace-Lorraine, and if anyone can suggest a more plausible means of doing so, I shall be glad to hear of it.
I should in any case welcome more news of the doings of Isotta-Fraschini between The Motor’s date of the firm’s foundation and that given by Moody. After the latter, its light is by no means hidden under a bushel, although it burns a bit faintly at times. Thus, two Isotta-Fraschinis started in the Coppa Florio of 1905, but Gerald Rose, rather tantalizingly, only says of them that they were “about the biggest racing cars ever constructed.” They were credited by their makers with 120 h.p., whereas the De Dietrichs, for instance, were called 130 h.p., so I do not know whether they were unduly modest in Milan or whether Mr. Rose means that they had, shall we say, normal sized engines in particularly big chassis. They were driven by our friend Trocco and Le Blon, who, having been an outstanding figure at the throttle of steamers in his time, could presumably cope with a racing car, however big; but neither of them finished the first lap. For all that one of them, or another car like them, was exhibited at Olympia the next year, and The Autocar remarked that “the 120 h.p. racing car gives one an opportunity of examining a typical Italian racing car. We noted that the inlet valves on the racer are operated by an overhead camshaft.” Does this really mean that the exhaust valves weren’t ? And if this early Isotta racing engine indulged in an inlet-over-exhaust arrangement, can anyone tell me of another example of its use with an overhead camshaft?
In addition to the 120 h.p. racer, Isotta-Fraschini showed three other models, the 50-65 h.p. with a bore and stroke of 145 by 160 mm., the 28-35 h.p. of 130 by 150 mm., and the 16-22 h.p. of 100 by 130 mm. The first two of these came in very useful the next year, for the Targa Florio regulations limited the bore of 4-cylinder engines to 130 mm., and the 28-35 h.p. Isotta was, therefore, just made to measure for it. The engine, moreover, had a capacity of 7,964 c.c., and, in one’s innocence after the lapse of 40 years, one might well suppose that it was just made to measure for the Kaiserpreis, too, as the rules for that race stipulated a maximum capacity of 8 litres. In 1907, however, what was considered a long-stroke engine was anything but smart in a limited capacity race ; and instead of using the 28-35 h.p., Isotta-Fraschini went to all the trouble of producing a special edition of the 50-65 h.p. with the stroke reduced to 120 mm., so as to bring it within the required size. This somewhat drastic procedure seems to have worked well enough — indeed, it might be argued that the 50-65 h.p., in its modified form, was as successful as a racing car as was the 28-35 h.p., for in the Kaiserpreis Minoia finished seventh, and Tamagni was equally seventh in the Targa Florio. But this argument will not really stand the test of time, for by the end of the season the 130-mm. bore engine had really found its form, and in September Minoia proceeded to lead a big field in the Coppa Florio from the outset, winning by more than 10 minutes from Hémery’s Benz, while at the beginning of 1908 Trocco clinched the matter by winning the Targa Florio as well.
Indeed, if the name of Isotta-Fraschini is not better known in the annals of racing, it is because the cars that bore it never, for some reason, competed in the Grand Prix. Indeed, after their appearance at Brescia in 1905, nothing more seems to have been seen in the big races of those 120-h.p. monsters which were “about the biggest racing cars ever constructed.” Perhaps it was decided that they were too big; in any case, when Isotta-Fraschini did make its bow in French racing in 1908, it was with something very different, as far as size was concerned, with the cars in fact that made such a “favourable impression in the race for the Coupe des Voiturettes” that Messrs. LorraineDietrich decided to build a number of them.
I do not know how big the number turned out to be, but I am not a bit surprised at the favourable impression. The regulations for the 1908 Coupe de l’Auto Voiturette race, it may be remembered, fixed a maximum bore for 4-cylinder engines of 65 mm., whereupon the A.C.F. just to make things more difficult, decided on a limit for their Grand Prix des Voiturettes, run the same year, of 62 mm. The bore of the Isotta-Fraschini, therefore, was restricted to the latter figure, which, with a stroke of 100 mm., gave a capacity of 1,207 c.c. and it had a 4-speed gearbox with direct drive on third, and shaft drive. One of them found its way to this country, and here in 1911 our contemporary The Autocar discovered it. From the photograph with which it celebrated the fact, the little Isotta was evidently an almost ideal miniature racing car of the period. From the accompanying description, too, it may be learnt that it had “overhead valves driven by bevel gear.” This statement seems, I must admit, to be something of an oversimplification — I suspect that it was really an overhead camshaft that “drove” the valves, and that it was the camshaft that was driven by the bevel gear. However, there seems to be no suggestion this time that it was only the inlet valves that got driven this way, and our contemporary was able to add that the engine “runs at an enormous number of revolutions, about 3,000 to 3,500 at a maximum, the crankshaft being on ball bearings. It seems to do the terrific speed quite comfortably…”
Now in the course of his excellent description of the 1910 Type 13 Bugatti in the February number of Motor Sport, my colleague Mr. Cecil Clutton remarks that “the Voiturette formula in the 1908 Grand Prix had already pointed the way towards the modern multi-cylinder light car, but Bugatti was the first to make a successful example, and he was by a long way the first to put such a car into production.” There is a tradition in the journalistic profession (more honoured sometimes, I must admit, in the breach than the observance) that dog does not eat dog, and were I not such a hidebound traditionalist, I should be inclined to query the last part of this statement. Of course, I do not know whether Messrs. De Dietrich really did build a number of Isotta-Fraschini voiturettes in 1908, or whether they only got as far as deciding to, which is quite a different thing, but there, at least, was the prototype, a full two years before the appearance of Type 18 in 1910.
And what a prototype! The dimensions of the Type 13 were 65 by 100 mm. those of the Isotta-Fraschini 62 by 100 mm.; and there is good reason for thinking that the latter engine was originally designed to suit the Coupe de l’Auto regulations, with a bore of 65 mm., which was subsequently reduced to 62 mm. to suit the A.C.F. Both had an overhead camshaft. The crankshaft of the original Type 13, according to Mr. Clutton, ran on roller bearings, that of the Isotta, according to The Autocar, on ball bearings; both could revolve 3,000 times a minute. The original Type 13 had a wheelbase of 6 ft. 7 ins., the Isotta’s was 6 ft. 10 ins. The two cars of the latter team which finished the 286 miles of the Grand Prix in 1908 averaged 43.3 and 42.7 m.p.h. respectively, the Type 13 with the stroke, apparently, increased to 110 mm., averaged 45.8 m.p.h. for 334 miles in the Grand Prix de France at Le Mans in 1911.
Well, what does all this lead up to ? Frankly, I do not know for certain, but, as I have said elsewhere, Bugatti type numbers are among the many things which puzzle me, and among the most recalcitrant pieces of the puzzle are the numbers below 13. Is it possible that the famous original tricycle was Type 1, and that the other missing early numbers should be provided by the Bugatti-De Dietrich, the Mathis-Bugatti, the Bugatti-Hermes, the Bugatti-H.I.S.A. and various others which have still to come to light ? And would it be just fanciful to suppose that the 1908 Isotta-Fraschini was none other than Type 12?
At any rate, it was left to Bugatti and his neighbour Mathis to become specialists in the small “four,” and for some reason Isotta-Fraschini did not persevere with the development of the voiturette racer. Competent observers inform me that while it looked like a minor racing car, its performance was merely minimal, but then in 1908 no 4-cylinder voiturette had any performance worth mentioning. And if by 1910 a 4-cylinder Hispano-Suiza with a T head could win the voiturette race in spite of all competition from singles and twins, then a 4-cylinder Isotta-Fraschini ought to have had a good chance of doing so instead, if it had still had “overhead valves driven by bevel gear.” But perhaps voiturettes did not really come very natural to Isotta-Fraschini, and instead of going on with the 62 by 100 mm. engine, the Milanese firm turned to the development of one just about twice as big in every direction, its bore and stroke being 130 by 200 mm. (10,618 c.c.). In fact, the old 28-35 h.p. Targa Florio engine was influenced by the long-stroke era, only now it was unblushingly called the 100-h.p. model because it developed 125 h.p., which was probably no more illogical than calling the older engine 28-35 h.p., anyway. And just to make things more confusing, the old 100 by 130 mm., 16-22 h.p. engine also had its stroke increased by 50 mm., and its bore by 5 mm., which gave it a capacity of 6,226 c.c., and this was called 27-80 h.p., which makes it sound as if it was the descendant of the 28-35 which it wasn’t.
They still went in for overhead camshafts on these engines, and as they had the litres as well, there was no question, where they were concerned, of lack of urge. What is more, their designer apparently considered it desirable that they should stop as well as go, with the result that Isotto, chassis appeared at the Paris Salon with 4-wheel brakes as long ago as 1910, and, what is more, never shed them, I believe, from that day forward. However, there is nothing hidebound about the Milanese firm, for having spent most of the inter-war years making straight-eights with the maximum of engine in front of the driver (not to mention bits of Maseratis on the side), it now proposes, I understand, to make a car with a V8 engine placed at the back, and therefore, nothing worth mentioning in front of the driver at all. On which project I beg leave to reserve judgment.
Postscript — Now the acts of the big Isotta-Fraschini which became the monster Isotta-Maybach, and all that it did, are they not written in the book of the chronicles of the speed-kings of Brooklands ?