The "815"

In the issue of Motor Sport of January 1965 reader R.M. Kitchingman wrote asking if anyone knew the where-abouts or the fate of the two sports cars that Enzo Ferrari built in 1940. This occasioned a reply from Hans Tanner, in the United States, who explained that one had been modified out of all recognition by Enrico Nardi and the other had been broken up by a Modena scrap dealer. That appeared to be the final answer to Kitchingman’s query, but a little while later I was in Modena and my friend Peter Coltrin, who lives there, said that he had met a man in Bologna who claimed to know of the existence of one of these Ferrari sports cars of 1940. I left Coltrin starting a research programme that was to occupy many months and when I met him again at the time of the Italian Grand Prix he showed me a photograph he had taken at a village near Bologna. It was an “815” Ferrari, complete and unaltered from the day it raced in 1940, so somewhere Hans Tanner had got hold of the wrong information; either the Modena scrap dealer had not broken up his car, or the car that Nardi modified had not been an “815.”

Coltrin continued his researches and on my last visit to Modena he lent me the file of papers and information he had collected after conversations with innumerable people connected with the “815” affair and we sorted out the whole story, as well as putting right a number of misconceptions that have been perpetrated about these cars by various motoring historians over the years. One story was that today Enzo Ferrari did not want to know about these cars and the designer, Alberto Massimino, brushed them aside as hopeless and preferred to forget about them. Coltrin found that Enzo Ferrari was very helpful, and pictures of them still exist on the walls of the Modena offices, while Massimino could not have been more helpful, producing facts and figures and making sketches, as well as writing long letters about the affair.

The beginnings go back to 1938-39 when Alfa Romeo re-opened their racing department in Milan and took back the racing activities of Alfa Romeo cars from the Scuderia Ferrari at Modena. Enzo Ferrari, Alberto Massimino and Luigi Bazzi left Modena and went to work at the Alfa Romeo factory in Milan, but as Ferrari has made very clear in his autobiography he soon fell out with Wilfredo Rican who was in charge of Alfa Romeo racing engines. The war between Germany and Great Britain had already begun when Ferrari and Massimino left Milan to return home to Modena and start a firm known as Auto Avio Costruzioni, doing contract machine-shop and design work. Ferrari had been forced to sign a contract that forbad him to reconstitute the Scuderia Ferrari or to build racing cars that would in any way be opposition to Alfa Romeo for a period of four years. At the time Italy were not involved in the war and racing was continuing. Around Christmas 1939, with the 1940 racing calendar already announced, Ferrari made plans to build cars to take part in the Brescia G.P. in April 1940. The Mille Miglia had been last run in 1938 when there had been a serious accident and the Government had banned the race in 1939, but the Automobile Club of Brescia planned a new race tor 1940, over 1,000 miles on a triangular course running from Brescia-Cremona-Mantova-Brescia, a lap length of 167 kilometres. Although the official title was the Gran Premio di Brescia, the race was considered by the sporting world to be the revived Mine Miglia, When Ferrari and Massimino sat down to plan a new car for this race there were a number of factors that were to influence their decisions. Time was short, less than four months, money was limited, and Fiat were offering a cash prize to any class winner using Fiat components. They were agreed that production parts should be used as far as possible, Fiat was the obvious choice and there was a rich driver in Modena who would sponsor their project. This was the Marquis Lotario Rangoni Machiavelli, who lived in Modena and had been racing Fiats tuned by Stanguellini, whose garage was just up the road from the Ferrari works. The very successful 4-cylinder Fiat 1100 saloon, the 508C, was taken as a basis and Massimino set to work to design an engine using as many standard Fiat parts as possible. He started with two Fiat 1100 cylinder heads, which were of aluminium, and placed them end to end to make a straight eight configuration, using standard valves, and rockers. A one piece cylinder block and crankcase was cast for them by the Calzoni Foundry of Bologna, and they used wet-iron liners, while Calzoni also cast an aluminium sump and rocker box. As Ferrari could not put his name on the car he called it the “815,” for 8-cylinder, 1.5-litre, but there was more to it than that. Before leaving Alfa Romeo he and Massimino had been working on the Alfa Romeo designated the Tipo 158, so Ferrari found great delight in using the same numbers for his new car. The numbers 815 were cast on the one-piece aluminium rocker box and also appeared on the badge on the nose of the car. This 8-cylinder engine had a bore and stroke of 63 ><-60 mm. giving 1,496 c.c. and used standard Fiat 1100 connecting rods. At first there were two 4-cylinder distributors driven by skew gears on the camshaft, one by cylinder number 3 and the other by cylinder number 7, but great difficulty was experienced with synchronisation, so Magneto-Marelli came up with an 8-cylinder distributor which was driven from the forward skew gear, a tachometer drive being taken from the rearward one. With the standard Fiat cylinder head porting the inlet valves were fed in pairs from four downdraught Weber 30DR2 carburetters, and two 3-branch exhaust manifolds fed into a single tail pipe which ran under the car, being straight-through without any silencer. A Massimino designed camshaft and 7.5 to 1 compression ratio gave 75 b.h.p. at 5,500-6,000 r.p.m. A standard Fiat 1100 clutch and gearbox were used and the power unit was installed in a Fiat 1100 chassis, suitably reinforced. The 508C saloon was well favoured by special builders in those days as in production form it had a high standard of road-holding, with i.f.s. by enclosed oil-damped coil-springs on the Dubonnet system and a light rear axle well mounted on semi-elliptic leaf springs, while the chassis was a light but rigid cruciform of drilled channel-section. The "815" retained all the Fiat suspension, steering, brakes and rear axle and Borrani wire wheels were fitted. Carrozzeria Touring of Milan built the all enveloping alloy body and, whether by accident or design it is not clear, it looked remarkably like the 1939/40 Alfa Romeo racing sports cars. Ferrari built two of these cars in his factory in Modena, the first numbered 020 being for Rangoni and the second 021 being for Alberto Ascari. To this day Ferrari insists that the cars were built for customers, and that they bought the cars, but knowing Ferrari's friendship with Alberto Ascari's father until his death, in 1925, it seems likely that Enzo was keeping a paternal eye on his friend's son and helping him to graduate from motorcycle racing to car racing. The Brescia G.P. took place on April 28th, 1940, so that in less than four months Ferrari had built and tested two cars and they were both ready for the start. One was driven by Rangoni with Enrico Nardi as his riding mechanic. Nardi being the test-driver for Enzo Ferrari, as well as a factory mechanic, and the second car was driven by Alberto Ascari with his nephew Minozzi as his passenger. In the 1 1/2-litre class the "815" cars were untouchable, Ascari leading on the first lap but then retiring with what was said to be a broken valve, but today Massimino thinks it may have been a rocker arm. What he does remember clearly is that it was a standard Fiat 1100 part that was never known to give trouble. Rangoni then took the lead in the class and very near the end of the race he had 33 minutes' lead over the second man when engine trouble put him out, but not before he had made fastest lap in the class at over 90 m.p.h., and been timed at a maximum of 108 m.p.h. Reports at the time said a roller bearing had failed, but today Enrico Nardi recalls that it was a broken timing-chain, though the two might be connected. Although neither car finished the race they had set a new standard for 1 1/2-litre sports cars. After this Italy became involved in the war and the cars did not race again. Rangoni took his back to Modena, and when their war started the car was taken out to a small village between Modena and Maranello and the Marquis joined the Italian Air Force. The second car went to Milan, to a Mr. Baltracchini, who would seem to have been involved with the entering of Ascari in the Brescia race. In 1942 the Marquis Rangoni was killed in a flying accident in a tri-motor bomber on a test-flight. He is often referred to as a fighter-pilot, which sounds much more romantic, but in fact he was assisting a friend as second-pilot in the test of this new bomber when it crashed, killing them both. Rangoni's brother looked after the car until the end of the war, and at some unspecified time in later years he sold it to a Modena scrap dealer. Coltrin traced the Marquis Rolando Rangoni Machiavelli last year, still living in the family home in Modena, and saw the bill-of-sale from the scrap dealer, and also heard the true story about Lotario's death. This was "815" number 020 and without doubt is the one that Hans Tanner heard about in Modena and the one that was broken up. A year or two ago a collector of old cars and antiques in San Martino in Rio, near Bologna, heard tell of the Ascari car in Milan and after tracing it from one scrap-yard to another finally ran it to ground in Lucca, and bought it for scrap price, still complete except for the Perspex windscreen, a headlamp glass, the passenger seat, and the plug leads, and all in quite fair condition. He took it back to his collection, which is where Coltrin found it and photographed it last year. On the bulkhead is a plate stamped "Vettura 815-A, Motore 815-021, Telaio 815-021," without question the Ascari car. Research did not finish here, for previously written stories had not only said that Enrico Nardi built the cars, which was now patently not true, but that he was supposed to have modified the Ascari car into a 2-litre Nardi-Danese. Coltrin made a trip to Turin, to Nardi's steering-wheel factory next door to Lancia, and found Nardi, who was most interesting and helpful. He explained how he had left Lancia in 1938 and gone to work for Ferrari in Modena, had been the test-driver and ridden with Rangoni in the Brescia G.P. During the war years he had stayed at Auto Avio Costruzioni with Ferrari and in 1945 had returned to his home town of Turin and set up in the tuning business with Danese. He had taken with him certain engine parts of the "815" project, for Ferrari had made spare parts as well as the two racing units, and Nardi began a project to build a 2-litre version of the "815" engine, making a new crank-shaft with a longer stroke. This was to have gone into a new space-frame he had designed, but the 2-litre Nardi-Danese ended up with an iron 6-cylinder -single-o.h.c. Maserati engine installed. In various corners of his little factory bits of the projected 2-litre engine still exist. At the end of April this year there was the annual Trade Fair in Modena and on show amongst a collection of veteran and vintage cars was the sole remaining red "815" that was driven in the 1940 Brescia G.P. by Alberto Ascari. Undoubtedly Enzo Ferrari would like to get it back, if only to tidy it up and put it in the Turin Museum, and already there has been talk of exchanging it for a new Ferrari! The owner has no wish to-part with it, having a large collection of historic cars of his own, so at least we can all rest content in the knowledge that it will never be seen again in a scrap-yard. There is a story put out by the guardian of this private collection that there were three "815" cars built, the third being destroyed in a fire before it was ever raced, but Enzo Ferrari, Massimino and Nardi all refute this story and say that only two cars were built, and they should know. The little blue and yellow badge above the radiator grille on this little red sports car merely states "815," giving no clue at all that it is the second real Ferrari car, the first having been broken up. Thanks must go to Peter Coltrin for his patience and perseverance in ferreting out so much information and his ability to meet numerous Italians on their home ground and winkle out items of information in Italian that could be translated into this interesting story, as well as putting to rights many inaccurate items that have appeared in the Italian press as well as in the English and American press. Although the story is virtually complete it is not finished, for living in Modena as he does, Coltrin still meets Italians who recall the "815." To some of us the racing in 1940 seems only like yesterday, but it was 26 years ago.—D.S.J.