Reflected Glory

In the years after the Second World War, as Fiat, like every other European manufacturer, struggled to plan a modern range of cars for the Fifties, the firt post-war Mille Miglia race, to be run in 1947, became the rallying point for the Italian motor industry. A population battered by conflict and yearning for peacetime excitements would flock to the roadside, and the rewards for the successful makers would be greater than ever.

What Fiat needed was a flat-waver, not only to make an impact on the Italian public in the greatest road-race of them all, but to kindle enthusiasm within the Fiat factories. Fanning this spark of sporting excitement was Fiat’s new Director of Design, Dante Giacosa, already experienced with the 100 engine through his work on single-seater and sports Cisitalias, and it was the 1100 range which was to tide the huge company over the immediate years of post-war recuperation.

At the heart of the various 1100s was a development of the four-cylinder engine which had powered the pretty little Balilla Fiats before the War, and which from 1937 crystallised into the Type 508C, with overhead valves and a capacity of 1089cc. This was the car from which sprang the 508C MM, specially built for the 1938 Mille Miglia.

Fiat had, of course, no real hope of defeating the super charged Alfa Romeos in the 1000 mile spectacle, relying instead on the efficiency, robustness, and handling of the little coupe – plus the skills of Taruffi at the wheel – to win its “National Sports Car Class” in that debut year. With modifications orchestrated by Giacosa, the 508C MM engine produced 42bhp – good for its class – and the chassis featured an advanced independent front suspension system using enclosed coil springs. But what elevated the car above its contemporaries was its all-enveloping bodywork; smoothly panelled between grille and sloping headlamps, the cabin, so narrow that driver and navigator sat in staggered seats, tapered away to a narrow upright tail, almost a fin, with a tiny square rear window.

Together with the reduced weight of the copiously-pierced channel-section chassis with cruciform reinforcement, the slippery little car could achieve just short of 90 mph, an impressive achievement for something based on the chassis and engine of a small family car.

Such was the basis of the 1947 1100S: a short run of hand built cars with a body derived from the pre-war Mille Miglia car, but sporting a shorter tail ad more of a cut-off to the cabin above the waistline; this allowed for a more usefully-sized rear window.

Steady development of the pushrod unit with its chain-driven camshaft mounted low down in the iron block, plus a downdraught Weber carburettor and a cr of 7.5:1, brought the 1100S engine up to 51 bhp, and there was a four-speed gearbox, together with a transmission brake on the output shaft, and a higher ratio differential. Top speed was over 90 mph, and the works cars, completed barely in time for the Mille Miglia, achieved an astonishing 5-6-7-8 result in the gruelling event, behind Biondetti’s 2.9 8C Alfa Romeo and a trio of Cisitalias.

The following year there was even more to boast about: the sturdy coupes put up an average speed only 8 mph down on the victorious V12 Ferrari to finish third and fourth overall.

And the car’s endurance was proven at Spa in the 24-hour races of 1948 and 1949, then being run to sports-car rules, when on both occasions the Fiats were the best of the 1100cc class, running for hour after hour in line astern like a string of ducklings.

This was a valuable boost to the Turin firm, which not only benefited from the reflected glory on the ordinary 1100 saloon, but suddenly had privateer competitors and sports enthusiasts clamouring to buy this fast and rugged factory special. By the time the 1100S was replaced by a new 2+2 in 1950, a total of 401 had been built. It was a small enough number, but significant in bringing to Fiat some of the glamour of the great sports-car builders of Italy.

Looking at one example now, the lines seem quaint, even eccentric; the vee windscreen and domed roof give the tiny car (it is only 4 ft 10 in wide) a worried look, while the unrelieved alloy panels behind the crew’s heads accentuate the cramped feeing of the cockpit. Within the heavily-framed window openings only the sliding quarter-lights offer any ventilation. But considering this is a car evolved in the Thirties and built in the shadow of WWII, it is remarkably uncluttered with drag-inducing details. Recessed door handles tuck away completely, the rear arches take infill spats, there are no mirrors and the tapering tail has no boot opening, just a projecting flip-top filler cap for the large fuel tank which occupies most of it.

Inside, the lightweight structure (the car weighs 1800 lb) is very obvious: there is no roof trip whatsoever, and the pierced square metal ribs stand out against the bare black-painted metal. On the flat floor sit two well-shaped and really rather comfortable pleated leather bucket seats, with a handle provided for the co-driver to brace himself in place over the more dramatic sections of the Futa Pass. Behind is an upholstered board, a token seat which folds down to open up the carpeted “boot space” below the curving backlight where a spare wheel lies flat.

Large leather pockets adorn the doors, along with a wonderful padded leather arm-rest mounted on chrome pillars for the driver’s benefit – while waiting for the race-start, presumably. A simple painted dash carries the basic instrumentation, a mixture of Jaeger and VDO, supplemented by a later owner with an auxiliary switch panel. Other controls, including the long gear-lever, are fitted with bright yellow plastic knobs, and a push-button radio of later vintage has been added under the fascia, with a separate box of valves under the bonnet.

Lifting the heart-shaped bonnet reveals that this particular car has had further modifications: twin downdraught Solex carburettors have replaced the single Weber, and an oil cooler is tucked u pin font of the radiator. A dainty anti-roll bar connects the front wheels, which are suspended by a lower wishbone and an upper link. This link has a rocker extension beyond the pivot which bears on a vertical spring and integral telescopic shock absorber, all completely encased in an oil-bath. Compact, advanced, and effective, this system was again used two years after the last 1100S had been assembled in the even rarer 8V sports coupe.

Stopping the 1100S was taken care of by small drums on each wheel, plus the aforementioned transmission handbrake, and the ornate steering wheel turned the narrow 5.00 – 15 in tyres by a worm and sector mechanism.

Although the car we photographed (courtesy of John Harper’s Retrosport organisation, who had just sold it to an English customer) needed a carburettor problem sorted before it could be driven, we can look back to when this magazine used a standard Balilla saloon to visit the new Prescott Hillclimb course in 1938. The car scored good marks for its light smooth steering, for its precise though rather slow gear change, and particularly for the damping qualities of the independent font suspension, with the criticism that it rolled excessively, something which is unlikely to have applied to the 1100S with its lower centre of gravity.

Finally, in 1950, this advanced shape was replaced by a very stylish and modern Pininfarina body on the same chassis. Know as the ES, this was a more sophisticated machine, properly trimmed and boasting close-coupled 2+2 accomodatoin. But it was also larger and heavier, requiring a lower axle ratio and ending up slower than the car it replaced. The new car was produced only until 1951, and totalled a mere 50 examples. But if the car did not last, the style was an important one for Pininfarina; the lines carried through strongly to the Lancia Aurelia of only a year later, which influenced so many sporting coupes of succeeding years.

What began as a rather odd-looking Mille Miglia special in 1938 blossomed after the war into a car not only of sporting significance, but of aesthetic importance too; a precursor of a continuing and surprisingly full series of sports-cars that have come from the Torinese manufacturer. GC