Those other Italians

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Bill Boddy

You didn’t have to pay a ‘fortune’ for an Alfa when there were other Italian cars around

Italian cars have long been attractive to drivers who like fast cars which handle well and reflect the motor racing successes of a country where everyone seems to drive just that little bit faster.

Cars built in a mountainous land can hardly fail to have good hill-climbing qualities, effective rakes and small turning circles.

Thus in the late vintage years the favourite such car was the 15/85hp Alfa Romeo. However, these were expensive, with a price of £1175 in the late 1930s. British buyers unable to afford this might have turned to the OM, as the next-best Italian fast car, especially if they went to L C Rawlence and Co at 1, Lower Marsh in London for their overhead valve conversion head for the OM’s sidevalve engine. But the desirable 2-litre sports 16/50 OM cost £760, or £960 in 15/75 form, and £1160 in the supercharged 15/85 version.

But all was not lost for those determined to enjoy an Italian sportscar. If he or she were unable to find £1175 for an Alfa Romeo (or £1275 for the special 1.7-litre 17/95hp model) there were less costly alternatives: an Ansaldo or a Bianchi or a Diatto for example.

The Ansaldo was made in Turin by one of the largest Italian engineering groups. In 1919, when its aero engine factory was idle, it was used to make cars designed by engineer Soria who used shaft-drive overhead camshafts on all his designs. The Alfa-bereft enthusiast might well have looked at the later Type 4H 2-litre 14/50hp Ansaldo, with its 1981cc engine, even though it had only a three-speed gearbox. It had a 9ft 10in wheelbase and 765×105 tyres. In open four-seater form it cost £625 in 1929, and its praised qualities of good handling and reliability had been endorsed by winning the 1921 and 1923 Coppa Ciano races. L C Rawlence also sold these cars here, although his notable racing successes were with OMs.

Another car which might have been considered was the Aurea, which in Type 4000 style was a good-looking sporting proposition. It had a four-cylinder 1497cc engine with a multi-disc clutch and torque tube transmission; the price was £400. The model to have would have been the ‘Grand Prix’ version with the wheelbase reduced from 9ft 6in to 7ft 8 in and very racy styling. Those interested would have gone to the premises of Bortoletti & Co in London’s Maida Vale to see whether the performance appealed to them.

A better proposition could have been the Bianchi. Bianchi began as a bicycle maker, and from 1898 produced de Dion-powered tricycles, with cars appearing by 1900. His vee radiator chain-drive 6.3-litre model with external exhaust pipes would have excited Edwardian fast drivers. In the 1920s the 15/60 type S5 was an attractive sportscar with a four-cylinder 2300cc engine with push-rod overhead valves having double valve springs and return springs on the push rods.

It was not a car to appeal to all owner-mechanics. To remove the oil pump and filter it was a case of getting down and under. There was no fuel gauge at all, not even on the 15-gallon rear tank.

The 15/65 Bianchi had a raised compression ratio and a hotter camshaft to give a claimed 75mph. The size of the balloon tyres was 775×105, the wheelbase 9ft 4in. Transmission was by torque tube from a single-plate clutch. The fabric-bodied four-seater cost £560, reduced to £465 by 1928. The agents were Burton, Osbourne and Taylor of Fitzroy Square, another top address.

However, in this pursuit for a modestly priced Italian sportscar the Diatto would not have been overlooked. Indeed its British concessionaire, Cyril Durlacher, who was located in Swallow Street off Piccadilly, raced a Type 30 Diatto, so it would be well-known to likely customers. Its durability was shown by a seventh place and a class win in the 1927 Essex MC Six Hour Race at Brooklands.

The Type 30 was another four-cylinder 2-litre car of 1995cc. Built by the former railway engineering company, it had a four-speed gearbox. The top gear ratio was 4.5 to 1, with 820×120 tyres. It cost £695 in 1928.

Those who owned Diattos by 1926 had the prestige of Maserati associated with their cars when Alfieri Maserati, the company development engineer, increased the power output from a modest 40bhp to 70bhp.

I have not forgotten the Lancia Lambda for which I have great admiration, but few were made in sports form. The ingenious six-cylinder 1995cc Type 65S short-chassis 2-litre Itala cost £940 in chassis form, its wide gears useful for towing a caravan over the Alps. The Isotta-Fraschini concessionaires in Kilburn were also the Itala agents, hoping to sell them to customers put off by the £2450 asked for an Isotta. But such impecunious customers could have gone off to see the Lambda-like Ceirano in Knightsbridge.

It did not have the Lancia independent front suspension, but the S150 model was an attractive 1-1/2-litre OHV sportscar, sold here by Newton-Bennett for £425. But with a top speed of about 65mph, hardly fast enough to qualify as a substitute Alfa Romeo.

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