A Grand Prix survivor

The famous 1908 Itala, liberated from decay in a pub shed in the 1930s by an RAF pilot, comes up for auction in its 104th year

On Sunday, May 17,1936 the infant Vintage Sports Car Club ran a speed trial at Aston Clinton which is memorable for the fact that it included an Edwardian class which was won by a serving Royal Air Force officer named John Pole – driving the “12-litre 1908 Grand Prix Itala”.

This great car lived on to become the apple of VSCC founding member ‘Sam’ Clutton’s eye, together with his friend Jack Williamson – who cared for the great car’s well-being over many years – and in more recent times that great connoisseur, watch-maker George Daniels.

During its 104-year life ‘Floretta’, as the big Itala is known, has been one of the defining VSCC vehicles, encapsulating so much about what this great club, at its heart, should be.

The old lady is coming up for sale by auction following George’s recent death, and it’s to be offered by Bonhams at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Inevitably the question will be, “What’s it worth?” and the answer – equally inevitably – is, “Whatever the market decides on the day,” or as we are sometimes inclined to put it, “Definitely several Pounds 10…” More helpfully, it should certainly be in seven figures…

The old lady is one of three 12-litre four-cylinder Grand Prix Italas built by the Torinese company for the 1908 Grand Prix de l’ACF at Dieppe. It has for much of its life been considered to be the car driven to 11th place in that great race by Alessandro Cagno, sometime chauffeur to Queen Margherita, and winner of the 1906 Targa Florio in a smaller Itala.

Carefully comparing high-quality photographs of the 1908 team cars against Floretta’s sturdy chassis frame as she survives today suggest that she is more likely to have been Giovanni Piacenza’s sister long-wheelbase entry in the French contest.

She came to England as early as 1909, after having been raced for the factory at Brescia and in the ’08 American Grand Prize at Savannah, Georgia. She was then campaigned at Brooklands by a cinema proprietor reported as ‘Wildgose’ or ‘Wildgoose’ but whose business card styled his name ‘R. Wil-de-Gose’.

After World War I the great car – fitted with four-seat touring bodywork – fell into obscurity, but in a highly entertaining ‘Cars I Have Owned’ article published here in Motor Sport in 1960, her rescuer John Pole wrote: “In 1927 I stopped for lunch one day at the Scole Inn at Diss, on the Norwich-London road. After lunch I happened to wander round the back of the inn… and I saw a gigantic old touring car filling a shed, and covered with crates, bottles, chicken muck, dead weeds – everything.

“The proprietor of the inn told me it was a 1908 racing Itala, given to him by a friend, driven up from London in 1920 and never used since. “In 1936 an interest in old cars started,” referring to the foundation of the VSCC, “and I remembered the Itala.

I went to Scole one Sunday and sure enough the car was still there in the same old shed and looking dirtier and vaster than ever. I bought it for £25, and a week later I went with two friends and a 30cwt Morris truck with tools and equipment to bring the car away, under its own power if possible.

“It took us three days to make it drivable. A lot of wiring and water tubing had to be replaced and the old tyres cut off the rims. The low-tension ignition system was a mystery to me, as was the petrol feed which appeared to be maintained by pressure from the exhaust pipe.

“However, we got petrol to the carburettor, and I then thought we had better tow the car around for a few miles in gear to free everything up before trying to start the engine. We had a solid tow bar on the Morris, and this was hitched on and the Itala towed out on to the main London road in neutral.

“When we were in position, I put it in second gear and with the clutch out we started rolling. At about ten miles an hour I cautiously let the clutch in.

“There was a shuddering, convulsive earthquake beneath me as four ancient pistons started to sweep 12 litres of cobwebs and dead spiders out into the silencer. And then, without a trace of warning, the great engine burst into life with a shattering roar. The hand throttle had been left half open and the Itala surged forward against the solid tow bar before I had a chance to depress the clutch, which anyway nearly required two feet to it.

“It was too much for the poor 30cwt Morris. The kick in the pants from the Itala sprung the chassis and the bottom fell out of the cast aluminium gearbox. My own exultation was something I’ll never forget. We had not put the bonnet on, and clouds of dust and dirt swept over me as I kept the engine revving. The tow bar was unhitched and I drove the car back into the yard. The next morning a ceremonial farewell drive was arranged, and all the Scole Inn staff; chambermaids, waiters, the cook, everybody, climbed onto the car and I drove them up the main London-Norwich road about a mile and then back. There were about twenty people clinging on somehow and amidst the screams of the females we probably did about 70 or 80mph. Nothing and nobody was licensed or insured [but] nobody fell off and got killed.” John Pole was an RAF pilot with the illustrious ‘Treble-One’

Squadron (No 111) based at Duxford around that time, and he’d previously indulged his enthusiasm for really big, meaty racing machinery in partnership with fellow Treble-One pilot John Noel, who ran a 105mph Mercedes-Benz SS as his road car. One day in the Mercedes depot at Grosvenor Road, London, they found an immense racing car fitted with a 1919 17.6-litre six-cylinder Mercedes aero engine, dust-covered in a corner.

The car had been taken in by Mercedes as part-payment for a debt, and it was up for sale since it took up the space of two normal cars… Noel bought it and had it delivered to RAF Hornchurch where he and Pole were stationed at that time. They tried it out on the sands at Skegness, before running it at Brooklands, where Noel lapped at 122mph and Pole at 115 before Dunlop warned them to restrict their pace to 100mph for fear of bursting a tyre. Thus handicapped, they still finished 11th with it in the 1929 BRDC 500-Mile race. John Pole reminisced: “If you stood right behind the car as it accelerated hard you could see it twist through about five degrees as the power tried to fling the chassis round the crankshaft. But the white Mercedes was viceless and thoroughly lovable…”. It seems that the car had originated as Count Zborowski’s ‘Chitty III’, which had passed after the Count’s death in the 1926 Italian GP to J E P ‘Johnny’ Howey, creator of the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch railway…

But I particularly savour John Pole’s memory of one day in 1931, when piloting a Cambridge University Air Squadron Avro “…along the Newmarket Road”. He wrote: “I saw a large Rolls tourer, chauffeur-driven, an elderly gentleman with a white beard in front, well wrapped up in a rug, and two elderly ladies in the rear also well tucked up behind the raised screen. It was a lovely piece of old-fashioned ‘grand tourisme’.

The hood was neatly tucked away and they were bowling along towards Cambridge. I throttled the Avro back and slid down alongside the Rolls, just off the hedge. Tremendous interest in the car, and the elderly gentleman leans over and speaks to the chauffeur. The Rolls starts to pull away and I open up and keep level in the Avro. We got up to a steady
80mph and held it for a couple of miles before I had to pull up and away for some trees…”

Just the kind of colourful owner one would expect Floretta, the Grand Prix Itala, to have attracted – an owner with his heart, absolutely, in the right place.

Doug Nye