OF all the towns in Europe in which to look for antique motor-cars, Turin must be one of the most promising. I was not surprised, therefore, when, a couple of years back, there were strong rumours of vintagery cached at the Fiat works, including the little twelve-cylinder 1½-litre jobs which won the Rome G.P. in 1924 and were the last “big-time” racers that the Fiat people turned out.
With this rumour in mind, and hopes of a pre-war “giant” in my heart, I set out for Turin early in 1939, using a Fiat Balilla as a stalking-horse, and presented myself chez Fiat. Alas, the rumour was no longer true. All the old cars which had been in a corner of the works had recently been broken up, to provide lebensraum for “manufactures of national importance.” One hope remained, however, said Lord Fiat’s representative; somewhere in the town was a collection of old motors, assembled by the Conte Biscaretti, whose father helped to found the Fiat firm, and who, himself, after doing some Victorian motor-racing on a de Dion tricycle, had been publicity man for Itala and then for Lancia.
Lelio Pelligrini, of Fiat’s, who used to race Alfa-Romeo cars just before the Monoposto epoch, kindly introduced me to Count Biscaretti, a charming person, and what America might call an “Ace Enthusiast.” After admiring the beautiful models of cars which he makes, we drove to the museum while he explained its origin and aims. It appears that the City Fathers had suggested the idea of a National Car Museum to the Duce on one of his visits to the town and found him thoroughly enthusiastic. Looking around for a site, they hit upon the perfect one. The new Stadio Mussolini was just finished, and the great circular gallery which runs around beneath the tiers of seats is ideal—spacious, well-lighted, modern, and all on one level.
In a very few years Count Biscaretti, who was entrusted with finding exhibits, has got together a marvellous collection of cars and chassis. This time a year ago there were already more than eighty on show, and each had been thoroughly dismantled and checked over before being brought back to practically showroom condition. Walking through the Museo Nazionale is more like being in a West End motor showroom than a museum. And as if that were not enough, downstairs in the workshops are more than a hundred other old cars waiting to be dealt with.
Italy must be a paradise for the old-car hunter, for up till now there is only one buyer in the market: the Museo, in the person of Biscaretti, its curator, and his finds make one’s mouth water.
While not so strong on the really old carriages as the French museum at Compiegne, there are several of the early de Dions, including the tricycle (described on its ticket as “Agile e nervoso “) and the famous four-wheeler with modern grand prix back axle. A beautiful 1899 Panhard with “coup de poing” lubrication has the gearbox cover replaced by glass to show the construction of the first “barbarous ” gearshift devised.
Opposite the entrance stands the immense steam Landau, one of five constructed by Prince Bordino in 1854, quite dwarfing, as it is meant to, the Fiat 500 set under its lee. Nearby are two little gems. The first, an early comic, is a sort of steam-driven bathchair, in which the driver sat behind the boiler— which, like the chimney, was covered with wooden laths—and steered the small front wheel with a long tiller, peering the while through the smoke cloud. The other gem is a notable contrast. A Fernardi motor tricycle, made in 1895, which has overhead valves and a detachable cylinder head.
The Edwardian rooms are richly endowed, and give a good idea of the development of the motor car before the war. The cars are mostly Fiat and Itala, in a full range of models, from a 1902 Fiat which gave the King of Italy one of his first rides, to the Itala limousine of 1908 which used to belong to Queen Margarite.
The racing enthusiast has his hopes raised for a moment by a red six-cylinder Fiat, but it turns out to be merely a mock-up, used in a recent film. However, there is the genuine article next door, the 40 h.p. Itala, which won the great race from Pekin to Paris in 1907. By driving 16,000 kilometres in forty-nine days its pilot, Prince Borghese, and his two friends set up a record that is not likely to be beaten, for they won the race by a margin of two months from the small car which came in second. The car is a quite ordinary four-cylinder, with orthodox chassis and springs, and she must have been immensely strong. However, despite the strength and despite the makeshift wheel which was knocked together by a moudjik at short notice in central Russia, she still touched 65 m.p.h. after the race was over.
The moudjik’s wheel is also in the museum, and is a most creditable bit of work.
Unfortunately for the museum, as yet no examples of the great pre-war “giant racers” have come to light, though the writer would rather see them rumbling up Prescott than standing in a museum, anyway. However, Fiats did save one of the 1914 Grand Prix cars from destruction, and she stands at the end of the last gallery, complete with the front-wheel brakes fitted on the eve of the race to try to get even with the Peugeots. Motor trouble made them unnecessary. The engine is a four-cylinder overhead camshaft, and would make a pretty fellow to the Opel and Mrs. Peter Clark’s Mercedes.
Standing wheel to wheel with the Fiat are a 1928 racing Maserati, the gift of the works, and the most successful Italian racer ever made, the 1932 Tipo B Monoposto Alfa-Romeo, adorned with a list of its battle-honours.
A visit to the Turin museum makes a marvellous side-trip for anyone on the Continent with a car, and as soon as this vexing war is over the writer intends to re-visit Turin, driving something aggressively pre-synchromesh. Pope did the trip from London in twenty-four hours on a rotary-valve Itala. Has anyone got one to sell?—
D. B. T.