The Itala

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It may be a misnomer (Ha, ha, very funny. No. I have not met her. Shall we continue?) to refer to the Itala as a forgotten make, because a surviving 1908 12-litre Grand Prix car of this make was raced in VSCC events by the late Cecil Clutton for more than 50 years, something of an unbeatable record surely? This ensured that the marque will be long remembered by everyone who has seen that great car in action. I would remark that I was present when, unearthed long after the end of the First World War from a shed behind a Norfolk pub by John Noel, it was bought by Sam and introduced to the Edwardian section of the VSCC. It was then truly awe inspiring, to those who had never seen big racing cars such as this in spirited action. The “Clutton Itala” has continued to be a major event for everyone who has encountered it, long after the first incredulous impression of the giant motor car had somewhat abated.

However, that is just one Itala. Here I am concerned more with the production models made by Itala SA Fabbrica Automobili in Turin. Judging by the VSCC members’ list, very few of these have survived; I counted only one. At first this high-prestige Italian producer did extremely well. Its cars, under the guidance of Matteo Ceirano and Guido Bigio, took on the advanced Mercedes image, as had many others by 1904, with honeycomb radiators, gate gearchange, low-tension magneto ignition, pressed-steel chassis frame dispensing with a sub-frame, and control of engine speed via the carburettor. The big four-cylinder Italas, however used T-head engines and shaft (not side-chain) final drive. Foot transmission brakes were favoured, one model having these on both sides of the gearbox.

The first such Itala was the Tipo 24 4.6-litre chassis. But larger cars soon followed, well made and attracting the top clientele, their superiority endorsed by racing successes. The Tipo 24’s reputation was enhanced by the next offering, the 18/22hp model of 5.6 litres, in 1905. Attention was nicely focussed on the marque when Raggio won the 1905 Coppa Florio at 65.10 mph from De Dietrich and Fiat. Itala had well and truly arrived!

HM Queen Margherita of Italy had a fleet of five, which included a 50/70 hp tourer and an 80 hp six-cylinder, and five Grand Dukes, eight Princes, Bulgaria’s reigning monarch, and the Supreme Pontiff were all Itala-borne. The make also found great favour among British motorists. It is well known that HF Locke King, who built Brooklands Track, and his wife had several cars of this make, one of which led the procession of cars round at the Track at its opening in 1907. Other owners were the Earl of Caernarvon, Sir Thomas Lipton, the Thornton family (who possessed eight Italas including a 1907 14-1/2-litre Coppa Della Velocita racing car now in the Motor Museum at Beaulieu), racing driver M Bircham, actress Billie Burke, and nine members of the House of Lords. Moreover, HIH The Archduke Ferdinand of Austria had a rotary-valve Itala. Dame Ethel Locke King had driven her 40 hp Itala in a Ladies’ Race at Brooklands in 1908 and the great motoring journalist WF Bradley got good service from one of the 1908 GP Italas on the lsenze Front during WW1.

Cagno, the Queen’s chauffeur, won the 1906 Targa Florio at Brescia at 29.18 mph and a British Itala Service depot was set up within the 360-acre grounds of the Brooklands Motor Course, which became the site of Vickers-Armstrongs’ aeroplane factory in 1915. This Weybridge depot of ltala’s gave rise to the rumour that Locke King was financially involved with the company. In fact, I have heard otherwise, although I suspect he was not averse to renting some land to it, after having spent nearly £6,000,000 of his own capital, in 1990s value, on building Brooklands Track. He also knew, from watching European motor racing, of the quality of Itala cars. And who would not wish to support a make whose service depot was just a mile or more down the road from his Brooklands House?

Up to 1914 Henri Fournier, the great French racing driver, held the Itala concession in that country but when he relinquished it, to deal in champagne, I think, HR Pope took the agency for the South of France, and from his terse advocation of the make in the English motor-papers he seems to have had British sales in mind as well. Inevitably, Giulio Foresti was in on the scene also with an agency at Bryanston Square, off London’s Edgware Road. and he kept an eye on the Brooklands depot. So ltala thrived, prior to the 1914 war. Those who liked the greatest could purchase the 60 hp four-cylinder model, the six-cylinder 60 hp car, or the enormous 13-litre 80 hp model which sold in London for £1600.The popularity of the Itala among a rich and discerning clientele was perhaps influenced by its victory in the now-legendary 1907 Peking-to-Paris race, and Cagno’s win in the 1906 Targa Florio, with Italas taking second, fourth and fifth places.

So all was set-fair for the Turin manufacturer, in the golden glow before the Kaiser War put the lights out all over Europe. Itala was represented in the French Grand Prix of 1906, 1908 and 1913. For the first race they entered 16,666 cc cars, to be driven by Cagno, Fabry and the wealthy amateur and former Mercedes exponent Baron de Caters, but failed to finish. The 1908 GP Italas are immortalised by the aforesaid 12-litre Cecil Clutton car. For the GP their drivers were Cagno, Fournier and Piacenza. They came home 11th and 20th. R Wil-deGose then took one to Brooklands in 1910, where it lapped at 100.36 mph. (After Sam Clutton had acquired it, it was timed at 87 mph, with road-equipment and a four-seater body, when it was quarter-of-a century old). In the 1913 Grand Prix rotary-valve 8.3-litre Italas were driven by the great Felice Nazzaro, Pope and Moriondo, but were unplaced.

The rotary valve has never been more successful than in the Itala manifestation. In the late 1930s there were attempts to market the Cross and Aspin rotary-valve engines, and a Halford-Cross-Rotary HRG appeared at Brooklands in 1937, but was pathetically slow, its best lap of the Campbell road circuit only 57.88 mph. The problem, as I understand it, was gas-leakage from the seals of the long rotary valve. The Henreid rotary-valve had nearly exterminated Darracq. Not so the Itala rotary-valve engine, which was notably successful, perhaps because it used vertical valves rotating in rigid casings beside the cylinders, each valve serving two of them and because these valves, revolving at only one-quarter engine speed, were water-cooled and adequately lubricated. Brass dogs were incorporated in the separate vertical drive, so that if a valve seized they would break, rather as the links operating the sleeves in Knight-type engines were supposed to do. Itala had submitted the Alberto Ballocco-designed rotary-valve engine to a 20,000 km test before adopting it for their production and racing cars. Even if it was difficult to time accurately and these brass dogs had severed during a demonstration of sixteen consecutive ascents of Sutton Bank, the Yorkshire hill, as late as 1913, and Sammy Davis had the humiliation of them doing so on Mont Cenis when he was conducting Pope’s GP Itala, in the main it was a successful ploy to induce quietness of running onto the poppet-dominated Edwardian motoring scene.

So as that period ran its course, Itala was very much in the ascendancy. If those rotary-valved Grand Prix cars had retired during the 1913 GP with, respectively, a broken rear road-spring, a run big-end and, following overturning, another broken rear spring on the Moriendo car (on which Foresti was the mechanic), amends were made when Moriendo’s car, with streamlined single-seater body, owned then by Robertson Shersby-Harvie, won many trophies at Brooklands in 1914, lapping at over 100 mph and covering the half-mile at 119.5 mph. Incidently, in 1918 a saloon body replaced the racing body on the old car, and it served as a hack on Scottish roads. Mrs Shersby-Harvie told me that she kept a fine Gordon Crosby painting of it in the garage; her son started going to Brooklands from 1929 onwards. But what became of the car?

H R Pope continued to publicise the make, with some fast runs. He began by driving a 60 hp Itala from London to Turin at an average speed of 41.25 mph (23h 5min) in 1911 and improved this, with one of the 1913 rotary-valve GP team cars, to 21h 26min. This was a resumption of such long-distance runs, because in 1906, after competing in the Targa Florio, Pope had beaten the Hon C S Rolls’s Monte Carlo-to-London time by 83-1/2min, in spite of punctures delaying him for over three hours, and in 1907 Pope had reduced his time to 29h 16min, in spite of encountering fog in the South of France.

As the pre-war days ran out Itala introduced smaller-engined cars, replacing the Fiat-like dashboard lubricator with pressure lubrication and the I t magneto with the high-tension type and generally increasing the range and appeal of its cars. The 2.6-litre 14/20 of 1908 was followed by the 1.9-litre 12/16 and this top-selling model was supported in 1911 by the 2 2-litre 14/18, L-head engines being joined by electric lighting (even electric starting on the 14/20), to modernise the programme, which by 1914 comprised eleven variants, three with rotary valves.

But the bigger Italas were the prestige earners. In 1913 a 35 hp rotary-valved car won a Tunisian hill-climb, and in that year the Premier of W Australia was said to have tested a 25 hp chassis of the same sort exhaustively, before having a body put on it. An unusual Mulliner closed body was put on a 35 hp chassis for shipment to India. The rotary-valve engine was used for the 130 x 160mm 50/70 hp chassis, and the 105 x 150mm 35 hp Itala of this kind was supplied, as recounted, to Austria’s Archduke, who had used it for 16,000 km in a year, climbing all the worst of his country’s mountain passes, with every satisfaction. Tried in this country, the quietness of this mid-model was warmly praised by The Autocar, not of only the valve gear, which would keep its condition longer than poppet valves, but of the back axle, while the brakes and road-holding were described as “beyond reproach”. The trial run had been arranged by Mr Pope, of course, who in 1913 was Chairman of Itala Automobiles Ltd. During the war the Itala factory made vee-eight Hispano-Suiza aero-engines. This did not prove successful and a further set-back had been the death in 1913 of Bigio in a crash in France while testing a 1913 GP car. He had run the company since Ceirano had left to start SPA in 1906. Itala never fully recovered from the absence of the man who directed it.

Post-war resumption centred around updated pre-war cars. In England Watkins and Doncaster tried to sell the Tipo 39 side-valve 16/20 Itala from Great Portland Street, with altered radiator style and four-speed gearbox. (It had a replica of a wooden aeroplane propeller for a cooling fan, as did Lancia Lambda and ABC.) A 35 hp rotary-valve tourer was shown at the 1919 Olympia Show but a 4-1/2-litre six-cylinder version was not proceeded with although it was shown at Olympia in 1921, Pope was complaining that he saw no need for the new-fangled 4WB, but was losing orders for Italas because they didn’t have them. He was living in Cannes and running an old 100 hp Itala racing car and the latest 3-litre Itala. These, and Fiats and Lancias, were made at the foot of 14-mile long Mont Cenis, he said, and their braking power had always been famous, along with their designers’ enterprise. “Baladeur” of Motor Sport (E K H Karslake) countered this argument by saying he thought Italian cars were late in adopting 4WBs because they required an excellent steering-lock on Alpine hairpins, which brakes on the front wheels restricted (on full lock early FWB systems were apt to suffer from locking of the inner wheel). He quoted the 10/15 rear-braked Fiat as the handiest car he had driven round a hairpin. British cars, he throught, didn’t need 4WBs because they were so slow! This argument was challenged by owners of the new 37.2 hp Hispano-Suiza with its servo 4WBs, of course.

Itala did try to redress the disasters of war and its aftermath. One of the 1913 GP cars was second in the 1919 Targa Florio, and by 1924 the new Chief Engineer Giulio Cesare Cappa had come up with the 2-litre seven-bearing Tipo 61, with aluminium cylinder block, a car much more in the tradition of a country renowned for its love of sunshine, bottom-pinching and fast cars. Two were entered for Le Mans in 1928 and the great Robert Benoist, with Dauvergne to assist him, finished eighth, but behind a 12/50 Alvis and a little BNC. Turning this Itala into the twin-cam Tipo 65, with the back axle passing through the chassis frame, did little to improve matters. The Tipo 61 did get servo 4WBs and a four-speed gearbox instead of the three speeds it had as a prototype. But it cost £850 here, would do but 62 mph to the side-valve OM’s 70 mph, and the price of the 1928 82 mph Tipo 65 was undercut by the 1750 cc Alfa Romeo, nor did British customers care for the doorless bodies tolerated by sun-drenched Italians, or finding the chassis devoid of a petrol tank, this being regarded by Cappa as part of a coachbuilder’s obligation!

Cappa spent more of Itala’s scarce capital in a racing-car venture involving two highly advanced fwd cars, of 1100 cc and 1500 cc, with tiny V12 engines having horizontal valves, a Roots supercharger, lightweight wooden chassis and i f s. It was all very complicated and no doubt expensive; the blower scavenged as well as boosted the engine. The bigger Tipo 15 never saw metal, and the 1100 cc racer was built around 1926 but never ran. Malcolm Campbell had taken on the Itala agency in London, supporting it by racing a sports model and a 1924 Coppa Florio car with some success at Brooklands. It was he who exhibited at Olympia in 1925 the 2-litre with its neat tool-trays in the scuttle and a Rolls-Royce radiator shape. But how many takers were there, at £875 for the tourer and £950 for a granite-grey three-quarter landaulette? At that time Alfa Romeo were basking in World Championship status and offering their 1-1/2-litre chassis for £125 less than asked for the Itala chassis, while the two-litre Diatto chassis cost £450, the sports four-seater £695. And for £575 there was a very sporting 3-litre Diatto awaiting a body. . .

In 1929 Itala lost 21 million lira, too much even for the help the Italian Government had been providing. A new 2.3-litre Tipo 75 was at the 1932 Milan Show. But it was of no avail. By 1935 the far reaching maw of Fiat reached out and took over. The once very fine Itala motor-cars were no more. . W B