Two Fiat “Firsts”—and a Fiat Failure
And in looking at the conundrum of the 1923 200-Mile Race, uncovers some more unsolved motor-racing mysteries
Perhaps it was tactless of me to think about the Fiats which came to Brooklands in October 1923 to win the Junior Car Club’s 200-Mile Race when I was in Turin recently. Tactless, because that race was one of Fiat’s dismal failures and no record of it appears to have been kept in the Company’s archives. Confronted by a Brooklands-obsessed visitor from England they first denied that their cars had ever crossed the Channel to compete at the Weybridge Track in the year in question and, confronted by evidence from their own shelves, in the form of a bound volume of The Autocar of 46 years ago, suggested that the cars I was interested in had been 2-litre Tipo 805s.
For a moment I toyed with a wild theory. The 200-Mile Race—never mind the nonsense written about it by Richard Garrett in his recent motor-racing history—was strictly for 1½-litre cars. But the Fiat entry and subsequent debacle in the 1923 contest was, and is, surrounded by legend and mystery. Two Fiats were entered, supposedly of the latest supercharged 1½-litre four-cylinder type, one by D’Arcy Baker on behalf of Fiat in this country, the other, in itself inexplicable, separately by Capt. (later Sir) Malcolm Campbell. They seemed so certain to win that the “invincible” Talbot-Darracqs, which had been victorious in both the preceding “200s”, preferred to go away and race in Spain. Yet early in the race, while holding first and second places, both these very fast Fiats retired. Legend has it that no explanation was ever offered and that the Fiats’ bonnets were not opened again after the calamity, from the time the two cars left Brooklands, presumably for Wembley, until they were back in Turin. So, as I stood in the Fiat headquarters in Italy. I was prepared to ponder on the possibility of this great Company having inadvertently sent 2-litre cars to Britain for a race restricted to 1,500-c.c. machinery.
This is not so ridiculous as it may seem. It had, if W. F. Bradley is to be believed,* happened before. He says that in the 1914 French Grand Prix Fiat were apparently allowed to start with engines which, when officially measured, were fractionally too big to comply with the 4½-litre limit imposed by the regulations, on the understanding that if they won they would be disqualified. Could history have repeated itself at Weybridge in 1923, so that, having retired, Fiat were anxious that their engines should not be looked upon by curious eyes?
(* “Targa Florio”, by W. Bradley, pages 69/70 (Foulis, 1954/55).)
Having returned home, and with my reference library to hand. I had to reject this wild surmise. Fiat had been racing 1½-litre cars effectively for some years, and would have been extremely unlikely to have erred in sending larger cars to the JCC race. But I did find myself wondering whether the 1½-litre racers they did send were, in fact, not supercharged as was popularly supposed and that this might have provided a reason for both the mechanical failure which occurred and reticence about exposing the blow-up to public scrutiny? Let us examine this postulation in the light of some Fiat racing history.
Fiat had established an illustrious racing record, which embraced. the voiturette class. They had won the 1907 French Grand Prix, with an overhead-camshaft 16¼-litre car. If their aforesaid 1914 GP cars showed up very indifferently at Lyons on the eve of the war, at least they were of advanced appearance and, with Delage, Peugeot and Piccard-Pictet, were using the new-fangled front-wheel-brakes. (Incidentally, if their engines were oversize by GP standards, as Bradley has it, later authorities give no hint of this, Karslake, Pomeroy, and Boschi quoting the dimensions as 100 x 143 mm., which gave them 8 c.c. to spare. But it seems possible that Bradley, who was on the Continent and intimately associated with the racing world, would be let into the dread Fiat secret, which would be withheld from other reporters, although it seems possible the mistake was corrected prior to the race.)*
(*W. F. Bradley says the engines were later modified and reduced to 4½-litres. T. A. S. O. Mathieson makes the point that in 1917 Fiat built 104 x 143 mm. (4,853 c.c.) racing cars which took records at Fanoe Island in 1920-21 and that Count Masetti probably used one of these and not a 1914 Fiat in winning the 1921 Targa Florio. Confusion may have arisen over these two similar-sized engines?)
As all good students of vintage motor-racing history know, Fiat were highly successful in 1922, winning the French and Italian Grand Prix (Nazzaro and Bordino) with their Tipo 804/404 six-cylinder 2-litre cars, which Coatalen copied unashamedly to enable Sunbeam to win the French classic the following year. Fiat had also had a successful voiturette season in 1922, as we shall soon be aware, and for 1923 they prepared Tipo 805/405 straight-eight 2-litre cars, which, it will be remembered, were given Wittig vane-type superchargers for the French Grand. The dust played havoc with the new forced induction and the Fiats retired. But they avenged themselves in the Italian Grand Prix, after Roots paddle-type superchargers had been fitted.
Here I must digress from the theme of Fiat 1½-litre racing cars to discuss this 1923 Italian Grand Prix win, by Salamano, because I hope to show that it constituted a very significant “first” in motor-racing history, namely, the first time a supercharged car had won a GP race. The late Laurence Pomeroy in “The Grand Prix Car” stated that this honour belongs to Mercedes, whom he credited with using a Roots-supercharged 28/95 sports model in the 1921 Coppa Florio, which it won for Sailer. This seems to have led the usually infallible E. K. H. Karslake to have had a second opinion, for in the Addenda et Corrigenda to his great work “Racing Voiturettes” (Motor Racing Publications, 1950) he, too, credits Mercedes with being supercharged in that race, although doubting this in the main body of the text.
On the evidence, I think we can discount these two opinions. W. F. Bradley was in some doubt about the matter in his contemporary reports but by the time he came to write his previously referred to book on the Targa Florio races he makes no reference to this car being blown, nor any reference to it having won the Coppa Florio. Cyril Posthumus, writing the relevant section of “The Racing Car” (Batsford, 1956) says: “. . . it has been averred that the German concern ran a 28/95 Mercedes with supercharger installed in the 1921 Targa Florio race, winning the concurrent Coppa Florio, but this is open to doubt. Mercedes themselves made no such claim, while one contemporary journal, which stated the car was supercharged, later twice retracted their statement. In any case, it cannot have won the Coppa Florio, since in 1921 this award went to the winner of the Italian GP at Brescia”. (Monkhouse/King-Farlow would not agree about the locale of that year’s Coppa Florio, incidentally.) David Scott-Moncrieff, in his history of Mercedes-Benz, “Three-Pointed Star” (Cassell, 1955), is another authority who, while crediting Sailer with winning the 1921 Coppa Florio in Sicily for Mercedes, does not anywhere suggest that it had a supercharged engine. Indeed, Sailer was an exile at this period of history, bravely driving his car from Stuttgart to Sicily to explore the post-Armistice racing situation. His journey can be regarded as sufficiently hazardous without the additional complication of the driver-engaged supercharger with which his Company was undoubtedly experimenting. It is to his credit that he finished second in the Targa Florio to Count Masetti’s more modern Fiat and ahead of all the Alfa Romeos.
I think conclusive proof that this 1921 Mercedes was non-supercharged comes from the fact that in a publicity book issued in conjunction with the opening of their Stuttgart Museum Daimler-Benz themselves claim that the first supercharged engine of theirs to be raced did not appear until 1922. In that year Sailer and Werner had blown 7-litre 28/95s and Minoia and Scheef supercharged 1½-litre Mercedes for the Targa Florio. But as the best of these finished no higher than sixth in a race won by Masetti’s front-braked 1914-type GP Mercedes, my claim on Fiat’s behalf is unsullied.
So here is one of my Fiat “firsts”—the credit for having built the first supercharged car to win a race, at Monza in 1923. After which we can look at the 1½-litre racing Fiats.
The first of these were hotted-up versions of the Tipo 501 production model, but by 1922 an improved chassis was introduced, with the front springs passing through the axle (which Karslake clearly think worth comment, in ease this is claimed to be a Bugatti innovation!). These Fiat voiturettes were known as Tipo 803/403 and they not only had a revised chassis but a twin-cam four-cylinder engine of 65 x 112 mm., dimensions they shared with the contemporary twin-cam 1½-litre Aston Martins and Talbot-Darracqs, but unlike these 16-valve power units the Fiat had but two inclined o.h. valves per cylinder. They could run up to 5,000 r.p.m., when they were said to develop over 60 b.h.p.
There is some confusion in the history books as to the designation of the 65 x 112 mm. racing Fiats and as to when the twin-overhead-camshaft version appeared. Karslake and Mathieson refer to these cars as 502SS, with improved GP-type chassis from late in 1922, but Boschi, in his book “Trent’Anni Di Corse”, from the Fiat archives I think, calls them 501SS and lists them as the leading voiturettes in the 1922 Targa Florio, Parma-Poggio and Mugello races. The 803/403 cars scored a resounding victory in the 373-mile Italian Small Car Race at the new Monza autodrome at the end of 1922, finishing in the first four places, in the order Bordino, Giaccone, Lampiano, Salamano. The winner averaged 83.25 m.p.h. and these 1½-litre Fiats proved themselves not only the fastest road-racing cars of this capacity in the World but practically as quick as the 2-litre GP Fiats. The year 1922 was as successful for Fiat as 1907 had been. . . .
Nineteen-twenty-three formed a critical period for Fiat’s racing department. No doubt anxious to combat anything that their former engineer Bertarione, who had gone across to Coatalen and STD, might do and to sustain their prevailing overall supremacy, they turned, as we have seen, to supercharging, courting disaster at Tours but victory in the Italian. GP at Monza. The same development was scheduled for their 1½-litre cars but historians have confused the vital matter of when the blown Tipo 803s first ran. Karslake tells us that so feared were these cars that there was no-one anxious to oppose them in the 1923 Voiturette GP at Monza in September so that they made their first-ever appearance in that ill-fated attempt to win the Brooklands 200-Mile Race. But he seems to have overlooked the similar race which took place in Brescia in June and which was won by the veteran Cagno, with a Tipo 803 Fiat at 80 m.p.h. for the 340 miles. True Cagno probably had little opposition, a Bugatti driven by an unknown driver finishing second, a Chiribiri third. For this reason I found myself wondering (and unaided by the very brief references to this race made by the British motoring Press) whether the winning Fiat was non-supercharged. But T. A. S. O. Mathieson says in “Racing Cars” (Motor Racing Publications, 1963) that this was not the case, making, indeed, the significant point that “This was the first race ever won by a supercharged car”.
So here is my second Fiat “first”, the first-ever race victory with a supercharged car. It is only necessary to re-write the other “first” as the first occasion on which a supercharged car won a Grand Prix, and Fiat’s dual claim to fame in this connection is proved.
I readily concede that while it is important as well as satisfying to be first at anything, later events may not bear out such pioneering and that whereas Turin beat Stuttgart to accomplished supercharging of racing engines, Fiat subsequently made little use of it, whereas Mercedes-Benz built many blown racing and production engines, the latter including the immortal 36/220 and 38/250 cars.
What remains obscure is when and how Fiat applied supercharging to their Tipo 403 engine. We know that the Wittig vane-type compressor was a failure on the 2-litre cars at Tours on July 2nd, 1923, but that for the Italian GP of September 9th Fiat had changed their blowers to Roots-type and thereby their fortune. If Cagno used a blown 1½-litre to win at Brescia on June 20th, did it have a Wittig or a Roots? (Come to that, what was a Wittig? Scott-Morcrieff says Roots blowers made under Wittig patents were used originally by Mercedes, but did this one firm pioneer both types of supercharger?) W. F. Bradley, as Bradley sometimes does, confuses the issue by saying that Fiat put in 1½-litre entries for the 1923 Targa Florio “which had created such a sensation in the French Grand Prix at Tours until their compressor blades snapped. . .”, whereas we know these were 2-litre Tipo 805 cars. But does this imply that at first the smaller Fiats had these Wittig blowers? Certainly it seems likely that they had the lightweight new 803 chassis in the Targa Florio, for Salamano crashed in practice and Nazzaro, taking over his car, found it uncontrollable, Bradley informs us.
Perhaps the logical conclusion is that Fiat experimented with the Roots supercharger on their smaller engine prior to the failure of the Wittig in the Grand Prix, sending Cagno to Brescia to see how it worked out. Its success could have frightened off opposition, as Karslake suggests, in the Monza voiturette race scheduled for later in the year and the choice of old man Cagno to drive would be explained by the proximity of the French GP in which the better-known Fiat drivers were engaged; Cagno was a veteran even in 1914, when he returned to drive for Fiat in the French GP after making his name on Italas. Quite why a Roots supercharger was used initially for the Fiat 403 engine, if indeed it was, is one of motor-racing’s mysteries, which I will not confuse by discussing Fiat’s method of permitting the riding mechanic to convert the Wittig-blown cars to atmospheric induction by a cockpit control, or Mercedes’ addiction to clutch-controlled Roots blowers, forcing air through the carburetter. At least the later supercharger applications of Fiat seem to have employed positively-driven Roots instruments, although evidence exists that the passenger had to control mixture strength as supercharger speed varied with engine speed.
So, with some unsolved motor-racing mysteries already exposed, I come to the major conundrum of Fiat’s failure to win, or even finish in the 1923 200-Mile Race. Fiat had not taken part in Brooklands races officially since the Edwardian era, although pleased to publicise the exploits of Ernest Eldridge. But with the Italian Voiturette GP cancelled and confident of success with their blown small cars, they may well have decided that the Junior Car Club Race in far-away and chilly England in October would be worth winning, and would help to wipe out the Fiat debacle in the French GP earlier in the year. Possibly Malcolm Campbell suggested this to them, which would explain why he himself entered Fiat I, the Fiat Company through their British representative, Fiat II. Before Fiat’s success in the Italian GP Bordino had crashed, breaking his arm and killing his mechanic Giaccone. Lampiano had been killed in a Swiss hill-climb, Felice Nazzaro was probably too old, at 42, to want to journey to a land where he was once, 16 years before, the idol of the English crowds. The other veteran, Cagno, apparently vanished to Russia on the eve of the “200”. So the choice of Salamano, winner of the Italian GP, as driver of Fiat II need occasion no surprise.
I think that the bonnet of Campbell’s car was either unpainted or was a different colour from Salamano’s all-red Fiat. As they both started from the second row this was presumably nothing to do with identification but may have been a personal fad of Malcolm’s. Before the race there was much excitement over the arrival in England of these very fast Italian cars, which were freely described as Roots-supercharged. The only photograph published of the engine does not confirm this, which is not surprising, because the blower was apparently tucked away at the nose of the car and delivered pressure air to the normally situated carburetter through a tunnel in the crankcase. The carburetter fed through Y-manifolding, so that in the picture it looks exactly like a non-supercharged engine.
This, and the fact that the cars were said to lap Brooklands very quietly indeed, might have rekindled my theory that unblown cars had been sent over, except for the speeds the Fiats attained. In the 1921 “200” the fastest lap was made by Segrave and Guinness in the victorious Talbot-Darracqs, at 93.09 m.p.h. In the 1922 “200” the fastest lap was done by Guinness’ winning Talbot-Darracq, at 94.5 m.p.h. Faster speeds had been done by 1½-litre unblown cars by 1923, Joyce’s AC having lapped the Track at 103.54 m.p.h., for instance. But one can hardly compare single-seaters with two-seaters carrying two occupants and set up to race for 200 miles. The Fiats began lapping very easily at 103 m.p.h. in training for the 1923 race, Salamano apparently quite accustomed to Brooklands, because he had driven cars there when he was a Fiat tester at Wembley. Now it is, I suppose, too much to expect an improvement in lap-speed of 8½ m.p.h. from the Fiats, superior as they were, unless they had blown engines? Unless, of course, the theory I have discarded, that they were 2-litre cars, has any substance! *Note, however, that in the race the gap between s/c. and non-s/c. lap speed was only 2.03 m.p.h. for although before they retired from the race both Fiats had tied for fastest lap, at 101.64 m.p.h., the fastest lap by the non-blown contingent was 99.61 m.p.h., shared by AC and Aston-Martin [*But this pre-supposes six-cylinder engines, so is highly improbable.—W.B.]. To round off this comparison, the fastest lap in the 1924 “200”, the last to be run entirely round the outer-circuit, was at a speed of 106.65 m.p.h., by Segrave and Duller in the all-conquering Darracqs, which were the new 67 x 105.6 mm. eight-valve cars supercharged with Sunbeam/Roots blowers, and developing some 108 b.h.p., whereas the supercharged 1923 Fiats were credited with only 80 to 55 b.h.p. The only indication that Turin found Brooklands tougher than anticipated (apart from the havoc it wrecked on the Fiat engines) lies in the rumour that the World’s Hour record would be attacked by Salamano, with a target of 108 miles, to beat the figure of 107.95 m.p.h. held by Chassagne’s 9-litre VI2 Sunbeam since before the war, which would have been a sensation in the light-car world. This never happened but as the Track would have been occupied by all the cars practising for the “200” during the week before the race, this could well be the reason.
Thus we come to the big question-mark—what went wrong for Fiat on that fateful day, at Brooklands? The cars were said to weigh, empty, just over 10 cwt. They had Fiat carburetters, Bosch magnetos, KLG sparking plugs and Hartford shock-absorbers, and their Rudge Whitworth wire wheels were shod with Pirelli tyres. It was freely known before the race that their plan of action was to run the all-ball-bearing engines at 4,500 r.p.m., lapping at 100 m.p.h., until they led the race by a complete lap, when the drivers were to ease back to 4,000 r.p.m.
What actually transpired has been the subject to some very good descriptive writing, notably the report in the issue of The Light Car and Cyclecar the week afterwards. Suffice it to say that the two Fiats were in the lead at the end of the second lap, Salamano ahead of Campbell. On lap three Salamano’s track-craft seemed lacking, for he ran wide at the Vickers sheds, letting Campbell pass him. Campbell continued to lead, the second Fiat not far behind him. Then, on lap 13, a murmur went up from the spectators, for Campbell went by but Salamano was missing. Eyston’s Aston-Martin, which had been running third, had passed before Fiat II appeared, slowly, the smoke haze which some people had noticed rising from the cockpit on the Byfleet Banking now a cloud and the engine streaming oil. The Italian driver was in the middle of the Track and in trying to get to his pit be nearly collided with another car. He then changed direction and pulled up by the railings on the outside of the course (and presumably remained in this dangerous position for the remainder of the race). Some reports say the engine was alight. Certainly both occupants got out quickly, and worked under the bonnet.
Hardly had this drama been observed than Campbell, on his 15th lap was seen to be coming into his pit. He coasted in and got out of the car. Persuaded by the Team Manager he ran up the engine, listened, switched-off and retired. . .
What went wrong? There was no question, according to The Autocar, of Campbell and Salamano fighting for the lead and driving too fast. They tied for fastest lap at a speed only 1.64 m.p.h. above the scheduled pace and they went out with three cars still on the same lap, so were not due to ease back. The Fiat engine was declared safe to 5,000 r.p.m., so this slight excess over the stipulated 100 m.p.h. for some 40 miles should not have caused trouble, unless the gear ratios had been grossly miscalculated, which must, surely, have shown up in practice. At the time some experts suggested that the pistons had overheated and a con.-rod broken. Others blamed oil insufficiently warm for immediate 100-m.p.h. laps, still others the bumpy track allowing the engines to momentarily over-rev. Maybe. . .
Yet consider some of the things that we have been dissecting. Karslake thought this was the first race for the supercharged 1½-litre Fiats. If so, were Monza trials inadequate for long-distance Brooklands racing? Were these cars really Roots-blown, or had they the Wittig compressors? If so, and if broken blades and not the dust and stones of Tours had accounted for the failure of the 2-litre Fiats in the French GP, had something similar occurred at Brooklands? Bits of blower blade could smash pistons and cause rods to give way. Or if the cars were, as generally reported, Roots equipped, had Fiat done insufficient testing of these superchargers on their 1½-litre engine? It all depends, it seems, on that Fiat which Cagno drove to victory at Brescia earlier in the year—was it Wittig or Roots supercharged, or was it supercharged at all? The answer could conceivably have some bearing on what happened when Fiat sought to win the “200” three-and-a-half months later, in England. Cagno’s average speed was apparently 3¼ m.p.h. lower than that of Bordino’s non-s/c, Fiat when he won the small car race at Monza in 1922. Differences in the circuits, a desire to conserve a lone car, may well explain this. But, again, the reason might lie in the fact that by the summer of 1923 Fiat had not built a supercharged 1,500-c.c. engine and that after success in the Italian GP they had but a month to apply Roots supercharging to the cars for the JCC race, which were too experimental to stand the pace. The contemporary comments in The Light Car and Cyclecar are significant in this respect and I quote the relevant part of it:—
“Undoubtedly the surprise of the year was the way in which the Fiats, hot favourites and unquestionably the most highly developed and fastest cars in the event, dropped out of the 200-Mile Race on Saturday last. It cause as a surprise and a shock to us all, and many and varied are the reasons to which the cessation of their meteoric career is attributed. First and foremost, let me say that the failure was, to me, in some ways, an honourable defeat. The following facts will, I think, show that it was just the luck of the racing game that brought about their downfall, and that, having learned by (somewhat bitter) experience, the Fiat racing staff can now produce cars that will go faster and last longer in other races.
“The sponsors of Fiat cars look upon racing as a ready means of improving their knowledge of automobiles. Up to last Saturday last those two red Fiats had never been beaten. But they had never, I understand, before been fitted with supercharged engines. [My italics.— W. B.] What part actually broke down does not greatly matter. The bonnets of the cars were not lifted, and some witnesses surmised piston trouble; others said that connecting rods went. Whatever it was, the Fiat engineers have learned something valuable about both superchargers and their effects on engine design, and that knowledge, in time, will probably greatly benefit their touring cars—the cars that you and I can buy. It is far better to have raced and learned than never to have raced at all.—S. S.”
If this report was correct, bang goes one of my Fiat “firsts”. So if anyone can shed any light on these things and particularly on the mysterious failure of both Fiats in the 200-Mile Race, or if I have misrepresented the findings of other historians, I would be very glad to know.—W. B.