A 1906/7 Targa FlorioType Fiat reborn

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Having heard intriguing accounts of how a Targa Florio type Fiat had been rescued from an Irish bog and immaculately reborn, and then seen it open this year’s VSCC Prescott hill climb in fine fashion, I went, on one of the few hot days this summer, to visit Graham Rankin, the car’s fortunate owner, and learn more about it. Rankin is such a fitting custodian for a motor-car of this kind. Let me just remind you briefly of his motoring career to date. His first car was a 1933 Hillman Minx owned by a policeman, bought for 30/(150p).

He then acquired another of these Hillmans, this time for 50/(250p). After this Rankin ran for a time the 6-litre sleeve-valve Minerva which G L Baker had raced with dignity at Brooklands; I recall a very cold run with Rankin from Fleet to Brighton in it to talk with Baker’s son. By 1969 Graham had become a more ambitious vintage driver. He got hold of a 1932 Austin 7 box saloon for £40 and, accompanied by Martin Boag, persuaded it to take them to Australia and a considerable way round the Globe, covering 28,000 miles, the subject of a book describing this remarkable journey. This was followed by an expedition circumnavigating Africa, in an A7 Chummy, after which came a spell restoring a rare 1913 V4 Peugeot. In 1980, drinking in The Phoenix, home then of the VSCC at Hartley Wintney, Graham was assailed by the 30/98 bug, a not unpleasant affliction and was able to buy a kit-car from Pat Marsh, his OE, since to become wellknown in VSCC trials. Then restlessness returned, resulting in 1990 in that epic Fiat-sponsored Paris-Pekin run in the Lancia Simplex. We are now at the Fiat stage and, indeed, another 30/98, an E-type, was sold to Mike Quartermaine, so that full attention could be devoted to the exciting new project, and another equally enthralling one with which I will close this account.

In 1907 Fiat was in a strikingly dominant position in the racing world. Felice Nazzaro won for them the Targa Florio, Kaiserpreis and French Grand Prix races. In the sinuous Targa Florio, Nazzaro averaged 33.5 mph after leading for most of the 277 miles, and another Fiat, driven by Lancia, finished in second place. Nazzaro drove for more than 8 hours 17 minutes to win this most demanding of motor races, run in the Sicilian mountains, with hazardous ascents and descents and some thousand corners per lap. According to W F Bradley, Nazzaro’s lap times were commendably consistent, until he had to change a tyre, and here I may say that Rankin has some fine framed photographs and a big Gordon Crosby painting of this achievement hanging adjacent to the Fiat of the same kind, which he has so painstakingly resuscitated . . .

The Targa Florio, you see, was won in 1907 by a Fiat which was virtually one of the then-current 28/40 hp touring cars, sold by D’arcy Baker in Great Britain as the 30/40 hp model, of which the surprisingly large number of 953 were said to have been produced between 1906 and 1908. In fact, it could be said that, rather as Renault, after their victory with a 13-litre car in the first French GP of 1906, built a number of half-size replicas, Fiat was making replicas of the car used to win the 1907 Targa Florio, but of the same engine size. This is not perhaps an accurate analogy, because the situation was that the Sicilian contest was ruled so as to attract touring-type cars and the winning Fiat was thus a slightly-warmed version of a model already in production.

The fact is, however, that Graham Rankin has a car which closely resembles the Targa Florio winner, particularly as he has been very careful to rebuild it as closely as possible to the plans of that car sent to him from Turin and from the many photographs he has studied. The story of this particular 28/40 hp Fiat is in itself remarkable. Graham was in a pub, probably The Phoenix again, when he was told by Ian Pritchett of a big Edwardian motor-car of this make that had been found in a bog in Northern Ireland. It was the one that had been sent by the factory to London on June 1st, 1906, the only one ever sent to Britain at that time. In 1910 it appears in the records in the name of Alfred Part, and was subsequently purchased by the McCullough family of Omagh, County Tyrone, and registered 11 188. After serving them well it was converted into a lorry by 1913, equipped with smaller sprockets for the chain final-drive, and solid tyres. The ball in the steering drag-link broke and, a replacement being unobtainable, it was left to partially sink in the bog. The car languished for the next 80 years.

The Fiat was purchased by Ralph Armstrong, then advertised by him in Exchange & Mart in July 1979 for £200, and later bought for £600 by Robin Downing of Whitland who brought it to Wales in 1986. Rankin bought it from Downing in the same year and has spent seven years restoring it. After so many years sinking in the Irish bog the condition could hardly be described as good and Graham says it is the biggest task of this kind that he has attempted. Some 70% of the car had to be resuscitated and among those who were involved were John Underwood who made the radiator, fuel and oil tanks, and bonnet, Mike Lemon who was responsible for the castings and patterns, Geoff Harris for numerous bits of clever engineering, and Rodney Fowler who made the 35 mm pitch chain sprockets. Nick Jarvis produced new wheels, Mike Hirst, of course, the beaded-edge tyres.

When Rankin managed to contact the McCulloughs the son remembered the old car, saying that once, when he wanted a magnet for an electrical experiment, he hit the magneto a blow with a hammer and a piece flew off into his eye. “I shall need the eye for the rebuild,” Graham told him . . The McCullough family came to the Fiat firing-up party on July 24th, an afternoon when many demonstration runs were given, using a vast amount of petrol, because the car was not then au point in all departments.

The Fiat is a truly impressive Edwardian. The complexity of the engine reminds me of those fascinating pictures of the powerunits that used to grace the pages of early motor-papers. The cylinders of this T-head engine, bore and stroke 125 x 150mm (7360cc), are in two pairs. The valves are topped by big valve caps. On the offside thin push-rods actuate the It igniters, which have 85% nickel electrodes and triphammers for make-and-break. (Rankin had the original electrodes analysed by Rolls-Royce, and they proved to have been of 98% nickel, a technical detail lost for many years.) At the front of the engine large “mangle-wheels” drive the two camshafts and the low-tension magneto on the offside of the crankcase, and on the near-side the water pump is driven via a long shaft. On the same side the carburettor (an updraft Zenith, found at the Beaulieu autojumble) replaces the original, somewhat tricky, Fiat mixture-producer, feeding through a two-branch manifold.

The former oil-box on the dash has been replaced by a new system planned by Graham, based on contemporary Mercedes practice, a total-loss system, with ten dripfeeds on the dash, four supplying oil to the plain-bearing engine, which has H-section conrods, four lubricating the cylinder walls, and two the timing chest. The long-skirted cast-iron pistons have been changed for new aluminium ones; on a compressionratio of 4.2 to 1 the power developed was 43 bhp at 1100 rpm, 47 bhp at 1200 rpm, but the lighter pistons should have improved on this to some extent. The Targa Florio Fiat had apparently been made to produce a maximum of 60 bhp by engineer Fornaca. Incidentally, the low-tension ignition (aided for starting by a coil) is unusual in having means for advancing or retarding it automatically, achieved by the use of concentric camshafts, one operating the igniter push-rods, one the valves, which can rotate relative to each other.

Graham has also fitted a safety buzzer to prevent the battery being left on inadvertently — if the engine stops with a contact closed, there is a risk of fire from the coil overheating. The chassis has the intermediate wheelbase of these 28/40 hp Fiats, at 10ft 21n, and the wheels are shod with Betco tyres, 875 x 105 at the front, 880 x 120 at the back. The engine drives to the four-speed and reverse gearbox via a 46-plate clutch, which tends to drag, so that Rankin is experimenting with oils of lower and lower viscosity, consistent with sufficient lubricating qualities, such as diesel oil. The gear and brake levers, of appropriate dimensions, the former working in a gate, are external. The hand brake operates expanding brakes on the back wheels (Ferodo lined), the pedal contracting bands on two drums, one on the gearbox secondmotion shaft, the other on the transmission countershaft. The drilled final drive sprockets had 23 teeth on the production cars but Graham uses 28-tooth ones for “motorway cruising”.

There is really no bodywork. Two comfortable seats, which lift up to give access to the tool chest, have behind them an enormous oval 40-gallon petrol tank (pump 4-star laced with Redex is the customary diet), and behind that two spare tyres are strapped on. Weight, all-up, that is without fuel but with water, of which the radiator holds five gallons, is 25 cwt. A tank on the side of the chassis, once used for water to cool the brakes, now serves as the oil tank. The accelerator is central, between clutch and brake pedals, which could be an antifail-safe for today’s drivers. The Targa Florio Fiats were scarlet, so naturally Graham Rankin painted his car thus, using ICI red paint laced with a trace of yellow. The result enhances this exciting car, low hung, lean and ready to go. As does the tapering undershield, a feature which improves most early motor-cars. So to the starting-up procedure. Pump up fuel pressure, with the man-sized brass pump located behind the driver’s seat for his right hand to operate when driving. Prime the cylinders through the compression taps. Turn on the oil tap. Slightly flood the Zenith — the fire extinguisher is in the tool chest. Turn on the ignition, causing a continuous hum from the warning buzzer.

David Filsell gamely cranks-up and the engine bursts into throaty life, and soon warms up. The driver climbs up into his seat. He is confronted by a small tachometer on the right of the dash, driven by spring-belt, using bits of 30/98 pulleys, and recalibrated to original calligraphy by a horologist (reading 0, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, 20), and over on the left of the dash the even smaller air-pressure gauge (calibrated 0, 1.0, 1.5, 2.0, 2.5 and 3.0). The walnut-rimmed steering wheel on its long raked column needs just one turn, lock-to-lock. The passenger is provided with a useful wooden foot-rest (put on for Mary-Anne — Rankin is a thoughtful chap), and has to watch those ten drip feeds. Had we been motoring after dark the fine pair of dual-burner headlamps would have been lit, had there been a gas-generator on the car. These lamps were, by one of those happy miracles or co-incidences, found by Terry Cardy on a shelf where they had lain for some 70 years. Appropriately inscribed “Carrozzeria Fiat Torino”, Graham had to have them, and paid £500 for them. They add nicely to the car’s period appeal. Such electrics as there are, are served by three brass tumbler switches on the seat base.

Up the private drive and through the village the Fiat accelerated powerfully, with a purposeful exhaust beat. For much of the run third speed was used, but if top gear is engaged the exhaust noise is subdued and cruising maintained at a decent pace, when 80 mph can, I am told, be easily mistaken for 60. It was an exhilarating run! The lusty Fiat overtook modern comfort-boxes, not in ones and twos, but four at a time, along a dual carriageway, and one could glance down from one’s high perch with disdain at their occupants. Changing from top to third speed required a long movement of the lever and produced a trace of clutch slip, and when retardation was advisable the brakes just about did their job.

A real red-blooded motor-car! I look forward to seeing it in VSCC competitions and I believe Graham has something very ambitious in mind for it, if sponsorship is forthcoming. I said that Rankin has another exciting project taking shape. This will consist of putting a six-cylinder-in-line 16-litre Isotta-Fraschini aero-engine, cooled with a Fiat radiator, into a Fiat chassis, with final drive via a Fiat gearbox and side chains. The engine is reminiscent of Hispano Suiza practice, with its slim outline and enclosed overhead camshaft, but has fingers imposed between cams and valve stems, unlike the direct prodding of the HS valve gear. This is a somewhat distant project, but another car that I very much look forward to seeing in action. W B