We have preached so frequently in MOToR SPORT about the desirability of reducing weight and of developing a car of around 1,100-c.c. capacity that will scale appreciably A Good Formula less than the popular ton, thereby
embracing useful and pleasurable performance with extreme fuel economy, that this month we are dedicating ” Rumblings ” to a description of just such a car—amateur-built. It is a Balilla F.I.A.T., altered by its owner, D. G. C. Collins, of Hove, from a saloon into a very passable likeness of those open, aerodynamic F.I.A.T.s that lucky Continentals enjoy.
The Balilla F.I.A.T. is a likeable car and the conversion carried out by Mr. Collins will be of interest to many enthusiasts. In case anyone thinks the owner is rushing into print we should explain that we requested this description as soon as we saw his car, on the occasion of the Brighton Hill-Climb. We now await something similar from a British manufacturer, without that steel floor, and with a ” modern ” engine, thus bringing 90 or more m.p.h., and even better acceleration, in view, without loss of the excellent economy in fuel consumption. Over to Mr. Collins :— •
First ideas for this car were conceived in the summer of 1943, when I acquired a 1936 Balilla, so called “Mille Miglia ” model, F.I.A.T. two-seater, which I ran for approximately nine months, and which had been, so I understand, the late property of Mr. Tuson. As everyone knows, these cars perform very well, but perhaps are not quite up to modern standards of roadholding, particularly on rough ground—at least I remember mine was quite” dicey ” at times on some of the more corrugated roads of North Wales. I had heard a great deal about the ordinary F.I.A.T. saloon, and it occurred to me that the car had possibilities as a sports model. I therefore kept my eye open for any information which might be obtainable on the 508 MM. or other special variations, this of course being particularly lacking as the war was still on at the time, However, searches through pre-war copies of motoring journals brought to light various odd photographs and ” gen “on types that had been doing competition work in Italy during 1939 and 1940, which gave food for thought. The particular example of Balilla which I had acquired was by no means in good shape, and no facilities were available to improve matters. It was also by no means standard. Consequently, as vast speedometer readings between 80 and 90 were often acquired, the noises inside became progressively noisier. I eventually deemed it wise to sell the car before they and it became too expensive.
Things went into abeyance from then on, until about two years ago, when I acquired an ” 1,100 ” F.I.A.T. saloon. This I ran for about 12 months after doing certain tuning on the engine, and I managed to ; achieve speedometer readings of 87 m.p.h. on three occasions and I felt it worth while to try to think up some sort of ” new look” sports body while at the same time realising that the unbelievable speeds seen on the speedometer were—unbelievable.
Enthusiasm was finally touched off by a trip to France and Italy in the car in its saloon form in 1947, when I made the rounds in Paris, Milan and Turin, and actually saw what could be done with a F.I.A.T. I decided then and there to try to put some of my conclusions into practical form. I made numerous rough sketches followed by less rough sketches and much natter, and subsequently scaled drawings -were got out, and the saloon body was sawn off at the roots and work commenced. After the removal of the body, all parts of the chassis, both mechanical and otherwise, were inspected, the rear axle casing was stiffened, the rear springs re-cambered, and all points showing any wear were replaced or adjusted as necessary. Vast quantities of paraffin and elbow-grease were
expended, together with wire brushes in all the odd corners, and it was decided to retain the sheet-steel flooring on the assumption that Mr. Fiat knew what he was doing when he put it there!
For the construction of the body it was decided to use sheet steel rather than face the attendant difficulties of aluminium, and the necessity for some sort of complicated frame-work. Also it was expected that the use of steel in the manner I had in mind would greatly assist in at least maintaining the degree of stiffness required ; in fact, we hoped that this would be still further improved.
First of all the radiator was lowered and moved forward, suitable jiggery pokery being done with brackets, the water inlet for the radiator being altered for connection to an Opel water pump which was mounted on the near side of the engine. All this, of course, necessitated removal of the fan. The existing scuttle-cum-bulkhead was used, minus about 4 in. removed from its middle to reduce the height by that amount. The seating position was moved one foot nearer the tail and likewise the steering wheel, this at the same time being lowered, and a universal joint coupling put in just above the box. The steering seems as good as ever after this treatment. The body structure is almost entirely without frame-work, the whole being beaten out and welded into one piece, a dural dashboard being fitted, and equipped with, from left to right, clock, speedometer, rev.-counter, oil gauge, and temperature gauges for oil and water. The controls for retarding of the ignition, throttle, choke and starter are in a line in the centre of the dash, and the switches for such odds and ends as dash light, etc., are grouped on the driver’s side. The bodywork is now sprayed in what we fondly imagine to be Alfa red, with aluminium wheels, and the seats are upholstered in black leather. It has been considered inadvisable and even unnecessary to fit doors (certain feminine passengers do not agree here), and their absence, of course, contributes to the rigidity and strength of the structure.
A curved Perspex windscreen has so far been used with complete success, apart from the odd time when one is directly into the sun. The top of the screen is so arranged that by sitting bolt upright and leaning outwards, one can see things quite “comfortably.” It is possible that at a future date, some other type of screen or screens will be fitted. The curb weight when completed was found to be 14i cwt. On testing the car on the road it was discovered that an entirely new character had made its appearance. Top gear was found to be possible almost everywhere, rather in the manner of a large Yank, and hills which had previously been topped at about
25 on second were surmounted with ease at about 80 on top. Apart from this the car had taken on a greatly improved feel on the road, a new sense of ” oneness ” and rigidity being experienced. As those who are interested in F.I.A.T.s will probably know, the “Mile Miglia ” models are equipped with different axle ratios from standard. An 11/43 crown-wheel and pinion was placed on order from Italy through F.I.A.T.s at Wembley, and I resigned myself to waiting indefinitely. However, I chanced upon a 10/43, and this was fitted without delay with very gratifying results. Much to my amazement the car still has considerable top-gear performance, and also now a most useful third gear, 50 being exceeded with the greatest ease on this ratio, while the cruising speed has, of course, been raised, 8,500 r.p.m. now giving about 60 m.p.h. The car now feels much less under-geared. Tests on this final drive ratio have not been completed as yet. On the standard ratio of 9/42 a genuine 80 m.p.h. has been achieved and held, and a petrol consumption figure in excess of 40 m.p.g. is regularly attained. I use the car for business, both in town and country,
and the figure quoted is a fair average of both. 45 m.p.g. was attained in France recently, where I took the car for tests with particular regard to long-distance fast cruising. I might add. that tlie speedometer has been removed, tested and entirely ic( .th hrated ! The roadholding of the car, in general, and particularly cornering, shows considerable improvement over the saloon. Tests, as a matter 3f interest, on a weighbridge show 50/50 front and rear distribution with one passenger. This has made the tail much more responsive to the steering,. and it is now possible to ” break ” when cornering almost at will, and the slight under-steering tendency of the saloon is now no longer present. As might be expected, acceleration is vastly improved, 60 m.p.h. being obtained from rest in 21 2/5ths sec., this figure being an average of several runs over the same piece of road in both directions.
The main idea aimed at was the production of a modern_ Continental-type small sports-car with a good performance, and at the same time to have something a little different from that at present available in this country ; this to be achieved, if possible, without in any way sacrificing reliability ; in other words, not to be attained by the expedient of a high degree of tuning.
To sum up, apart from the obvious improvement in appearance, the performance has been improved not so much from the point of view of cold figures, but more from the way that the car actually performs, although the maximum has been increased perhaps 10 m.p.h., and the petrol consumption improved by some 5 m.p.g. Most of the tuning done on the engine was. carried out before the fitting of the sports body, thus a fairly clear picture of the actual improvements which can be attributed to the body, as opposed to mechanical modifications, can be obtained. I would like to give credit to the interest and enthusiasm. of the firm who built the body, Messrs. Hastings and Skinner, and also to Mr. Seymour of Seymours Garage, Brighton, for his ingenious mechanical modifications and general help in the carrying out of the whole project. Also to Diana Cowell for general constructive criticism and help, and to a host of others
who took such interest and whose remarks of “Why don’t you do so and so?” quite often solved many little difficult problems of the moment.