Bienvenuti a tutti! The European Deadly Sins caravan is touring Italy for the second time to glance at three Deadly Sins from three different eras. Tomorrow, we’ll look at the glorious ‘60s through the prism of the ASA 1000 GT, and later we will visit the latter decades of the 20th Century with the long and winding story of De Tomaso. But today, in a bit of a re-hash of one of my older posts, let’s gaze in awe at the immediate post-war era and one of the most daring Italian cars ever attempted.
Our story begins in Milan in 1900. The brothers Franschini (Vincenzo, Antonio and Oreste) and their friend Cesare Isotta, all passionate advocates of the motorcar, decide to put together a small workshop to produce the latest automotive craze, Louis Renault’s Type D with direct drive transmission, under license. The firm soon began making their own chassis and engines, preferring the larger 4-cyl. kind in those days. Even during their first decade in operation, Isotta Fraschini were showing signs of being an exceptionally avant-garde outfit, being one of the first adopters of 4-wheel brakes and OHC engines.
Isotta Fraschini’s creativity and quality were obvious to all, especially the engines. It was only a matter of time before the firm started branching out beyond cars. New lines of engines for marine transports and aircraft were initiated, even as Italy mulled about joining the war that engulfed most of the continent in 1914. As Italy’s fledgling aircraft makers – Caproni, Macchi, Piaggio, Savoia-Marchetti, etc. – all became their close partners, Isotta Fraschini looked set to become the Italian Rolls-Royce. That was going to be the case, in more ways than one.
When peace returned in 1919, Isotta Fraschini pulled off a master stroke of automobile engineering and marketing in the Tipo 8, the first production straight-8 chassis. The engine, a twin-carb 5.9 litre OHC producing 80hp, was mated to a 3-speed gearbox, allowing for a top speed of around 140kph (90mph). This may sound ridiculous 100 years later, but was extremely good at the time.
In 1924, the 7.4 litre Tipo 8A was launched, reaching the automotive stratosphere just as the ‘20s really started roaring. The Tipo 8A is universally regarded as the definitive pre-war Isotta. The company guaranteed that every car, regardless of bodywork, could reach a minimum of 150kph. Export sales went through the roof – and mostly across the Atlantic.
As we can see above, Italy’s numerous and talented coachbuilders were eager to stretch their style all over the massive chassis. The finished product, including the hefty chassis price, cost easily as much as a decent sized house. Though as we can see below, a number of cars left Italy without one.
At least one third of the 950 Tipo 8A chassis were shipped to America, where Isotta Fraschini became the car to be seen in. Famous owners included Rudolf Valentino (he had the Fleetwood roadster above), Clara Bow and William Randolph Hearst. Outside the US, Isotta Fraschinis ferried VIPs such as the Aga Khan and the Pope. It was going to be hard to top that.
And indeed it was the marque’s peak. The Wall Street Crash was a devastating blow to Isotta Fraschini’s chassis production, getting progressively worse as the Depression set it and spread to Europe. Isotta Fraschini’s reaction was to double down on the super-luxury and offer the Tipo 8B, which kept its predecessor’s massive straight-8, adding a few tweaks to push it to 160hp and offering an optional Wilson 4-speed pre-selector gearbox.
It’s unclear how many Tipo 8Bs were made, but it’s well under the 100 mark. This was the start of turbulent times at Isotta. The Fraschini brothers and Cesare Isotta had bailed back in 1922, but engineer Giustino Cattaneo, the brains behind every car since 1905, quit the company in 1933. The Italian government had vetoed Isotta Fraschini’s planned rapprochement with Ford and more or less ordered the company to focus on aero engines.
With active encouragement from the régime, there was a modicum of consolidation taking place in Italy’s industrial landscape in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Thus, in 1933, Isotta Fraschini came to be merged with the aircraft-maker Caproni, which later also took control of locomotive-maker Construzioni Elettro Meccaniche di Saronno (CEMSA). In the summer of 1934, the last Tipo 8B chassis were put together and Isotta Fraschini bowed to the Duce’s whims. The Touring limousine above, delivered in 1935, was one of the very last of the legendary straight-8 Isottas.
There was one exception: Italy (and the world) needed more trucks, so Isotta Fraschini converted their automobile works to producing (slightly) heavier vehicles in 1935. The aero-engine and marine engine sides of the business were flourishing, at least until Italy went to war again in 1940.
Truck and engine production continued, despite the bombs and the general disarray. But Caproni and Isotta Fraschini were already planning for the post-war years, which they must have foreseen as pretty rosy for the car market – unlike the aircraft market, which was sure to be depressed for quite some time.
Caproni hired the services of Aurelio Lampredi and Antonio Fessia to design, respectively, the luxury car and the mid-size saloon of the future. Lampredi and Fessia went in two very different directions. The latter engineered a cutting edge lightweight monocoque whose front wheels were driven by a brand-new 1.2 litre water-cooled flat-4. Caproni pressed ahead with the car’s development, which was deemed finalized by 1947. Dubbed CEMSA-Caproni F11, the first Italian FWD design was presented to the world while a batch of pre-production cars were hand-made in Italy.
The motoring press was quite taken with the ultra-modern Italian saloon, but wondered about the project’s viability. After all, large as they were, neither CEMSA nor Caproni had never mass-produced a car as of yet, and their complete lack of a dealer network would surely be a major obstacle in trying to sell cars of this class. Those who tried the few F11s that were made say they were perfectly good cars, spacious and safe, if a little underpowered.
On the luxury car side, Aurelio Lampredi, in tandem with Luigi Rapi (who had been at Isotta Fraschini since the mid-‘30s), started working on a large rear-engined design as early as 1941. It’s impossible not to feel that Lampredi and Rapi were under the influence of a certain Czechoslovakian marque. Hans Ledwinka’s V8-powered streamliners, on the roads since 1934, were already the stuff of legend. And as we’ve seen before, the lure of the large rear-engined car was irresistible in the ‘30s and ‘40s.
The new big car was to mark Isotta Fraschini’s re-birth after a decade of absence. It was therefore logically named Tipo 8C. Lampredi designed a 3.4 litre water-cooled OHC all-aluminum V8 with hemi heads that produced 125 hp (some sources say 110 hp) @ 4200 rpm.
The V8, mounted at the very rear of a sturdy box-section chassis, was mated to a pre-selector 4-speed gearbox, according a several sources. It’s unclear whether a Wilson box was used or something Isotta Fraschini developed in-house. The car’s all independent suspension used a peculiar rubber cushions in lieu of springs and built-in hydraulic jacks were fitted to all four wheels.
We’ve come to the part where I will, in all modesty, cite a fairly large part of my previous post on the Tipo 8C. Hence the Italics.
Above: Zagato’s 8C had a lot of Tatra genes; this was less true of subsequent cars. Below: Zagato either reworked the first prototype, or built a similar body on a new chassis with a front radiator.
The initial prototype was extensively road-tested. The car was deemed a bit too tail-happy and that the V8 tended to overheat. To address this, the twin side-mounted radiators moved to the front of the car on subsequent chassis and probably retrofitted to the Zagato saloon.
The second and third chassis were ably bodied by Touring as a matching pair of two- and four-door saloons. The front-mounted radiator also helped with the car’s aesthetics, allowing the IF badge to be set within a big chromed frame more suited to the marque’s still-present mystique.
Caproni embarked on a PR campaign, sending the Touring-bodied cars to various motor shows and producing a lavish publicity brochure in several languages. This was done in spite of not having any chassis to sell!
The brochure is a true gem for this era. In it, Luigi Rapi let his imagination run wild, devising a dozen different bodies for the 8C Monterosa chassis – none of which were actually made, but the sheer creativity and style is breathtaking.
The Isotta Fraschini was displayed again (and admired) at the 1948 Paris and London Motor Shows, this time with a two-door convertible body by Boneschi. The 8C Monterosa was doubtless one of the most refined European cars of its time, featuring a sophisticated heating and ventilation system, radio, a clock mounted on the steering wheel’s hub and seating for six.
OK, I’ll turn the italics off now. So, what happened exactly? Well, the usual: a company tried to develop two highly complex designs, made by engineers who were given free rein, put together by folks who had never tried making cars (though they did make trucks, locomotives and airplanes) in a time of scarce resources and great uncertainty. Caproni apparently tried punting off the F-11 to Preston Tucker in 1948. That went the way it went and with it Isotta’s high hopes of a return to the US market evaporated. Caproni had no body-making facilities and lacked the capital to start series production for either of their precious cars. The Italian State, owner of Alfa Romeo and permanently in debt to Fiat, flatly refused giving Caproni any funding for their development. They were paraded around Europe in a bid to impress foreign investors, but nobody was biting.
Well, a few did, but nothing concrete ever materialized. The beleaguered Belgian firm Minerva bought one of the F-11 prototypes and announced that they would start production in 1953, but the plan fell through. Antonio Fessia recycled most of the F-11 concept once he became Lancia’s chief engineer in the late ‘50s (see also: Lancia, Deadly Sins of).
For its part, the 8C Monterosa was admired by many, but Isotta Fraschini were unable to secure actual sales. The 8C was not beyond the firm’s production capacities: Isotta Fraschini only needed to build the engine and the chassis, leaving bodywork to the client’s favoured choice of coachbuilder. Technically, the 8C was more or less ready for prime-time by 1948, once the trouble-prone rubber springs were abandoned in favour of coils. But the company was unprepared for the marketing of their creation, which should have included a stronger push towards the American market, which was the 8C’s main target, though it failed to ever get there.
Great big V8-powered cars were appealing, but not exactly popular, in cash-strapped 1940s Europe. Just for fun and because it’s a great excuse to feature my beloved T87, the table below illustrates the kind of European luxury cars that the Isotta Fraschini was supposed to take on: bespoke luxury, but a shade below Bentley or Talbot-Lago.
This is a sector that was very competitive in 1939, but after 1945 and until Mercedes-Benz found their feet again, the pickings were rather slim. Out of all these, three (Invicta, Isotta Fraschini, Rosengart) were never really produced and four (Delahaye, Hotchkiss, Jaguar and Tatra) were pretty much 100% pre-war. Still, you could see these at the 1947 and 1948 Paris Motor Show, even if they weren’t all technically for sale. Makes for a terrific fantasy garage…
After the 8C Monterosa was completely abandoned in 1949, Isotta Fraschini remained in the truck business for a few years, but by the mid-‘50s, only the firm’s excellent engines – used in marine, aeronautic, locomotive or static applications – remained in production. This carried on for decades, and then the retro craze happened.
Suddenly, a brand new “Isotta T8” roadster was displayed at the 1996 Geneva Motor Show. Just like Invicta, Bugatti, Duesenberg and other ancient legends of the automotive world, the name Isotta Fraschini was apparently too haloed to be left in peace. Isotta Fraschini themselves must certainly have thought so. For once, the “weird retro encore” card was played by the direct descendants / custodians of the marque, which was still active as an engine-maker.
I recall seeing the T8 at that event 23 years ago and feeling perplexed by the whole thing. It was essentially (and almost blatantly) an Audi A8, complete with 4.2 litre V8 and 4-wheel-drive, with an aluminium body made by Fissore. The market for people who wanted to overpay for an Audi was probably not quite as big as Isotta expected, and about three T8s were ever made. Two years later, a V12-powered coupé, the T12 (not pictured above – this is the T8 with its hardtop on) was unveiled, but the experiment soon fizzled. Isotta Fraschini’s car branch was shut down yet again in 1999. The company still exists today as part of the Fincantieri shipbuilding conglomerate, but has resumed its strict focus on engines.
The 8C Monterosa is one of those “gifted child” type Deadly Sins, like the Invicta Black Prince or the Hotchkiss Grégoire: incredibly advanced and potentially much better than the competition, these cars were proposed by companies that had no clue how to actually make them. At least two 8Cs have survived – alas, the swoopy Zagato prototype has not, and neither has the Touring 4-door, it seems. On the plus side, we are left with a treasure trove of sublime artwork depicting wild and wonderful imaginary V8-powered streamliners, so…
Let us wave goodbye to the ‘40s and rendezvous tomorrow, skip to the ‘60s with the enigmatic ASA. Ciao!
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European Deadly Sins series