Part 17 Auto Avio Costruzioni

By David Cavaliere

As I begin this feature, I can only marvel at the rich history of the Italian automotive industry. As anyone who has performed research into the area can tell you, the more you dig, the more gems you’ll mine. I was going to incorporate this week’s manufacturer into another feature, but given the pivotal nature of its existence and the volumes that can be written about its successor, I felt that a feature on Auto Avio Costruzioni was justified, even though it produced only one model and built only two cars.

The AAC 815 presented as it was raced in the 1940 Gran Premio Brescia della Mille Miglia.

The AAC 815 presented as it was raced in the 1940 Gran Premio Brescia della Mille Miglia.

Enzo Ferrari always loved three things – fast cars, beautiful women and control. Perhaps it could be more accurately said that he loved to control two things – fast cars and beautiful women. As a racing driver, he was good. He made a name for himself in the 1920s driving an Alfa Romeo to second place in grueling Targa Florio. That drive put him on the map. He soon found that he was a better organizer and motivator than he was a driver. He became Alfa Romeo’s man behind the scenes, traveling constantly to recruit the best drivers and best engineers to the join the company. He became Alfa Romeo’s dealer for the Emilia-Romagna region around Modena, and set up an office in Bologna. In 1929, Ferrari, along with Mario Tadini and Alfredo and Augosto Caniato formed a racing team called Scuderia Ferrari. Scuderia in Italian means stable and the firm’s favored mounts were Alfa Romeos. By the mid-1930s, Ferrari was well-known known throughout the auto industry. In 1937 Alfa Romeo decided to regain full control of its racing division, retaining Ferrari as Sporting Director. The dominance of the German Grand Prix cars in the second half of the decade brought about an acrimonious split between Ferrari and Alfa Romeo. Although it is generally regarded, in retrospect, that Ferrari left Alfa Romeo to create his own company. That is not exactly the case. Enzo was fired and he was not the only victim of this palace revolt – or in this case, the blood-letting. A contract clause forbade him from building or racing cars bearing the Ferrari name, or the yellow prancing horse emblem, for four years.

The first car built by Ferrari - Auto Avio Costruzioni 815

The first car built by Ferrari – Auto Avio Costruzioni 815

1939 was a turbulent time throughout Europe. In September, the invasion of Poland and the outbreak of war meant there were far more uncertainties for Ferrari to continue in the automotive business than there were assurances. In December of 1939, Enzo received a visit from the young racing driver, Alberto Ascari. He wanted Ferrari to build two sports cars for the 1940 Mille Miglia – one for himself and one for his friend, Marchese Lotario Rangoni Macchiaveli di Modena. Enzo agreed to build the cars.

Ferrari quickly formed a new company, Auto Avio Costruzioni (AAC). His company was located at the same downtown Modena address as the Scuderia. His act of defiance against Alfa Romeo and his search for a loophole in his non-compete contract was not simply to get back at his former employer for his firing. He was also infuriated with Maserati. A recent cash injection by the Orsi family allowed expansion of the company, which then shifted production to Modena – Enzo’s home territory. This created direct competition for the best engineers and factory craftsmen in the area. Enzo was not pleased.


A view of the right-hand side driven cockpit of the Auto Avio Costruzioni 815.

Since the Mille Miglia was scheduled for April 28, 1940. Ferrari, had just four months to create two racing cars from scratch. For this reason – and also because the regulations demanded that a production car chassis form the basis of the racer, the new cars were based on the Fiat 508C Ballia. The biggest problem would be the engine. At 1,100 cc, it was far too small to compete in the 1.5 liter class. Alberto Massimino, a highly experienced designer and another victim of the Alfa revolt, came up with the plan to build a straight-eight engine block and top it with a pair of modified Fiat Ballia cylinder heads. The new car’s name, 815, referred to the engine’s 8 cylinders and its 1.5-litre capacity. To build his first car, Enzo hired well-known technicians Luigi Bazzi and Federico Giberti, and engineers Vittorio Bellentani and Gioachino Colombo.

The men began work on the Fiat 508 C by modifying the chassis and set about creating their unique engines for the two cars. For each of the racers, they took two 508 C 1,100cc four-cylinder engines, and had specially designed, lightweight aluminum blocks cast. They ground their own camshafts, but were able to use the original Fiat valve gear and connecting rods. The cylinder heads needed significant modification. The engine was advanced for its era, with a single overhead camshaft, two valves per cylinder, and a semi-dry sump lubrication system. It used four Weber 30DR2 carburetors and produced 75 HP at 5500 rpm. For the car’s body, Ferrari turned to Felice Bianchi Anderloni, the design head of Italy’s preeminent coachbuilder, Carrozzeria Touring. He created an open-topped two-seater with a very distinctive large grill. He saved weight by using an ultra-modern Plexiglas windscreen and designed the body using the superleggera (super light) construction method that Anderloni had developed. This technique uses small diameter tubes to form the frame, on which the unstressed body panels are laid. It produces a car that is very strong and very light. The bodywork used an aluminium/magnesium alloy and was constructed with beautifully flowing lines, with the fenders integrated into the body shell. The bodywork weighed only 119 lb and the complete car weighed only 1,378 lb. The cars rode on Borrani wire wheels and had a top speed was about 110 mph.

Alberto Ascari in the Auto Avio Costruzioni 815 that he would drive in the 1940 Gran Premio Brescia della Mille Miglia.

Alberto Ascari in the Auto Avio Costruzioni 815 that he would drive in the 1940 Gran Premio Brescia della Mille Miglia.

With the remarkable history of the Ferrari brand, it is fascinating that his first car was essentially built in secret and away from the prying eyes of his former masters at Alfa Romeo. The Auto Avio Costruzioni 815 did compete, as planned, in 1940 Gran Premio Brescia della Mille Miglia (a one-time substitute for the traditional Mille Miglia). One of the 815s dominated its class and ran as high as 10th overall, but ultimately, both retired with mechanical failures. This is not at all surprising, considering the remarkably short time period that Ferrari had to produce the cars. They were clearly worthy of further development, but Italy’s entry into the war extinguished such plans. The 815s were the last cars Ferrari would work on for years. Italy officially entered World War II on June 10, 1940. Ferrari survived the conflict by producing oil-driven grinding machines and machine tools. Two years into the war, the government issued an order for Italy’s industries to decentralize. Ferrari moved the Auto Avio Costruzioni works from Modena to Maranello, which is still the home of Ferrari.

After the war, Ferrari wasted no time creating an engine with a configuration that he had admired since it was introduced by Packard – the V12. By 1945, Enzo was free to develop cars with his own name. The first official Ferrari – the 125 S, was far more sophisticated than the 815, but there can be little doubt that Enzo learned a great deal from his act of defiance against Alfa Romeo and the ‘secret’ Ferrari that he built in 1940.

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