Part 50 – Isotta Fraschini

The History of the Italian Automobile – Part 50

By David Cavaliere

During the course of this series I have received many emails and letters about features, but none more so than for Part 32 – Carrozzeria Castagna. There is something special about the glamorous cars that were created, most often built upon the Tipo 8 and 8A chassis of Isotta Fraschini. If you were to examine all of the manufacturers of cars and pick the ones whose cars rose to the level of art, you would likely include Bugatti, Duesenberg, Delage and Isotta Fraschini. These manufacturers seemed to design every component of the car to fit harmoniously, in both form and function. It was not just the car bodies and interiors that were stunning, even the engine bays of these cars are beautiful.

Founded in Milan, Italy in 1900 by Cesare Isotta and the brothers Vincenzo, Antonio and Oreste Fraschini, the marque is well-remembered for producing some of the most luxurious and prestigious cars ever built. However, the company also built trucks, as well as engines for marine and aviation use. It ended car production in 1949 and truck production in 1955, but the company is still around making diesel engines, although this is a far cry from the glory days of the company. There have been attempts to resurrect the auto brand, but to date, nothing has come to fruition.

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The firm first assembled Renault cars, but in 1904, began to produce cars designed by Italian automotive pioneer Giuseppe Stefanini. It featured a four-cylinder engine with an output of 24 hp, a significant amount of horsepower for the time. The car, driven by Vincenzo Fraschini, appeared in several races. In 1905, Isotta Fraschini gained notoriety when the company entered two cars in the Gran Premio di Brescia, a three-lap road race around a 104-mile circuit. The two Tipo D cars were monsters, fitted with inline 4 cylinder engines of 17.2-liters (1,050 cu. in.) and 120 horsepower output. Both failed to get very far. Stefanini was responsible for the design of all Isotta Fraschini chassis until around 1906, though after that he was increasingly overshadowed by Giustino Cattaneo, who would go on to design the firm’s most famous luxury cars. Cattaneo fitted four-wheel brakes in 1909 (one of the first in the automotive world to do so) and introduced the industry’s first straight eight engine in 1912. He was also an early pioneer of the overhead camshaft configuration.

From its origins, the company had been known for its extremely high quality, power and luxury. The biggest advance for the company in the automotive field came in 1919, when Isotta Fraschini introduced the Tipo 8 at the Paris Auto Show. Until that time, the company had built a variety of models, but with the Tipo 8, it adopted a single-series policy. The 5.9-liter engine initially produced 80 hp and later was increased to 90 hp. The car used a three-speed manual gearbox and had top speed of 90 mph. Like many high-end vehicles of the day, the car came from Isotta Fraschini as a chassis only. Bodies were typically from Italy’s top-tier coachbuilders, Carrozzeria Castagna and Cesare Sala.

Isotta Fraschini’s dedication to new technology and luxury appointments made the brand popular in the U.S., where among foreign brands, only Rolls-Royce outsold them in the high-end luxury car segment. Isottas were also extraordinarily expensive, a rolling chassis retailed for a then-stratospheric sum of $10,000 each by the mid-1920s, making it the most expensive motorcar produced in Italy.

Isotta and the remaining Fraschini brothers retired in 1922 and were succeeded by Count Lodovico Mazzotti. The company was not only involved in automobile production, it was also an important manufacturer of aircraft engines. This would later contribute to the downfall of the company, but not by its own doing.

In total, 1,380 Tipo 8 were produced. The model was followed in 1924 by the 8A, again designed by Cattaneo. The car’s engine was enlarged to 7.3 liters and could produce almost 160 hp, making it the most powerful mass-produced straight-8 engine in the world at that time. Through 1931, 950 of the cars were manufactured, about a third of which went to the U.S.

These cars were marketed as deluxe limousines to the new American aristocracy. Early film stars Clara Bow and Rudolph Valentino drove the Isotta Fraschini. A 1929, Tipo 8A with coupe de ville bodywork by Castagna is featured in the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard. In the film, the lead character, Norma Desmond (a forgotten silent movie star), played by Gloria Swanson, says “…we have a car. Not one of those cheap things made of chromium and spit, but an Isotta Fraschini. Have you ever heard of Isotta Fraschini? All hand-made. It cost me twenty eight thousand dollars.”

Adjusted for inflation, that would be equivalent of $400,000 today. The car has been on display in Turin at the Museo Nazionale dell’Automobile since 1972. Norma Desmond’s initials are on the rear doors of the car.

In spring 1931, the Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8A was introduced. Unfortunately, due to the Great Depression, there was no longer a significant market for such a car. Count Mazzotti had been negotiating a deal with Henry Ford that could have saved the company’s car production; however, Mussolini’s Fascist party was intent on keeping Isotta Fraschini focused on building aircraft engines and killed the deal.

Giustino Cattaneo, Isotta Fraschini’s technical director since 1905, resigned in 1933. Six months later, in the summer of 1934, the last Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8B left the assembly line. There is no certainty regarding the number of 8Bs that were built. Only 30 are confirmed, but the number may have been as many as 82. Owners included the Aga Khan III, William Randolph Hearst, Rudolph Valentino and Pope Pius XI. Today only three 8Bs are known to exist. The Mazzotti group’s management sold Isotta Fraschini to Caproni, a leading aircraft manufacturer in 1935.

It would be 13 years before the firm would attempt to introduce another car – the more modern Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8C Monterosa. The official presentation of the car took place at the Paris Auto Show in October 1947. The car was primarily the work of three men – Giuseppe Merosi, who was the director of truck manufacturing for Isotta and two young engineers, Fabio Rapi and Aurelio Lampredi (later the revered designer of engines for Ferrari and Fiat). Lampredi designed an all-alloy single overhead cam V8 with hemispherical heads (four years before Chrysler introduced their revolutionary hemi). The engine, gearbox and differential were all combined in a single unit. He designed the rear-mounted engine in 2.5, 3.0 and 3.4 liter configurations, the larger of the engines producing 125 hp. The 8C was considerably lighter than its predecessors. The 8B could easily top out at more than 6,000 lbs. Clothed in an aluminum body, the 8C came it at 3,200 lbs. But all was not well at the company and the “Monterosa” was to be the swan song of the prestigious Milanese brand. It did not reach the production stage. The chassis series were set up for a 4-door sedan by Zagato, a two-door sedan by Touring and convertibles by Boneschi. Only five cars were produced and by 1949, all automobile manufacturing had ceased by Isotta Fraschini.

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