Part 51 – Itala

The History of the Italian Automobile

Part 51 – Itala

By David Cavaliere

It has been a while since we visited with the Ceirano brothers (Part 16 – Ceirano Fabbrica Automobili on May 5, 2016). Like a Lewis and Clark, the Ceiranos were trailblazers and pioneers. Their name is repeated throughout the first period of the Turin auto industry history. The frequently tempestuous brothers gave rise to virtually every prestigious brand born in Turin before the Great War. Their ideas were sometimes revolutionary; their business skills unquestionably dubious. This week features one of the greatest marques of the early automotive era – Itala.

The Ceirano brothers, Giovanni Battista, Giovanni, Ernesto and Matteo, were responsible for founding the Ceirano; Welleyes (the technical origin of F.I.A.T.); Fratelli Ceirano; S.T.A.R. / Rapid (Società Torinese Automobili Rapid); SCAT (Società Ceirano Automobili Torino); Itala and S.P.A. (Società Piemontese Automobili). Giovanni’s son Giovanni “Ernesto” was also influential, co-founding Ceirano Fabbrica Automobili and Fabrica Anonima Torinese Automobili (FATA). That is a truly remarkable total – eight automotive companies by the members of one family.

In 1904, Matteo Ceirano officially left Ceirano GB & C to begin operations of his own brand – Itala. The company was actually created in 1903 by Matteo and five partners. Based in Turin, Matteo was the technical director and engineer Guido Bigio was the general manager. In its first year, Itala offered three different cars – one of 18 hp, another producing 24 hp and the racing model with 50 hp on tap. Alberto Balloco was in charge of developing the company’s first series of racing cars – the Itala 100 HP. It had an enormous 4-cylinder engine of 14,759 cc. In 1905, Cavaliere Vincenzo Florio offered 50,000 Lira in prize money and a winner’s cup for the inaugural endurance race, the Coppa Florio. The course was set in northern Italy and ran a triangular route from Brescia to Cremona to Mantua and back to Brescia. The Itala won. The ever-volatile Ceirano had a serious disagreement with his partners about the future of the company and left Itala to found SPA with Michele Ansaldi. Itala continued its racing program with a team of five new cars – the 40/50 HP series. These were 4-cylinder engines with side valves and a displacement of 7433 cc.

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Vincenzo Florio was so satisfied with the outcome of the race that the following year he organized the Targa Florio, an open road endurance race held near Palermo, Sicily. Through treacherous mountain roads, hairpin curves and numerous changes in climate, it became the most competitive race in Europe. Itala won that first race. The following year featured the greatest test of endurance up to that point. The 9,317-mile auto race from Peking to Paris, began on June 10, 1907. The winner was Prince Scipione Borghese in the 35/45 HP series Itala. He arrived in Paris on August 10th, three weeks before his closest competitor. Based on this achievement, the name Itala became famous around the world.
For manufacturers who wanted to participate in the main races of the year, 1907 was a difficult season. The three major international competitions, the Targa Florio, the Kaiser’s Cup and the Grand Prix of France each had different formulas. Midway through the year, a new international formula was introduced, using a maximum bore of each cylinder of 155 mm (6.1 inches). In those days, most of the engines used a long stroke, which became a limiting factor in the engines revolutions per minute. The Itala 120 HP engine designed for this formula used a shorter stroke than any of its competitors (160 mm or 6.3 inches), but it had one of the highest RPMs of these early grand prix racers. It could be safely run to 1800 RPM for a theoretical top speed of 115 MPH and was the fastest car that year, despite its smaller-sized engine.

In 1908, the team began experimentation with ”aerodinamica” bodywork, one of the first such instances where a team constructed a car to try to minimize its wind resistance. The engine cover was reduced in height and width, necessitating side bulges for the valve train and the exhaust was run under the car, rather than from the side. This also saw the beginning of first serious investigation into a pressurized lubrication system. It used an oil tank pressurized by the exhaust gases and transferred to a pump that was driven via pulley from the camshaft. Additionally, the car used a drive shaft at a time when most race cars still used chain drive.

In these pioneering days of auto racing, a lot of experimentation took place. Itala tried engines with variable stroke and sleeve valves, variously known as “valve-less,” rotary or in the case of Itala, the Avalve. The series was produced in various sized engines through 1922, with 25, 35 and 50 horsepower ratings, ranging from just under four liters up to 8.5 liters. This interesting valve configuration included a racer which ran in the 1913 French Grand Prix and also finished second in the Targa Florio in that year. It was an interesting way to operate the induction and exhaust systems, but within a short time, Peugeot would revolutionize valve train configurations by introducing the double overhead camshaft; the same system that is on racing cars, as well as many of the newer cars on the road today. The 1913 French Grand Prix would prove to be the team’s last Grand Prix appearance. This was in part due to the death of managing director Guido Bigio. After World War I, Itala again took up racing, but with sports versions of production models rather than purpose-built racing cars.

Car production resumed with models based on the pre-war cars such as the Tipo 50 and a re-appearance of the Avalve in the 4,426 cc Tipo 55, but financial success eluded the company. In 1924, the company was being run under receivership. It appointed Giulio Cesare Cappa from Fiat as general manager. He produced a new car, the Tipo 61 with a 6-cylinder alloy engine which was well received. Cappa then decided to return the company to motor sport. The 1925 Itala Tipo II was powered by a supercharged 1094 cc V-12. It was built for the 1926 Grand Prix season, but it was never raced. The initial tests of the car were disappointing and the budget to develop the car was not approved. That was unfortunate. The front wheel drive car was beautifully built. It featured independent suspension at each corner and had a lightweight aluminum body. The car was produced within months of Harry Miller’s first foray into front wheel-drive racers in the U.S. The super-charged straight 8 Miller FWD racers were introduced in 1926 and went on to dominate racing in the U.S. during the final years of the decade. Had the money been available to properly develop the car, who knows what might have been the result? Another example of what if…

In 1929, Itala merged with Metallurgical and Officine Meccaniche di Tortona. The new company, called Itala SA, expected to receive significant orders for military vehicles to be exported to Poland. When this did not transpire, the company was left financially vulnerable. It limped on until 1934, when its assets were sold to Fiat and Itala SACA ceased all commercial activities.

Next week the series will begin a multi-part series on Lamborghini..

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