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The 1958 Lancia-Nardi Blue Ray II

The History of the Italian Automobile

Part 79 The Concepts and Creations of Nardi

By David Cavaliere

Enrico Nardi never achieved the level of fame that we associate with the historic figures of Italian Automotive manufacture, but he still holds a legendary place in the history of the automobile. His story is quite intriguing and if one is to judge a man by the company he keeps, it is easy to see how influential he was. Today he is less known for his machines than for his famous steering wheel design. When Erinco stopped building cars and began to focus on accessories, the Nardi became the chosen supplier for Italian manufacturers Abarth, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Lancia and Maserati and also Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Lotus, McLaren and Rolls Royce. Today, Nardi Italia S.p.A., is an independent company, located in Abbiate Guazzone, Tradate (Varese), Italy. It continues to produce its steering wheels for vehicles manufactured around the world.

Enrico Nardi was born in Bologna in 1907. His first job in the automotive industry was in 1929, when he went to work for Lancia as an engineer. During his eight years with the company, Enrico also raced and became an advisor to Vincenzo Lancia. His greatest success behind the wheel was with a car that he built with Augusto Monaco in 1932 – the Nardi-Monaco Chichibio. It used an air-cooled JAP engine of 998 cc. The engine produced 65 hp, or more than one horsepower per cubic inch – a very strong figure at the time. The car was incredibly light and unusual in that Nardi chose a front-wheel drive configuration. The car won numerous hill climbs.

Nardi himself competed in Mille Miglia, driving a Fiat 508 Balilla in 1935 and 1936 and a Lancia Augusta Berlina in 1937. The next year, he co-drove a Lancia Aprilia Speciale with Pier Ugo Gobbato. That fact may not seem significant until one realizes that not only was Nardi working for Scuderia Ferrari at the time, but Pier was the son of Alfa Romeo CEO Ugo Gobbato. Such was the faith in the engineering of Lancias.

With Vincenzo Lancia’s death in 1937 (see Part 60 – Lancia, The Early Years; June 8, 2017), Nardi left the company and began work at Alfa Romeo’s racing stable – Scuderia Ferrari. He worked with Ferrari even after the Commendatore left Alfa and began Auto Avio Costruzioni (see Part 17 Auto Avio Costruzioni; May 12, 2016). He stayed with Ferrari until 1946 and during his tenure, was primarily in charge of setting up the cars and conducting development work on Alberto Massimino’s designs. Nardi co-drove one of the ACC 815’s in the 1940 Mille Miglia with the man who financed the project – Lotario Rangoni.

After World War II, Nardi and Renato Danese established a workshop in Via Vincenzo Lancia, Torino, building racing cars, prototypes and small-series special designs. The 750 Nardi-Danese was a tiny rear-wheel drive machine, assembled on a Fiat 500 chassis that was powered by 746 cc BMW flat twin motorcycle engine with an output of 50 hp. The engine was positioned in the extreme nose of the car. Originally, the cylinder heads were exposed, but later a cowling was fashioned. It used a multi-tube chassis and was available as a monoposto (one-seat) or due posti (two-seater fitted with cycle fenders). Its fiercest competition was from the Bandini (see Part 7: The Tiny Jewels of Forli – Bandini Automobili; February 25, 2016). The miniature marvel dominated circuit, hill climb and open road events. Nardi himself raced the monoposto in the Coppa d’Oro delle Dolomiti hill climb, winning in both 1947 and 1948. There were also three entered in the 1952 Targa Florio, but each failed to finish.

Enrico Nardi had always been a great enthusiast of long distance competitions and in particular of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a race that considered to be the ultimate test bed for the most advanced automotive technologies. This led to the creation of his most unusual car – the Bisiluro Damolnar, with the aid of Mario Damonte and Carlo Mollino. It was a twin-boom model (separated by airfoils), with a twin-cam 737 cc Gianni engine producing 62 hp on one side and the driver on the other. Weighing less than 1,000 pounda, it was literally blown off the track during the 1955 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans by a passing Jaguar. It currently resides in the Leonardo da Vinci Museum in Milano.

Through the mid and late 1950s, Nardi also developed two Raggio Azzurro (Blue Ray) prototypes, with bodies by Michelotti. Each car was built on the chassis of the Lancia Aurelia. He collaborated with Michelotti on another Silver Ray in 1960, based on a Plymouth Golden Commando powered by a 350 hp V8.

As the decade of the 1950s came to a close, Officine Nardi ceased work on car prototypes and turned to the design and manufacture of aftermarket parts. Although it produced manifolds, crankshafts and camshafts, it was his steering wheel that provided his enduring legacy. Enrico Nardi died in 1966, but his company lived on and continued to produce what many consider to be the world’s most iconic steering wheel.

In our next feature, we will look at Officine Specializzate Costruzione Automobili—Fratelli Maserati S.p.A., better known as O.S.C.A. Please send comments to [email protected]