The Depression did for the Isotta Fraschini, but it's still a great veteran, says Brian Sewell
Tuesday 06 March 2007
In the days when Daimlers carried no identifying marks other than their fluted radiators and hubcaps embossed with a copperplate "A", one of mine was mistaken for an Isotta Fraschini - and in Milan of all places, the city of that marque's manufacture. This error was, however, not entirely foolish, for both firms were devotees of straight-eight engines under exceedingly long bonnets, both aimed at silence and refinement rather than outright performance; both used the Wilson pre-selector gearbox (the Daimler invariably throughout the 1930s, the Isotta as an option); the bodies of both were designed and made by coachbuilders; and just as Daimler was never quite Rolls-Royce, so Isotta was never quite the Hispano-Suiza that it set out to be.
Cesare Isotta and Vincenzo Fraschini established the marque in 1900 (without the intrusive hyphen); by 1903, it was a rival of sorts for Mercedes; and from then until the outbreak of the First World War it produced a bewildering choice of models, from 1.3 litres to 17 litres, of which one overturned on Puccini, broke his shin and delayed the writing of Madama Butterfly.
After the war, all the earlier cars were rejected in favour of one new model that was to make the marque famous across Europe and the US, its principal market; this was the Tipo 8, a luxury car, whisper-quiet and turbine smooth, equipped with a body fit for a juggernaut.
"When in doubt, list your maharajas" was once a maxim of luxury car manufacturers, and if Isotta had only a handful (and the Aga Khan) with which to match the boast of Rolls in India, among its other patrons it could list the Empress of Abyssinia, the Queen of Romania, King Faisal of Iraq, Mussolini, Rudolph Valentino, William Randolph Hearst and even Pope Pius XI, whose car was painted papal purple, upholstered in cardinal-red leather, and shaded by curtains of white damask. Even so, the marque did not survive the Great Depression; the manufacture of its parts ceased in 1931, assembly dribbled on until 1935, and then what was left was scrapped.
The Tipo 8 went through three stages of development. Introduced in 1919, it was the first car ever to have an engine of eight cylinders in line, a design that at low revolutions was phenomenally smooth. Capacity was 5.9 litres, power output at first a mere 80bhp at 2,200rpm, soon raised to 90bhp; of these, some 1,380 were made. With the Tipo 8A, introduced in 1924, capacity was increased to 7.4 litres, raising it to Rolls-Royce Phantom size, with power then 110bhp at 2,400rpm, or 140bhp at 2,600rpm in the Spinto and the Super Spinto - a name intended to suggest the aggressive acceleration of the sporting road-racers.
Demand for the Tipo 8A tailed away in the late Twenties, but Isotta did not respond until 1931 when, retaining the same engine dimensions, improvements enabled it to develop 160bhp, still at 2,600rpm. It was this last car that offered the Wilson pre-selector gearbox, an almost automatic alternative to the then also new synchromesh, both with only the three speeds that the Tipo 8 had always had in its double-declutch crash gearboxes.
Speed in the early Tipo 8 was 85-90mph, depending on the weight of the coachbuilt body. Flexibility was a match for Rolls-Royce - both claimed genteel acceleration in top gear from walking pace to maximum. Rolls claimed to be "the Best Car in the World", Isotta Fraschini to be "The Aristocrat of Automobiles" and "a world's masterpiece".
Is it heresy on my part to suggest that the straight-eight engine of the Isotta was smoother and quieter than the big six of the Rolls, and that its brakes were far superior? At twice the price of a Rolls, its buyers deserved something for the difference, as well as exotic bodies that took a team of servants to convert from closed to open.
Early examples of the Tipo 8 carry bodies that, apart from their sheer size, are unremarkable, barrel tourers the most common, all with wire wheels; grandeur came later in the Twenties. There is some overlap, even confusion, in the dating of many Isottas - some Tipo 8s seem to have been constructed as late as 1932, seven years after production ceased, and the Tipo 8A was certainly still being assembled well after the manufactures of the Tipo 8B had been shut down, again from engines and other parts that had been stored.
We do not know the precise number of completed 8Bs - 30 for certain, and possibly as many as 82. There were, it seems, 950 sales of the 8A between 1925 and 1931, with an unquantified handful assembled later. What is more important, in every case, is the body; of these the bulk were by the great Italian coachbuilders of the day, Castagna (known as the Raphael of the craft), Farina, Garavini and Sala, all rather heavyweight German in idiom, though Sala tried to introduce frivolity with his colour combinations - yellow and royal blue, ivory and orange, chocolate and cream.
What were these great straight eights like to drive? - more Queen Mary than Sherman tank, perhaps. No one accustomed to power steering can imagine weight so great that no tugging on the steering-wheel will turn it a millimetre unless the car is already inching forward. The turning-circle is enormous, but then the shorter chassis of the Spinto is more than 11 feet, and the standard version more than 12. Great weight and the long chassis smooth every rumple in the tarmac, and on an autobahn the car's behaviour is sublime - or seems so until a Nissan Micra overtakes it.
Was the Isotta in its heyday much less impressive than the Hispano? Perhaps not, for there is evidence that the Spinto so challenged Marc Birkigt's six-cylinder Hispanos that he felt compelled to think of something better, his response the magnificent V-12, the car that really was the aristocrat, the masterpiece, the best car in the world. The Isotta was a great veteran, a car that marked the end of the beginning, looking back and summing up; the Hispano-Suiza was so modern in its design that it marked the beginning of the end.
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