The car that really was a work of art

Brian Sewell pays tribute to a rare automotive beauty
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

At times when the thinking motoring journalist falls into a reverie, pondering on such abstractions as beauty and perfection, the little Cisitalia may come into their mind. It is one of the most rare of post-war marques, known only to nerds, enthusiasts in their dotage and visitors to New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1951 where, as a closed coupé, it was the first car to be recognised as having a sculptural identity worth exhibiting as a work of art.

At times when the thinking motoring journalist falls into a reverie, pondering on such abstractions as beauty and perfection, the little Cisitalia may come into their mind. It is one of the most rare of post-war marques, known only to nerds, enthusiasts in their dotage and visitors to New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1951 where, as a closed coupé, it was the first car to be recognised as having a sculptural identity worth exhibiting as a work of art.

It was the short-lived fantasy of Piero Dusio, a sometime professional footballer and not particularly brilliant amateur racing driver of the 1930s. He was a favourite of Mussolini and had retired young to make his fortune as a manufacturer of racing bicycles, sports equipment and natty lines in casual clothing that now we might think camp. In 1944, with the end of the war in Italy in sight and sporting successors to his early self in mind, he commissioned two Fiat engineers, Dante Giacosa and Giovanni Savonuzzi, to design a single-seater racing car cheap enough to tempt the amateur. It was to be called the Cisitalia - a reference perhaps to the good old Fascist days - or "On the side of Italy''.

For its engine they turned to the old iron lump of 1,090cc that Giacosa had designed for a family Fiat in 1937, gave it twin Weber carburettors and tinkered it into producing 60bhp at 5,500rpm - this at a time when 40bhp would have been considered creditable, and was indeed the power of the Singer 1,074cc engine hotted up for the sporting HRG. Its dead weight they countered with a space-frame chassis of molybdenum steel tubes (the first for any series-built racing car) and a body entirely in aluminium (even the petrol tank). It proved capable of a then-exceptional 109mph.

Light, agile and fast enough to attract many leading professional drivers, Cisitalias were too expensive for the young amateurs for whom Dusio intended them. They might dominate the 1100 class, they might expand it into new realms of performance, they might pioneer new races solely for the marque, but only 50 of the projected 500 monoposto racing cars were sold. Dusio's attempt to put motor racing within the grasp of the comparatively indigent had failed.

What could Dusio do with components already manufactured? Dusio reasoned that he should adapt his space-frame concept to take conventional two-seater bodies in which young bloods might take racing on the roads - the Mille Miglia, that most romantic of great races for great road cars, his immediate target.

He swapped the racing gearbox for one of four-speed synchromesh, and in 1947, with Nuvolari at the wheel, an exquisite, full-width, streamlined open two-seater with twin racing screens, enclosed rear wheels and incipient rear fins, designed by Savonuzzi, almost won the race; in torrential rain that flooded his ignition and delayed him 20 minutes, a supercharged 2.9-litre Alfa-Romeo swept by, forcing him into second place.

With other Cisitalias third and fourth, proving the reliability of the pre-war Fiat engine, the marque should have been set fair for a long production run, and the specialist coachbuilders moved in. Pinin Farina designed an outrageous closed coupé with rear fins grown large, but he also adapted the essentials of Savonuzzi's open body to make the car that hangs in MOMA; Vignale turned his hand to a supremely elegant drophead two-seater of the type known in Italy as a Spider.

All three, it must be admitted, seem too large and too long-nosed for so small an engine, and Dusio swiftly substituted first a 1,200cc engine, and then the 1,346 iron block of the Fiat 1400 saloon. This done, he turned for help to Carlo Abarth, the Austrian engineer now famous for breathing miracles into Fiat engines (even the two-cylinder 500), and in 1949 Dr Ferdinand Porsche designed for him a 12-cylinder engine of only 1,492cc with twin superchargers, to be mounted in the rear of the standard Cisitalia tubular frame, adapted to four-wheel drive.

Such engineering was not cheap, and Dusio, discovering himself bankrupted by it and by rampant inflation, fled in 1949 to Argentina, his pretty little Cisitalias then twice the price of Jaguar's XKs. Subsequent administrators of his Turin factory tried to resurrect the marque with yet more Fiat engines, with alternatives from Ford, even with modified marine engines, and rare Cisitalias ranging from 850cc to 2,760cc may still be found playing hen-coop to Italian chickens. With these failures, Cisitalia died a second death in 1952. The firm's third incarnation was as a customiser of Fiat sports cars, but even this business it could not sustain and it died its last death in 1965.

I see why MOMA chose the Pinin Farina Gran Sport Coupé of 1948 as an example of ''movement in sculpture''. Fifty years ago, to American eyes, it must have seemed remarkably coherent and uncluttered, its long bonnet lower than its wings, but its purity is marred by the residual protrusion of rear wings and the split V-windscreen that kinks the profile of the roof.

The Vignale Spider is better balanced and has a curved screen, but no drophead coupé can claim impeccable coherence; of these, only 17 were built, against 153 of the Pinin Farina closed cars. Rarest are the Nuvolari Spiders - streamlined sports racing cars with no hood and almost invisible frameless screens to interrupt the sublime line that runs from lowered nose and shallower orifice to spatted rear wheels and rising rear wings. This does, indeed, speak of movement when at a standstill. For beauty and perfection I commend it to the dreaming journalist - and to MOMA, too.

Illustration from "Autolegends" by Michel Zumbrunn, published by Merrell

Search for used cars

Comments