1908 Isotta Fraschini Tipo FENC Semi Racer

1908 Isotta Fraschini Tipo FENC Semi Racer

Perhaps the most influential light car design of the first decade of the twentieth century, the Tipo FENC Isotta Fraschini was derived from the Tipo FE Isottas built for the 1908 Grand Prix des Voiturettes at Dieppe. Constructed “with an eye on the future of automotive technology,” their design was so advanced – they were among the first production cars to make use of the performance potential of the overhead camshaft configuration – that for many years it was thought that they had been designed by Ettore Bugatti, for their design was remarkably similar to the first production Bugattis that appeared a year or so later.

In fact, the creator of the little Isotta was the unsung genius Giuseppe “Cou de Ram” Stefanini, who had been born in 1870 in Lodi, near Milan, and studied engineering in Turin. “Cou de Ram” Stefanini – the nickname means “redhead” in the local dialect – was one of the pioneers of motor engineering in Italy and in the late 1890s had helped to build several experimental horseless carriages for Michele Lanza in the workshops of the brothers Giovanni and Giuseppe Martina,. Around 1900 he had moved to Milan to work as a consultant to Lanza’s third customer, the Milanese sportsman Cesare Isotta. There Stefanini had designed the first motor car that Isotta built in collaboration with the Fraschini brothers, his relations by marriage.

From then until around 1906 Stefanini was responsible for the design of all Isotta Fraschini chassis, though after that he was increasingly overshadowed by Isotta engineer Giustino Cattaneo, though he retained his connection with the company for several more years. During this period he carried out pioneering work on overhead camshaft performance engines, the first fruit of which was his gigantic 17.2-liter four-cylinder Tipo D racer built for the 1905 Gran Premio di Brescia.

But it was at the opposite end of the capacity scale that Stefanini obtained the most promising results, creating what was in effect the prototype of the modern small high-performance car. Asked to design a racer to represent Isotta Fraschini in the 1908 Grand Prix des Voiturettes at Dieppe, Stefanini created a jewel-like four with a swept volume of just 1.2-liters. Tipping the scales at a mere 1342lb, the little Tipo FE Isotta had a top speed in the region of 60mph, a remarkable performance for so small a car at that time. Among its many advanced features were the monobloc construction of its engine at a time when most multi-cylinder engines had pair cast construction, the overhead camshaft configuration, automatic pressure-fed lubrication (most cars then relied on drip and splash oiling) and a crankshaft running on two ball-bearings. Incidentally, the overhead camshaft also ran in ball-bearings.

Though the highest-placed Tipo FE, driven by Felice Buzio, had won the four-cylinder class, it finished no higher than eighth out of 67 starters (but then 23 had retired). However, the GP des Voiturettes marked a turning point in the history of the racing voiturette. It was the swansong of the freakish high-performance single-cylinder racers like the extraordinary single-cylinder four-valve Delage that won the event; from that point on, the multi-cylinder engine would dominate small car racing.

Possibly only three (or maybe four) examples of the Tipo FE were built. After Dieppe, one Tipo FE crossed the Atlantic to compete in the Light Car Grand Prix of the Automobile Club of America at Savannah, Georgia, driven by the redoubtable Al Poole, former riding mechanic to Joe Tracy on the legendary Vanderbilt Locomobile racer “Old No 16”, and finished a creditable fifth. It was the smallest car in the race.

Sensing that racing success could be translated into sales, a few weeks after the Dieppe race Isotta Fraschini announced a road-going version of the Tipo FE voiturette under the designation “FENC”, differing mainly in minor engine design details like an increase in engine capacity to 1327cc by increasing the bore from 61.8 to 65mm and the replacement of the gear train and shafts that drove the magneto (in true racing fashion, it was mounted at the rear of the engine and protruded through the footboard within reach of the riding mechanic) and water pump by a cross-shaft drive. It was also slightly heavier, at an estimated 1385lb, was said to develop 17bhp against the 18 of the FE and had a four-speed transmission against the three-speed box of the FE.

The FENC was available in two versions, a road-going model with gravity drip feed lubrication and a semi-racer with pressure lubrication, while the final drive was available with or without differential gear. A further subtle variation was known as “Tipo America” and was fitted with larger wheels to cope with the poor roads of the period in the marque’s North and South American markets.

Around a hundred of these rapid little cars – arguably a strong contender for the title of “first sports car” – were built, though the contemporary report in the Italian magazine Motori, Cicli e Sport that Isotta Fraschini had “sold the first hundred voiturettes in England” was probably over-optimistic. However, a 10hp Isotta Fraschini Tipo FE badged as a Lorraine-Dietrich was exhibited at the November 1908 Olympia Motor Show in London and hailed as “one of the great features of the exhibit”. The explanation was that Isotta Fraschini had been 50 per cent owned by the French arm of the Franco-German De Dietrich empire since 1907, and it is very likely that a young Italian engineer named Ettore Bugatti, who was working for the Niederbronn (Alsace, then German territory) De Dietrich company, would have full knowledge of the Tipo FE/FENC, for he was also a personal friend of the heads of the Isotta Fraschini company.

Though he had played no role in the design of the little Isottas, which were principally the work of Stefanini, with new recruit Cattaneo helping with the drafting work, it’s quite likely that Bugatti drew inspiration from this ground-breaking design, and certainly the FENC configuration, featuring a small overhead camshaft engine with cross-shaft drive for magneto and water pump, is remarkably similar to that of the Bugatti T13. So while the legend that Bugatti actually designed the Tipo FENC has been proved to be untrue by Bugatti authorities like Dr Norbert Steinhauser and the late Griffith Borgeson, the more fascinating alternative that Bugatti copied Stefanini’s design when he created his Type 10 “Petit Pur Sang”in 1909, which led to his most famous pre-World War One light car, the Type 13, deserves fuller exploration.

Intriguingly, the Tipo FENC also played a key role in the creation of another great marque, for when in 1914 Lionel Martin built the celebrated “Hybrid” which was to be the prototype of the Aston Martin marque, he chose a Tipo FENC Isotta chassis as the basis into which to fit the first Aston Martin engine.

For a long time the sole survivor of the Tipo FENC was thought to be the car known for many years in the hands of Lyndon Duckett in Australia (and for many years erroneously credited to Ettore Bugatti), but then rumours that other examples of the model existed began to be confirmed. In his 1967 book The Great Cars, Ralph Stein wrote of his “old-car hunting expeditions” with his friend Austin Clark, pioneer collector and owner of the Long Island Automotive Museum, as follows: “This day we stopped at an ancient junk yard in the depths of the Bronx. Clark led me to what was left of a very small car. The wooden spokes of its wheels were rotted away from years of being sunk into the ground. Its bodywork was gone except for the whitened wooden remains of its seats, from which a few scraps of dry leather still fluttered. Its chassis was rusted. Its hood was gone. But sitting there, unsheltered, its aluminium oxidized white, was as pretty a little overhead-camshaft, four-cylinder engine as you'd want to see. The car was a 1908 1208cc Isotta-Fraschini Voiturette, designed a few years earlier by Ettore Bugatti before he set up his own factory.”

The Bugatti reference was, of course, the common belief at that time, before Griffith Borgeson had established the Stefanini link, and though Austin Clark failed to acquire the Isotta on that occasion, it seems that he later managed to add it to his considerable collection.

A second Tipo FENC was later discovered, though accounts of its location vary between America and Australia, and around 1985 the American collector Jeffrey Vogel managed to purchase both cars, both in poor condition and requiring skilled restoration; the better of these cars – the one presented here – was acquired by Robert M. Rubin and diligently restored to “semi-racer” specification.

Descriptions & pictures by bonhams & en.wheelsage & wikipedia & premierfinancialservices

Production Start 1908
Country of origin Italy