Itala SA – the Big Racer


Itala SA: 1905 Coppa Florio, 1906 Targa Florio, 1907 Peking to Paris motor race driven by Count Scipione Borghese.

c. 43 x 25.5 cm. (17 x 10 inches)

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Itala SA Fabbrica Automobili of Turin: The brothers Ceirano were influential in the founding of the Italian auto industry. In 1888, after eight years apprenticeship at his father’s watch-making business, Giovanni Battista started building bicycles and Giovanni Battista and Matteo co-founded Ceirano GB & C and started producing the Welleyes car in 1899 when the plant and patents were sold to Giovanni Agnelli and produced as the first F.I.A.T.s – the Fiat 4 HP.   Giovanni Battista was employed by Fiat as agent for Italy, but within a year he left to found Fratelli Ceirano & C. which built cars badged as ‘Rapid’. In 1904 Matteo Ceirano left Ceirano GB & C to create his own brand – Itala. Three cars were offered in the first year, an 18 hp, a 24 hp and a 50 hp. In 1905 they started making very large engined racing cars with a 14.8 Litre 5-cylinder model which won the Coppa Florio and the year after that the Targa Florio. In 1907 a 7,433 cc (453.6 cu in) 35/45 hp model driven by Count Scipione Borghese won the Peking to Paris motor race by three weeks.

Itala: the first large shaft-driven car to win a major race, the 1905 Coppa Florio. Cagno’s stripped Itala touring model was first in the 1906 Targa Florio, and a similar Itala car won the Pekin-Paris marathon of 1907.

The piston diameter on this car was 175 mm and the stroke 160 mm;  when running at 1200 rpm it was giving 8.4 bhp/litre and 85 psi at 1160 ft/min piston speed. The cylinders were cast in pairs with overhead inlet valves worked by push rods and side exhaust valves. These cylinders were bolted to a cast aluminium crankcase divided on the centre line of the crankshaft which had only three bearings.  The arrangements for lubricating the bearings and firing the charge were unusual.  A pulley on the back of the camshaft, driven by gears from the nose of the crankshaft, drove eight pistons in a small cylinder block which lived, submerged in oil, in a box on the dashboard. These pumps each fed oil to the required engine bearings, the connecting rods having scoops on their caps dipping into troughs placed beneath them, with supplementary oiling provided by a mechanic working a hand pump with this item needed to feed oil to the rocker gear and the cylinder walls. It was the duty of the riding mechanic to use a hand pump to set up pressure, subsequently sustained by a connection to the exhaust system, in the rear-mounted 40-gallon fuel tank from which petrol was delivered to a simple carburettor of Itala design.
Fuel/air mixture was fed into the engine by a Y-shaped inlet pipe and after compression ( in the ratio of about 4.5 : 1) it was whilst the engine is turned by hand, fired by conventional sparking plugs from a Bosch high-tension magneto. For some reason the car was some 10 mph faster – and must therefore have been developing some 30 per cent greater bhp — if switched over to low-tension plugs in which an external cam driven by a vertical shaft from the camshaft moved a steel wiper which opened up a spark gap inside the cylinder. The spark was made at low tension by means of a 6-volt battery and a coil feeding current through the distributor of the magneto.  Common to many cars at this time was the flywheel in which a rim embraced vane-shaped spokes which, with a close-fitting cowl beneath the sump, aided air flow to the radiator and compensated for the inefficient heat exchangers of the time. The flywheel also included a 52-plate clutch from which the drive was taken by a short shaft to a four-speed gearbox.

The car (along with French manufacturer Hotchkiss) also used a unique transmission system utilising a propellor shaft with two joints, with the rear axle bolted directly to the springs which were alone relied upon to take up both driving and braking torque. With the flexible suspension used on the racing cars of this time, this seemed dangerous, but the very flexibility of the drive conferred a number of unexpected advantages.  The system became standard on most new vehicles for the next 25 years.

For an interesting look at the history of the Itala brand see

Additional information

Dimensions 43 × 25.5 cm