Rare Rides Icons: Isotta Fraschini, Planes, Boats, and Luxury Automobiles (Part I)

Corey Lewis
by Corey Lewis

Founded at the turn of the 20th century, Isotta Fraschini dabbled in different modes of transportation during the handful of decades the original company was operational. Though it ended up as a luxury carmaker to rival the likes of Mercedes-Benz, the founders of Isotta Fraschini never intended to make a car at all.

The four men who founded Isotta Fraschini began working together in 1899 and had a simple business model: Imports. In Bari, Italy, Cesare Isotta and brothers Antonio, Oreste, and Vincenzo Fraschini imported automobiles from France, specifically Mors (1897-1925) and Renault (1899-). The foursome also imported French engines from L’Aster (1878-1910), a company that built a few of its own cars but was primarily an engine supplier to over 130 brands.

Business up and running, Isotta Fraschini was founded proper on January 27th, 1900 as Società Milanese Automobili Isotta, Fraschini & C., with paperwork filed in Milan. The company’s specific business purpose was the importation, sale, and repair of automobiles. For the first few years, the new company dabbled in assembling some cars that were very similar, but not exactly, Renaults. Using the readily available engines they’d imported from Aster, these early cars were very basic, built between 1901 and 1902, and had 6.5 horsepower. Called simply Runabout, the open-top cars were not copies because had a different radiator arrangement to the Renaults upon which they were based. The early cars were not officially badged as Isotta Fraschini, but the company was preparing to make the leap.

Said leap happened in 1904, when the first Isotta Fraschini branded car debuted. Powered by a four-cylinder engine of 24 horsepower, the company’s first car was short-lived and went without a discoverable name. That car was quickly supplanted by a race car called Tipo D, which Vincenzo Fraschini immediately took racing. The import company sought to establish itself with racing credentials before it put a passenger car into production. In 1905 the Tipo D was entered into the Coppa Florio, and impressed with its 17.2-liter, 120 horsepower engine. The engine was notable in its design: an overhead valve, overhead cam layout. Even with its massive displacement, it was still four cylinders. The Tipo D didn’t win in 1905, but it did win the 1907 Coppa Florio, and netted the brand and its race engine considerable prestige.

That same year, Isotta Fraschini went into a short-lived merger with French carmaker Lorraine-Dietrich, as the French firm bought the Italian startup. The merger netted two Lorraine-Dietrich cars with overhead cam engines of Isotta Fraschini design. In short order IF was independent again, and the company would continue to develop the overhead cam technology that was in production on the Lorraine-Dietrich cars.

In 1908 the Tipo D was succeeded by the Tipo FE. It was the company’s first race car produced in more than one example, as three total were made in its singular year in 1908. Officially the FE was designed by Guiseppe Stefanini and Giustino Cattaneo. Stefanini was the designer of the prior Tipo D, and Cattaneo was new to Isotta Fraschini. However, rumors abounded that Tipo FE was actually designed by Ettore Bugatti. The Tipo FE took a very different approach to the Tipo D’s, almost the complete opposite. Instead of 17.2 liters, the FE used a tiny 1.2-liter single overhead cam inline-four. With 18 horsepower the FE was designed to be as light as possible, the minimum 600kg (1,323 pounds) to qualify for the 1908 Grand Prix de Voiturettes. Its top speed was 59 miles per hour, with the engine loafing along at 2,500 RPM on a three-speed transmission.

The FE was more important for other companies than it was for Isotta Fraschini. It didn’t do well in its only race outing, with only two of the three cars finishing the race in 8th and 14th place. But the racer’s sophisticated engine showed the way forward at a time with single and two-cylinder cars populated tracks. The lightweight FE established itself as the example of a small sporty European car for other manufacturers to imitate. Unfortunately, none of the three FEs made it out of the pages of history alive.

FE was also the basis for Isotta Fraschini’s first production car. Developed very quickly and built from 1909 to 1910, the FENC was a race car for the road. With less than 100 examples produced it was very scarce. The inline-four engine was modified from the racing version, enlarged to 1.32 liters, and was lower stress. As a result, it produced just 14 horsepower. For greater usability, IF implemented a four-speed transmission. Top speed was between 46 and 52 miles per hour, dependent upon which wheel size was chosen. Four different FENCs were offered to appeal to different customers: A plain chassis, Tipo A (racer), and Tipo B and C, which added on luxury appointments. Tipo C was a hint of where the company was headed, with nicer upholstery and a leather roof. The FENC was not a big seller, as the car market had been shaken by the 1907 Bankers’ Panic in the United States. The lightweight voiturette style of car was also on its way out of fashion. Thus, IF’s first outing into the passenger car world was rather short-lived. Of less than 100 produced, five remain dotted around the world.

The Tipo D and FE would be Isotta Fraschini’s only forays into racing. In particular, the splashy entrance made by the Tipo D was enough to establish the company in the minds of enthusiasts, with the FE an impressive yet unsuccessful show of engineering prowess. The importation of Renaults seemed miles away by the close of 1909, as Isotta Fraschini decided to head in a new direction: luxury sports cars. More on that in Part II.

[Image: Isotta Fraschini]

Corey Lewis
Corey Lewis

Interested in lots of cars and their various historical contexts. Started writing articles for TTAC in late 2016, when my first posts were QOTDs. From there I started a few new series like Rare Rides, Buy/Drive/Burn, Abandoned History, and most recently Rare Rides Icons. Operating from a home base in Cincinnati, Ohio, a relative auto journalist dead zone. Many of my articles are prompted by something I'll see on social media that sparks my interest and causes me to research. Finding articles and information from the early days of the internet and beyond that covers the little details lost to time: trim packages, color and wheel choices, interior fabrics. Beyond those, I'm fascinated by automotive industry experiments, both failures and successes. Lately I've taken an interest in AI, and generating "what if" type images for car models long dead. Reincarnating a modern Toyota Paseo, Lincoln Mark IX, or Isuzu Trooper through a text prompt is fun. Fun to post them on Twitter too, and watch people overreact. To that end, the social media I use most is Twitter, @CoreyLewis86. I also contribute pieces for Forbes Wheels and Forbes Home.

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  • Sigfried Sigfried on Dec 09, 2021

    I tend to look at the new/used equation in the light of price vs percentage of Useful life remaining. In other words you're simply pre-paying depreciation. Last year I got my wife a new Pilot. 3 year old Pilots at that time were selling for 80% of average new transaction price. In my mind that means paying 80% of new for 70% of remaining usage if you figure a 10 year useful lifespan. (Yes, they may last 15-20 years, but after 10 years you start giving the mechanic the money you save on depreciation.) When my choice came down to $35k for a new one or $29k for 3 years old with 35k miles I considered new a better value. On the other hand, last spring I bought a 5 year old Sedona Minivan with 50k miles for $18k. Sticker on a new one in that trim was $37k, with average transactions going about $33k at that time. So I paid about 50% of new for 50% of remaining useful life. Figuring that I missed out on the warranty years, new may still have been a better value but I could do a cash deal on the lower price so avoided a second car payment. Checking KBB, trade in value on both of them is now about equal or even higher than retail was when I bought them.

  • Ajla Ajla on Dec 10, 2021

    1908? Wow, most of you guys were only in high school back then.

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