Rare Rides Icons: Isotta Fraschini, Planes, Boats, and Luxury Automobiles (Part IV)
Today we conclude the story of Isotta Fraschini, a company that started as a simple import business but rose quickly through racing successes to become one of the most highly regarded luxury car makers in the world. In our last entry, the Great Depression finished off IF’s last passenger car – the 8B – in 1934. Afterward, the company moved on to heavy truck manufacture alongside its marine and aeronautical engines. Said trucks were still in production when Isotta Fraschini launched a grand final attempt at a return to the luxury passenger car market.
While Mussolini’s fascist government was directing Isotta Fraschini on what to build and where to build it, some of the top brass and engineers at Isotta Fraschini still felt the company should return to passenger cars. Thus while World War II raged on outside, a secret skunkworks project began in 1943. The new car would be the first post-war offering from IF and return the company to its former glory. The project could be developed fully but would be on hold until normal commercial production resumed after the war – whenever that might be.
The new car went in a very different direction to other Isotta Fraschini offerings and had almost nothing in common with the company’s prior portfolio. Designed as a sportier luxury sedan, coupe, and convertible, the Isotta Fraschini of the Forties was smooth and aerodynamic. The body had integrated headlamps and fenders, and an overall bathtub-shaped design with a split windshield. Large single headlamps accompanied lower driving lamps, placed between a grille that was flush with the front clip. Not a single hard edge was found on the design, which IF called the Tipo 8C Monterosa. Sedan bodies were built by Zagato, while the two-door sedan was constructed at Touring, and convertibles were completed by Boneschi. The overall look was elegant and modern for the period. No matter the body type, the 8C had room for six adult passengers. The shape was penned by Vieri Rapi, who usually drew fighter plane designs.
Engineering (an Isotta Fraschini strong suit) was all-new as well, as the 8C adopted a rear-engine, rear-drive layout. Noted engine designer Aurelio Lampredi (1917-1989) drew up the new power plant and worked at IF after a stint at Piaggio where he engineered Vespa engines. The engine used overhead valves and overhead cams and was theoretically offered in three different displacements. Engine variety was a first for the company, which branched from its firm prior stance of one chassis, one engine. The V8’s displacement was 2.5, 3.0, or 3.4 liters. Buyers could expect around 125 horsepower, a top speed of 106 miles per hour, and 19 miles per gallon consumption. The engine was water-cooled, and a hemi to boot. Delivering power to the rear wheels was a four-speed manual transmission, with a column-mounted shifter.
The 8C’s 122-inch wheelbase was significantly shorter than the company’s pre-war offerings; recall the standard 8A used a 145-inch wheelbase. The 8C had a scant curb weight of 3,190 pounds or about the same as a modern Chevy Malibu. The low weight figure was due to the lightweight construction of the engine, transmission, and rear differential. They were made from high-tech Elektron aluminum alloys. Elektron is still in business today and makes super-light magnesium racing car components. The 8C used a fully independent suspension with hydraulic shock absorbers all around, as well as rubber elastic suspension components at the rear. Unusually, the 8C was self-jacking for maintenance purposes: There were hydraulic jacks located in all four corners that could be activated via a dashboard switch.
As World War II concluded in 1945 and normal production resumed globally, Isotta Fraschini put the finishing touches on its new car. The technologically advanced and unusual 8C Monterosa debuted in 1947 at the Paris Motor Salon. IF had already built a handful of examples for the 8C’s triumphant debut, but it didn’t go too well. The public was not exceedingly interested in the funky-looking 8C and had moved on to other luxury offerings. Also a factor: IF’s finances were a complete mess after the war, and it was hardly a time to venture into luxury cars again.
After the 8C’s flop, the company went through several corporate restructuring efforts to keep ownership of its Italian assembly plants, which still built engines and heavy-duty trucks. By 1955 all truck production was finished. IF managed to keep two 8C prototypes in their own hands, and though they were functional that’s as far as the Monterosa ever got. Both 8Cs IF kept were two-door, one a coupe and the other a convertible. Five or six total Monterosas were produced. IF’s remaining auto assembly plant was converted to make marine engines instead.
IF’s truck production of the D80 and D65 concluded in 1955, and the company merged with another engine maker, Breda Motori. The resultant firm was called F.A. Isotta Fraschini e Motori Breda. The newly combined company saw more commercial success and made trolleys in the late Fifties. IF-MB also built a new diesel plant in Bari, Italy.
Moving forward as a smallish enterprise, the company reorganized again in the Eighties. Its engine business was split out separately as Isotta Fraschini Motori SpA, and the company was absorbed as a subsidiary of Fincateri. Fincateri is an Italian shipbuilding firm based in Trieste, Italy, and was established in 1959. They are presently the fourth largest shipbuilder in the world and construct military and commercial vessels. Fincateri relocated IF’s headquarters from Milan to the old Bari diesel plant. Meanwhile, IF branched out into another small division: Isotta Fraschini Milano, a maker of luxury retail goods.
In the mid-Nineties, there was a renewed interest in IF’s return to luxury cars, and someone at Fincateri must’ve left some money lying around. IF commissioned famed designer Tom Tjaarda to create a new luxury two-door, the T8 Coupe. T8 was unveiled in 1996 at the Geneva Motor Show. With an aluminum body, four-wheel drive, and a 4.2-liter V8 from Audi, the T8 sounded almost like an early Audi Super TT.
But the T8 sort of looked like a Lincoln-Audi-Fiat amalgam. Plans were put in place to build the T8 at a former weapons plant in the south of Italy, but the T8 never went beyond the concept stage. Just like the 8c of 1947. But IF wasn’t done spending money on concepts and went even bigger in 1998 when they debuted the T12 Coupe. Much like the T8, it was aluminum, four-wheel drive, and available as coupe and Spyder. Now, there was a V12 under the hood. Supposedly the V12 made 400 horsepower and given it was 1998 must have come from Ferrari or Lamborghini. Right? Details are very scant on the T12.
The T12 looked very similar to the T8 and wore the same body. It differentiated itself via a slightly different front clip and a more upright, Monterosa-like grille. With multi-spoke wheels, the T12 seemed more for the grand touring end of the market, with T8 as a sports coupe. Like the T8, the T12 went precisely nowhere.
Isotta Fraschini was mostly dead by that point and entered bankruptcy in 1999. By 2000 the company’s remaining (and scant) automotive-related assets were sold off, while the Motori division remains today, building engines. It seems the luxury goods IF Milano division didn’t last long, but is not entirely dead. The company has an active website dated 2019, which shows the rear lamps of a new supercar and the old 1930s tag line “No Two Alike.” Make of that what you will.
[Images: Isotta Fraschini; YouTube]
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Interesting how the 8C was conceived in the early 40s but looks like a mid-50s design. Very forward-thinking.
The interesting thing about both IF and Lancia was that their steering wheels were on the British side, RHD. This despite the fact the Italians drove on the right after Mussolini so decreed in 1923 . Apparently this was because ditches were such charming things to observe in detail. So, I'm not sure about that chassis pic. Google the IF 8C for images and you'll see the steering wheel on the British/Japanese side. Lancia reluctantly offered the option of LHD from about 1953 if you just HAD to have it. Commercial realities and the entrance to the US market in 1957 meant they finally went LHD for the most part.