28.5-litre Fiat S76 runs for first time in over 100 years
Back in November 2011 I wrote a long post about the history of the aeroplane-engined motor car and included many incredible examples of much machines, such as the mighty 21½-litre Blitzen Benz from 1909, Fiat's 21.7-litre Mephistopheles, plus later additions like 47-litre BMW Brutus and the similarly-displacing Packard-Bentley Mavis. Now it is the turn of another of those century-old leviathans to come under the spotlight - the 1911 Fiat S76.
Built in response to the land speed record-setting Blitzen Benz from two years previously, the S76 contained all of Fiat's technological know-how from its Grand Prix racing experiences of the early 1900s. At the time, the only way to reliably extract a great deal of motive power from an engine was to make it as large as possible (hence the proliferation of monster-engined GP cars during that period, as well as the aforementioned use of aeroplane engines). Thus it was that Fiat produced a gargantuan 28½-litre powerplant that put out nearly 300bhp - a fantastic figure for the time and almost twice as much as the Benz! Featuring technology that would not look out of place in a modern engine, including four valves per cylinder and overhead cams with multi-spark ignition, the Fiat motor shared one thing in particular with its Mercedes counterpart - it was designed from the outset to power a motor car and a motor car alone; it never saw use as an aeroplane engine.
Only two examples of the S76 (fittingly named The Beast of Turin) were built, between Autumn 1910 and Spring 1911, and in the following two years they set numerous speed records around the globe, including runs of 125mph at the Brooklands circuit in Surrey and Saltburn beach in Yorkshire as well as a 180mph flying mile at Long Beach, New York! It was in December 1913, however, that an attempt was first made on the World Land Speed Record that was held by a Blitzen Benz at 126mph. French-American racing driver Arthur Duray, who had previously broken the land speed record three times between July 1903 and March 1904 (at 83mph, 85mph and 89mph), would be at the wheel for the record-breaking run at Ostend in Belgium.
Sadly, although the S76 used for the attempt was clocked at a magnificent 134mph a series of misfortunes ultimately denied the Fiat the record. Inconsistent speed readings dogged the event (you can see from the accompanying footage just how rudimentary some of the measuring techniques were!) and the timings for each run, which have always been important for land speed records, were thrown into chaos by a recalcitrant tram driver who refused to alter his timetable along the seaside road being used for the attempt (yes, these chaps were really doing 130+mph next to tram tracks on a promenade road!). Therefore the ultimate top speed remained unverified and the record unofficial; eight months later the First World War would sweep away all ideas of record attempts. One of the S76 was sold to a Russian driver with the chassis later being used as a basis for a post-war racing car, the second was retained by Fiat and survived the war but never ran again under its own power. The subsequent fate of it remains shrouded in the mists of time.
Fast forward to a couple of years ago, when British vintage motor-racing enthusiast Duncan Pittaway managed to unearth the chassis of the record-attempting S76 - which had somehow ended up in Australia! This was brought back to the UK and has since been reunited with the surviving engine from the other S76. After a long period of restoration and rebuilding - with not a few little hiccoughs along the way - the sole remaining Fiat S76 is running again for the first time since 1913! And what a sound! It's remarkable to see it, in colour, in 2015 - to marvel at its massive engine, as tall as a man, the power and torque literally rocking the car on its springs. What bravery Duray must have had to drive the thing at 135mph (he was actually quoted as saying that third gear "called upon all of his knowledge as a racing driver" and fourth [gear] required "the courage of 100 men")!
Mr Pittaway and his team are to be congratulated for such skill and devotion in bringing this monster back to life and I'm delighted to see it in such rude health after 100 years' sleep. The Beast of Turin is scheduled to appear at this year's Goodwood Festival of Speed (25th-28th June 2015) and with luck many more events in the future, where it will doubtless thrill and deafen a whole new generation - I hope to be among them!