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The Isotta-Fraschini-Fiat Special – Photos by Stefan Marjoram

The British have long had a history of building “specials” which chances are, the first one may have been built well over 100 years ago. A special is just that, a car which is sometimes custom built with the use of components taken from many different makes.

Many of the specials built back in the period were constructed for racing originally and some of them are still used in vintage racing today. Others are still being constructed and what we have here is one that took many years to reach fruition, but finally did earlier this month. Graham Rankin who initially started the project and Mike Vardy who finished it up, took the 1014 cubic inch, Isotta-Fraschini-Fiat Special for its first ride ever and our friend Stefan Marjoram was there to film the occasion.

Fiat thought of building such a car and a drawing from 1905 by the company can be seen below. They had intended to use two four-cylinder engines joined together, with the same final drive arrangement but for some reason the car was never constructed.


Stefan Marjoram had the following to say about the Isotta-Fraschini-Fiat Special :

The car was never built by FIAT so there’s nothing left from any one original car. There’s a lot of discussion about whether a reverse chain is a good idea or not – perhaps FIAT decided it wasn’t. It was originally begun by Graham Rankin 20 years ago. He sourced the motor and worked on it for 13 years before selling it to Mike Vardy – who spent another 7 years to get it to where it is now.


Graham Rankin sent the following info along about the reverse chain drive and the IF engine in the following paragraph:

The reverse chain drive is “unusual”—in fact it is unique and has never been successfully employed on a semi-elliptical spring axle set-up before. The geometry and physics surrounding chain drive is complex and little understood by most people. In this instance where the chains drive forwards to the rear wheels there are some issues in relation to torque reaction under braking which we hope to have resolved by the use of very strong dampers keeping radius arms firmly parallel to the road.

Raymond Mays attempted something similar with the ERA Special in May 1950, borrowing parts from the BRM project and using the chain-cases as torque reaction arms. The suspension was olio-pneumatic but, because the mechanical moments were incorrectly calculated, the car actually proceeded like a kangaroo jumping into the air one moment when the loud pedal was clamped open, only to revert to earth another  moment later ! There was much politics involved I gather and the BRM parts had to be quickly returned (before they were missed !) and further development never took place.


The Isotta-Fraschini (Model V6—V for Vollo i.e. “flight” in Italian) aero-engine is 16 ½ litres, rated at 250 HP @1,650 rpm. Bore is 140 mm and stroke 180 mm—6 cylinders. Compression ratio is 5.1:1. Single overhead camshaft operating  two valves per cylinder. Torque is approximately 820 lbs/ft ! There is a gun synchronizer take-off at the front of the engine to avoid shooting off the propeller !

The engine came from the collection of Mr Gar Wood who bought up many surplus engines in the USA at the end of WW1 and used most in speed boats for Water Speed Record attempts. He was the American equivalent of Malcolm Campbell. When he died, the remnants of his collection were sold off and I was lucky enough to buy this one which had not run since (we think) 1921. The reason it was not used in a boat (mercifully—salt water is a killer !) was because of its long vertical stroke making visibility difficult, whereas vee engines (Hispano- Suiza etc) did not produce this problem and were consequently more popular.


Study the excellent photos that Stefan Marjoram has taken of the event and the car, he is also busy producing a film of the ocassion and we will be back with it soon along with many more black & white photos. Take a moment to visit Marjoram’s site and also look at his other work here on The Old Motor (scroll down).

And a big congratulations to all from us on the successful first fire-up and rides and also  for having the foresight to construct this machine. Without it we might never have known how Fiat’s idea would work or be able to enjoy it. Stay tuned for more.

11 responses to “The Isotta-Fraschini-Fiat Special – Photos by Stefan Marjoram

  1. Like so many things the Italians do, this, a wonderful piece of mechanized mobile art that is a steam punk lovers dream. Even though it doesn’t run on steam, it has all the right stuff. Fascinating, whimsical and unique.

    • Tom, Good question but I don’t know what all of them are either as most of them are probably aircraft as that is what the engine is.

      I believe that the pencil sharpener looking like device might be a staring magneto. At the top appears to be a rotary switch of some sort and the tee-handled device maybe a pump of some type. Hopefully someone will know and fill us in.

    • On cars of this age (without electrics) the one dial you need is a fuel pressure gauge. And this will be accompanied by a hand operated pump. The tank has a tight seal, you pump it up a little and as you use the fuel up you need to occasionally give it another pump or two. The other thing that’s nice to know is that oil is getting to all the important places and there are various ways to do that – look at these nice taps on a Daimler – they’re linked to little glass tubes which allow you to see the oil dripping on it’s way to the different parts of the engine and allow you to adjust the rate…

      I’ll have to check but it looks like the dials you see here are a speedo, fuel and oil pressure. The pump is I imagine for the oil as the fuel pump is on the floor between the driver and passenger. The ‘pencilsharpener’ is the magneto. Hope that helps!

  2. Wow, what an intriguing and beautiful machine, saw it this weekend at Prescott driven enthusiastically by Mike Vardy (nice guy). Hip, hip, hooray 🙂

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