The world’s first Italian hypercar, the 1905 FIAT 60-hp, to appear at Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance

August 7, 2012

The 1905 FIAT 60 HP was the first high performance car specifically built for the ultra-rich to drive fast on public roads. This extremely important and coveted sole surviving example of the original twenty built will be seen and driven in public for the first time in over a half-century at the 2012 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.

It’s not often that I get totally psyched-up to see a single specific car at a top flight collector vehicle show like the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.  At the upcoming smorgasbord of automotive excellence on the 18th fairway there will be one four-wheeled masterpiece upon which I just can’t wait to lay my eyes.

Fiat is a featured marque for the 2012 event, so Olympia, Washington’s Bob “Sully” Sullivan will be bringing his 1905 FIAT 60-hp tourer.  Before the sighs of disappointment emit from the collective readership like the teacher just announced a pop quiz during the last hour of the final day of school, this car is not your average Fix-It-Again-Tony.  It’s the very best surviving road car from a time when FIAT was spelled with all capitals (it went to lower case in 1906) and the manufacturer advertised its products as “The Aristocrat of Auto Cars”.  If that isn’t enough for you, there’s this: upon hearing Sully had unearthed the car, and even though the field had already been selected for this year’s event, Pebble Beach Concours President Sandra Button personally called to ask that this Holy Grail of early motoring be exhibited.

Button has a great reason for extending her invitation.  She knows that many of the most respected collectors have laid accolades on this car, including a member of the LeMay family, who called it “the single best collector car on the planet”… including the McCaw’s recently acquired $35-million drool-worthy Ferrari GTO.  Sullivan’s 60-hp tourer is the lone survivor of the model considered to be the first Italian road-going hypercar for the ultra-rich, making it the granddaddy to the likes of the pre-war road-spec Alfa 8C, Lamborghini Miura, and Ferrari F40/F50/Enzo. This nearly entirely original example has just been woken from more than a half-century of sleep and has already cruised at modern legal highway speeds, which should also be a tip to its credentials.

Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino was founded in 1899 in Turin, four years before ITALA, and more than a decade before ALFA.  By 1904 the company’s race cars were competing and frequently winning all over world against rival Mercedes.  This translated into strong sales of its $9000 28-hp bread-and-butter customer road cars. Still, FIAT wanted to capitalize on its performance reputation, especially in America, where insanely wealthy robber barons were notorious for throwing money at expensive homes and toys.

FIAT commenced a program to match its newly-designed chassis with a 60-hp version of its race engine for customer road use. The company elected to keep high-strung 90 and 100-hp engines available only for pure racing cars.  The steel chassis, which replaced the 1904’s wood chassis, used a 5/8-inch thick aluminum scuttle and an aluminum bellypan to support a 10.6-liter T-head four-cylinder engine featuring a make-and-break ignition with revolutionary automatic advance.  Transmission, gears and nickel-steel axles were of the same specifications as used on factory racing cars until 1912. Every single part on the car was numbered, and all cast parts were hand-filed to remove every trace of imperfection.  Even the crankcase came perfectly scraped.  By 1905 only twenty chassis and engine combinations were completed.

According to the oral history of the vehicle, Manhattan-based Hollander and Tangeman, the sole FIAT agents in the United States, ordered this $13,500 special short chassis 60-hp package with upgraded 100-hp Grand Prix racing sprockets on behalf of brewing tycoon August Anheuser Busch, Sr..  It shipped from Italy to luxury coachbuilder Quinby in Newark, New Jersey.   Quinby had patented a new type of body construction, which it applied to this FIAT chassis.  The all-aluminum skin was affixed to a wood frame, then the craftsmen used brass moldings to eliminate evidence of seams. No fasteners were visible, as all were affixed from inside the cabin, then covered by hand with silver solder.   It was an amazingly labor-intensive process, which justified the $4,000 price of the five passenger touring body.

In the days when $600 bought the top-selling “Curved Dash” Oldsmobile Model R with 5-hp and a 20-mph top speed,  $17,500 for a 60-hp FIAT was simply uncharted territory in terms of price and performance.  Among the other nineteen 60-hp  clients were Kaiser Wilhelm II and one of the famed car-crazy Vanderbilts.  Needless to say, there were many ruffled feathers when those in Germany learned all three had replaced their Mercedes with Italian FIATs.

The FIAT spent thirty years with its first owner.  In 1935, Connecticut collector James Melton bought the FIAT from the estate of Busch, who had committed suicide a year earlier to end agonizing pain from ongoing medical ailments. Just six years later, Melton sold the car to a local friend, Don Miller. Mr. Miller was known to exhibit the vehicle and occasionally start the engine for amazed spectators, but he rarely drove it, if at all.  The same went for the car’s third owner, a very private Connecticut collector whose tenure with the FIAT started in 1973 and ended in 2012 when Sully and co-hort Dave Geisler acquired it and moved it out of the same seven mile radius in which it had stayed for the last 77 years.

Sully and Geisler found the car in a state not unlike an Egyptian tomb discovery.  Although it hadn’t run in decades, the car was original down to its assigned New York license plate.   Initial assessment identified only three non-factory parts: a small repainted panel section, an incorrect carburetor and non-factory magneto.  Sullivan smartly spotted the factory carburetor and magneto on the shelf near the car, making it entirely numbers-matching.

The car was sent to the rural Wisconsin shop of collector car wizard George Ktsanes.  Ktsanes set out to accomplish many tasks all with the goals of keeping the FIAT and its 107-year-old patina purely original and make it run like it did in 1905.  He carefully inspected all aspects trying to establish history, and then attended to every part of the car, carefully cleaning and addressing issues stemming from its long hibernation.  He refurbished the original carburetor and magneto to perfect operation and refit them to the car.  Ktsanes established that the fitted replacement magneto probably was the source of poor running causing the car to be removed from road use prior to WWII.  Being a traditional low-tension two-flux variety magneto running at crank speed, rather than the original’s special required four-flux cam speed, the 60-hp engine had long misfired on every other stroke.  With the proper parts rebuilt and installed, it now starts easier with the hand crank and idles nicely at a comically lazy 70 rpms.

Ktsanes told me he has already driven the car on his property, reaching speeds in the mid 50s.  If it weren’t for the value of the car and the lack of available road for the braking from higher speeds, the car would have tested its legs quite a bit more.  Speaking of brakes, Ktsanes says the pedal, which operates the two driveshaft brakes, actually works pretty well for the era.  The handbrake controls mechanical units on the rear wheels.   Luckily, even if the brakes aren’t to modern standards, at least people will hear the FIAT coming — the downward-pointing cutouts before the factory-fit mufflers blast a roaring mechanical cacophony strong enough to clear four square feet of pea-gravel with a single blip of the throttle.

There has been a lot of hubbub about other rare Fiats hitting the 18th Fairway at Pebble Beach this year, most notably Larz Anderson’s 1907 Tipo 50/60.  Not to take anything away from Mr. Anderson’s fabulous vehicle, but not only is his car a more widely produced (one of 116) non-competition-based 11-liter six-cylinder, it also doesn’t run.  So when the cars pull into Carmel on August 16th for lunch during the Tour d’Elegance, the Anderson car definitely won’t be there.  From what I hear from Bob Sullivan, the 1905 FIAT will be on the Tour.

Now if I can just get him to save a 107-year old leather seat for me!  It would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ride in the car fit for a king …and a brewer, which fathered the market segment that spurred the creation of the most spectacular works of automotive art.