1947-1948 Isotta Fraschini 8C Monterosa

Isotta Fraschini
David Durochik

The 1947-1948 Isotta Fraschini 8C Monterosa provided a last glimpse at glory from what had been one of the world's top automakers before the market for its luxurious products dried up in the early 1930s. Then, in the wake of World War II, came dreams of a revival.

The scars of world war were still fresh across Europe in the lean year of 1947, both on the landscape and throughout societies seeking to reorganize themselves after horrible years of devastation. That's why it seemed astonishing to the car world that former Italian luxury maker Isotta Fraschini had sensational plans to revive its lost glory.

The vehicle for this attempted renaissance would be the Tipo 8C Monterosa, named for the Via Monterosa, the Milan street upon which Isotta Fraschini's shops had stood during its greatest days. However, by 1947, Isotta Fraschini was a name nearly forgotten after 13 years of inactivity as a luxury carmaker (though the manufacture of trucks and engines for boats and aircraft sustained it through the 1930s and 1940s). The development of the revolutionary new luxury car in the works was inseparably linked with the name of an extraordinary engineer: Fabio Rapi.

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Given that it has been more than 50 years since Isotta Fraschini last made a car, it may not be possible for the modern automobile enthusiast to fully appreciate the significance of the 8C Monterosa project without some background. Having made their initial foray into the automobile business as importers of French cars, Cesare Isotta and Vincenzo Fraschini next formed a company that would lead, in 1902, to the production of the first car to bear their names. In 1905, engineer Giustino Cattaneo joined the company as technical director. It was he who was to lead Isotta Fraschini over the next 30 years to become a perfect example of world-class car manufacturing.

The firm produced numerous highly regarded models prior to World War I, including some internationally famed racers. (Among the advances attributed to Isotta Fraschini in this period was the first use of four-wheel brakes.) During the Great War, Italian naval and air forces were well served by Isotta Fraschini engines.

The first completely new design announced after the war, the Tipo 8 of 1919, launched a new single-model policy. The ingeniously constructed, near-perfectly built 6.0-liter ohv inline eight-cylinder engine of the Tipo 8 -- regarded as the world's first series-production straight eight -- was held in the same esteem as the powerplants in Rolls-Royces and Hispano-Suizas.

Reliability, technical refinements, and the sedate elegance of coachbuilt bodies made Isotta Fraschini well known far beyond Italy's borders. Above all, there were always solvent clients in the United States. By 1924, the year in which a more powerful Tipo 8A was first shown, sales branches had been established in London, Brussels, New York, Buenos Aires, and other cities with their fair share of extremely well-heeled motorists. Emperors and kings, movie stars, tycoons, boxing champions -- even Pope Pius XI -- swore by this automobile.

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1931-1934 Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8B

The first Zagato-bodied sedan featured prominent vents for the 8C's rear side-mounted radiators.
The first Zagato-bodied sedan featured prominent vents for the 8C's rear side-mounted radiators.
David Durochik

In spring 1931, the improved Tipo 8B was introduced. The engine block, pistons, and connecting rods of its 7.4-liter eight-in-line were made of a new nickel-steel alloy. Output climbed to 160 bhp at 3000 rpm. A three-speed transmission remained standard equipment, but a four-speed Wilson pre-selective gearbox could be ordered.

Unfortunately, there was little welcome for such a car. The stock-market crisis of 1929 that touched off the Great Depression in the United States dried up the pool of wealthy Americans who had been good customers for earlier Isotta Fraschinis. Shock waves from the crash were felt in other countries as well, further reducing the ranks of potential purchasers for a marque that relied on exports.

The U.S. price for a bare Tipo SB chassis was nearly $10,000 when a complete 1931 V-16 Cadillac cost at most about $8,800. Bugatti, Packard, and Mercedes-Benz also had fantastic reputations, and their cars were dramatically less expensive. Even in the best of times, Isotta Fraschini only constructed about 100 cars annually; after the Depression set in, the market for luxury cars naturally declined and this number decreased from year to year to mere handfuls of production thereafter.

Not that the company didn't attempt steps to improve its position. Messrs. Isotta and Fraschini bowed out of the firm's affairs in 1922. The succeeding ownership, headed by Count Lodovico Mazzotti, undertook negotiations with none other than Henry Ford in 1930-1931 for a manufacturing deal that could have pumped new life into the Milanese factory's car-making operations. But these talks faced one imposing obstacle.

The motoring press got its first peek at the car at the 1947 Mille Miglia. By then, a front-mounted radiator was fitted and Zagato had revised the bodywork.
David Durochik

Benito Mussolini -- II Duce (The Leader) -- and his Fascist Party were in complete control of Italy's industry and commerce. Intent both on keeping Isotta Fraschini focused on building aero engines for Italy's rearmament and opposing foreign investment, the government prohibited all further contact with the Americans.

Cattaneo resigned in 1933. His leaving brought to an end the era of a glorious automobile. Six months later, in the summer of 1934, the last Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8B left the assembly line, only 30 units having been produced since 1931.

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Wartime Production of 1947-1948 Isotta Fraschini 8C Monterosa

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David Durochik

The Mazzotti group's management having given up as well, in 1935, Isotta Fraschini was purchased by Caproni, a leading aircraft manufacturer. The systematic manufacture of engines for ships and planes, Isotta Fraschini's most recent specialization, ran full speed ahead. The plants, in which luxury cars were once assembled by hand, were used for the mass production of trucks built under license from M.A.N. of Germany.

At the same time, in a little studio at the plant's original site, special plans were being drawn up that had no resemblance to weaponry. A group of outstanding designers, inspired by imagination and solidarity, had not lost their unshakable optimism.

Giuseppe Merosi, director of truck manufacturing, and Fabio Rapi, a young and very talented engineer, began designing a six-cylinder sedan with a modern 3.0-liter ohv engine expected to perpetuate the glorious tradition of the Isotta Fraschini, but which would move within a completely different price range. This work, however, was abruptly halted by the Fascists' "men in black."

Did this mark the end of a dream? No. Rapi's diligence was limitless. As early as 1938, he secretly gathered a small team of colleagues to develop yet another, even more sensational new Isotta Fraschini. In cooperation with Aurelio Lampredi, who in years to come would create wonderful designs for Ferrari and Fiat, Rapi strove to realize his unique technical vision. However, the outbreak of World War II shattered their initial optimism.

While the battlefields claimed their terrible tributes, the men working in the Isotta Fraschini factory struggled to stay abreast of technical progress despite their ongoing shift work. Rapi's later car construction would profit from the experience gained through the manufacture of airplane engines. He had set high standards for this automobile, whose ongoing secret design meant that it was ready for production immediately following the war.

The first drafts, which were based on conventional automotive technology, were completed in 1938 and eventually included a more advanced version of the last Tipo 8B of 1934. Over the years, however, he discarded all traditional design details.

Limited as he was to Axis-controlled countries, Rapi still hoped to exchange know-how with experts. He went to Czechoslovakia, which had been occupied by Nazi Germany. There, he was impressed by the bold design of the Tatra automobile. These streamlined cars with air-cooled eight-cylinder rear engines pointed the way ahead.

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Precursor to the 1947-1948 Isotta Fraschini 8C Monterosa

For the Paris Motor Show, Carozzeria Touring prepared an elegant two-door sedan.
For the Paris Motor Show, Carozzeria Touring prepared an elegant two-door sedan.
David Durochik

In 1943, the so-called Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8C car began exhibiting the characteristics for which it would be known. For his car, Rapi chose a rigid platform construction with the chassis welded to an internal body frame. This particular design, which withstood extensive stability checks at the Caproni aircraft factory, was intended to serve as a model for various body designs like those of the most luxurious full-chassis European cars produced prior to the war. Conventional European unibody construction had heretofore been unable to meet those standards.

In July 1943 -- only days before the Allied invasion of Sicily, which marked the beginning of the end of the regime of terror in Italy -- the work done by Rapi and his colleagues was briefly jeopardized. Searching for saboteurs, Mussolini's henchmen entered the engineer's small office (by now situated in Saronno, near Milan, due to the bombardments) and discovered the prohibited plans for a passenger car. Rapi outwitted them by explaining away the drawings as plans for military speedboats. These "specialists" were not able to recognize them as sketches for a car!

At the time, the Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8C was progressing rapidly. In keeping with the international trend, Lampredi had developed a water-cooled V-8 engine with hemispherical combustion chambers and a 90-degree block, predictive of the FirePower V-8 Chrysler would put into mass production beginning in 1951. The innovative slanted overhead-valve design was actuated by one overhead camshaft per cylinder head. During the developmental stage, different displacements were realized. Lampredi began with a 2.5-liter engine, later increased to 3.0 liters, then to 3.4 liters. It is very interesting to note that the engine, gearbox, and differential were combined in a single block constructed from a special light-metal alloy.

Assembly of the prototypes was complicated by a shortage of available materials after 1945. Rapi and his colleagues drove hundreds of miles with a bare chassis made roadworthy with the addition of simple fenders and a windscreen. The first 8C body, a sedan, was fashioned by Zagato. The Milan coachbuilder created a classic streamlined body with a striking resemblance to the Tatra. This prototype was equipped with ultimately ineffectual rear side radiators.

A second Zagato-bodied prototype relied on a front radiator of conventional appearance, but it was backed by a complicated and very costly system that seemingly offered the only solution to cure the heating problems. (It remains a mystery as to whether there were two different chassis, or if Zagato had only modified the prototype, which was probably the case. Similarly, the question of whether the chassis of the first Zagato prototype lies within the body of one of the few surviving cars remains unanswered.)

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The 1947-1948 Isotta Fraschini 8C Monterosa Design

Aside from the two-door sedan, Carozzeria Touring also built a four-door.
Aside from the two-door sedan, Carozzeria Touring also built a four-door.
David Durochik

In the midst of the excitement surrounding the opening of the most famous car race in Italy, the Mille Miglia, the modified sedan was previewed to the international press in 1947. Official presentation of the 1947-1948 Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8C Monterosa took place in October 1947 at the Paris Motor Show in the Grand Palais.

The car now had a body built by Carozzeria Touring, a fashionable two-door sedan that was less aerodynamic, boxier, and had a long deck. The end of the decade of streamlined cars had been ushered in by Kaiser and Studebaker where, respectively, Howard Darrin and Raymond Loewy had created the look of the future. Touring had thus conjoined this new, American-led postwar design ethic with Rapi's innovations.

At a wheelbase of 122 inches, this sedan with right-hand drive, which was standard in Italy at the time, had enormous dimensions. The elegant fender line and teardrop taillights were quite unique; the frameless windshield and the plastic rear window were quite unusual at that time. A Plexiglass sunroof could be covered from the inside with a fabric blind; the seats were upholstered with durable camel's hair of the kind normally used for coats. Attractive solutions like a spare tire that could be pulled out of a small compartment under the radiator or dashboard instruments hidden under a lid were proof of Rapi's devotion to details.

Given its aluminum body, the car weighed only 3,190 pounds. The sheet-metal concealed an independent front suspension with wishbones and a rear swing axle. At first, there were no coil or leaf springs on the chassis, but, rather, new rubber elements. However, tests revealed that conventional coil springs were more effective.

The semi-automatic transmission was fully synchronized and equipped with an overdrive. The car had a Weber two-barrel carburetor; output ranged between 115 and 125 net bhp. Maximum speed, however, was listed as exceeding 100 mph.

Rapi and his team had nearly achieved the impossible: the genesis of a novel luxury car satisfying the highest technical and design standards under the most extreme circumstances. The Monterosa held the road so well that the promotional tours became triumphant processions for the car-crazed Italians, and articles in rare test publications heralded the renaissance of a majestic automobile.

The convertible's body detailing will remind American car buffs of a late-1940s Buick Roadmaster.
David Durochik

Aside from the two-door sedan, Touring also built a sleek four-door sedan. More remarkable, however, were the two impressive convertibles made by Carozzeria Boneschi. (Again, there is some question of these being two different vehicles or merely the same car with slight modifications.) The Boneschi convertible functioned beautifully and was immaculate. The impressive dashboards of the Touring two-door sedan and the Boneschi convertible were quite similar, a contrast to the vast differences in their external sheetmetal.

Some of the extra gadgets on the convertible include a spring device to open the doors like that of the first Lincoln Continental. A small lever released the metal top cover, while another mechanism raised the hinged fender skirts, exposing the rear wheels. Hydraulic jacks activated from the dashboard were installed in all four wheelhouses.

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The 1947-1948 Isotta Fraschini 8C Monterosa Presentation

The 1947-1948 Isotta Fraschini 8C Monterosa was rife with devices to perform all sorts of tasks, including a mechanism to raise the hinged fender skirts. Onboard hydraulic jacks were located in all the wheelhouses.
The 1947-1948 Isotta Fraschini 8C Monterosa was rife with devices to perform all sorts of tasks, including a mechanism to raise the hinged fender skirts. Onboard hydraulic jacks were located in all the wheelhouses.
David Durochik

A grandiose presentation catalog prepared for the Paris show contained a host of specialized cars in addition to the Isotta Fraschini 8C Monterosa that were meant to mesmerize potential buyers with the promise of a return to unique, handcrafted, and sensuously styled coach-built bodies. A long, black six-window-sedan was suggested as the car for driving in town.

A more streamlined pale green fastback sedan with hidden front wheels was advertised "for winter touring." While the beige-and-maroon, long-deck, four-window sedan "for rapid travel" brought to mind a zeppelin, the four-window sedan with rear suicide doors echoed a Hooper-bodied Rolls-Royce in its black and dark blue livery.

A convertible "for seaside holidays," available in cream and black, and equipped with an adjustable windshield, was similar to the original Boneschi convertible. So was another convertible available in dark green with a maroon top, said to be "for young sportsters." Isotta Fraschini also presented a five-window "business coupe" in two-tone gray and sporting orange wheels. But by far the most dazzling was the befinned, violet, streamlined, six-window car "for the autostrada."

A four-door convertible in light blue with a dark blue top "for summer touring" was seen in a more serious light, as was a light gray-and-black sedanca. Another more flamboyant four-door, three-position convertible in yellow and black was proposed "for the four seasons." And, naturally, an Italian red racing version featuring a tall rear fin could not be excluded from this catalog.

All of the sketches of these proposed automobiles were drawn by Rapi himself. The closed cars displayed his favored generous use of glass, often extremely rounded and forming a part of the roof. The designs were unparalleled at the time, but never got beyond the planning stage.

Rapi's intention was to take the Isotta Fraschini to the United States, conquer the upper end of the lucrative American automobile market, and thus secure the marque's future. But his obsession with perfection and luxury (he often demanded that even the slightest blemishes be completely reworked in order to obtain a flawless car body) indicated his apparent misapprehension of the times.

Indicative of his delusion was that the going price of the Touring-bodied two-door sedan was about $10,000; the most expensive chauffeur-driven limousines offered by Cadillac and Packard in 1947 cost slightly less than half that. A leap across the Atlantic remained a pipe dream.

There was no relief to be found "at home" either. Europe had been destroyed. Italy was in a state of destitution. In France, the wealthy were eager to buy luxury automobiles, but the government imposed such an excessive luxury tax -- even beyond that in Italy -- that entering the market was futile. In the years following the war, there was, of course, a fundamental shortage of passenger cars in Europe. What Europeans required were utility vehicles and small, economical cars.

Isotta Fraschini was part of the Caproni group, which, faced with limited opportunities to sell aircraft in a virtually demilitarized Italy, attempted to turn to the manufacture of vehicles and industrial products under the CEMSA-Caproni Holding banner. It was hoped that in this way, Isotta Fraschini could be resurrected.

A new management employed engineer Alessandro Baj to oversee potential export opportunities, but innovative modification proposals, which included a 12-cylinder engine and automatic transmission, were shot down. The sheer multitude of differing opinions regarding the rebuilding of Italian industry brought activity to a halt. The influential Communist Party and trade union organizations were opposed to the extravagance of luxury-car production.

In addition, the government flatly refused to provide the necessary subsidies. Meanwhile, the company itself had invested precious resources in the development of the CEMSA-Caproni Tipo F11, a proposed mass-market car with a modern, four-cylinder flat engine and front-wheel drive. The Monterosa and F11 were exhibited together for the last time at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1949. Isotta Fraschini went into liquidation in September 1949 and CEMSA-Caproni dissolved as a company shortly thereafter.

Half a century later, it is not possible to ascertain just how many Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8C Monterosas were actually built. There may have been as few as three and likely no more than six.

The attempt to resurrect a model of automotive excellence was a definitive failure. It was only due to repeated restructuring of the holding company that Isotta Fraschini was able to maintain its Italian plants and preserve a pair of prototypes to this day.

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