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Coachwork by Carrozzeria Castagna Chassis no. 1485
Founded in Milan in 1900 by partners Cesare Isotta and the brothers Fraschini (Oreste, Vincenzo and Antonio) Isotta Fraschini began by importing French cars into Italy before commencing production of its own in 1902. The company grew rapidly and four years later was Italy’s second biggest motor manufacturer. In 1908 an Isotta Fraschini won the Targa Florio. The firm built many fine cars prior to The First World War, but is best remembered today for the Giustino Cattaneo-designed Tipo 8 and its derivatives.
Developed prior to WWI and introduced in August 1919 as the result of Isotta’s switch to a one-model policy, the massively built Tipo 8 was the world’s first series-production straight eight. Its magnificent engine was a 5.9-litre, overhead-valve unit producing 80bhp at a lowly 2,200rpm; a nine-bearing crankshaft, alloy cylinder block and magneto ignition were features. Chassis details included a three-speed gearbox, multi-plate clutch, semi-elliptic springing and coupled four-wheel brakes.
Conceived as a chauffeur-driven luxury conveyance, the Tipo 8 was aimed at the United States market where it was the choice of such world-famous film stars as Rudolph Valentino and ‘It Girl’ Clara Bow. Other Isotta owners included press baron William Randolph Hearst (Orson Wells’ real-life model for ‘Citizen Kane’) and world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey. In 1924 the revised Tipo 8A was introduced, which featured a 7.3-litre engine producing around 115bhp – making it he most powerful straight-eight in production – and Isotta’s highly regarded three-speed synchromesh transmission. Improvements to the chassis and suspension were implemented also.
The standard Tipo 8A had a lengthy wheelbase of 145” (almost 3.7 metres) but for its more sportily inclined customers Isotta offered the ‘S’ and ‘SS’ models, which had a 134” (3.4m) wheelbase frame. These short-wheelbase versions were often fitted with a high-compression engine and a higher axle ratio for high-speed driving. Three forward gears were considered more than enough, the Tipo 8 being capable of accelerating smoothly from walking pace to its maximum in top, while each car came with a factory guarantee that it was capable of 90mph. In the USA, where Isotta Fraschini was the second most popular foreign make after Rolls-Royce, the price of an 8A exceeded even that of a Duesenberg Model J. The chassis alone was priced at $9,750 while coachbuilt models could cost upwards of $20,000. With one third of all Tipo 8 production going to the United States, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the ensuing Depression hit Isotta hard. An improved Tipo 8B featuring a four-speed transmission was introduced in 1931 but it is thought that fewer than 100 examples were built compared with 320 of the Tipo 8 and 950 of the 8A. After Henry Ford’s plan to save the company failed, Isotta Fraschini was bought by aircraft manufacturer, Count Caproni di Talideo in 1932. Pre-war car production ceased in 1935, Isotta Fraschini concentrating on aero engines and trucks thereafter. There was an abortive comeback attempt in 1947 with a rear-engined V8, but the project foundered after relatively few cars had been completed.
This particular Tipo 8A – chassis number ‘1485’ – is believed to be the New York Auto Show car of 1929, which was displayed on the Castagna stand at the Hotel Commodore Automobile Salon in New York City. Milan-based Carrozzeria Castagna had been founded in the mid-19th Century when Carlo Castagna took over the carriage-making business of his erstwhile employer, a Mr. Ferrari. With the coming of motorised transport, Castagna turned to making motor bodies, specialising in the chassis of prestigious makes including Isotta Fraschini, Mercedes-Benz, Hispano Suiza, Daimler, Lancia, Duesenberg and Alfa Romeo. By 1920 Castagna was Italy’s biggest coachbuilder, with approximately 400 employees. However, the collapse of the American economy in the early 1930s and resulting closure of Isotta Fraschini was a serious blow to Castagna, which lost its biggest market and best customer at the same time. The firm went into decline, bodying its last cars in the early 1950s, but was revived in the mid-1990s and continues today.
Crafted from only the finest materials, this Tipo 8A’s interior features a wealth of detail, the splendid upholstery being matched by beautiful inlaid woodwork together with Art Deco grab handles. The attention to detail is quite exquisite, with all the brightwork on the car finished in polished nickel, while the Grebel headlamps are particularly noteworthy (Castagna were at the time official representatives of this famous French manufacturer). Proportionally this Isotta Fraschini is a visual delight, one’s gaze travelling from the beautiful radiator and correct period mascot along the extended bonnet to the sweeping wings, rear-mounted spare wheels and tool trays.
The car previously formed part of the famous Harrah Collection in Reno, Nevada, later passing into the ownership of Michel Seydoux, one of France’s premier collectors. Fully restored over a period of three years, in excellent mechanical running order,‘1485’ also boasts new paintwork and hood but retains its original interior. An entry (No. 008) at the world renowned 2008 Villa d’Este Concours d’Elegance, this wonderful motor car is now in perfect running condition and ready to enjoy, taking best of class even more recently at ‘Paleis Het Loo’ in 2008 in Holland and an award winner at Schloss Dyck in Germany.
In the 1979 James Bond movie Moonraker the car can be seen on the grounds of Hugo Drax.