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Isotta Fraschini, Planes, Boats, and Luxury Automobiles (Part III)

Isotta Fraschini advanced very quickly from its humble roots as a French car importer. Through racing recognition and the utmost attention to quality and engine technology, IF became one of the most well-regarded luxury car companies in the world. The firm’s first two large cars the Tipo 8 and 8A were considered on par with Rolls-Royce, and the company found buyers in the elite of America and Hollywood stars.

But the company’s fortunes changed in 1929 as The Great Depression bowed its head, and put a big dent in the ultra-luxury car market. The 8A concluded its run from 1924 to 1931 with under 1,000 total sales. IF was immediately ready with another super lux car as the world was still deep in The Great Depression, but company ownership attempted to pursue other passenger car avenues. And IF might’ve prospered were it not for fascist government intervention.

It’s worth noting that the successful Tipo 8 that put Isotta Fraschini on the luxury map was the last car designed by the company’s original 1899 founders group. Cesare Isotta and the remainder of the Fraschini brothers handed the company reigns over Count Lodovico Mazzotti in 1922, and history would decide that their departure happened to be very good timing.

As the dual American Isotta Fraschini dealers sold the reworked Tipo 8 that was the 8A and sales fell off during The Depression, the Count was negotiating with a manufacturer not too far from the company’s Chicago showroom. He’d contacted good old Henry Ford about manufacturing Isotta Fraschini cars. Presumably, this would have fundamentally altered the expensive hand-built Italian nature of the brand and turned it into a more mass-market enterprise.

However, Mussolini’s National Fascist Party had been in charge of Italy since 1922, right when IF’s founders decided they’d had enough car building. While the negotiations with Ford were ongoing circa 1930, the government of Italy joined the discussion. They wanted Isotta Fraschini to continue building its plane engines for Italy’s aeronautical needs and forbade any further business discussions with Ford.

With other business directions dashed, the aged 8A was replaced by the 8B in 1931. Still built at the company’s factory in Milan, once more IF provided the chassis and running gear, and left bodywork selection to the customer. Primary body providers for the 8B were Pininfarina and Castagna. Technologically, the 8B was similar to the 8A. Its engine was enlarged to 7.4 liters displacement and was an overhead valve design with overhead cams. True to their history, the engine’s cylinders were still inline though the block was now made of a nickel and steel alloy. Technology advances meant horsepower increased to 160.

Some examples of the 8B used the same three-speed manual as before, but a four-speed pre-selective manual by Wilson was an optional extra. A new technology, Wilson was the most used design of all pre-selector transmissions. Such transmissions allowed the driver to select the next gear in advance, while the gearbox remained in its current gear until the driver pressed the gear change pedal with their foot. It was easier to drive a pre-selector transmission than a standard manual, as there was no technique required to smoothly use a clutch and shift lever in tandem; the transmission handled the clutch work. The Wilson pre-selector was Isotta Fraschini’s choice, and Bugatti used it as well.

IF still sold cars primarily via New York and Chicago showrooms. Ads played up the luxurious individuality that came with selecting a coach-built car from the builder of your choice and hand-selecting its entire appearance. The 8B was advertised as a coupe, a convertible sedan, a fixed roof town sedan, and a limousine. “No two alike!” said advertisements. Prices increased over the 8A, as the 8B’s chassis was just short of $10,000 ($194,369 adj.) That ask was over $1,000 more than the entire cost of a V-16 Cadillac in 1931.

Though The Great Depression lasted until March 1933 (almost as long as the 8B), the new Isotta Fraschini offering found customers among William Randolph Hearst, longtime customer Rudy Valentino, and Pope Pius XI, the first leader of a sovereign Vatican state. It’s unclear how many 8Bs were produced, but figures range from 30 to 82. Three exist in present times. The end came quickly for the 8B, and it remained in production for only four years. The final nail in IF’s luxury car coffin was the resignation of longtime engineering director Giustino Cattaneo, who’d been with the company since 1905. He resigned late in 1933, and the last 8B rolled off the line in summer 1934.

8B was the last passenger car Isotta Fraschini would produce for some time. The company wasn’t bankrupt and continued building airplane and naval engines. It also expanded into a new business: Large trucks. IF obtained the license rights to make diesel engines from German firm MAN SE. After the 8B was finished, IF started building the D80 heavy-duty truck powered by its new engines. On sale from 1934 through 1955, the D80 also spawned a military version for exactly one year; the D80 NM of 1935.

The D80 was a 4×2 truck with a 7.3-liter inline-six diesel engine that produced 95 horsepower. D80s had cabs built by Zagato and were fairly stylish looking for a big truck in the 1930s. IF produced the D80 in three different civilian series through 1949, at which point the truck caught the attention of Brazilian firm Fàbrica Nacional de Motores, or FNM. They bought the rights to the D80, and renamed it FNM R-80, and later FNM D 7.300. The now Brazilian truck remained in production through 1955.

Meanwhile IF developed another smaller truck for civilian use, though still a heavy-duty design. In 1940 customers waved hello to the D65. Unlike the D80 that was only sold as a truck, D65 was offered as a bare chassis and could be turned into a bus or other special purpose vehicle. The D65 used a MAN engine design too, this time a 5.3-liter inline-six diesel. Compared to the D80’s general overall length of 285 inches, the D65 was a much more svelte 231 inches long. The D65 was a sales success and remained in Italian production through 1955.

World War II ended in 1945 while Isotta Fraschini was busy building big trucks and naval and airplane engines. The company wanted to make a comeback in a big way, and re-enter the luxury passenger car market. They’d been working on something big and bold for a couple of years and were just about ready for its unveiling. We’ll wrap up Isotta Fraschini’s story in Part IV.

[Images: Isotta-Fraschini; YouTube]

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