Model history: Under the technical leadership of Alberto Balocco, Itala emerged as one of the leading Italian manufacturers in the first decade of the 20th century. The talented engineer quickly realised the marketing potential of competing against rival manufacturers. After a specifically prepared Itala was driven to victory in the gruelling 1907 Peking-Paris rally, the ever ambitious Balocco decided to build a new racer for the prestigious French Grand Prix.
First held in 1906, the French Grand Prix was more than a battle between manufacturers as the pride of the nation was also on the line. Italy's honour was also defended by Fiat, with competition coming Germany's Benz and Mercedes and a plethora of French entries, including Panhard & Levassor and Mors. In order to keep tabs on the racers' performance, new restrictions were introduced for the 1908 race; a minimum weight of 1,100 kg and a maximum bore of 155 mm.
Staying just within the limits set, Balocco developed a massive four cylinder engine with a bore of 154.8 mm and a stroke of 160 mm for a swept displacement of just over 12 litre. The cylinders were iron-cast in pairs as was the norm in the day. A single lateral camshaft was fitted, which actuated the side-mounted exhaust valves directly and the intake valves on top of the engine through push-rods. Rated at 100 hp, the big engine was mated to a four-speed gearbox.
The potent drivetrain was mounted in a straightforward steel ladder frame. Unlike most rivals, which used chain-drive, the Itala Grand Prix racer featured a live rear-axle. Suspension on both on ends was by semi-elliptic leaf springs and friction dampers. As was the norm in the day, drum brakes were fitted to the rear axle only. The rolling chassis was clothed in a simple body that provided little protection for the driver and his riding mechanic.
Itala brought a team of three cars to the French Grand Prix. Unfortunately the red racers proved both too heavy and slightly underpowered compared to the top runners. One car retired while the other two finished 11th and 20th, well over an hour and two hours respectively behind the winning Mercedes. The Italas were later raced in the American Grand Prize and the Coppa Florio where Alessandro Cagno finished third despite suffering from a burst radiator.
Disputes about regulations between the manufacturers and the Automobile Club de France meant no Grands Prix were held between 1909 and 1911. At least two of the Italas were later raced at Brooklands with considerable success. During this period, Itala focused on developing new road cars. It would take until the 1920s before new Itala Grand Prix cars were developed but these were never raced, and the company folder soon after.
Known lovingly as 'Floretta', this Itala was driven in the French Grand Prix by Giovanni Piacenza. It differed slightly from the other two in that it had a slightly longer wheelbase. Piacenza's race was short-lived as the car suffered a broken gearbox on the second lap. In 1909, this car was acquired by R. Wil-de-Gose, who became a regular with Floretta at Brooklands. In 1910, he lapped the 'Outer Circuit' at just over 100 mph, which was very close to the speed set by one of the 1908 Grand Prix winning Mercedes.
Later that year, it was fitted a slightly more luxurious four-seater body by Vincent's of Reading. It was subsequently road-registered with the license plate 'LD 2301' that is still on the car. Since then it has been a prominent member of the British vintage car scene. It was famously owned by Cecil 'Sam' Clutton for over five decades before it was acquired by legendary watchmaker and collector, the late George Daniels. From his estate, the car will be offered at Bonhams' Goodwood Festival of Speed auction on June 29th. Its pre-sale estimate is a hefty 1.5 - 2.5 million pounds.