#0052 - Isotta-Fraschini Tipo 8A S Boattail Cabriolet by Castagna, 1930
Photographed: Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, 2009. Owner: Howard & Madlyn Fafard
Isotta Love: Design affects us all differently, and automobiles are an extremely clear expression of this selective affectation. When an Isotta-Fraschini wandered onto the field in the early morning mist along the Monterey coast, my heart and my vision latched onto the imposing shape as it glided into place, wheels pitched slightly, as if ready to depart on a lavish tour of some European campagna. It was the last great Italian luxury car, this single model produced for only a few years in the nascent days of the classic era. Compared to the modernist designs that would close the decade, the Tipo 8A is straight and tall, with reliquary aesthetics dragged up from the brass era and hammered into their ultimate form. Most striking is how the Isotta-Fraschini projects a fine delicacy that belies its size and strength—a massive dose of beauty clad to a heavy, relatively simple chassis for the purpose of depicting fast travel. Again, this is the strange combination of heft and speed that typifies cars of a time when those peripheral physical attributes—wind and weight—were not yet crucial to automotive design.
In similar terms, the Isotta-Fraschini is the only Italian luxury car of exacting standards—Italian counterpoint to Daimler, Duesenberg, Hispano-Suiza, and Maybach. These marques entered the classic era with singular purpose: build the best car that hard labor and technology can muster. Accordingly, these were among the last great marques to rely squarely on one model, which they did by ensuring unparalleled design and quality in their respective markets.
Another S: You can't merely assume Sport when you see the 'S' attached to a model number. For Alfa Romeo, yes, it is usually Sport, but famously for Bugatti it means surbaissé, or below base, meaning lowered because the centerline of the chassis is dropped through the drivetrain instead of resting over it. And for Isotta-Fraschini, the 'S' means spinto.
This is one of the more interesting designations to me, as spinto means pushed in Italian. The colloquial interpretation then is that the motor is pushed, hotted up, or "tuned" as RM Auctions says. In this case, an increase in compression raises power output from 110 to 120 brake horsepower. It's a very similar situation as with the Chrysler CL Imperial, which could be had in a special red head version producing a comparable 125 brake horsepower. Change the head, and you get a little bit better performance; it was a common practice to differentiate between models. And here I'm bringing up Chrysler because in both instances the motors received a healthy dose of fiery red paint.
Power in this case is derived from a 7,370cc straight 8-cylinder motor, perhaps the first straight 8 in regular production use, meaning what would eventually become standard for a luxury car in the classic era began here, with Isotta-Fraschini. The Tipo 8 model and its 5.9 litre motor debuted in 1919 before being updated in 1924 by this larger, more refined complement, at which time the accompanying level of performance would have been the envy of Rolls-Royce.
And the motor itself is a glorious sight, something we'll get into more thoroughly later on. For now, however, I do have at least one shot posted from the LeBaron Speedster at Hershey.
The Grey Goddess: Chassis #1581 has lately been referred to as The Grey Goddess in auction material by RM. It was originally finished in a grey (or at least grey'ish) livery, and today wears a soft mint shade I'd describe as citron grey. This delicate color is accented by three distinct greens—light green body molding, dark green constrasting pinstripes, and a forest green top. This livery is perhaps inspired by an earlier Tipo 8A from 1927 dubbed the Valentino.
All body panels are aluminum, finished with an aesthetic that makes tremendous intricacy seem beautiful and fluid. For instance, look at how many louvres run through the flank, and how seemingly square sections like the door aren't flat, but have a slight bow to fit the contour of the body. The fenders are also non-planar; instead they undulate both laterally and longitudinally, with a soft roll intimating something of a skirted look. The width of the rear fenders actually diminishes quite a lot as they reach a crest, which further illustrates the body contours. This is to say the car has a very complex shape, but is so well conceived that it hides its complexity.
Beyond the complex shape, too many details exist to script in full. You have the incredible grille and shroud, both of which drop down in between the irons, with truly magnificent artistry in the trademark lightning strike motif. There's the Stephen Grebel headlamps with matching spotlight, and coveted teardrop step plate and toolbox, characteristic of Castagna's best designs. Overall there's a fanatical sense of fit and refinement that ensures this car stands above and beyond its peers thanks to its amazing coachwork.
Likewise, Castagna bodied cabriolets like this one are more highly valued by an order of magnitude over more formal bodied examples.
Interestingly, #1581 was imported to directly New York, where it soon became the charge of operatic tenor and popular performer Sergio Franchi. Franchi himself was of a technical inclination. Although known to Americans for his television appearances and Broadway shows, Sergio Franchi initially followed his father's wishes and trained as an engineer, later working for his father as an architectural draftsman.
So it follows that Franchi's automotive muse would be—once prosperity allowed—the greatest of Italian luxury marques.
This Tipo 8A S remains a personal favorite of mine, and lands very high up on the list of what I'd consider to be the superlative luxury cars of the classic era.
RM Auction: Chassis #1581 was offered at Monterey in 2012, but did not sell.
Supercars.net: The megasite has a wonderful gallery of examples, all of them beautiful.
Isotta-Fraschini: Alternatively, you may check out the marque's own historical galllery.
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