Italy is the land of motorsports, and has been since the early days. Following WWII, the people were eager to get back to racing, but much of the automobile industry was still rebuilding from relentless Allied bombing attacks. The country was poor and there was no industry, but that did not stop the Italians.
While the big firms were getting production back online, the little guys who ran garages or dabbled in racing got busy. They used what was available to them and in many cases, the best available was a rather pedestrian inline 4-cylinder Fiat engine. The Fiat 508 motor became the engine of choice as they were plentiful, cheap, and tuneable. If not for this little workhorse, the generation of cars we now refer to as the “Etceterinis” may not have ever existed -- and automobile history would be all the poorer for it.
Before WWII, Fiat had emerged as Italy’s leading automobile manufacturer. The Agnelli’s made the Turin-based firm a mass-production powerhouse that built cars to get people around at an affordable price, similar to what Ford did in the U.S.
A young “hitmaker” named Dante Giacosa was on a tear designing “people’s cars” for Fiat. The Fiat 508 Ballila was launched in 1932 and was a small family sedan powered by a side-valve, 1L inline four. In 1936, Fiat introduced the 500, nicknamed the Topolinio or “little mouse,” which was a huge hit. It was a charming two-seater with a tiny 569cc side-valve engine. Italians embraced it and the model sold 122,000 units during its run that ended in 1948.
Having earned management’s confidence, Giacosa was given a chance to design the successor of to the 508 Balillla. The 508C, which was later called the 1100 (“Millecento”) was a step forward. The inline 4-cylinder engine had a 1,089cc displacement and it featured an overhead valve operated by pushrods and a 6:1 compression ratio.
It was said to be "the only people's car that was also a driver's car.” The Fiat 1100 was a modern design, particularly for a mass-produced automobile. The power was up to 32 hp, a gain of one-third over its predecessor. The rear wheels were driven through a four-speed transmission and it had independent suspension in the front and a live axle in the rear. During its production from 1937 to 1953, Fiat built 148,000--utnumbering the Topolino.
Even before the war, the potential of Giacosa’s Fiat 1100 engine was gaining attention. The motor's design was inexpensive and had a basic structure that could easily be tuned. So the widespread and ingenious Italian racing community got to work!
During these times the racing categories aligned with car classifications which were used for taxation, tariffs, and other regulatory purposes. Class A cars were microcars and had a maximum displacement of 750 ccs while Class C had engines up to 1.1L. Thus, the racing categories aligned around these, and the Fiat 1100 became the weapon of choice in the popular 1100cc class.
Fiat got into the racing game itself with a tuned 508C Mille Miglia. The engine was boosted to 42 hp thanks to a better Zenith carburetor and higher compression ratio. It won its class in the 1938 Mille Miglia, driven by the great Piero Taruffi.
This was the time when the "Etceterinis" started to emerge. Amadeo Gordini, an Italian who was located in Paris, used the Fiat 1100 engine to go racing at Le Mans. He upgraded the engine to 60 hp using Solex carbs and a higher compression ratio. Gordini raced the “Simca-Gordini Tank” at the 1938 round-the-clock event, but the car failed. However, he returned in 1939 to come in first in his class.
Similarly, Fiat concessionaire Vittorio Stanguellini of Modena built his own 1100-based sports cars. At the 1940 Mille Miglia, Fiats made up the entire field in the 1100 class. Emilio Fioruzzi drove the streamlined Stanguellini to 9th overall and first in its class at an average speed of 82mph. The Siata team, founded by Fiat tuner Giorgio Ambrosini, also ran in that class but finished further back.
In 1946, Dante Giacosa was part of an effort to jumpstart the racing scene in partnership with Piero Dusio, the head of Cisitalia. The idea was to create a spec single-seat (monoposto) series using available and economical parts. Alas, the D46 program was born.
Cisitalia manufactured 20 identical tubular spaceframes. Meanwhile, Giacosa worked nights and weekends, while still holding his job at Fiat, to design and build the motors. He used the 1100 but made many performance improvements, including a dry sump lubrication, dual Weber carbs, and increasing the compression ratio to 9.5:1. He was able to get them to 70 hp and a redline of 5,800 rpm. They debuted in the Coppa Brezzi and took 1-2-3, with Dusio himself leading the way. The D46 series never materialized, but the car was a success in the competitive voiturette class.
The big races got going again in 1947. At the Targa Florio in Sicily, a pair of Cisitalias placed 1-2 in the difficult race held in April. For the Mille Miglia in June, Cisitalia built several special 202 MMs, one of which was piloted by none other than Tazio Nuvolari. In the 1100 class there were 59 starters (by far the biggest class) of which 50 used Fiat 1100 engines. It was to be the last great result for Nuvolari as he drove the Cisitalia to its absolute limit and placed an unbelievable second overall, and first in the 1100 class.
In Curami and Vergnano’s definitive La Sport e i Suoi Artigiani 1937-1965, they list 84 independent racecar builders, as exhaustive a list of the "Etceterinis" as is likely to exist. While not all of them used the Fiat 1100 engine, the majority did. In addition to those previously named, notable builders include Abarth, Bandini, Ermini, Moretti, Nardi, and Siata.
The 1100 engine evolved over time after the war. New blocks were cast and made of lighter alloys. Most of the changes included building new alloy cylinder heads that had twin camshafts. Stanguellini released this modification as early as 1947. Many of the other “Etceterinis” became customers of Stanguellini. In the late 50s, they even introduced a Formula Junior car that used the good old Fiat 1100 as its powerplant.
The legacy of this era is hundreds of handmade race cars that are still used in historic racing and vintage motor rallies like the modern Mille Miglia and Targa Florio events. They are rare and many of them are sleek and gorgeous, but let’s not oversell it, a fair number are homely too!
They are relics of ingenuity, passion, and the exuberance of post-war Europe. While overshadowed by big names such as Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Maserati, and Lancia, these little jewels are equally rare and a kick to drive as they test a driver’s skill at speeds that are within the legal limits on open roads, and there’s something to be said about that.
Without the workhorse Fiat 1100 engine, much like the Ford “flatheads” that powered many American hotrods, an entire subculture that helped lift a nation after a trying period may never have reached the heights that it did.