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Happy Never After - Cisitalia Nuvolari Spider

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The Cisitalia Nuvolari Spider was perhaps the most successful, most heroic and most preventable failure in Italian motor racing history…

It is almost impossible to look at the sleek red car parked between the crouching lions of Soragna’s vast castle and not consider the entire Cisitalia story a romantic fairy tale. Or perhaps more properly a valiant Arthurian epic. All the elements are present: the charismatic leader in quixotic pursuit of a noble goal; the fearless knight in the twilight of his powers; the wily old magician; a fire-breathing dragon… and a glorious, but doomed, battle fought on the old Parma to Piacenza road not ten miles from the castle.

Naaaah, sorry, forget it; that’s just too cute. And besides, Piero Dusio was no King Arthur. On the contrary, the founder of the Cisitalia brand was the type of modern entrepreneur who would have extracted great mileage from biz-speak like ‘the Cisitalia brand’.

Born in 1899 in northern Italy, Dusio started his professional life as a footballer who reached the big time with the mighty Juventus. Sadly, after just three matches, he blew out a knee. Helped by a band of loyal Juve supporters, Dusio got back on track almost immediately with a job as a fabric salesman.

Surprise. Dusio, it turned out, was a smart and well-spoken charmer who could sell icemakers in Antarctica; by age 30 he had his own lucrative textile manufacturing company and was diversifying widely and wisely under the corporate identity of Consorzio Industriale Sportiva Italia, or Cisitalia. He also had, as a natural-born competitor, a taste for motor sport and was a fine amateur driver.

In addition to several credible ’30s GP performances, he placed third overall in the 1938 Mille Miglia behind stars Biondetti and Pintacuda, and perhaps more significantly for this narrative won his class in 1937. In ’37 he was driving one of Giorgio Ambrosini’s first Fiat 500-based Siatas and the idea apparently occurred to him, well, if my mate Giorgio can build his own cars, why can’t I?

Whatever switched on the lightbulb in his head, by late 1944 it was blazing and, with peace in (admittedly optimistic) sight, Dusio made his move. His timing was questionable but you couldn’t fault his gall: he persuaded not just any engineer to pen his automobile but Fiat’s in-house genius, Dante Giacosa. And he planned not just a racing car, but a run of racing cars: cheap ones based around production car components and enough to launch a nationwide one-make monoposto series that would revitalise Italian post-war racing.

The Formula Vee predecessor that Giacosa brought forth (working nights and weekends alongside his Fiat job) was christened the Cisitalia D46 and it was a simple, practical jewel. Because Fiat was the logical supplier for mechanicals it had Topolino-derived suspension, a tweaked 1100 from the 508C and a tubular steel spaceframe – primarily because Dusio owned a bicycle factory.

Dusio pieced together a seven-car team and when racing returned after the war decimated the debut competition. As a precaution he did salt the mine a touch: his drivers were Nuvolari, Taruffi, Biondetti, Chiron, Cortese, Sommer and himself. He finished ahead of the lot.

Orders started arriving almost before the chequer stopped fluttering and Cisitalia was ready for Phase Two. Under former Fiat aircraft engineer Giovanni Savonuzzi, who had assisted Giacosa and then replaced him when Giacosa resumed Fiat monogamy, the tiny Torino company pushed forward with its second model. The gestation period was short: the 202 was essentially a sports car adaptation of the D46 and had been on a burner from the start.

This is the car for which Cisitalia will always be remembered. The most celebrated road version, the Pinin Farina-styled 202 Gran Sport Berlinetta, was a masterpiece of understatement which basically defined how we now think a GT should look, and an example is in the permanent collection of the New York Museum of Modern Art. Meanwhile, in competition form, the 202 SMM, or Spider Mille Miglia, has gone down in history as a giant-killer that took aging Tazio Nuvolari to possibly the most remarkable second place in his long career.

In fact it came close to being his most remarkable win. The 1947 Mille Miglia was the first after the war and, at 55, with health failing, both of his precious sons dead and the spectre of retirement hovering, Nuvolari wanted it badly. He habitually flogged any car mercilessly; that year, at the wheel of the Cisi, he must have been brutal.

It held up anyway and he pulled away from Biondetti in an Alfa that had more than twice the power. By the Modena checkpoint, a bit further back along that Piacenza highway, he had an eight-minute lead.

What he didn’t have was a roof and somewhere about the Soragna turn-off it started raining. Many drivers slowed and gave up entirely; past Torino, the maestro’s ignition drowned and cost him 20 minutes at the side of the road. He finally lost to Biondetti’s enclosed Alfa by 16 minutes and at the end had to be lifted from the car.

From then on, the 202 SMM became the Spider Nuvolari and that’s why the one we’ve come to see at GPS Classic in Soragna wears the registration ‘NUVOLARI’. American owner Herb Wolfe has only missed one Mille Miglia revival with it since he bought the car in 1998, which seems exactly as it should be. For the last three years Herb hasn’t shipped it home, preferring to lodge the car with Tommaso Gelmini at GPS ready for the next go. ‘NUVOLARI’ was a DNF in the 1948 Mille Miglia but went on to distinguished service in the States, including a period with one of America’s most versatile ‘50s all-rounders and Olympic bobsledder, Bob Said.

Viewed from up close, the secrets to success are obvious. For one thing, the basic shape Savonuzzi gave the 202 series was incredibly slick, even before Pinin Farina refined it; Savonuzzi’s aviation background and the attention Italian designers historically paid to aerodynamics is quite apparent. With the 60 or so horses he had to work with (admirable improvement on the standard 32, yes, but still only 60 horses), he made the SMM turn an honest 100 miles per hour.

It must also have been the lightest vehicle you could then race that didn’t share DNA with a motorcycle. Peek into the dark corners and you’ll see holes drilled in places that would be downright scary if three-quarters of the roughly 20 units produced weren’t still with us.

Getting into the car you slide way down into the cockpit. It feels as if very little exists between your bum and the floor, especially when traversing a ripple; the old stories about Nuvolari pressing on while up to his elbows in water suddenly seem believable. The upholstery-covered chassis side tubes form a wall across the doorway almost level with the central tunnel; sitting-in-a-bathtub is no mere metaphor with this car. It is, however, strangely reassuring to have your body so thoroughly cossetted as you move off. Acceleration from rest is understandably underwhelming. But once the Spider hits its stride, the bark of the minuscule exhaust pipe and the wind slipping elegantly across the flowing alloy bodywork are as satisfying as any blast of raw horsepower.

All in all, it is a brilliant car: minimal, straightforward and true to its design objectives. Had Cisitalia stuck with the game plan until it found its feet, this might have been a very different story. But that didn’t happen. Dusio had succumbed to the siren song of Grand Prix racing, using his fortune from 1947 onwards to support Ferdinand Porsche, a large chunk going to bail the old sorcerer out of French prison as he and his apprentices created the Cisitalia 360.

It would have been a genuine Auto Union-style fire-breather, a mid-engined, supercharged 385bhp flat-12 with selective four-wheel drive that could have devoured all; instead, the only thing it did devour was Auto Union-style sums of money that might otherwise have gone into D46/202 development and production. On the verge of bankruptcy, Dusio emigrated to Argentina in 1951. Here he hoped to revive his fortunes, and his brand, under the patronage of Juan Peron.

His son Carlo soldiered on in Turin but, with Peron on the political ropes, no South American rescue was forthcoming. The company remained marginally afloat all the way to 1965, producing a few semi-new models and some Fiat specials, but the glory days were over.

As for Piero, he continued to live in Argentina, working on mostly utilitarian vehicles until his death in 1975. A generous and gentle man to the end, he also spent time on the micro-car Siata Mitzi that was to become the last nail in friend Ambrosini’s professional coffin. The prototype 360, now housed in Porsche’s Stuttgart museum, went with Piero to Buenos Aires and some say that when the four-wheel drive was finally engaged there on a demo run the car promptly spun through an ironic 360°. Which, again, may be just too cute: in the end, it’s a poor fairy tale where only the wizard wins, and the dragon never spits the slightest flame.

Thanks to owner Herb Wolfe, and to Tommaso Gelmini of GPS Classic, www.gpsclassic.it.

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