Motoring Alan Judd
FIAT’S GIANT REBORN
The red bonnet is about five feet high, the wheels come up to your hips and it snorts and roars.
Flames shoot from the open exhaust ports when you gun it, roasting anyone trying to pass on the nearside. It has four seven-and-a-half-inch pistons, two just-visible instruments, down near the pedals, and a handbrake and gear lever outside the body.
You grip the wide steering wheel, inches from your chest, air pressure to the tank is pumped by a brass lever beneath the passenger’s legs, and the fuel cut-off is beneath the driver’s legs. Cubic capacity is about twenty-eight litres. For more than a century, it has been known as the Beast of Turin.
It is in fact a Fiat S76. They made two in 1911 to break the world speed record, achieving it with 116mph over the flying mile at Saltburn Sands in Yorkshire. After a number of other feats, on and off race tracks, the two cars were abandoned and (almost) forgotten about.
In 2002, a lover of veteran vehicles, Duncan Pittaway, repatriated the rolling chassis of one Beast from Australia and spent the next decade mating it with the rebuilt engine of the other.
Body, radiator and gearbox had to be re-created from original Fiat drawings and photographs. Everything, down to the last nut and bolt, had to be stripped and repaired or re-engineered. I’d like to be able to say, Reader, I drove it – but I can’t, not quite. But I can say I was driven in it by Mr Pittaway, and that it’s an automotive experience unlike any other.
To start with, there are the sound effects. It fires up like a re-run of the Second World War, a series of explosions echoing across the rolling landscape of Goodwood, where we were playing with it. Fortunately, the windows of the house remained intact.
Before settling down to what, in its terms, is considered smooth tick-over, it shakes like a tractor bouncing across a frozen, ploughed field. You climb in by way of the cart-spring suspension and rear wheel and sit leaning half out so as not to inhibit Mr Pittaway’s muscular control.
If, like me, you neglect period leather headpiece and goggles, the wall of flame in your face on acceleration soon has your head almost on Mr Pittaway’s shoulder. If you hadn’t shaved that morning, you’d no longer need to.
He actually races the thing at speeds well above 100mph. He drives it on the roads, too, recently taking it to Cologne at a restrained 85mph on the autobahn, astonishing his German hosts who assumed that elf and safety would long ago have shot him. It must be wonderfully, joyfully polluting.
On the Goodwood track he handled it with verve and skill, especially as the footbrake was playing up and he had only the handbrake. Had he been foolish enough to let me have a go, we’d doubtless have left the track and set the woods on fire.
It is impossible not to admire the dedication of men such as Mr Pittaway and his team. No price can be put on the Beast but, for Mr Pittaway and others of his ilk, that’s not the point; the Beast is his passion.
He restores and drives these old creatures as they were meant to be driven, for love of the things themselves, not for reward or as a shelter for capital.
Such disinterested enthusiasm for inanimate manufactured things is, to me, an endearing characteristic, an acknowledgement of the human endeavour and dedication that went into building them. It’s engineering as an art form.
Long may it thrive.