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Fiat S61 – The Italian car that won in America

Fiat’s winning races isn’t often a headline today, but some decades ago the Italian carmaker was renowned for it’s motorsport heroics, so this week in our ‘Throwback Thursday’ series we look at the Fiat S61, a car that took America by storm…

The 1908 FIAT S61 Corsa finished third in the first Indianapolis 500 Mile Race in 1911, repeated its success at the Santa Monica circuit the following year, and won the coveted American Grand Prix in 1912.

During the first decade of the XX Century the world was gripped by a desire for speed, and Italy played a leading role in this new drive towards modernity. The first edition of the Targa Florio was run in Sicily in 1906, while the next month the first Grand Prix in history, organised by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, was held on the Le Mans circuit. This period of racing ferment was the backdrop to the birth of the FIAT S61 Corsa, a two-seater racing car especially developed for the North American market.

The S61 Corsa was derived from the Gran Turismo model of the same name – offered with four-seater torpedo body – but with a higher-powered engine and lighter chassis. It was powered by a straight four engine consisting of two paired two-cylinder units with displacement of 10,087 cc, a normal figure for the time. Timing was by means of a modern overhead camshaft operating 4 valves per cylinder, each of them with two plugs. A large proportion of the external mechanical components – including the radiator and coolant pump – were in brass. The performance was mind-blowing for the time: from 115 to 125 horsepower – depending on the configuration – at 1800-2100 rpm, with a top speed approaching 160 km/h.

The ladder chassis was in steel, with aluminium bodywork. There was a 4-speed gearbox upstream of the differential, and the car had rear-wheel drive with a motorcycle-type final drive system compromising two sprocket, chain and ring gear sets, one per wheel. The braking system comprised just  two drum brakes on the rear wheels and a pedal-operated band brake on the propeller shaft; no brakes at all on the front wheels. A difficult beast to tame, with the mechanic on board at all times to keep the fuel tank pressurised.

The FIAT S61 was extremely successful in the new races being born in America, where it finished third in the first edition of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race in 1911, driven by David Bruce-Brown at an average speed of 117 km/h. In 1912 Ted Tetzlaff was victorious on the Santa Monica circuit, ahead of another S61. The winner completed the race’s 487.5 kilometres at an average of 127.170 km/h also completing the fastest lap at an average of 144.803 Km/h.  But Caleb Bragg’s victory at the 1912 American Grand Price  on the Milwaukee circuit was even more prestigious.

The pride of the FCA Heritage department, this untamed beast of the racetrack has been the subject of meticulous, painstaking preservative restoration work, which after years of hard, patient labour has restored all the aggression that went into its victories all those years ago.

Many years after its glorious wins in America, the fifth FIAT S61 Corsa to be built returned to Turin in 1970 and was stored, completely dismantled, in a warehouse. Then, more than ten years ago, the team of mechanics who specialise in FIAT group historic cars decided to  attempt the miracle  of “bringing the beast back to life”. After many years of meticulous work, in 2016 the team managed to complete one of the most complex preservative restoration jobs ever undertaken.

There were countless difficulties: no technical drawings, no documentation and very few historic references. What’s more, many pieces had particularly complex operating modes. Such as the clutch, consisting of 72 plates which operated immersed in a lubricant, the exact composition of which was unknown. It was only after many attempts with lubricants of all kinds that the team came up with a blend of engine oil, Diesel and petrol that proved to have the right viscosity. The restoration job was extremely tough, but the engineers were determined not to give up.

The preservative approach required them to maintain as many original components as possible. The reconstruction of the valves and their seats was inevitable, but the preservation of the two original cast iron cylinder blocks, and the huge connecting-rods, was a major achievement. The wheels with which the S61 arrived in Turin were no longer the wooden ones used in its first races; during its career they had been replaced by more modern steel spoked wheels.

*Special thanks to FCA Heritage

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