Itala is one of the pioneers of the motor sport industry notably the 1907 Peking to Paris race that an Itala won. Starting life as Itala Fabbrica Automobili, then simply Itala, it ended life as Itala Societa Anonima Costruzioni Automobilistiche after several re-incarnations.
Itala was founded in 1903 by Matteo Ceirano and several partners including Guido Bigio an engineer. Ceirano and his brothers had worked for their father who had founded a car company called Ceirano GB & C. This was born out of their bicycle manufacturing and import business and they had produced a car in 1898 that had been very successful however they were unable to build enough cars to satisfy demand. The company was based in Turin and to fulfil the orders, the company was sold to Giovanni Agnelli who used the assets to create FIAT.
Matteo left FIAT to build the Itala and the first cars rolled out of the factory in 1904 with engines ranging from 18 – 50 hp. These first cars were very advanced using water cooled 4.5 litre 4 cylinder motors and rear drive shaft propulsion rather than the common chain-drive. They also used rotary valves – Itala being one of the pioneers in this type of fuel delivery and exhaust. Rotary valves allowed a design that featured smaller components that could withstand higher revolutions – although in Itala’s design, they turned at a quarter of the speed of the crankshaft and were positioned parallel to the cylinders feeding two at a time.
Mercedes-Benz was the marque to beat and the Itala design was very close using language that suggested a similar style and price. They were successful in encouraging the wealthy and royalty to buy their cars – the Queen of Italy at the time had many and so did several royal families dotted around Europe and I read a report that even the Pope was using one! In Britain, they were popular with the creator of the Brooklands circuit who campaigned one and many were bought by wealthy enthusiasts.
Itala had realised that they needed to go racing early to promote the brand and developed a 14 litre motor producing 100 hp that won several major races and Itala then built the 35/45 with a 7.4 litre motor and this was a huge success winning the first Targa Florio and then later the Peking to Paris race – its most famous victory. In 2005, a similar 1907 Itala along with several other cars retraced the route and this was made into a television series by the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation).
With the outbreak of war in 1914, Itala like many other manufacturers, built aero engines (from Hispano-Suiza) and other military equipment. Having built engines over 10 litres, it probably wasn’t too difficult to make engines for aircraft! Itala had a service centre in Britain near the Brooklands circuit and this was converted to an aircraft factory in 1915 by Vickers-Armstrong for military production.
When hostilities ceased, Itala went back to car production, but the world had changed. There wasn’t the cash flowing around for lots of luxury vehicles, so the cars started to get smaller engines. However the company had been making losses during the war and continued to struggle financially. The company (and the country) was plagued by industrial unrest, which meant that the banks called in their debts.
So the receivers were called in during the early 1920s and they appointed Guilo Cappa from FIAT to control the company. He introduced new road cars and also went back to racing with the Tipo 11 fitted with a supercharged V12 motor and all independent suspension. The prototypes ran 1.1 and 1.4 litre V12s running roots style superchargers. They did win the 2-litre class at the Le Mans 24-hour race in 1928 with a smaller racer, the Tipo 61 with styling by Bertone. This still didn’t improve the financial situation – remember there was no visible sponsorship in those days and the racing didn’t translate into a volume of new orders. The main issue was that their cars were far too expensive for the market – they were undercut in pricing often by as much as 50% by Alfa Romeo, Diatto and others.
Malcolm Campbell, the land speed record holder, had become a reseller in London and despite campaigning them in competition, he couldn’t shift enough to make the factory busy. The factory was haemorrhaging cash and even Government funding couldn’t help so by 1929 the company had been sold to Officine Metallurgiche di Tortona, a truck manufacturer. This didn’t work out so the company was refounded as Itala Societa Anonima Costruzioni Automobilistiche to provide spares and complete the production of cars that were already ordered. They continued in business until 1934 when the assets were consumed by FIAT and the Itala brand was gone forever.
What I have found interesting is that I can find no information about OMMT, the truck manufacturer – they are not the same as OM who FIAT bought or OMT, another Italian company. In addition, I cannot find out why FIAT bought the assets of Itala SACA as they immediately stopped production and FIAT were much more mechanised than Itala, so there was no tooling to be bought. Perhaps it was a case of buying out a competitor and asset stripping to recover the purchase price – however this probably wasn’t necessary with the state of the company! Maybe there was some political pressure behind the transaction or FIAT were possibly looking to bolster their aviation business – their aero division acquired other engineering businesses at the same time.