By Design

By Design: 1924 Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8A Cabriolet

By Design

As I walked onto the Pebble Beach Concours field that Sunday morning in August with old friend Rex Parker, one of the first cars we came to was the eventual Best of Show winner, this seriously over-restored, reproportioned, and rebodied “1924” Isotta Fraschini 8A. Parker remarked, “This shows you should never try to mix Italian and German design sensibilities.” Actually, the Teutonic sensibility in this case was Swiss. I’ve never seen a single Swiss coachbuilder’s design with any global merit. They’re always stodgy, awkward cars, if beautifully made in the clockmaking tradition of accurate, precise metalworking.

Mention a Graber Alvis and you’re discussing seriously innovative engineering—Alvis had independent front suspension and the world’s first all-synchromesh gearbox in the early 1930s—and some dazzling British coachwork as well. But once Graber became the sole source for their bodies, Alvis cars became fat and heavy-looking. Still, Graber’s styling was far better than F. Ramseier & Cie Worblaufen’s.

Isotta Fraschini was also highly innovative, boasting an inline eight-cylinder engine and a four-wheel braking system before any other manufacturer. From just after World War I until the outbreak of the second catastrophe, 8A and 8B chassis were the choices of discerning buyers all over the world, including many Hollywood luminaries. There is true merit in the badge, and an 8A with beautiful Castagna bodywork proved worthy of the Best of Show crown in 1983.

I have serious reservations about this vehicle, though. Admittedly it was rebodied long after initial construction, but I still can’t imagine it having had so little ground clearance then. That just didn’t happen in the 1930s, but it could very well have been “adjusted” to modern conditions during its most recent restoration/re-creation. The radiator gives every impression of having been cut down 3 or 4 inches, and other indications suggest post-period “sweetening.”

Many concours queens are known to have been tuned up a bit in the “restoration” process. A degree or two more windshield rake, some height reduction, much shinier paint … in fact the kind of things common to hot rods and Kalifornia kustom kars. If it was good for ’32 Fords, why wouldn’t it be good for ’32 Lincolns? Indeed, a false-classic Lincoln boattail speedster designed by the late Dave Holls, long a fixture at Pebble Beach as chief honorary judge, won a new bodywork class award long ago.

Car Week on the Monterey Peninsula is a great gathering, full of wonderful events to suit all temperaments. So why not let those characterized as “rich, old white guys” have their high-society function without too much concern for authenticity, accuracy, provenance, or history? Enhanced or rigorously correct, all embalmed cars on the lawn at Pebble Beach are equally dead, even if they manage the optional Thursday drive to prove their preserved mobility capability. There are still real car guys out at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca driving the daylights out of (similarly enhanced) old race cars. Long may it all continue.

1. The bumpers are rather blunt and crude, perhaps vestiges of 1924, because by the time this body was mounted, bumpers had become gracefully stylized on many classics.

2. This part is right. Isotta Fraschini headlamps were always well-spaced for better illumination.

3. This ultra-slim tension rod between lamps also held the IF badge in place ahead of the radiator shutters, a nice visual touch.

4. I’m guessing about 3-4 inches of radiator height reduction. Was the tall, straight-eight engine lowered in the chassis as well?

5. These bulbous semi-cycle fenders descend suspiciously far, even for the 1930s.

6. The vent doors seem oversized and rather crude, but they are nicely aligned with the back of the hood and the door cut.

7. Presumably this mirror was useful with the top down, but it must have been useless with the ultra-low backlights.

8. The flared tail of the rear fenders is definitely anachronistic.

9. Note that the leading edge of the fender is actually below the bottom of the wheel, making this a truly unlikely detail for the purported period.

10.The running board lockers are neither aerodynamic nor particularly functional with their trapezoidal profiles.

11. Chrome-plated wire wheels in 1924? Really? Or even in 1932?

12. The ever-popular Brooklands exhaust tip, turned horizontal.

13. Note the paired rear lamp clusters, unusual for the times.

14. Quite a visual maze of bright wire spokes, giving that much-desired concours bling.

15. The configuration of the twin backlights is curious, with the lower line following the base of the roof but the upper perimeter relating to nothing else on the car graphically.

16. Landau bars were always a nice visual touch but usually have a more harmonious S profile than this car does.

17. The incongruous lockers don’t seem to relate to any part of the car’s aesthetic. But there they are.

18. Dramatically upswept, bright trim-encrusted running boards seem completely unrelated to the overall form of the car.

19. As noted, this very low fender, which would rub on the ground in the event of a flat, is highly suspicious and totally nonfunctional in the time when the car would have been used.

20. Equally, the spare tire mounting is suspicious. Note that the bottom of the tire cover is well below the putative bottom of the body, straight across from the fenders. OK on a grass concours field maybe, but on the road? In the 1920s? Or ’30s? I think not.

21. Beautiful manufacturer-made hardware for the opening windshield is representative of an era long gone.

22. The windshield motor is right on the instrument panel. Dangerous in a crash but practical otherwise.

23. Both the articulated compass and the handwheel for opening the windshield are beautiful if nothing else. Again, dangerous in an impact.

24. No fewer than three engine controls on the steering wheel hub. An airbag may be safer but not nearly as decorative as these little levers.

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