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Road & Track, May 1961: The Legend of the Beast
Duncan Pittaway’s resurrected Fiat S76 “Beast of Turin” has been scorching the hay bales at Goodwood since its refurbished engine first turned over in 2015, and we can never get enough of it. But at the time automotive historian Cyril Posthumus wrote this piece for the May 1961 issue of Road & Track, the whereabouts of the two original S76 chassis were shrouded in mystery.
Click the image to see the entire article in a full-window viewer, or view individual pages in the gallery below.
In 1961, the 28-liter S76 was already an antique and the popular adage of “no replacement for displacement” had yet to be coined. Posthumus dismissed as brutish and primitive many of the Beast’s characteristics that wow us today.
“The Fiat engineering department…cannot have felt much pride in this monster. It was, in truth, a clumsy device, which inevitably ate up its tires at an inordinate rate. The engine was installed exactly as used in an airship, tuned for constant revs, and was unadapted for special high speed duties between four wheels on the ground. The exhaust, discharging through two short, rectangular stubs, sounded like a nest of Gatling guns.”
This dour assessment seems to disregard the advantage that high horsepower at low, constant revs might present in a car meant to sustain its top speed for several miles at a time. Indeed, from his account, it seems like he may have been the only one who didn’t enjoy the car.
“[The driver] Nazzaro would unleash ‘The Beast of Turin,’ driving it through that city’s streets with the open exhausts sending 3-foot stabs of flame at innocent pedestrians, and assaulting their eardrums. Being Italians and therefore enthusiasts, few took umbrage at a shoulder-high roasting, a libation of hot gases and deafening noise, joining instead in the acclaim of the corredori caraggiosi as they passed.”
Mechanic Jack Scales (a racing driver himself and the only person considered strong enough to crank start the S76’s massive engine) provided a first-hand account of just how thrilling it was to ride shotgun in the car was on its test drives.
“I used to think 120-125 mph on that dusty road, lined with great stones like tank traps, with the Fiat weaving from side to side, was quite fast enough. Tongues of flame two yards long, and clouds of smoke, used to belch back from the exhausts, and I got the full effect of this from the mechanic’s seat.”
Two attempts at the land speed record were made in 1911 with Fiat driver Pietro Bordino at the wheel. The first, at Brooklands, was aborted when Bordino deemed the car unsafe above 90 mph on the banked section of the track. The second attempt, at Yorkshire’s Saltburn sands, began with the S76 sticking in the wet sand and requiring a seven-horse team to recover. And though Bordino attained 125 mph in practice, slightly faster than the record-holding Blitzen Benz, his official run topped out at 116 mph.
By 1913 one of the two S76 cars had been sold to a Russian noble, unnamed in the article but now known to be one Boris Soukhanov. He enlisted Arthur Duray, a French racing driver of American birth, who had attained the land speed record on three separate occasions in 1903 and 1904. Duray (with Soukhanov in the mechanic’s seat) pressed the car to new heights, piloting the Beast to a one-way speed of 132.37 mph on a five-mile stretch of road in Ostend, Belgium. In December. In the wet. Protected by a set of goggles, at most.
A silent video of the effort has been posted by Centro Storico Fiat.
The Road & Track story states that one of the two S76 cars was stored at Fiat for several years, and also dangles a rumor that it had since been sold into Mexico.
Though it is now believed that the car stored at the Fiat factory was scrapped in 1919, this mysterious and unattributed lead became part of the car’s official lore. The story caused great confusion when now-owner Duncan Pittaway uncovered the existence of an S76 chassis in Australia – where it had been shipped as early as the 1920s, allegedly crashed at Armadale shortly thereafter, and stored for decades as a damaged roller in the collection of Australian Edwardian enthusiast Stuart Middlehurst.
Pittaway recounted his discovery on the Autosport.com forum in 2007:
“The bent, rusty and by now very incomplete remains stayed with Stuart Middlehurst until the early 1980s when it was acquired by a Fiat enthusiast sure of its S76 identity and determined to undertake the mammoth task of finding the missing bits to restore the car. After 15 years the enthusiasm had waned as the realisation of the size of the task had dawned and after a great deal of research but very little work had been done, I acquired what was still just a rusty bent rolling chassis…..albeit without wheels and hubs!
It was not until the discovery of an S76 car engine, after years of perseverance and round the world trips, that the project became a viable rebuild, since which time original wheels, hubs and a myriad of smaller chassis fittings have also followed.”
It is unknown who relayed the rumor of a trip to Mexico to Cyril Posthumus, and similarly unknown how Soukhanov’s car made it to Australia in the first place. Tantalizingly, Posthumus also insinuated in this article that Duray and Soukanov had stored a cache of spares in Ostende in anticipation of a return that never came to pass due to the outbreak of the First World War. While The Beast lives again, it still has a few secrets it hasn’t told.
Photos and editorial are the property of Road & Track and Hearst Publishing.
For detailed history of the engine and Belgian speed record attempts among other S76 articles, see several excellent entries on theoldmotor.com.
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