1000-Mile Masterpiece Cisitalia 202SC. The 202SC wears the same racing numbers it did at the 1949 Mille Miglia, where it finished 109th out of 303 starters. This Cisitalia 202SC was not only a rolling sculpture, but also a 1949 Mille Miglia entrant. Almost 70 years later, we experience its visual and mechanical virtues first-hand. Words Richard Heseltine. Photography Dirk De Jager.
Cisitalia 202SC Mille Miglia rarity driven 1000-mile Masterpiece From rolling sculpture to Mille Miglia entrant, we experience the visual and mechanical virtues of this Cisitalia 202SC first-hand.
Elegance is as much about restraint as it is about lair. This achingly pretty Cisitalia 202SC is a case in point. It may be small but it cast a long shadow – chin-stroking design pseuds have labelled it a masterpiece ever since it first broke cover in 1947. Yet what strikes you on first contact with this particular example isn’t its otherworldly beauty. but more the racing numbers adorning its doors. You see, first owner Antonio di Francesco Beninati steered it on the 1949 Mille Miglia, the Milanese amateur placing 109th out of 303 starters. It was one of umpteen Cistialias competing that year; the marque virtually owned the 1100cc class in period.
All of which seems a world away today, the back roads in rural Kent being an improbable substitute for the final thrash to Brescia. Nevertheless, what soon becomes clear is that to drive this car flat-out for 1000 miles must have required talent. That, and superhuman reserves of obstinacy. It’s a fully immersive experience, that’s for sure; a compelling mix of vintage thrills and starry-eyed futurism with all that entails. So often cars of this ilk don’t live up to the billing. This one does, for the most part.
Stoop to enter and the cabin is awash with details, each more delightful than the last. Ahead, the alloy-spoked steering wheel fronts a body-coloured dash which is the antithesis of Ye Olde timber plank usually found in its British counterparts. The gauges are works of art in themselves – in typical Italian fashion the most important instrument is the rev counter, with inset water and oil temperature functions. To its left sits the speedo with an inset fuel gauge and clock, the gearknob and minor controls decorated with a rather groovy amber-coloured plastic. The bonnet appears unfeasibly long given the car’s tiny proportions, all sensuous curves and flared wing peaks.
As with all 202s made to 1952 it’s a right-hooker even though Italians had gone over to driving on the right by 1949. You sit bolt upright, and there is little in the way of lateral support because both seat cushion and seat back are lat. Push in the ignition key and, with the fuel pump engaged, you’re obliged to rummage beneath the dash for a lever; the one that moves the starter motor’s contacts together. There’s nothing so sissy as solenoids here. The motor whirrs and then whirrs some more before the engine catches. It sounds angry, even at a standstill, filling the air with noise and bluster. The engine may be based on a prehistoric ohv 1089cc Fiat four-banger, but only the cylinder block was retained during Cisitalia’s reworking. Slot into first and there’s a pronounced ker-klunk as metal meets metal. Release the pistolgrip parking brake, let out the light(ish) clutch and the Cisitalia pops and fluffs initially, but it soon settles once past the magic 3000rpm mark. The gearchange has a long-ish throw and a wide gate but its synchromesh makes all the difference. Nevertheless, it doesn’t like to be rushed. The clutch is smooth acting, while the brake and roller throttle are ideally placed for heel-and-toeing. The view framed by the shallow, single-piece windscreen is of high hedgerows and the occasional splash of yellow rapeseed. It screams ‘Garden of England’, but the surround-sound fanfare could only be Italian. At 4000rpm there’s a distinct hardening of tone as the high-lift camshaft makes its presence felt. The Cisitalia barks like a proper racing car. If anything, it sounds far more powerful than it actually is. Having said which, somehow you suspect it’s nowadays packing more than the 55bhp quoted in period if noise equates to horsepower. Nevertheless, it’s far from slow even if the narrow power band and widely spaced gear ratios ensure that you must choose your moments to get the most out of it. This 202SC may be a concours winner, but it’s no trailer queen. It gets used in anger, and often, but barely a week has passed since an engine rebuild was completed so exploration into the higher reaches of the rev range is not on the cards today.
It also gets very toasty, very quickly – there’s little in the way of ventilation save for the roll-down windows and the pair of scuttle vents down by your feet. Rear visibility is also lacking, the interior mirror shimmying from the vibrations, while the curvy C-pillar creates a massive blind-spot. As is to be expected, the worm-and-roller steering is a little vague.
It really dates such a forward-thinking design, but it doesn’t detract from the driving experience, at least not with familiarity. Initially, it feels slightly leaden for a car weighing only 780kg, and a little dead on the straight ahead, but it lightens up appreciably at speed. It doesn’t wander, either, or tramline. Turn-in is immediate, but while it does plough on a little, it never threatens to spill. Try that bit harder, and it pivots around you in true vintage style. The finned aluminium drum anchors, however, aren’t the last word in stopping g power, and the live rear end on semi-elliptic leaf springs gets a little jouncy over Kent’s calloused asphalt, but that rather goes with the territory. There are no creaks or groans through the structure – it feels markedly more rigid than most of its period rivals, Jaguar XK120 fhc included.
This really is a mouse that roars. Top speed was estimated in period – perhaps implausibly – to be around 95mph, which on paper doesn’t exactly set your pulse racing. But it’s all relative. You have to remember that this was heady stuff for the late- Forties regarding of engine capacity. Of paper, the Cisitalia focuses your attention more than its meagre stats might have you believe. This isn’t a particularly easy car to drive given its narrow power band and ergonomic quirks. It’s fun, but to pilot the 202 quickly and competently requires commitment. It makes you appreciate Beninati’s efforts on the Mille Miglia all the more. What is all too evident when disentangling the narrative surrounding Cisitalia is that ambition trumped experience. But then marque founder Piero Dusio was nothing if not a go-getter.
This remarkable character was born in Scurzolengo, south-west of Turin, in October 1899. A natural sportsman, his footballing career with Juventus was curtailed by a knee injury but he found a perfect substitute in motor sport. A savvy businessman, and one who was well-connected at the highest level of government, Dusio earned more than one fortune in real estate and the textile industry, which funded his racing exploits. A gentleman driver in modern-day parlance, he was sufficiently gifted to place sixth in the 1936 Italian GP at Monza aboard a Maserati 6C, and third on the Mille Miglia two years later in an Alfa Romeo 6C 2300A.
Becoming a manufacturer in his own right was a natural step. Dusio’s Consorzio Industriale Sportive Italia concern, which had hitherto produced everything from tennis rackets to bicycles, began designing a racing car in 1944. By his own admission, Dusio was not an engineer, but he did have a knack for recognising and enabling burgeoning talent. The D46 single-seater, the model which established the marque trackside in the immediate post-war years, was largely the work of Dante Giacosa. Despite packing only a tiny 1.1-litre four-cylinder this tiny device punched above its weight, with Nuvolari winning the Coppa Brezzi in September 1946 aboard one. Cisitalia became an overnight sensation, the ‘Flying Mantuan’ going on to claim a remarkable second place in the following year’s Mille Miglia aboard a 202MM sports-racer. What’s more, he did so despite the considerable horsepower deficit to the victorious Alfa Romeo 2900B of Clemente Biondette. Nuvolari had appeared set for a famous victory in sodden conditions, having led by eight minutes at one point, only to be delayed by looded electrics on the final day.
However, the marque’s legend was forged on the global stage by the 202 coupé which shared its DNA with the 202MM and closely-related 202SMM. This landmark design prompted jaws to collectively drop when launched in 1947. Yet it was, in essence, a Fiat 1100 ‘special’, albeit one which fully exploited the talents of former aero engineer Giovanni Savonuzzi and the artistry of Pinin Farina. Subsequent variations on the theme would influence designers on both sides of the Atlantic. However, by the time the Voloradante model broke cover in 1953, Savonuzzi was long gone. As, indeed, was the firm’s founder, if only in the physical sense.
While the D46 earned valuable revenue, and the 202 road car and competition variants caused the motoring media of the day to gush forth, other schemes proved anything but successful. Dusio overextended in his attempt to build a Grand Prix challenger and it almost ruined him. With a brains trust that included Ferdinand Porsche, Rudolf Hruska (the same man who later engineered the Alfasud) and Carlo Abarth, the resultant single-seater – known as the Type 360 in Porsche lore – featured a supercharged 1493cc lat-12 mounted amidships. Unfortunately, it was undone in part by a lack of finance, with glory being garnered in South American speed record bids rather than the race tracks of Europe.
By the dawn of the Fifties, Cisitialia was on the ropes. Dusio had by now also become involved in, and maybe sidetracked by, the Péron regime’s bid to establish a motor industry in Argentina. He was a prime mover in the formation of the Autoar concern, only to be elbowed out shortly thereafter.
Meanwhile in Turin, it was left to his son Carlo to halt the brand’s slide into oblivion. Cisitalia was, however, now entering its twilight years with plans to build a car with Ford backing ultimately coming to nought following much expenditure of time and money.
Similarly, plans to equip the 202 with an adapted 2.8-litre four-cylinder marine engine made by B.P.M. (Botta & Puricelli Milano) also proved a costly distraction. The Aldo Brovarone-penned, Fiat 1100-103-based 33DF Voloradante coupé, by comparison, was a more conventional proposition. There was nothing complicated about its makeup; there was no reaching for the stars here. It also tanked with only four being made. At some point during 1954 the Voloradante was quietly axed and Cisitalia found itself in a state of suspended animation.
Down but not out, Dusio Jnr made a concerted bid to revive the marque in 1959 with a Fiat 600-based saloon but this too was aborted. Altogether lovelier was the 750 roadster, which featured 735cc Fiat power. Variations on the theme continued into the Sixties, most cars heading to South America. However, the profitmaking aspect was rarely factored in. Manufacture ended in 1964 after Carlo Dusio threw in the towel. His father simultaneously wound down the Cisitalia ICSA concern in Buenos Aires, the marque’s glory days by now all but distant memories.
But what memories. Given that most sports cars of the day were reheated pre-war models with cycle-wings and square-rigged bodies, the 202 in any of its many lavours was breathtakingly advanced, if only stylistically. There’s barely a line wrong on this car, from the deceptively simple oval grille (a one-piece casting, slats and all) to the beautifully arched roofline that barely comes up to shoulder level.
The racing numbers merely add to the 202’s appeal, although some arbiters of beauty may consider the opposite to be true. Save for its Mille Miglia outing, and a reasonably strong showing in the Coppa Inter-Europa at Monza in September 1954, this car enjoyed a more sedentary life thereafter. In so many ways, the 202’s legacy doesn’t amount to what it achieved on track, but more for what it led to, with British and American copyists trailing in its wake.
The outer wrapper remains the big draw for many. The real pity is that Cisitalia didn’t go on to achieve more, following such a successful start. There lingers the wistful spectre of what might have been. Had Piero Dusio not lost his shirt chasing his dream of becoming a Grand Prix constructor, or been distracted by his Argentinian adventure, what might the 202 have led to? Only 170 or so 202 coupés and cabriolets were made. But that’s the trouble with blazing trails – it’s a surefire way of getting burned.
Technical data specification 1948 Cisitalia 202SC
Engine 1089cc four-cylinder, ohv, two Weber 36 DR4SP carburettors, two valves per cylinder
Power and torque 55bh p@ 5500rpm; 54lb ft @ 2800rpm
Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Worm and roller
Suspension Front: independent by transverse leaf spring, lower wishbones, hydraulic dampers. Rear: live axle located by semi-elliptic springs, friction dampers
Brakes Hydraulically operated drums all round
Weight 780kg (1720lb)
Performance Top speed: 95mph (claimed); 0-60mph: 18.4sec
Cost new US $5000 (£1240 in 1949)
Value now £500,000
‘There lingers the wistful spectre of what could have been; what the 202 might have led to’
‘The commitment required to pilot the 202 quickly makes you appreciate Beninati’s efforts on the Mille Miglia all the more’
‘The view screams Garden of England, but the surroundsound fanfare could only be Italian’
Art Deco meets the Jet Age – with amber accents. Extravagant coachwork clothes modest mechanicals. Details took priority over profit. Not only Ferrari pioneered the egg crate grille in post-war motor sport. Slender tyres hint at the father-footednes that made the Cisitalia so competitive in racing. The Cisitalia 202 left copyists in its wake – Lancia, Aston Martin, Ferrari et al.
Savonuzzi’s contribution to car design continues to fly under the radar. He was never a name-above-the-title star, preferring instead to toil behind closed doors. Nevertheless, for ten glorious years from 1946 to the mid- Fifties, this former aircraft engineer and aerodynamicist shaped several landmark classics.
Born in Ferrara in 1911, Savonuzzi’s engineering career began at Fiat Aviazione in the Thirties, Piero Dusio enticing him to join Cisitalia in 1945. Quite aside from his often-uncredited contribution to the Cisitalia 202 coupé, he also unwittingly kicked of the tailfins craze of the Fifties with the creation of the 202 CMM and the open ‘Nuvolari Spider’. He also lent his skills to Ghia, penning the ‘Supersonic’ line that was based on Fiat 8V, Aston Martin DB2/4 and Jaguar XK140 platforms, in addition to the Gilda gas-turbine show-stopper.
Savonuzzi’s work with Ghia brought him into contact with Chrysler styling chief Virgil Exner, who employed the carrozzeria to build a raft of concept queens. He was so impressed with Savonuzzi’s work that he brought him over to the US in 1957 where the quietly spoken Italian became chief engineer of Chrysler’s turbine research department.
He returned to Fiat as director of research in 1969 where he remained until his retirement eight years later.
Beninati’s 202 is tended to on the 1949 Mille Miglia / Savonuzzi’s 202 SMM was an early tailfin trendsetter.