'Floretta' the Ex-works, ex-Wil-de-Gose, John Pole, 'Sam' Clutton/Dr Bob Ewen/Jack Williamson/George Daniels 1908 Itala Grand Prix Car Registration no. LD 2301 Chassis no. 871 Engine no. 871
Here we are delighted to offer nothing less than one of the most iconic road-useable racing cars ever to grace the British register. It is by any standard one of the best loved vehicles within the entire British treasury of Veteran, Edwardian, Vintage and Classic cars.
It has been a mainstay of the United Kingdom's 'old car' movement for over 100 years, and it was one of the iconic motor cars around which in 1935 the Vintage Sports Car Club was founded.
The 1908 Grand Prix Itala as offered here, known for most of its long life by the affectionate nickname 'Floretta', is a big, buxom, muscular, Italian diva. As such she not only has a racing record extending from her debut at the highest purebred level to the present day, but she has also been used for many thousands of spectacular motoring on the public road.
The car is offered here as used by George Daniels himself in such memorable events as the Grand Prix de l'ACF centenary 1908-2008, at Dieppe, and as the very embodiment of the Vintage Sports Car Club's founding spirit...
George Daniels is thought to have been only the sixth principal owner. From its earliest days as a factory Grand Prix car with Itala SA Fabbrica Automobili, Turin, Italy through the hands of R. Wil-de-Gose in whose hands 'Floretta' raced at Brooklands the car passed obscurely into the hands of the proprietor of the Schole Inn at Diss in Norfolk, from him to RAF pilot John Pole, thence around 1937 - to Cecil 'Sam' Clutton and his associates Peter Robertson-Rodger and Dr Bob Ewen. 'Sam' Clutton later shared the car with like-minded enthusiast and fellow VSCC luminary Jack Williamson until, after more than 50 years of 'Sam's stewardship 'Floretta' passed into George Daniels' connoisseur care.
Prominent pioneer motoring historian Kent Karslake was a great friend not only of 'Sam' Clutton but also of 'Pom'; Laurence Pomeroy, celebrated Technical Editor of 'The Motor' magazine. In his wonderful book 'From Veteran to Vintage' (Temple Press, London, 1956), Kent Karslake wrote: "The demise of the giant racer might well have resulted in their disappearance from the face of the earth, but posterity is in fact singularly fortunate... One of the 1908 Grand Prix Italas was probably saved from destruction by being fitted while it was yet young with a touring body, and has never been entirely neglected. Of recent years it passed into the hands of Mr. Cecil Clutton and the late Dr. G.A. Ewen who, in a long series of speed events, have shown a skill and sympathy in handling it..."
He continued: "It is with the Itala that I myself have had the closest contact, and it has been a contact fit to grace a motoring lifetime. Like the FIATs they used the short stroke of 160mm with the maximum permitted bore of 155mm, which gave them a capacity of 12,076cc and perhaps in consequence they were less powerful than the 14-litre Bayard-Clements and the victorious 13-litre Mercedes....
"The Itala...", he wrote"...has a starting handle which is a masterpiece of artistic solidity. The grip is amply large enough for two hands, if two hands are needed on it; but in practice they seldom if ever are. The engine, like most of its size and period, is fitted with a sliding camshaft which can be used to reduce compression for starting purposes, and with this in operation, the big engine can be turned with comparative ease.
"As is perhaps still generally known, a 4-cylinder engine, once the initial impulse has been given to it, very nearly swings itself, the release of the compression in one cylinder carrying the engine over the compression in another. All that is required by the operator is not muscular strength but a certain knack in starting the process.
"Once this has been applied to the Itala, one can go on swinging it as easily as if its capacity were 1,200 rather than 12,000 cc; and if your appearance is as feeble as the author's, one can watch delightedly out of the tail of one's eye, while thus engaged, strong men who are not in on the secret visibly blenching and wondering when you are going to burst. Unfortunately, there is seldom any opportunity for the performance to be prolonged; after a few turns the giant engine usually bursts into life with a shattering roar, so startling even when expected that it requires great presence of mind to remember to slide the camshaft back onto full compression."
Kent Karslake first had the opportunity to drive the great car in 1948, in Dunkirk. He recalled: "I have no hesitation in saying...that the Itala is not only one of the most exciting cars that it has been my lot to drive, but also one of the least alarming. How big a car feels to its driver appears to bear no relation to its actual size, and, from the point of view of tractability and accurate placing on the road, this is a Gargantuan that feels like something out of Lilliput.
"The steering is of thoroughbred precision, with no trace of undue heaviness in spite of the fact that the wheel only needs one complete turn from lock to lock.
"The gear lever is pushed or pulled, rather than flicked, in its gate, as if to indicate that there is something pretty solid in the way of pinions on the other end of the mechanism, but it moves with complete smoothness, and the gears change with unfailing ease and silence for any operator versed in the first principles of sliding-pinion gearboxes".
He then warned: "Yet there is one insidious peril in the driving of the car. There is, it must be remembered, 100hp available to the driver, delivered at only 1,800rpm, which means that when the engine is exerting a really tremendous urge, it sounds and feels as if it was doing next to no hard work at all. The effect of this on the driver, at least until he is accustomed to it, is an intoxicating sense of power without responsibility. He is tempted to feel that he can do no wrong and, as he sweeps along with this huge surge of power, obedient to the lightest whim of his right toe, to throw back his head, and fill the astonished air with echoing peals of Homeric laughter.
"I have sat beside Mr Clutton as he drove it mile after mile at 85mph, aimed with the precision of a cannonball at that point on the horizon where a long straight French road met the sky..."
Yes - this extraordinarily imposing 1908 Grand Prix Itala plainly embodies everything about which Mr Toad might have gasped, "Oh bliss oh joy Ooh Poop-Poop!..."
The Itala company was founded in 1904 by Matteo Ceirano and Guido Bigio with backing from a Genoese financial group. Initially it mimicked trendsetting Mercedes designs, featuring advanced shaft rather than chain - drive to a live rear axle.
Matteo Ceirano was keen upon promoting his marque's prowess through competition. 'Floretta' offered here was one of only three 1908 Grand Prix cars custom-designed under the direction of Alberto Balloco, chief engineer 1905-1919. In 1906 works driver Alessandro Cagno won the first Targa Florio in Sicily with a 7.4-litre 35/45hp model, while sister Italas finished second, fourth and fifth. Prince Scipione Borghese then chose the same Itala model to achieve his now legendary victory in the 1907 Peking-to-Paris epic.
But the French Grand Prix, more properly the Grand Prix de l'Automobile Club de France, was by far the most important race of that era. Just after the 1907 event, an International Conference in Ostend discussed a new 'Formula' - or set of technical racing regulations - for 1908. With racing rules varying between nations, manufacturers had to construct different cars for each one.
Against this background, for 1908 a unified racing Formula was agreed. Minimum weight was to be 1,100kg 2,425lbs while engine bore diameter was fixed at a maximum 155mm for 4-cylinder engines and 127mm for 6-cylinder units. The Automobile Club de France further announced that in 1908 its Grand Prix would be run over the same Seine Inferieur circuit outside Dieppe as in 1907 (when Felice Nazzaro and FIAT had won for Italy).
The 1908 Grand Prix de l'ACF then received entries from no fewer than 17 manufacturers; Brasier, Bayard-Clement, Lorraine-Dietrich, Mors, Motobloc, Panhard-Levassor, Porthos and Renault from France Benz, Mercedes and Opel from Germany Austin and Weigel from Great Britain plus Thomas from the USA and Germain from Belgium, while FIAT and Itala joined in from Italy...
Itala's number one driver, Alessandro Cagno, was sometime chauffeur to Queen Margherita. His experienced French team-mate Henri Fournier was not only Itala's French concessionaire, having already won the 1901 Paris-Berlin city-to-city race. A third GP Itala was to be handled by the less well-known Giovanni Piacenza. The Torinese team based themselves at Martin-Eglise on the Dieppe circuit. The competing cars were due to start the great race at one-minute intervals, the first setting off at 6.01 am under overcast skies and with a strong onshore wind.
Cagno was accompanied by riding mechanic Moriondo Fournier by Ayana and Piacenza by Craviolo. Cagno's car, race number '12' was the first Itala starter, at 6.12am, followed by Fournier - '29' - at 6.29, and finally Piacenza - '45' - at 6.45. Away they rumbled on the first of the ten long 79.988km 49.71-mile laps.
Nazzaro's FIAT took the lead on lap 2, while the unfortunate Piacenza retired his Itala with gearbox trouble. The big leading FIATS of Louis Wagner and Nazzaro then both retired. After five laps 385kms, 248.55 miles Christian Lautenschlager was leading for Mercedes, with the delayed Italas of Cagno 26th and Fournier 29th. While Lautenschlager's ultimately winning Mercedes lapped in 38mins 42secs, Cagno's best for Itala was a very quick 39:26 on his first lap, while Henri Fournier's was timed at 39mins 55secs, and his seventh at 39:10 after lengthy early delay. After eight hours and 769.880kms, 478.48 miles - of punishing Grand Prix road racing, Cagno's Itala finished 11th and Fournier's 20th.
These GP Italas were entered in the great race as having 4-cylinder engines with cylinders cast in two blocks of two cylinders each, bore 154.8mm x stroke 160mm, displacing 12,045cc. Wheelbase was listed as 2.92 metres, maximum track 1.40 metres. However, 'Floretta' today has a 3.05-metre 118.3-inch - wheelbase. In fact a Bonhams analysis of 1908 Grand Prix paddock photography now suggests that while Cagno and Fournier drove matching short-wheelbase Italas at Dieppe, Piacenza's works car was visibly longer. Although 'Floretta' has been described repeatedly over many decades as having been Cagno's car, this evidence suggests she was more probably Piacenza's. Further evidence supporting this assertion is that Piacenza's is recorded as also having been the heaviest of the 1908 Grand Prix team cars, scaling 27cwt 3qr 15lbs against the winning Mercedes' 22cwt 4lbs. This would be consistent with the perceived extra chassis length.
Laurence Pomeroy wrote in his seminal two-volume treatise 'The Grand Prix Car' (Temple Press, London, 1953) "The car constructed by the Itala company for this race can be considered typical of design practice at this time. It embraced a live rear axle, a feature which was perhaps something of an advance, but, on the other hand, retained side exhaust and overhead inlet valves and low tension ignition at a period when overhead valve engines with high tension ignition were by no means unknown."
He emphasised that an Itala completed the first 48-mile lap only 57 secs behind the eventual winner, Lautenschlager's Mercedes. He added that in 1940 at Brooklands the same model covered a flying quarter-mile at 85mph and a standing quarter mile in 20 secs. That car was not in the best of tune, and it is fair to assume that in original condition it could have achieved 95-100mph flat-out.
'Pom' went on to comment upon the car's relatively majestic size, adding "...it is worth emphasizing that there was very little wasted space. It is indeed notable that the bonnet fits so closely around the engine that the overhead valve gear projects above the level of the radiator and had to be covered by a protuberant cowling".
In describing this Itala's massive 4-cylinder engine, 'Pom' wrote: The designer chose the maximum permitted bore and cautiously approached the problem of raising the piston speed above the 1500rpm which was the then existing standard. Given the opportunity of unlimited stroke, he decided to fix the figure at 160mm, which permitted a maximum engine speed of 1,800rpm with a piston speed of 1,700 feet per minute. At this speed the car was theoretically capable of 113mph so there was a reasonable balance between the factors of bhp, rpm and reliability.
"The cylinders were formed in pairs from iron castings, the water jacket extending about one-third of the way down the bore. The exhaust valves were situated in laterally located pockets at the near side of the engine, the inlet valves being mounted above them in detachable cages. The exhaust valves, therefore, were operated directly from a side-mounted camshaft and the inlet valves through push rods and rockers... The crankshaft ran in a similar type of bearing was approximately 55mm diameter, and innocent of counterbalancing..." he added, with a smile.
In conclusion, 'Pom' added: "The 1908 Grand Prix Itala was somewhat overweight and under-powered by comparison with the best designs of the time and for this reason had no great success in Grand Prix racing. It has, however, in later years proved to be an outstandingly reliable design, two cars participating in racing at Brooklands until1914, one in 1910 averaging 97.5mph for 19½ miles and lapping at 101.8mph. This car survived and continues in competition use today..."
After the Grand Prix at Dieppe, these Itala team cars were shipped to Savannah, Georgia, for the American Grand Prize road race. Cagno progressed from tenth place on the opening lap to fourth by lap 3. But he was then forced to retire, while Fournier finished eighth, and the unfortunate Piacenza crashed his entry.
But on home soil in the Coppa Florio race at Bologna Cagno's Itala finished third at 66.4mph, despite breaking its spring hangers and then having its radiator burst on the final lap. Fournier was blinded by Cagno's dust and left the road, while Piacenza again failed.
Within a year, in 1909, R. Wil-de-Gose, AMI Mech E (later general manager of The Crescent Cinema in Pontefract, Yorkshire), appeared at Brooklands in what became 'Floretta' now offered here. He immediately lapped the Outer Circuit at 93.22mph. Back there in 1910, Wil-de-Gose's 'Sixty Itala' lapped at 100.36mph, and soon after at 101.80mph! It is significant that Lord Vernon, in the ex-Fry, ex-Tate 1908 Mercedes lapped at 101.59mph almost matching the outright speed of the Italian-made Grand Prix car now offered here...but not quite.
It appears that the car was owned during this period by a Mr H.T.I. Young of Lambourn, Berkshire At least two alternative racing body shapes appeared on the car, one with pointed 'draught-includer' nose at Brooklands, and another with beetle-back tail at Saltburn Sands in Yorkshire, before presumably late in 1910 the car was rebodied by Vincent's of Reading into four-seat form for high-performance road use. Its original artillery-style wooden-spoked wheels had been replaced by wire wheels as still used today, and even in Brooklands form the car was UK road registered 'LD 2301'.
The car survived World War 1 and the 1920s in relative obscurity until on Sunday, May 17,1936 the infant Vintage Sports Car Club ran a speed trial at Aston Clinton, in which the Edwardian class was won by John Pole then a serving Royal Air Force officer driving the "12-litre 1908 Grand Prix Itala".
In a highly entertaining 'Cars I Have Owned' article published in 'Motor Sport' magazine, December 1960, John Pole wrote: "In 1927 I stopped for lunch one day at the Scole Inn at Diss, on the Norwich-London road. After lunch I happened to wander round the back of the inn...and I saw a gigantic old touring car filling a shed, and covered with crates, bottles, chicken much, dead weeds everything.
"The proprietor of the inn told me it was a 1908 racing Itala, given to him by a friend, driven up from London in 1920 and never used since.
"In 1936 an interest in old cars had started, and I remembered the Itala. I went to Scole one Sunday morning and sure enough the car was still there in the same old shed and looking dirtier and vaster than ever. I bought it for £25, and a week later I went with two friends and a 30cwt Morris truck with tools and equipment to bring the car away, under its own power if possible.
"It took us three days to make it drivable. A lot of wiring and water tubing had to be replaced and the old tyres cut off the rims. The low-tension ignition system was a mystery to me, as was the petrol feed which appeared to be maintained by pressure from the exhaust pipe.
"However, we got petrol to the carburettor, and I then thought we had better tow the car around for a few miles in gear to free everything up before trying to start the engine. We had a solid tow bar on the Morris, and this was hitched on and the Itala towed out on to the main London road in neutral.
"When we were in position, I put it in second gear and with the clutch out we started rolling. At about ten miles an hour I cautiously let the clutch in.
"There was a shuddering, convulsive earthquake beneath me as four ancient pistons started to sweep twelve litres of cobwebs and dead spiders out into the silencer. And then, without a trace of warning, the great engine burst into life with a shattering roar. The hand throttle had been left half open and the Itala surged forward against the solid tow bar before I had a chance to depress the clutch, which anyway nearly required two feet to it.
"It was too much for the poor 30cwt Morris. The kick in the pants from the Itala sprung the chassis and the bottom fell out of the cast aluminium gearbox. My own exultation was something I'll never forget. We had not put the bonnet on, and clouds of dust and dirt swept over me as I kept the engine revving. The tow bar was unhitched and I drove the car back into the yard. The next morning a ceremonial farewell drive was arranged, and all the Scole Inn staff; chambermaids, waiters, the cook, everybody, climbed onto the car and I drove them up the main London-Norwich road about a mile and then back. There were about twenty people clinging on somehow and amidst the screams of the females we probably did about 70 or 80mph. Nothing and nobody was licensed or insured and nobody fell off and got killed".
Having revived this imposing Grand Prix car, John Pole quite quickly sold it on to vintage motoring enthusiast Cecil 'Sam' Clutton. In 1937 the Itala's co-owner Peter Robertson-Rodger drove it in a three-lap VSCC demonstration at the opening Crystal Palace race meeting, with 'Bunty' Scott-Moncrieff in the Itala's passenger seat. The Littlestone Speed Trials on a building estate near New Romney, Kent, saw Clive Windsor-Richards driving, and later that year at Croydon's Autodrome Driving School course Cecil 'Sam' Clutton handled the great car, placing third in class. 'Sam' won the three-lap 'Pre-War Car' handicap race at Crystal Palace in April, 1939, and on August 26 barely a week before World War 2 erupted he posted second-fastest time in class at Prescott hill-climb, 64.03sec to the winner Anthony Heal's Fiat on 62.13.
Days later, the VSCC sent a six-page newsletter to its 300-odd members, which began "This Tedious War: The Club will be put to bed, with its bank balance, for the duration. Current subscriptions will continue to be current, until the next event after the outbreak of peace...". The notice ended: "If any of us are (a) alive, and or (b) solvent at the end of it all, we must then decide how best to pick up the threads of civilization (i.e. motoring) again...".
This great Itala was about to endure the second global war within its long lifetime. Competition motoring within Britain was still almost out of the question when the VSCC's AGM was held at the Punch House, Piccadilly Circus, London on January 17,1947. Membership had risen to 660 and R. Wil-de-Gose of Itala Brooklands fame had donated the '1908 Grand Prix Itala Cup' to be awarded annually in a race for Vintage cars.
On June 22,1947, the Club's Madresfield Park rally in Worcestershire saw Dr Gerald Ewen sharing an award in the Clutton Itala and as Peter Hull recalled in his 'History of the Vintage Sports Car Club' (1964) "On the way back to London the Itala was passed for what was believed to be the very first time in its life; but as this was by Landon's Alfa this was felt to be no serious disgrace...".
Meanwhile, in early March that year a small VSCC party had braved the snow to take a selection of interesting cars up to Cambridge for examination by members of the University Automobile Club. 'Bob' Ewen brought the Itala while 'Sam' drove his Type 49 Bugatti. They found that the CUAC were negotiating to run a second circuit-race meeting on Gransden Lodge aerodrome. The VSCC members offered to help so the two clubs could run the event as a joint meeting. On July 13, 1947, after seemingly endless problems, the event went ahead, and the Edwardian race saw 'Bob' Ewen timed at 63.51mph for one of the three laps it survived, after which its radiator boiled dry and the footbrake caught fire...
As 1948 marked the 40th anniversary of the Itala's racing debut at Dieppe, 'Sam' Clutton took the great car to Reims-Gueux, to witness that year's Grand Prix de l'ACF. He recalled: "When we were within 40 miles of Reims the twisting of the chassis had sprung a leak somewhere near the top of the Itala's petrol tank. No one imagined that (it) could reach Reims until late in the evening. Clutton was accompanied by fellow enthusiast/historian Kent Karslake who set off to man the pump pressurizing the punctured tank.
"His only relief could be when the engine was switched off and the car coasted in neutral down long gradients, otherwise he had to pump without cessation in order to maintain air pressure in the tank. To minimize his efforts a cruising speed of 85mph and upwards was maintained for those last 30 miles into Reims, and the Bugatti Black Bess and Vauxhall were soon caught and passed. As we came into the city itself Karslake continued pumping with one hand, whilst with the other he searched feverishly in the Guide Michelin for the whereabouts of the Lion d'Or, where we were to stay. With an expiring cough, the Itala rolled up to the front door of the hotel, its last drop of petrol exhausted not to mention Karslake...".
Charging back to catch the ferry in Dunkirk , 'Sam' misjudged a corner and careered "...down a railway track. The Itala soon crashed to rest, but it was found that the flywheel was jammed between a sleeper and some point-operating mechanism, so the efforts to move the car only resulted in a shower of sparks being generated by friction between the flywheel and the rail...
"At the same moment it was observed that an almost equally un-illuminated locomotive was rapidly bearing down upon the outfit.
"Clutton accordingly hastened to alight from the Itala and ran to make a speech to the engine driver, which had the effect of bringing the juggernaut to rest before the ultimate disaster occurred. After a great deal of pushing and shouting, and after the engine driver had with difficulty been restrained from executing his desire to push the Itala off the rail with his locomotive, a causeway was finally built up and the Itala was pushed to safety."
With only three big-end bearings and bottom gear by this time stripped, Bob Ewen nursed the great car onto the cross-Channel ferry with only 15 minutes to spare before departure. On board it was found that during this epic drive both the spare wheels had fallen off the car, and one road wheel had a slow puncture. 'Sam' began to pump it up whereupon the tyre detonated violently, ending up completely flat and with a 12-inch split in both inner tube and outer casing. Eventually landed back in England, 'Floretta' finally limped under her own power into the Ewen garage at Richmond, successfully completing what had been a dramatic 40th birthday outing...
Dr Ewen's patients could never be quite sure which car he might use on his rounds, and it was not unknown for a deafening rumble to herald his arrival outside a patient's house in 'Floretta'...
The great Itala continued to compete in race, sprint and hill-climb meetings throughout the remainder of the 1940s, and on through the 1950s-60s-70s-80s -90s into the 21st centruy... In 1949 a VSCC Bulletin described how "...when taking off, the Itala arches its back to such an extent that the doors invariably fly open, and as most of the driver's seat departs with the door this could be very embarrassing if the doors were not invariably lashed together when racing".
By 1950 Bob Ewen could win the Edwardian class at Prescott with a time of 57.16secs, while in the 1952 Pomeroy Trophy event which became an annual highlight of VSCC competition, the Itala's fuel consumption was checked at an amazing 16.7 miles per gallon. Dr Ewen also won in the Club's Silverstone race meeting that May, while the Wil-de-Gose-donated Itala Trophy race had become a major feature of VSCC meetings.
Dr Ewen passed away prematurely in December 1953, and for decades thereafter 'Sam' Clutton shared the Itala with fellow enthusiast Jack Williamson, who expertly maintained 'Floretta's ageing mechanicals. In 1978, the great car's 70th birthday coincided with 50 years of Mr Clutton's ownership.
Cecil 'Sam' Clutton, OBE, passed away in 1991 at the age of 81, but 'Floretta' was sold to horologist George Daniels as the new owner himself described: "One day at Prescott running my Alfa Romeo, the owner of the Itala said he might have to sell it. I wanted him to name a price, while he wanted me to make an offer, which I was reluctant to do. After some time he telephoned to say he might not have to sell after all. I thought I'm going to lose the only chance I am ever going to get to buy it, so I wrote saying I understood from various people that his car was worth between X and Y Pounds, and I enclose my cheque to the latter amount and would that conclude the transaction? He 'phoned back immediately. I'd got it!"
Mr Daniels absolutely adored the Itala. He described how: "You have to experience a car like this, no way you can describe it, you've got to do it, and you will either love it or hate it. The tranquility of these early cars is difficult to describe, everything is rotating so slowly...and yet you are really whistling through the atmosphere.
The Itala is really very easy to drive if you don't rush it. Cars of its era are very cooperative if you go about it at the right speed. It's a wonderful sensation, only doing 1100rpm and yet it's loping along at 80mph. Eighty miles per hour! It's the best experience in motoring..."
A number of spares are offered with the car including bonnet, two bucket seats (presumably for the earlier two-seater body), two cyclinder blocks which may be the originals (one cracked), another cylinder block which appears to be modern casting, and other items. The Itala also comes with an extensive history files and road-registration documents.
Today this majestic icon of the British motoring scene survives in hale and hearty good order, ready and able to provide a new generation of enthusiastic owners with tremendously enjoyable and fulfilling motoring, a thunderously 12-litreengined Grand Prix and Brooklands racer fully tried and proven on both road, and track...