Felice Nazzaro (1881 - 1940)

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Felice Nazzaro (1881 - 1940)

Felice Nazzaro and Vincenzo Florio
Felice Nazzaro pictured after winning the 1913 Targa Florio. Walking alongside him is none other than Vincenzo Florio, one of the founders of the race.

The Padua-Vicenza-Padua Race

Felice Nazzaro reached the peak of his international fame over 100 years ago, in 1909. He was then 28 years old, and had been a racing driver for nine years. The son of a well-to-do coal merchant, Felice had been apprenticed to Ceirano, who were acquired by Fiat at the turn of the century; his abilities as a driver were soon realised by the new owners, and in 1900 he was entered in the Padua-Vicenza-Padua race with a 6 hp Fiat, and came second (his friend Vincenzo Lancia won the event, although one report claims that both men 'and a dozen other drivers' were disqualified for pushing their cars up one of the hills on the course).

The Giro d'Italia

Nazzaro's first racing victory came the following year when, driving one of the new Mercedes-inspired, front-engined, 3.8-litre, four-cylinder Fiats, he won the Giro d'Italia at an average speed of 27.7 mph. Shortly afterwards, Nazzaro became chauffeur to Vincenzo Florio; Florio's taste for high-powered touring cars and his love of automobile sport ensured that the new appointment was not devoid of interest for Nazzaro, who was able to take part in various local competitions.

The First Coppa Florio

In 1904, however, with an old 70 hp Panhard, he came fifth in the first Coppa Florio (which was won by Lancia at the wheel of one of the new Gordon Bennett Fiats), beating such crack drivers as Cagno in the process. This performance earned Nazzaro a place in the Fiat team for 1905, and he responded with a spectacular second place in the Gordon Bennett, beaten only by Leon Thery driving a Richard-Brasier. He achieved sixth place in the Coppa Florio that year, and came second in the first French Grand Prix in 1906.

1907 was a brilliant year for both driver and car, in which Nazzaro carried off the un-equalled feat of winning the season's three major races, all run under entirely different rules, with cars ranging from 7363cc to 16,286cc. It was a period of flux in international motor sport, with organisers and manufacturers attempting to break out of the straitjacket of the old 1000 kg maximum-weight formula. So, the Targa Florio was run on a 1000 kg minimum weight limit, with cylinder bore diameter restricted to between 20 and 30 mm for a four-cylinder engine. The Fiats for this race had 7363cc engines, four-speed gearboxes and chain drive, and the old Great Madonie course was one which would test the transmission to the full, for in its serpentine progress through the Madonie mountains, the ill-surfaced circuit at one point rose 1600 ft in eight miles, then dropped 3400 ft in ten miles.

The Second Targa Florio

There were 44 entries for this, the second Targa Florio, including the previous year's winner, Cagno, with his Itala. On the first 90-mile lap, Lancia's Fiat took the lead, closely followed by Cagno, Trucco (Isotta-Fraschini) and Nazzaro, but a leaking fuel tank slowed Lancia on the second round; and Nazzaro went into the lead, challenged by Louis Wagner (Darracq), who skidded off the road in his eagerness to take the race from Nazzaro. On. the. third and final lap, the order was Nazzaro- Lancia- Fabry (Itala). Then came the Kaiserpreis, sponsored by the German Emperor, and nominally for medium-powered touring cars of less than 8 litres (though the 92 cars which entered were all stripped racers).

Because of the high number of entries, the event was divided into two heats and a final, and only those cars which finished in the top twenty in each heat would go through to the Kaiserpreis proper. The first heat (which was run off in pouring rain at 4 o'clock in the morning) was won by Lancia, the second by Nazzaro; in the final, Nazzaro beat his own record for the 73-mile circuit on the first lap and led the field, though he lost ground second time round, with the orange-coloured Pipes of the Belgians Hautvast and Deplus coming through ahead of him. Nazzaro rallied on the next round, pushed Deplus back into third place, and set off in pursuit of Hautvast.

Felice Nazzaro
Felice Nazzaro.

Vincenzo Florio and Felice Nazzaro
Felice Nazzaro (left) talks with Vincenzo Florio (right) prior to the start of the 1907 Targa Florio.

A painting by F. Gordon Crosby of Felice Nazzaro with his Fiat, passing Vizcaya's Bugatti during the 1922 Strasbourg Grand Prix
A painting by F. Gordon Crosby of Felice Nazzaro with his Fiat, passing Vizcaya's Bugatti during the 1922 Strasbourg Grand Prix.

Felice Nazzaro, circa 1913

Under this determined attack, Hautvast failed to hold the lead, and at the finish, Nazzaro was five minutes ahead of his rival, averaging 52 mph for the race; third and fourth were the Opels of Jams and Michel. Then came the first French Grand Prix. On the face of it, this was a formula libre event, for there was no restriction 'of engine size: but there was a catch, for the cars had to achieve a better fuel average than 9.5 miles per gallon, for the petrol allowance was strictly measured. The race took place at Dieppe only two weeks after the Kaiserpreis, and it seems as though Fiat were tardy entrants, for the single fee lists had closed before ex-racing cyclist Dominic Lamberjack, Paris concessionaire for the marque, announced that he was entering a team of three cars which 'he had had constructed at his own expense' at double fees - £400 for each of the cars.

Fiat drew first place in the ballot for positions on the starting line, and Nazzaro was driving car F-2. These Fiats had 16,286cc engines which had originally been designed for the 1905 Gordon Bennett, with overhead inlet and exhaust valves set at an angle in a hemispherical cylinder head; power output was 120 bhp. The chassis, indeed, apart from a few added holes to reduce weight where it would do least good-mainly in the drop arm and gear and brake levers-was on the face of it identical to the 1905 model apart from lowered steering and different seats and fuel tank. Fiat seem to have used the same design of chassis on their racing cars over a period of six or seven years, for the underpinnings of the 1912 Grand Prix Fiat were apparently identical, too.

The race was dominated by a Fiat vs. De Dietrich battle, with first Wagner, then Lancia contesting the lead with Arthur Duray's De Dietrich; but Nazzaro, driving a steady, less exhibitionist race, had been quietly gaining ground, and when Wagner and Duray had fallen out and Lancia had fallen back, he took the lead, winning by seven minutes with little more than the smell of petrol in his tank, having averaged 70.5 mph over 778 miles. After this display of virtuoso versatility, Nazzaro's performance in the first major event of 1908, the Targa Florio, proved a disappointment, for his car was forced to retire.

'Ebby' Ebblewhite

June 1908 saw one of motoring history's most famous challenge matches, run off at Brooklands between Frank Newton's L48 Napier Samson and Nazzaro on the Fiat Mephistopheles, which was similar to the 1907 Grand Prix cars, but bored to 18,146cc. It was a case of Samson Agonistes, for the dreaded 'power rattle' caused the Napier to break its crankshaft, and the Fiat won at a speed which remained the subject of controversy ever since. 'Ebby' Ebblewhite the Brooklands timekeeper claimed it had achieved 107 mph; the new-fangled electrical timing apparatus showed a less believable 120 mph. Perhaps it was poetic justice, but in that year's French Grand Prix, Nazzaro was eliminated when his crankshaft broke.

In September Nazzaro won the Coppa Florio at Bologna in convincing manner, averaging 74.1 mph for the 328 mile event; and he might have won the Savannah Grand Prize had not a tyre burst when he was leading on the last lap. Because of the cessation of major international motoring competition in the period 1909 - 1912, Nazzaro made few appearances, apart from his record attempt at Brooklands in the summer of 1909 with the sister car to Mephistopheles, which was suffering from porous cylinder castings and only achieved 105 mph; then, in 1912, he sought to emulate his former colleague, Lancia, by turning to car manufacture.

There was more than a hint of Fiat about the appearance of the new Nazzaro car, which was built in Turin. In fact, for a car sponsored by a racing driver, the Nazzaro was a rather stolid-looking machine, with a 4.4-litre side-valve engine and a four-speed gearbox. In the 1912 Targa Florio, Losa and Catalano drove a Nazzaro into 12th place; but the following year saw the marque's first completion success, when Felice himself won the two-day event, run on a 652 mile circuit round Sicily. Then in 1914, he won the Coppa Florio, too. But an attempt on the French Grand Prix that year with a team of specially-built 16-valve overhead camshaft 4½-litre cars proved an expensive fiasco, as none of the Nazzaros lasted the course.

Guido Meregalli

Felice Nazzaro severed his connection with the company in 1916, but the name was revived in 1920 by a Florence-based firm. These post-war Nazzaros were, perhaps, more sporting in appearance and specification than their progenitors, but it was a rebuilt Nazzaro of the old school which won the 1920 Targa Florio, driven by Guido Meregalli. Driving through rain and mud, he came home eight minutes ahead of a young racing driver named Enzo Ferrari, who had an Alfa Romeo. The last Nazzaro cars appeared in 1922, with an overhead camshaft actuating the two exhaust valves fitted to each cylinder.

Meanwhile, Felice Nazzaro was back with his old company, Fiat. He won the1922 French Grand Prix at Strasbourg with a 2-litre Fiat, a victory which underlined the 'Lucky' Nazzaro legend, as his two teammates crashed during the race, one of them, his nephew Biagio, receiving fatal injuries. When the cars were examined, it was found that all the rear axles were flawed, and that had the race continued much longer, it would have been almost inevitable that Felice would have crashed, too. This was really his last successful race, the new 1923 Fiats retired hurt in that year's French Grand Prix, having ingested a rich diet of road grit through their innovatory supercharging systems. Nazzaro managed a second place with one of tliese cars-in the Monza Grand Prix (a fitting achievement, as he and his team-mate Pietro Bordino had performed the opening ceremony at the Autodrome).

In 1924, Nazzaro crashed in the Coppa Florio and retired from the French GP with plug trouble; the following year he became head of Fiat's competition department, staying until his death in 1940.
Nazzaro in his 1911 Fiat 300hp S76
Nazzaro in his 1911 Fiat 300hp S76.
Felice Nazzaro poses with the 1913 4.4 litre 60hp Nazzaro which won that years Targa Florio
Felice Nazzaro poses with the 1913 4.4 litre 60hp Nazzaro which won that years Targa Florio.
A 1914 Nazzaro 20/30hp racer fitted with a 4398cc four-cylinder engine
A 1914 Nazzaro 20/30hp racer fitted with a 4398cc four-cylinder engine.
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