Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8C Monterosa

A legendary luxurious masterpiece from Milan

Isotta Fraschini was one of the most prestigious manufacturers of the 1920s and 1930s. Particularly popular with wealthy and often famous Americans, the most luxurious versions were even more expensive than comparable Duesenbergs.

The depression of the 1930s caused dwindling sales, and automobile production ceased in 1934. An attempt to relaunch the brand after the Second World War resulted in the fascinating Tipo 8C Monterosa. Ultimately only five were built before the Isotta Fraschini factory was re-tooled to produce marine engines only.

Cesare Isotta and the brothers Vincenzo, Oreste, and Antonio Fraschini established Isotta Fraschini & C. in 1900. Initially, the company imported and repaired cars from other manufacturers and also imported parts to build cars, particularly Renaults, under license. Where needed, the existing components were modified to improve the designs. This led to the company being renamed Isotta Fraschini S.p.A. Milano in 1904 and a shift to assembling cars using parts designed in-house.

Clothed by Boneschi, this is one of five Tipo 8C prototypes built.

During the 1910s, Isotta Fraschini became one of the very first manufacturers to offer cars with four-wheel brakes and then in 1919 introduced the Tipo 8. First shown at the Paris Auto Salon, it was designed by the talented Giustino Cattaneo, who had been the chief engineer at Isotta Fraschini since 1905. It was a significant machine, as it was the first production road car fitted with a straight-eight engine. The revolutionary engine itself had already been designed in 1912, but in the intervening years, Isotta Fraschini had been forced to build engines for Italy’s air force.

Available as a rolling chassis only, most Tipo 8s received understated but opulent coachwork produced by the likes of Castagna and Sala. During the following years, the larger-engined Tipo 8A and further refined Tipo 8B were introduced. Owning an Isotta Fraschini was a luxury very few could afford, and it was the ultimate status symbol. Among the owners of an Isotta Fraschini was famous actor Rudolph Valentino. By the early 1930s, the design was showing its age and there was no immediate replacement.

The long tail housed a brand-new V8 engine.

With prices exceeding $20,000 for a complete car, the Isotta Fraschini became a luxury ever fewer people could afford during the Great Depression years. Henry Ford even attempted to buy the company in 1932 and move production to Detroit, but the negotiations came to nothing. A new, Italian owner was found and from 1934 onward, Isotta Fraschini focused on the development and production of airplane engines. With war looming in Europe once again, this was a far more lucrative market.

After World War II, the company’s new owners tried to pick up where Isotta Fraschini had left off halfway through the 1930s and produce sophisticated luxury cars again. The driving force behind the rebirth of Isotta Fraschini as an automobile manufacturer was the young and very talented engineer Fabio Rapi. He had started on the project before the war, but had been forced to focus his efforts elsewhere. Once peace returned, he went back at it with help from another legendary Italian engineer: Aurelio Lampredi.

The dashboard was very clean with the clock mounted in the center of the steering wheel.

Known as the Tipo 8C, the reborn Isotta Fraschini car was all-new and unlike any built in Italy before. No doubt inspired by the groundbreaking Tatras, Rapi decided to mount the engine in the very tail of the steel-ladder chassis. This featured double wishbones at the front and swing axles at the back. There were experiments with rubber springs but in the end, the cars were fitted with more conventional coil springs.

The mighty straight-eight of the earlier Isotta Fraschinis was not used again. Instead, Lampredi created a compact V-8 with overhead valves. Predating the famous Chrysler engines, the very light V-8 featured hemispherical combustion chambers. In its original guise, the engine displaced 2.5 liters, but the later prototypes were powered by a 3.0-liter version. Fitted with a dual barrel Weber carburetor, the V-8 was claimed to produce up to 125 hp.

The gearbox and final drive shared a single casing with the engine. This was cast from an aluminum alloy to keep the weight down. The gearbox had four forward gears and was operated by a lever on the steering column. The connection between the lever and the gearbox was not through a shaft but by cables. This unusual method may have well been inspired by the airplanes designed by Isotta Fraschini and its owners during the war.

The compact V8 engine was mounted behind the rear axle.

Production of the first prototypes started in 1947, but it was a slow and frustrating process due to the lack of materials. The first example was ready early that year and officially dubbed the Monterosa. This was a reference to the factory Isotta Fraschini had to abandon after a bombing during the war. It was located on the Via Monterosa in Milan. It was clothed by Zagato with a four-door sedan bodywork. It had no conventional grille but sported large air intakes on the rear fenders to cool the laterally mounted radiators. This layout resulted in cooling issues and Rapi decided to change the system and use a more conventional, front-mounted radiator.

The first Tipo 8C to be shown at a major motor show was clothed in a two-door coupe by Touring of Milan. The design was penned by Rapi himself and his drawing was also used in the official brochure. It was a very modern design with aerodynamic lines, integrated fenders and a lack of running boards. It was also understated with two headlights and a relatively small grille. The spare tire was mounted in the nose of the car and could be accessed by tilting up the center section the bumper. Where one would have expected the luggage compartment sat the V-8 in what was a very clean engine bay.

Using a 3,100-mm wheelbase, the two-door coupe could in fact house six passengers. The dashboard was very minimalistic with only the rev counter and speedometer visible. The clock was mounted in the steering wheel. All other dials and indicators were hidden behind covers and a red light would come up on the dashboard to warn the driver to open one of the covers. A touch added by Touring was the patented “Aerlux” plexiglass sunroof.

Placed behind the steering wheel was the curved speedometer and rev counter.

The new Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8C Monterosa debuted at the 1947 Paris Auto Salon and instantly captured media attention. The Italian magazine Motor Italia headline read, “A masterpiece coachwork and a brand-new chassis.” The Touring coupe was also shown later in the year at a Motor Show in Milan. Over the winter, it was refinished from its original green to black, and the nose was updated slightly. In this guise, it was shown at the 1948 Geneva Motor Show.

In the meantime, three additional prototypes had been produced to demonstrate what could be done with the Tipo 8C underpinnings. Zagato produced another four-door sedan on a chassis with a front-mounted radiator and a conventional grille. This Tipo 8C had been shown at the start of the 1947 Mille Miglia as a teaser.  Touring also created a four-door version of the coupe. The most exuberant of the show cars was a four-door Cabriolet built by Boneschi. What all five Tipo 8C prototypes had in common was that they could seat six people in considerable comfort.

Touring was responsible for this six-seat, two-door Coupe.

Finished in a two-tone white and black, the Boneschi Cabriolet was also shown at the 1948 Geneva Motor Show. It had very clean lines with enclosed rear wheels and a foldaway metal deck that could cover the rear seats to give the impression of an even longer tail. As a hood ornament, it featured a crown that was inspired by the Corona Ferrea, which was an iron crown used by the kings of Italy for many years. It was an unsubtle suggestion that this was a car suited for kings and emperors. Repainted in a two-tone blue and slightly restyled, the Cabriolet was also shown at the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este in 1949. It finished second in class behind an Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 S.

As many of Isotta Fraschini’s rivals of old also discovered, the market for luxury automobiles was very limited during the postwar years. A shortage of materials also hampered production and ultimately the Tipo 8C Monterosa was abandoned after the five prototypes were built. During the late 1990s the Isotta Fraschini name was revived again, but only a handful of prototypes were built. In 2022, the famous name may return once more, as some sources suggest the new owner is readying a range of EV road cars and a Le Mans–bound sports prototype.

Contrary to the original design, the later prototypes had front-mounted radiators.

Of the five Tipo 8Cs produced between 1947 and 1949, only two are known to have survived: the Touring Coupe and the Boneschi Cabriolet. In recent years both cars have joined the Lopresto Collection, which also includes the very first Isotta Fraschini and the Isotta Fraschini T8 from 1998. Amazingly, along with this purchase, the Lopresto Collection also managed to obtain the full Isotta Fraschini archive of technical drawings. This covered all cars produced from 1901 through 1949.

Using the factory drawings to great effect, both surviving Monterosas have been carefully restored. The Touring Coupe was painted green once again and configured as it was during its Paris Motor Show debut. The Boneschi Cabriolet was restored and painted just like it was when shown at Villa d’Este in period. Once the work was completed both were shown at the 2017 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance nearly 70 years after they were first shown in public together. The Boneschi Cabriolet was later also shown at Villa d’Este.

Like the Isotta Fraschinis that came before, the Tipo 8C was an engineering masterpiece but it turned out to be the right car at the wrong time. Rapi and Lampredi would showcase their talents elsewhere, with the former working for Fiat and creating the V-8-engined 8V, for example. Before also joining Fiat, Lampredi spent a few years at Ferrari where he was responsible for the company’s legendary V-12 engines.