Italians do some great things with cars. Well, to be fair, they pretty much do everything with a great deal of artistry and passion. It doesn’t take much to get into their history of art, sculpture, music, food, dance, and cars to realize how captivating their culture is. But my focus is their beautiful cars and the Italian driving culture around making small cars just as captivating and enjoyable as larger displacement cars. Part of this has been historically motivated by their small streets, tight passages between buildings, and the government system that taxes cars by the size of their engine. But a great deal of it has to do with the magic of making a beautiful object, regardless of the scale or power.
Italy was in pretty poor shape after the war. Although resources were slim, Italians were clever with what little they had, using limited ingredients to “cook” in remarkable ways. When it came to transportation, the vast majority of what Italians could afford were bicycles, scooters, or very small cars. The earliest iteration of the Fiat Topolino was a fantastic little pre-war car that delivered economy and style, allowing families of even modest means a way to get around town and explore distant cities with confidence.
But it also spawned a whole new area of sports car development after the war. In the 1950s dozens of Italian shops sprung from out of nowhere, inviting sporting enthusiasts to fabricate their own small-bore competition cars. Bandini, Nardi, Taraschi, Urania, Giaur, Stanguellini, Ermini, Giannini, and so many others began building some of the most amazing little sportscars the world had ever seen. Though these were limited runs of largely handmade cars, the impact was crucial to the growing sports car market and was seminal in making production sports cars an important part of automotive history.
As many of these innovators had done military service, they were experienced with aircraft construction and repair. So, it was only logical that the aluminum skins and steel stringer construction of airplanes would apply itself to the body and frame ideas of these lightweight sports cars. Using the readily available Fiat Topolino brakes, suspension, and gearbox, larger engines were sourced from all sorts of other areas including the American Crosley 750-cc engine, but also motorcycle engines, and specially tuned Fiat engines. Multiple carburetion intake manifolds, tuned exhaust, improved ignition, and sometimes even twin-cam heads were all developed for these fun and effective sports and competition cars.