Join The World's Best Iconic & Vintage Car Community >>

Fiat’s Men – The Early Years

Fiat Quickly Came Out of Nowhere to Win Racing Events. These Are The People Behind the Success.

When one thinks of Fiat these days most think of small quirky cars never imagining that in the first decades of the 20th century engineers at Fiat in both the automotive and aviation fields led the world in innovation. In fact five years after the beginnings of the firm, Fiat was already racing and winning in international events both in Europe and America.

After several trips to America including a visit with Henry Ford, where they were impressed by the mass production lines of the Ford Motor Company, Giovanni Agnelli, Bernardino Maraini and Guido Fornaca started a plan that was described at the time to build a “great new American-style factory”. Construction started in 1916 and the building opened in 1923. It was designed by rising young architect, Giaccomo Matté Trucco who had recently left Fiat to open his own studio.

The new Lingotto building at Via Nizza in Turin had five floors, with raw materials going in at the ground floor, and cars built on a line that went up through the building. Finished cars emerged at rooftop level to go onto the test track. It was the largest car factory in the world at that time, necessary it was said to contain all the egos that would work there. For its time, the Lingotto building was as the famed architect Le Corbusier called it “one of the most impressive sights in industry”, and “a guideline for town planning”.

Fiat FactoryIn charge of Fiat’s Technical Department was Signor Guido Fornaca who served as head of the technical office involved with commercial aspects of the department and who had as his technical director, Carlo Cavalli who was actually trained as a lawyer. He assembled a superb team working under him that included – Luigi Bazzi, Walter Becchia, Vincenzo Bertarione, Giulio Cesare Cappa, Alberto Massimino and Tranquillo Zerbi as design engineers, while in charge of racing-car preparation and team administration was Vittorio Jano.

L.J.K. Setright said of these men: 

These are the men who created a new kind of racing car, whose technical inspiration was broadcast as a seed to germinate in all leading countries of the motor manufacturing world,who created a new dynasty and set new fashions which were to endure un broken for a dozen years and to be revived periodically and successfully at intervals there after. This website has reviewed the histories of Bazzi and Jano and will take a moment to look at some of the contributions of the others.

These engineers belonged to Fiat’s Experimental Constructions Workshop but assembling a team proved a fair bit easier than keeping these talented men and their outsized egos under one roof even one as large as the one at Lingotto.

Vincenzo BertarioneLouis Coatalen of the Sunbeam concern STD who had hired and discarded Ernest Henry now turned to poaching one of Fiat’s men, Vincenzo Bertarione. Bertarione promptly turned out a perfect copy of the current Fiat’s engine connected to last years Sunbeam chassis, a green Fiat. What he may not have known was the Fiat that was copied was only a stop-gap soon to be replaced by an all new car. Those with a taste for conspiracy have speculated that the stop-gap car was actually intended to trick their rivals while the new car was developed in secret, hidden even from their own engineer Bertarione! While at STD Bertarione now joined by Walter Becchia created a wonderful new 11/2 litre Talbot in 1926 only to be let down by a lack of resources. Bertarione would move to the French firm Amilcar and from there to Hotchkiss where he designed the engine for their 686GS which raced and won the Monte Carlo Rallye several times. Bertarione would stay at Hotchkiss until his death in 1962.

While at Talbot, Becchia would further develop the use of hemispherical combustion chambers with valves at a V-angle, with overhead camshafts based upon pioneer work by Belgian car maker Pipe and later Benz. Unlike Zerbi who was an ardent supporter of Mussolini and his fascist government Becchia chose to turn his back on Italy and in 1926 became a French citizen. Becchia continued to work at Talbot when the company was acquired and reorganized by Venetian-born engineer Antonio Lago (1893–1960) and renamed Talbot-Lago where he gained a reputation as the “engine pope”, famous for his ability to design an engine in a few days from a blank sheet of paper.

In 1935 Becchia created the T120 whose short wheelbase led it to be known as the ‘Baby Sport.’ His engine designs at Talbot also included a V16 in both 3-litre and 11/2-litre capacities. In January 1941 after first refusing their offer two years earlier he took a position at Citroen and redesigned their current engine from scratch the result was his famous air-cooled flat-twin engine for their iconic 2CV. Becchia was also supposed to design a three-speed gearbox, but managed to design a four-speed for the same space at little extra cost. Walter Becchia finally retired from Citroen in 1968 at the age of 76, an engineer who was involved in designing engines for the most advanced race cars of his time would gain fame for his work on what L. J. K. Setright described as “the most intelligent application of minimalism ever to succeed as a car”.

Giulio Cesare Cappa was born in Voghera (Pavia) in 1880. After receiving his degree in mechanical engineering in Turin in 1905, took part in the second international Automobile Exposition in Turin the same year, displaying the prototype of an ingenious single-cylinder water-cooled motorcycle. He joined Fiat in 1914 from Aquila-Italiani was known for his early adaptation of aluminum alloy pistons as early as 1912 based upon the pioneer work of aviation engineer S.M. Viale. The lightweight pistons were instrumental in the adoption of a large number of small cylinders operating at higher RPMs and and thus producing more power for a given displacement. In 1924 he set up on his own studio, designing an airplane engine for the French La Lorraine company.

Appointed Itala’s engineering consultant, he designed the Tipo 61 automobile as well as the V12-powered front wheel drive Tipo 11 and Tipo 15 race cars. In 1924 his studio produced vehicles for armaments concern Gio. Ansaldo & C. One of the car produced was the “battalion cart”, the OM Autocarretta 36 DM Mt which was built at OM Bresia for the military. He later worked as consultant for Breda, Piaggio, Alfa Romeo, CEMSA and Caproni. Fiat during that time was an incredibly competitive environment and Cappa would end up achieving greater success before and after his term with the company. Giulio Cesare Cappa died in Voghera in 1955.

Alberto Massimino was born in Turin on 5 January 1895 and was interested in mechanics from a very early age. He obtained a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Higher Technical Institute of Freiburg and in 1924 joined Fiat as a design engineer. He later moved to Alfa Romeo after the company withdrew from competition. In 1937 he worked on the transmission and rear suspension of the Type 158 joining Luigi Bazzi on that effort. Unlike the other Fiat engineers who concentrated on engine design Massimino was something of a chassis and suspension specialist helping Tazio Nuvolari modify the chassis of his Bugatti 35C. Hired by Maserati in 1947 to upgrade the 4CLT to create the 4CLT/48 he basically created an entirely new chassis.

Massimino sharply lowered the the cars profile with a new tubular frame with inboard coil springs, which foreshadowed the use of upper wishbones as rocker arms made popular by Lotus a dozen years later. As recalled by Dante Giacosa, that while at Fiat, Massimino would playfully regale his friend “Ngegné! Che curage… quel telaio in tubi!”. (“Engineer, what a nerve you’ve got. That chassis made of tubes!”). Massimino also designed a mid-engined car during WWII for Maserati that was never built, the Italian Alfa Romeo and Maseratis and later Ferrari postwar race cars being based upon pre-war designs. It would be left to the British to popularize rear-engined race cars and thus come to dominate Grand Prix racing in the decades to follow. An engine designed by Massimino, the 3.0-litre Serenissima V8 did make it into the back of a 1966 Mclaren M2B. Massimino was also involved on the Maserati 250F and the Auto Avio Costruzioni (Ferrari) Tipo 815 sports car

Stanguellini Formula JuniorIn 1958 Massimino designed the first of a series of very successful Formula Junior cars for Automobili Stanguellini based in Modena with most of the cars’ components derived from the Fiat 1100. A simple tubular chassis was used, with the cockpit offset to the left and the gear box and propeller shaft running alongside the driver. Power was supplied by the Fiat 1098 c.c. engine while the body was fabricated in lightweight aluminum by Carrozzeria Gransport of Modena. The series ran from 1958 to 1963 and many notable drivers got their starts in Stanguellinis including Lorenzo Bandini, Wolfgang von Trips, Ritchie Ginther, and Walt Hansgen. Alberto Massimino died at Modena on November 27, 1975.


German educated Italian Tranquillo Zerbi born in Saronno (Varese) in 1891. After getting his degree at the Mannheim School of Engineering in 1912, he took an apprenticeship at Sulzer Ltd., a Swiss industrial engineering and manufacturing firm after completing his studies at the University of Mannheim. Returning to Italy, Zerbi first worked for Franco Tosi Meccanica (FTM) where he worked under the direction of Ettore Maserati, one of five brothers who would set up a company bearing their name, before joining Fiat in August 1919. Engine designer Tranquillo Zerbi’s work displayed an elegance and clarity of design. Besides his groundbreaking work on Fiat’s early adaptation of supercharging he conducted experiments on two-stroke engines. Designers of racing engines have always been intrigued by the efficiency of having the combustion taking place on each downward stroke of the piston instead of every other. Zerbi’s work formed the basis of the six-cylinder two-stroke engine Type 451. Two crankshafts one on top of the engine and one on the bottom operated the pistons. Gino Cabutti wrote that not every one enjoyed working on the engine. “Rosso, who was assigned to the test cell, was deafened by it”. “It ran to the remarkable speed of 6,500 rpm and produced a verified 152 bhp”. The engine never attained the level of reliability that would allow it to power a car.


Fiat 806A company wag was once heard to remark that at Fiat “we do not copy … we teach”. Fiat would produce one last top flight car, the 12 cylinder 11/2-liter Fiat 806 which won the 1927 Milan Grand Prix, a Formula Libre race but before the car could be further developed Giovanni Agnelli decided that he had grown tired of having his star employees stolen by other firms, halted the racing program and ordered the destruction of all of FIAT’s racing cars at the end of the 1927 racing season. In a span of a few months Fiat lost two more from the founding group of engineers when both Carlo Cavalli and Guido Fornaca were forced to retire due to ill-health, Fornaca dying the following year. Only Tranquillo Zerbi was now left from the original group.

Italo Balbo, nominated as Secretary of State for Aviation in 1926 worked to promote and demonstrate the high level of Italian aeronautical achievements. Tranquillo Zerbi would lead a team of engineers including Mario Castoldi to build an engine to power a plane built by Aeronautica Macchi for the Schneider Trophy, awarded annually to the winner of a race for seaplanes and flying boats.

The engine that they created, the FIAT AS.6 was a liquid-cooled, 60-degree, V-24 engine produced 2,850 hp (2,125 kW) in a special sprint version. Unfortunately it also produced a fatal backfire in flight. To demonstrate the backfire phenomenon, Capt. Giovanni Monti flew the MC.72 (MM 178) for FIAT and Macchi engineers on August 2, 1931. Sadly, a backfire ignited the volatile air/fuel mixture in the long induction manifold and caused it to explode. The MC.72 crashed into Lake Garda. Monti was killed in the crash. Rod Banks an engineer who worked on contract with Rolls Royce was brought in to help the Italians.

What Banks discovered was that the Italians had not fully accounted for the ram effect of having air forced into the induction by the forward speed of the aircraft. By adjusting the air/fuel mixture the problem was solved but by then the contest was over and the British side had won. The Schneider Trophy had cost the lives of seven pilots in the nine years of competition but the engine and the plane that it powered would eventually set the world speed record (709.209 km/h) in 1934 by Francesco Agello, a record for a piston-engined seaplane that have never been equaled.

It was Zerbi, who suggested tactfully that it would be best for Fiat if its executives joined the fascist party and when he died suddenly on 11 March 1939, struck down by angina pectoris, his funeral was attended by a contingent of brownshirts. With him the last of the original group of engineers were gone and in appreciation of his work Fiat placed a stone sculpture of an air-cooled radial engine to mark his grave.