By Gijsbert-Paul Berk
From the moment Giovanni Agnelli (1866 –1945) and his business associates founded the company in 1899, it grew within a few decades to be one of the leading industries in Italy. It even had its own branches in the USA and Russia. In 1916 Fiat began building a completely new car factory at the outskirts of Turin. When it was completed in 1922, the Lingotto plant was the largest and most modern in Europe. Its assembly lines were spread over five floors and the finished cars were driven on a test track constructed on the roof of the entire building.
The war effort in the various industries during WWI resulted in significant new developments in metallurgy and high quality production methods. Fiat’s engineers and designers logically applied these state-of-the-art technologies in all their postwar designs, including the racing cars. In 1921 Fiat produced the first of the new 800 series with the designation 801-401, a truly modern Grand Prix machine with a four-cylinder three-liter DOHC engine, developing 112 bhp. Later the same year it was replaced by the 801-402, with an eight-cylinder three-liter DOHC engine.
When the CSI announced the new rules (formula) for 1922, the Fiat race department came up with the 804-404, a two-liter six-in-line DOHC engine with a bore of 60 mm and a stroke of 87.5 mm. That year with one of these cars Felice Nazzaro won the French Grand Prix at Strasbourg and Pietro Bordino the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.
For the 1923 season Fiat developed the 805-405, the first supercharged Grand Prix car. The bodywork and six-cylinder twin cam machines looked identical to that of the cars that had won the previous year’s Grand Prix of France and Italy, but the engine was now equipped with a supercharger. This centrifugal vane type air pump (Wittig system) charged air under pressure into the induction manifold. This ‘forced feeding’ boosted the engine power at full throttle from 118 bhp at 5000 rpm to 125 / 130 bhp at 5500 rpm. The supercharger was mounted at the front of the crankshaft. A dashboard instrument called ‘aérothermomètre’ allowed the driver to check the temperature and the pressure of the mixture in the intake system near the combustion chamber. The journalists and technicians who inspected the cars at Tours, were unanimous: the 805-405’s were beautifully designed and perfectly engineered. The Fiat engineers Rossi and Cavalli, led by their director Fornaco, had done everything to create a potential winner. At Tours, it was fully expected that the new supercharged Fiats would continue Fiat’s winning ways.
The Grand Prix Fiats 1922-1923
The firm was founded in 1904 in the French city of Tours by François Rolland (46), a wealthy wine merchant with a passion for motorcars and a young technician, Emile Pilain (25). Pilain had been a draughtsman at Vermorel in Villefranche-sur-Saone where his uncle François was head of the ‘horseless carriage’ department. Emile Pilain brought in his experience as automobile designer.In 1911 Rolland and Pilain convinced 142 business friends in the Touraine to invest 1.150.000 Francs in the company in order to increase the production capacity of what then became the ‘Société des Etablissements Rolland-Pilain’. In the years before WWI Rolland-Pilain, like many French manufacturers, participated with varied successes in a number of races and rallies. During the war the factory was converted to produce military vehicles and munitions. But soon after the armistice the company resumed the production of their 9hp and 10 hp cars that had been introduced in 1913 and sold quite well in postwar France.
However, Emile Pilain was not discouraged. He and his chief engineer Henri Grillot wanted to reestablish the prestige of Rolland-Pilain in the 1923 Grand Prix de Tours. It was a question of honor as that race was practically on their doorstep.To achieve greater power and improve their reliability, two of the 1922 straight-eight DOHC machines were completely rebuilt. At the same time Rolland-Pilain hired Ernest Henry – the Swiss engineer who had designed successful racing engines for Peugeot, Ballot and Sunbeam – together with Ernest Schmid, another Swiss engineer, to develop a new so called cuff-valve engine (a ‘cuff’ being a short sleeve). This was intended for a third car, which unfortunately failed to reach the starting line.
We shall see how the Rolland-Pilians finished at their home Grand Prix. Victory came at the San Sebastian Grand Prix at the Lasarte circuit in Spain in August that same year. There, Albert Guyot and Gaston Delalande captured the first two places. But because their opposition was limited to Ballot and Bignan, this victory had not the same publicity impact.
Rolland-Pilain continued to make automobiles until 1931.
The Grand Prix Rolland-Pilains 1922-1923
Read Preface to this series.
Read Part 1, The Circuit of this series.
Read Part 2 the Press and Regulations of this series.
Read Part 3 Bugatti and Delage of this series