The Grand Prix of Tours Part 4: Fiat and Rolland-Pilain

by pete on August 15, 2012

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.

Louis Wagner with the Fiat at Savanah, Georgia in 1911. Courtesy Ludvigsen.

During WWI Fiat produced weapons, aircraft and vehicles for the allied armies and in the postwar period, Italy was confronted with serious social unrest. Fiat also suffered, as workers of the Italian Socialist Party briefly occupied its factories. However, by 1923 Fiat was again showing signs of healthy growth on both the national and international markets.

Fiat 805-405 from above.

From the beginning, Fiat management had been convinced that racing was essential for the technical development of their automobiles and their image. Even before WWI, Fiat’s racing cars collected an impressive amount of trophies from events around the world.

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 1922 Fiat 804-404 was a two liter six. The car won the French Grand Prix at Strasbourg.

For 1923, Fiat increased the 404 engine from six to eight cylinders and added a supercharger. This was the 805-405 Fiat.


The might of the Fiat team lined up for photos at Tours.

Pierro Bordino with riding mechanic and inset, Bordino behind the wheel of the Fiat.

The Fiat 405 8 cylinder with the Witting supercharger would produce 130 hp.

According to Borgeson, the 405 was “...the crowning achievement of Fiat’s long and brilliant years in racing.”

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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.


This elegant Rolland-Pilain tourer was awarded the first prize at the 1923 Concours d' élegance organized by the magazine “l'Auto”. (from Omnia Magazine, September 1924).

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.


An advertisement for the popular 2 liter Rolland-Pilain range. (Courtesy les Amis de Rolland-Pilain).

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.

The radiator badge of the Rolland-Pilain cars sported the three towers of the city of Tours. (Courtesy les Amis de Rolland-Pilain).

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


The 1922 Rolland-Pilain GP car had the exhaust at the right hand side. (Courtesy les Amis de Rolland-Pilain.)

Guyot, with number 3 and Hémery with number 13 before the start of the Grand Prix of Tours.


Straight eight, two liters, and four updraft carbs for the 1923 version of the Rolland-Pilain Grand Prix effort.

Guyot photographed in the Rolland-Pilain race car after he won the Grand Prix de San Sebastian. Guyot was also the best placed Frenchman in the Grand Prix for touring cars at Monza.


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

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Bruce Smeaton August 16, 2012 at 2:10 am

Who actually designed the Pointe Bordino racing-car tail? Ettore Bugatti was happy to have people think it was yet another of his ground-breaking designs whereas, as with other things, he simply used what Fiat had done.

Did Pietro Bordino design the tail? Or did that tail just acquire his name because he was a glamorous and successful driver who drove one of these cars with this tail and had it ascribed to his name?

The earlier racing tail was generally a primitive affair or some sort of parabaloid. They are difficult and time-consuming to build, ending in a blunt point some distance behind the rear wheel and some height above the ground. The Pointe Bordino tail is flat-sided and a simple curve finishing in a vertical or near-vertical line, not a point. The upper part is a section of a cone and it is much the same under. A coachbuilder told me it takes him about 11-15 days to make a parabaloid tail whereas a Pointe Bordino can be finished in 2-2.5 days. What is more, the flat-sided Pointe Bordino tail makes it a lot easier to locate shock-absorbers, exhaust pipe and so on.

I have often wondered whether the history of the Pointe Bordino has been recorded. Someone must know.

Bruce Smeaton
The Old Convent
NSW 2584

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