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February 28th, 2007

Story by Pete Vack

Was it possible, even remotely possible, that one of the rarest and most treasured Italian race cars ever built had been hidden from sight for over 40 years, and was only one hour from VeloceToday Headquarters? Since moving to Williamsburg, we’d helped rediscover an Iso Marlboro Lele built for Howden Ganley, found a rare TVR, whose owner had no idea what kind of a car it was, the only true Intermeccanica Formula Junior in the world, and a few odds and ends.

But this mystery car would top everything we had ever dreamed of finding.

In January 2007, the phone rang and I heard a familiar voice. “A friend of mine says she has a Cisitalia D46 in need of restoration. I was wondering if you could come with me to check it out.”

Now one must realize that our friend is 85 years old. On the other hand, Sam Coronia is pretty healthy and knows a Cisitalia when he sees one. But that his old friend might own one of the 30 D46 Cisis built seemed, to put it politely, preposterous.
“Sam, why don’t you go out and find out if she actually has a Cisi, and then we’ll go out and look.” He said he would go the next day to find out. I told him the check the cowl for an identification tag and call me back. I then, reasonably, forgot about it.

Betty's grandson Bruce guards the entrance to the tomb of the lost Cisitalia.

The Cisitalia D46, an 1100 cc single seater designed by Dante Giacosa and Piero Dusio to participate in a single make training class, was the first product of the firm that would later create the world class 202 Coupe. Thirty five?? of these racecars were built, driven by pros and amateurs alike. Piero Taruffi, Tazio Nuvolari, Hans Stuck (Sr.) and many other famous drivers of the post war era competed in the series of races between 1946 and 1948.

While many of the Cisi coupes were imported to the U.S. from 1948-1953, very few, if any, of the 1100cc D46 Monopostos ever came into the U.S., and for good reason. While sports car races were being held from Massachusetts to California, there were no classes for open wheel cars of any displacement. Ergo, no one had any reason to buy a single seat open wheel race car and ship it to the U.S., although as I later found out, at least one did come to the U.S. to race in the few Formula Libre races in the fifties.

That plus the fact that if we were reading the calendar correctly, it was now sixty years since the D46s left the factory. For roughly the last thirty years, Cisitalia enthusiasts and researchers such as John de Boer have searched the world over tracking down every Cisitalia ever made. If one was still missing, odds were that it had met its fate at the salvage yard years ago.

We didn’t lose any sleep waiting for a call back from Sam.

A week later he did call back (Sam doesn’t have email) and said, yes, it was a Cisi D46, right on the id tag. “It looks like an early F Jr, single seater, aluminum body,” said Sam. “Now do you want to go see it?”

That got my attention and when he asked when, I said “Now”.
It would be a good hour’s drive but at least Sam had confirmed its existence. I still didn’t believe him but it was worth a shot.

The doors opened after a few year's worth of bushes were removed. But was this a D46 Cisitalia? Photo by Bruce Charron.

The drive to Suffolk, Virginia would take about an hour. Suffolk itself was another issue. Rome, Turin, or even New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco were all more logical geographic areas for finding the lost Cisitalia. But Suffolk was not even on the map.

The peanut capital of the world was not a viable candidate to harbor lost Italian racing cars, despite the fact that it was an Italian immigrant, Amedeo Obici, who opened the Planter’s Nut and Chocolate Company in Scarnton and in 1912 opened additional facilities in Suffolk. Obici moved to the Suffolk area in 1924. Today, Suffolk is still sparsely populated, with a population of 81,000 spread over 430 square miles, and we can guarantee you that there is no opera house, no art museums, and most certainly no Ferrari/Maserati dealerships. There are, however, a lot of Ford and Chevy pickup trucks with gun racks framing the rear window.

Sam and I pondered this as together, we headed out toward Suffolk. Sam had spent most of his life in Norfolk Virginia, nearby, but bigger and because of or in spite of the Naval base, was more more attuned to foreign objects. In fact, Sam had been an Abarth dealer in the late 1960s, which is how I met him.

Was that all there was left? We looked around to find more of the Cisitalia. Photo by Bruce Charron.

It was, of course, the military who brought strange fruit into the Tidewater area, particularly before 1970, when the dollar was extremely strong and the DOT EPA restrictions hadn’t really kicked in yet. There were Ferraris, Maseratis, (I recall a cycle fender A6GCS), all manners of strange Alfa Romeos (including a 2600 Zagato.) and Fiat Otto Vus. Rotting in Sam’s lot 35 years ago was a special bodied Farina Fiat 1100, and a number of Abarths. Another friend of mine made a good living just buying old 250 Ferraris, which he hid under the trees of a local golf course until he could part them out, and the Norfolk Naval base for many years was the home to Admiral Ebert‘s totally original Bugatti Type 35.

Reflecting upon this as we approached the farmhouse, it still seemed impossible that a shack in Suffolk hid an undiscovered Cisitalia.

We were given warm welcome by Betty Peters and her grandson Bruce Charron. We sat in the living room of the old but very nice farmhouse, and Betty talked about her late husband, who had bought a race car sometime in the 1960s, she couldn’t remember when exactly, but he put it in a small shack on the property and pretty well forgot about it. She had no pictures of it when it was purchased, there was no title, and there were a lot of parts missing. “We’ll go take a quick look, then”, I said, eager to see this for myself.

Unless you’re name is Tom Shaughnessy, things like this just don’t happen too often in a lifetime. I wasn’t interested in buying it, or owning it, or restoring it. It was the chase and the find, and of course, the story that interested me.

With Betty’s permission, Bruce led me to the back of the property. Trees and bushes had grown up around the shed doors, preventing them from opening. There was no side wall, however, and the shape of a rusty framework could be seen next to a covered Fiat X1/9.

To be continued...

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