1908 Isotta Fraschini Tipo FENC Semi-Racer

While lacking the race-winning cachet of later cars, this little Isotta will get its owner into every vintage race, tour, and concours he fancies


Perhaps the most influential light car design of the first decade of the twentieth century, the Tipo FENC Isotta Fraschini was derived from the Tipo FE Isottas built for the 1908 Grand Prix des Voiturettes at Dieppe.

They were so advanced that for many years it was thought they had been designed by Ettore Bugatti, for their design was remarkably similar to the first production Bugattis that appeared a year or so later. In fact, the creator of the little Isotta was the unsung genius Giuseppe “Cou de Ram” (Redhead) Stefanini, born in 1870 in Lodi, near Milan, and one of the pioneers of motor engineering in Italy.

Around 1900, he had moved to Milan to work as a consultant to Cesare Isotta. There he designed the first car that Isotta built in collaboration with the Fraschini brothers, relations by marriage. Stefanini carried out pioneering work on overhead camshaft performance engines, the first of which was his gigantic 17.2-liter 4-cylinder Tipo D racer built for the 1905 Gran Premio di Brescia. But it was at the opposite end of the capacity scale that Stefanini created the prototype of the modern small high-performance car.

For the 1908 Grand Prix des Voiturettes at Dieppe, he created a jewel-like four with a swept volume of just 1.2 liters. Tipping the scales at a mere 1,342 lb, the little Tipo FE Isotta had a top speed in the region of 60 mph, remarkable performance for so small a car at that time. Among its advanced features were the monoblock construction of its engine (at a time when most multi-cylinder engines had pair cast construction), overhead camshaft configuration, automatic pressure-fed lubrication, and crankshaft and camshaft running on ball-bearings.

The highest-placed Tipo FE won the 4-cylinder class and finished 8th out of 67 starters. Afterward, one crossed the Atlantic to compete in the Light Car Grand Prix of the Automobile Club of America at Savannah, Georgia, driven by Al Poole. It was the smallest car in the race and finished 5th. Sensing that racing success could be translated into sales, a few weeks after the Dieppe race, Isotta Fraschini announced a road-going version of the Tipo FE voiturette under the designation “FENC.”

It was available in two versions: a road-going model with gravity drip feed lubrication and a semi-racer with pressure lubrication. The final drive was available with or without differential gear. A further subtle variation was known as “Tipo America” and was fitted with larger wheels to cope with the poor roads of the marque’s North and South American markets.

It’s quite likely that Bugatti drew inspiration from this ground-breaking design, and certainly the FENC configuration-featuring a small overhead-camshaft engine with cross-shaft drive for magneto and water pump-is remarkably similar to that of the Bugatti T13. So while the legend that Bugatti actually designed the Tipo FENC has been proved to be untrue, the more fascinating alternative that Bugatti copied Stefanini’s design when he created his Type 10 deserves fuller exploration.