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.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1902 Isotta Fraschini FENC
Number Produced:100 (approx.)
Original List Price:N/A
Tune Up Cost:$1,000
Distributor Caps:$500
Engine Number Location:Left side of block
Club Info:Historic Registry of Isotta Fraschini 1001 Park Ave. New York, NY 10028
Investment Grade:B

This 1908 Isotta Fraschini Tipo FENC Semi-Racer sold for $166,500 at the Bonhams & Butterfields Larz Anderson Museum auction in Brookline, Massachusetts, held October 4, 2008.

Isotta Fraschini is known to most people as the builder of luxury limousines and touring cars in the 1920s and 1930s. However, the reputation of the Italian marque was founded on engineering innovation and racing success dating from the early 1900s. The adoption of four-wheel brakes, overhead cams, and straight-8 engines were examples of the company’s leadership.

In 2008, I had the opportunity to examine two contrasting examples of racing Isottas in the space of a few months. I was moderator of a panel discussion at the Larz Anderson Museum earlier in the summer, and on display was the delicate Tipo FENC Semi-Racer that was sold at the October auction.

A few months later, I was face to face with the equally fabulous but remarkably large 1913 Tipo KM 4 Torpedo with a 10,618-cc 4-cylinder engine, which B&B sold at its Quail Lodge sale. Two more disparate examples of a single marque would be difficult to imagine.

Details speak to the quality of construction

But the scale of each of the two cars is noteworthy; if you didn’t see a point of reference for either, the small size of the Tipo FENC would surprise you in person, and the same can be said for the immense Tipo KM.

The level of detail in the chassis, such as the axles and the simple, clean and elegant engine castings on both cars, speak to the quality and attention to detail in the products of the Milanese automaker. Both cars also illustrated the challenges of restoring and valuing rare old cars. Both the FENC and the KM had been discovered in a very derelict state in junkyards in the New York City area-if only such places existed today.

In order to bring them back to completeness, it was necessary to manufacture new parts or find close replacements. The KM had sat in the junkyard from the 1930s until the late ’40s, and then was rebuilt in the early ’50s. There’s no telling what may have been done at that time, but since then it has been fitted with a new, well executed body from New Zealand.

The FENC has a replica gearbox, oil tank, and of course body, and is missing its chassis plate. In addition, the catalog mentions that the engine is “mostly original, though further development work is required to realize its full performance potential.” This most likely means that all the parts are there but it probably shouldn’t be run very hard for very long until the buyer has taken everything apart and figured out how it’s supposed to work.

You need a Bugatti guru to bring this to life

And as there are perhaps three cars in the world with this engine, that could be tricky. Of course there’s that Bugatti connection, which could help. If you know a Bugatti guru, he or she can probably get things going the way they should.

Having said all that, this 1908 Tipo FENC Semi-Racer was beautifully presented, with a high quality cosmetic restoration in superb condition. Despite the lack of a chassis plate and original gearbox, there is little doubt that the chassis and engine are correct for a Tipo FENC and the extreme rarity of the model must cause critics to allow for replacement parts.

While lacking some of the race-winning cachet of later cars, as well as the instant recognition of a Bugatti, this little Isotta will get its owner into every vintage race, tour, and concours event he might choose to enter. Voiturettes such as this are not very fast cars, but they can offer a wonderful driving experience for a fraction of what the big-blocks bring.

While not inexpensive, given the speed of the car, it’s a bargain compared to the $1.5 million its bigger sister made in California. Add to that the mystery of the Bugatti connection, and you have a car that will be the center of attention wherever it goes. I’d call this well bought.

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