I always loved Tatra’s T87 because it seemed like a refugee from an alternate world that never was — a world of airships instead of airplanes, vacations on the moon in Airstream Lunar Trailers, and, of course, streamlined rear-engined cars. I’d never heard of this Isotta Fraschini before, but it seems to be of the same world.
The Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8C Monterosa, bodied by Zagato, was an attempt by the ulta-luxury car maker to get back in the passenger car business after the war. Built in 1947, the car is remarkably like Tatra’s cars, most notably the T87. Look at all these features they both share: rear-mounted V8; long, streamlined four-door design, three headlights, hell just look at those two — they’re like brothers.
There’s a good reason for the resemblance. Fabio Rapi, a young engineer at the firm, was working on some secretive designs for new cars as early as 1938. When the war broke out, Italy’s early alignment with the Axis meant that Rapi’s travels were limited to German-occupied countries. Czechoslovakia was, unfortunately for them, on that list, and on travels to that country Rapi encountered Tatra and their advanced auto designs.
As Italy’s wartime fortunes foundered, things got dangerous for car designs as well. According to HowStuffWorks, there were some nervy episodes:
In July 1943 — only days before the Allied invasion of Sicily, which marked the beginning of the end of the regime of terror in Italy — the work done by Rapi and his colleagues was briefly jeopardized. Searching for saboteurs, Mussolini’s henchmen entered the engineer’s small office (by now situated in Saronno, near Milan, due to the bombardments) and discovered the prohibited plans for a passenger car. Rapi outwitted them by explaining away the drawings as plans for military speedboats. These “specialists” were not able to recognize them as sketches for a car!
Of course, there were some key differences, perhaps the most notable of which was that the Isotta Fraschini was water-cooled. The 3400cc engine was a good bit more powerful than the Tatra’s — 125HP compared to the Czech car’s 75HP. And, get this — the 8C had a 5-speed transmission — for 1947, that’s wildly advanced. Plus, the car had inboard hydraulic jacks for each wheel — that’s still not something you see on cars today.
The cooling did prove a huge issue, as the twin side-mounted radiators — precursors to the Porsche Boxster design by about 50 years — didn’t prove up to the job. As a result, the cooling system was switched to one conventionally-sized radiator placed at the front of the car. The original, grill-less design still managed to have the general radiator shape up front, strangely, so this change was probably easier that it would initially seem.
Only about 3 to 6 of these cars were built — some sedans, some cabriolets. It’s not clear if the relocated-radiator version was a different car or a modification of the original. Two are preserved by Isotta Fraschini today — a convertible and a coupe.
If only that alternate reality had happened, cheap Fiat knockoffs of these things could have been everywhere.