Follow Motorbase:
Search Motorbase for

Lot 316: 1913 Isotta Fraschini 100-120 hp Tipo KM 4 Four-Seat Torpedo Tourer

Exceptional Motor Cars, Bonhams & Butterfields (15 August 2008)

Every serious motorist needs to have driven a car with a displacement of more than ten liters at least once in their lifetime, but only a very fortunate few can aspire to the ownership of such awesome monsters, for which a special class has been created at the world-renowned Pebble Beach Concours. The combination of high road speed at low revolutions and immense torque all the way through is an experience that cannot be matched by any other kind of motor car. And among the exclusive group of ten liter-plus production cars, the 10,618cc Tipo KM Isotta Fraschini of 1911-14 stands supreme, for it combines the most advanced technology of the pre-Great war era with effortless performance. “It was,” wrote Angelo Tito Anselmi of the Tipo KM in his 1977 history of the Isotta Fraschini marque, “a car built for the pure pleasure of speed, without regard for any racing formula and utterly without compromise.”

Pioneer motor racer Charles Jarrott was equally uncompromising: “He named the 100-hp Isotta Fraschini as ‘tops’ of the pre-1914 sports cars,” recalled that discriminating “purveyor of horseless carriages to the nobility and gentry”, the late David Scott-Moncrieff.

Famed as the manufacturers in the 1920s of the world’s first production straight-eight motor car, the Isotta Fraschini company was founded in 1900 as a garage and sales agency by Cesare Isotta and the brothers Vincenzo and Oreste Fraschini. The firm soon turned to manufacture of shaft-driven voiturettes in its little factory on the Via Melzi d’Eril in Milan. These were designed by the firm’s engineering consultant Giuseppe Gaetano Stefanini, who was supplanted in 1906 by the high-spirited Venetian engineer Giustino Cattaneo, although he retained his connection with the company and collaborated with Cattaneo for several years more.

The pair’s output was prodigious; by the outbreak of the Great War, Isotta Fraschini had produced almost 40 different models, with an enviable sporting record: victory in the 1907 Coppa Florio and Briarcliff Trophy, victory again in the 1908 Briarcliff, as well as at Lowell, Long Island and Savannah, and highest-placed four-cylinder racers in the Coupe des Voiturettes, were high points of the company’s involvement in competition.

Stefanini had been a pioneer of the overhead camshaft engine with his 1905 100-hp, 17-liter, Tipo D racer and the influential 1.2-liter Tipo FE voiturette of 1908, and Cattaneo – who defined the layout of the production machinery in Isotta’s new factory in the Via Monterosa, made necessary by the increasing demand for the firm’s automobiles – followed his predecessor’s lead when laying out the 1911 Tipo KM and its “little brothers” the 6.2-liter Tipo TM and TC and 7.2-liter Tipo IM.

These advanced single overhead camshaft fours drew on the company’s experience in the new technology of aeroengine design and manufacture, with bi-block cylinders, four big valves per cylinder and lightweight construction based on that of the Series V dirigible engine. The engine of the Tipo KM, which developed 120 hp at 1600 rpm, had a bore and stroke of 130x200mm (5.12x7.87 in), liberally-drilled pistons of the finest BND Derihon steel that weighed less than 32 ounces and tubular BND conrods 16 inches long that tipped the scales at just 7 lb.

Equally significantly, the Tipo KM pioneered the fitment of internal-expanding front-wheel brakes, which has been described as Cattaneo’s greatest contribution to automotive technology and was patented as early as February 1910. It enabled the fortunate – and fortuned – owner of the Tipo KM to enjoy its performance to the full in an era when every other high-powered car on the roads had braking on the rear wheels only. Cattaneo’s solution to the problem of locking the wheel on the inside of the curve under braking that beset so many early attempts to provide front wheel braking was both simple and demanding of absolute accuracy in manufacture, with the transverse operating shaft of the internal expanding brakes housed within the front axle beam and therefore unaffected by the up and down motion of the axle, even on full lock. Additionally, the drums on the road wheels were ribbed for cooling.

To make assurance doubly sure, the rear wheels of the Tipo KM were retarded by two water-cooled contracting transmission brakes, with coolant supplied to the inside of the drums from a pressurized tank, in addition to the drums on the ends of the dead axle for, like so many high performance cars of the era, the big Isotta was chain driven. This feature allowed the car to be geared to suit the terrain over which it was to be operated as well as the type of bodywork fitted.

Separate pedals control transmission and rear wheel braking, with the hand lever actuating the brakes on the front wheels.

An attractive feature of the chain drive on the Tipo KM was the use of quickly-detachable covers to protect the chains from road dirt and the body from thrown grease. The all-ball-bearing four-speed transmission was of a special design which, said Isotta Fraschini, “allows semi-direct drive on first, second and third speeds, as well as direct on fourth” thanks to twin differential units on the jackshaft and, according to former KM owner George Wingard, was “a dream to shift”. The multiple-disc Hele-Shaw clutch ran in oil.

Another unique characteristic of the Tipo KM was the range of radiator designs offered – flat-fronted, ovoid and two types of vee-fronted – so that the owner could harmonize the front end of his car with the style of coachwork fitted. A further choice offered was the length of wheelbase, either “short” (the term was relative in the case of such a gargantuan automobile) 124 inch or “long” 130 inch.

The bespoke service offered by Isotta Fraschini even ran to cooperation with the coachbuilders who clad the KM chassis. “We strive to please even our most discriminating patrons by producing bodies not only unexcelled in appointment, comfort and luxury, but possessing also artistic individuality,” customers were informed. “In order to better serve our customers in this respect we keep constantly in touch with the leading Continental coach builders, and our expert designer is at our client’s disposal to submit special drawings embodying their ideas, combined with the lines dictated by modern practice.”

Performance was in keeping with the price demanded: in 1913 the famed racing driver Ray Gilhooley lapped the Indianapolis Brickyard oval in 1 minute 52 sec, six seconds faster than the average of that year’s “500” winner, at the wheel of a stock-bodied 1912 Tipo KM complete with windshield, spare tires and fenders, and with four passengers aboard. The following year Gilhooley would enter motor racing legend with a spectacular spin in front of the stands while competing in the Indianapolis “500” at the wheel of a racing Isotta, such an incident is still referred to in track parlance as a “Gilhooley”…

The Tipo KM was necessarily expensive, and production was limited to an exclusive few units, peaking at 16 chassis in 1913; between 1911 and 1914 just 50 Tipo KM Isottas were produced, several of which were exported to the United States, where the company had a branch on New York’s Broadway, and the Tipo KM retailed at the not inconsiderable sum of $9000. Alternatively, American owners could arrange to have their car bodied by a European coachbuilder of their choice and take delivery in any city of Great Britain or the Continent with the car fully equipped and with all the necessary documentation so that they could tour Europe in the grandest of manners before having the car shipped home to the USA. Coincidentally, the three known survivors of the Tipo KM were all discovered in the United States.

Among the American owners of the Tipo KM Isotta was the wealthy young automobile racer, pioneer aviator and speedboat pilot Caleb Smith Bragg, while the British owners of the type included Lord Vernon and a rich young man named Humphrey Cook, later to sponsor the legendary ERA voiturette racer of the 1930s, who raced his hundred-horsepower Isotta with vigor at Brooklands before the Great War.

The Tipo KM offered here is one of two such cars – one with an ovoid radiator, the other vee-radiatored – discovered on wealthy Long Island estates in the 1930s by midget car racer and scrap merchant Mike Caruso, whose automobile junkyard at Hicksville, Long Island, has attained near legendary status for the amazing cars that were to be found there in the 1930s and ‘40s. The two lay almost side by side in Caruso’s yard for years, “gracing the place” in the words of the Smithsonian’s Smith Hempstone Oliver, one of America’s pioneer old car collectors, who recalled, “I think that they fascinated me more than did any of the other relics.” (which, considering that the other “relics” included such automotive gems as Crane-Simplex, supercharged Mercedes Indianapolis racer, Alfa-Romeo, Bugatti, Pierce –Arrow and Stutz Bearcat, is praise indeed!).
Priced at a then-hefty $500 each, the two Isottas quietly moldered away in Caruso’s yard until after World War Two, when that most determined of car collectors the late Cameron Peck managed to “chisel him down” to a price of $700 for the pair (plus $50 to crane the cars out of the yard and onto a railroad flatcar).

Peck – who already had a Tipo KM in his collection – immediately sold the vee-radiatored car for $1000 to fellow collector, while Lloyd Partridge took the car with the ovoid radiator and carried out what Hemp Oliver referred to as a “fantastic restoration”, fitted a basic two-seat “raceabout” body, and subsequently sold the car to Fred H. Sills of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. In the 1960s Sills described the car as “such a joy to drive that he covers an annual mileage of over 2000”, and ran the car in a number of AACA Glidden Tours, finding it “as reliable as any modern car and more so than some”.
Since then, this wonderful car, whose chassis number 5646 indicates that it was the last of the 16 KM 4 chassis built in 1913, has formed part of several major international collections. It rides on 35x5 straight-sided tires, and is stated to have a top speed of 90 mph. Cruising speed is achieved at a relaxed 1100 rpm.

In recent years a body-off mechanical restoration has been carried out, involving a complete engine and transmission rebuild with new parts as appropriate, including new pistons and main bearings, as well as new transmission gears.

The car is now fitted with a four-seat, two-door, sports torpedo body constructed in New Zealand with wooden decking between the front and rear seats; a folding top and vee windshield provide weather protection and there are separate tonneau covers for front and rear seats.

But it is what lies beneath that makes this so special an automobile; George Wingard summed up his Tipo KM as “without a doubt a wolf in sheep’s clothing; I have never owned a finer car.”

Author Ralph Stein, who knew well the ex-Cameron Peck 1914 Tipo KM “gunboat roadster” when it had passed into the ownership of the famous collector Henry Austin Clark Jr, was equally enthusiastic: “Few machines ever built gave such a sense of power and at the same time the feeling that the engine is hardly working. A KM’s driver feels superior to almost every car he meets on the road. There is no doubt that it is one of the very great sports cars of all time.”

With the other known Tipo KM Isottas now secure in major collections, it’s likely that this will be the only opportunity for many a year to acquire the ultimate in brass era motoring and ride with the automotive gods to the thunder of 120 muscular horsepower.

Lot Details
Auction Exceptional Motor Cars
Bonhams & Butterfields, Quail Lodge, Carmel
Lot Number316
Outcome SOLD
Hammer Price$1350000
Hammer Price (inc premium)$1492000
Condition rating0
Registration number(GB) SV-4139
Chassis number5646
Engine numberAR1090
Engine capacity (cc)
Engine - cylinders
Number of doors