Closed Wheelers

More MPH madness!

by Peter Radcliffe

I had the pleasure last week of staying with Tim Dyke for two nights during the Historic Motor Sport Show. It is always an opportunity to catch up with the latest projects at MPH. I have recently received the Nardi the story of which Tim describes below and it was also the opportunity to see progress on the next project the beautiful central seater Gordini driven by Behra and Simon in the 1954 Le Mans race. The Gordini will be ready in a few weeks and will be followed by the Lotus IX. The pictures do more to describe the Gordini than my words ever can so I will leave you to marvel at this latest masterpiece. He still has a couple of Nardis left so if you are quick you might get one.  


Nardi ‘Bisiluro’ – Le Mans 1955

In my letter of 8th March this year I referred to this subject as ‘another Dr Mario Damonte mount, quite insane but fantastically interesting’. Having spent the last eight months living with the project, I still feel the same about it, and I hope you do, too.

This one has been on the ‘back-burner’ for, believe it or not, eleven years. Our first letter (in English) to the Nardi Company, which still makes its beautiful steering wheels, was dated April 1992. Getting no reply, we enlisted the services of our good friend and customer, Francesco Di Lauro, from Trieste in Northern Italy, who kindly approached the Nardi people (in Italian). By January 1993 he had established contact with them and also the Leonard Da Vinci museum in Milan, where the ‘Bisiluro’ had lived for most of its life, incarcerated in a glass box. With the agreement of Nardi, the curator agreed to open the box for Francesco, so that he could sketch, measure and photograph this amazing device for us. Our most grateful thanks go to Francesco.

After all his work, all that time ago, I feel ashamed to have to admit that it has taken 11 years to pluck up the courage to do it. Better late than never! One of the reasons for holding back was the lack of a suitable ‘case for treatment’. The only models of this bizarre machine had been the John Day (very crude and too big) and the Manou (too small and inaccurate). If we were to do it, it had to be from scratch, which we have only recently recommenced doing.

This then becomes our fourth ‘in-house’ model, after the Elva, Bentley ‘Embiricos’ and Osca. The research has had to be carefully filtered, as the period shots show many differences compared with the current museum specification. Furthermore, there were a great number of changes between practice and the race, in particular evidence of last minute modifications to cure over-heating problems. To address this problem, radiator scoops and a plethora of hastily cut louvers were fitted. Also the hinged flush-fitting flap mirror obviously proved unsuccessful and a jury-rigged ‘bike’ type mirror was fitted for the race. The unusual radiator proved quite a problem to reproduce in 1/43rd scale. Our first two attempts involved winding fuse wire around a brass template of the shape, and having them cast in resin (not completely successful). A different approach was to attempt to photo-etch a panel to be shaped around the original template. At the second (or fourth in total!) attempt this was made to work and the resulting resin casting has given us what was needed (the ‘ribs’ are 0.126mm wide!).


Opening up the tonneau cover and spare wheel cover has enabled us to show a wealth of detail in the cockpit, where the ‘passenger’ would have shared his space with fuel tank and lines, air intake trumpets, gear selector rod and a highly convoluted floor. In the driver’s ‘office’ are the visible chassis tubes, body support bracket, truncated steering wheel, full dash with ignition key, gear lever and selector rod, pedals and bulkhead.

Enrico Nardi, born in 1907 in Bologna, was something of a rebel in his youth, as evidenced by an impressive school expulsion record, eight instances in just one year! Having a great love of all things mechanical he found his first job with Lancia, in Turin, testing truck chassis by day, and studying engineering by night. His enthusiasm quickly booted him up the company ladder, eventually becoming right hand man to Vincenzo Lancia.

He worked with Ferrari first at Alfa Romeo and then Ferrari until after the war Nardi left Ferrari and formed a new company with his partner Renato Danese, Nardi-Danese (ND), the partnership lasting from 1947 till 1950. Starting with tuning parts, they rapidly became involved with their first car, a two seater with a BMW motorcycle engine, which proved extremely successful. A catalogue of small volume bespoke projects continued through the early fifties, some successful, some not. In the latter category must be mentioned the still-born 1952 mid-engined (ex Lancia Aurelia) formula two car that never made it to the grid. At this time the product with which the company was to achieve lasting fame first appeared, its beautifully elegant wood-rim steering wheel, destined to be fitted to the great majority of European quality cars for decades. Even today many leading manufacturers fit Nardi steering wheels.

In 1954 Nardi had his first shot at Le Mans, with a car powered by the American Crosley 750cc OHC 4 cyl.unit, to contest the Index de Performance, previously the preserve of the small French builders. Proving considerably faster than the home team in practice, the Dr. Damonte entered machine sadly expired after one hour of the race, with water pump failure.

For the following year a much more radical device was dreamed up by the Damonte/Nardi team, our subject. The trend for motorised catamarans came (and went!) for a very short period in the first half of the fifties decade. Piero Taruffi had constructed his Tarf record cars in this mode, mounting the driver and fuel tank in one ‘torpedo’ (siluro in Italian) and the engine and transmission in the other (hence ‘bisiluro’ or ‘twin torpedo’). The Spanish Pegaso company had followed suit, and one or two other manufacturers had flirted briefly with the idea. What worked reasonably well for straight line or banked circuit work proved less than ideal on roads or circuits. The steering column contorted itself around several uncomfortable angles, as ditto the transmission, hardly a recipe for optimal handling.

At the birth of the project, prominent Turin architect Carlo Mollino, whose other credits included such diverse subjects as aeroplanes, ladies footwear, ski resorts and the Teatro (Theatre) Regio in Turin, was brought in to design the body. The afore-mentioned novel chassis by Enrico Nardi, an engine by Giannini (of 735cc), and bodywork by Carrozzeria Motto completed the picture.

Le Mans scrutinizers were always notoriously ‘picky’ and one can but imagine the reaction when this bizarre device turned up for them to pass judgement on. In our research photographs we have some wonderful images of pipe smoking, stick waving, incredulous old Frenchmen with shrugs the size of double decker buses. That is was allowed to run at all is a near miracle, as the passenger accommodation, complete with air intake trumpets, fuel tanks, fuel lines and battery would not appear to comply completely with the regulations, but run it did. At first sight its radical novelty might have worried some of the Gallic contenders for the Index de Performance, but after a slow practice and running at the end of the field for the first two hours, during which it contrived to spin twice in one lap, it was literally ‘blown into the weeds’ by the vortex of a passing D Type Jaguar, fortunately without injury to the good doctor, who quickly packed his bags, never to return.

The ‘Bisiluro’ was repaired and quietly pensioned off to the Leonardo Da Vinci museum in Milan. It was briefly disinterred in 1999, being despatched to Goodwood’s Festival of Speed, where Classic and Sportscar’s Mick Walsh was entrusted with the conduction. He was not mightily impressed, but wrote an amusing article about it in the July 1999 issue. If I may quote him… ‘The prospect of a long wet night avoiding Jaguars, Astons and Porsches might well have persuaded me into a hedge, too’!!