Ferrari and Lamborghini are among the most recognizable Italian automakers today, but before either existed another firm set standards for Italian engineering excellence. Now part of California’s Nethercutt Collection, this 1928 Isotta Fraschini Type 8A Landaulet is a testament to that bygone automaker. Nethercutt Vice President Cameron Richards presents the car here.
Instead of building sports cars, Milan-based Isotta Fraschini built a sterling reputation with luxury cars. The Type 8A was aimed at the American market, which at the time was already populated with luxury marques like Cadillac and Lincoln, as well as now-defunct nameplates like Duesenberg, Pierce-Arrow, and Packard.
Isotta Fraschini brought an overhead-cam 449.5-cubic-inch inline-8, which drives the rear wheels through a 3-speed manual transmission, to the fight. It made 135 hp when this car was built, and eventually topped out at 180 hp. Neither figure is much by modern standards, but it was quite powerful for the time, although Isotta was outdone by Duesenberg’s inline-8, which produced a then-stratospheric 265 hp. And Cadillac would soon field a V-16 engine, developing 180 hp.
Still, Isotta Fraschini won over some wealthy American customers, including actor Rudolph Valentino, although his car wasn’t delivered until after his death. The car featured here was delivered new to Signa Lynch, wife of Merrill Lynch co-founder Edmund Lynch. It cost $12,000 when new, at a time when a new Ford Model A started at less than $400.
Finished in an unusual tri-color paint scheme with bright green highlights, this car has laundaulet bodywork by Italian coachbuilder Castagna, with a folding roof and permanent window frames for a semi-convertible experience. This style largely fell out of fashion after the era of coachbuilt cars ended, but was briefly revived by Mercedes-Maybach for a limited-edition G-Class.
Designed to be chauffeur-driven, Isotta Fraschini didn’t bother to move the steering wheel to the left side, even though the car was developed for America. This car also has a buzzer that lets backseat passengers give instructions to the driver—such as “turn around,” “stop,” turn left or right, or “go home”—all signaled by lights and an obnoxious sound that likely inspired class warfare.
While it would have been far from the only massive luxury car prowling American roads on the eve of the Great Depression, the Type 8A would have looked out of place on the narrow roads and cramped city streets of its home country. And while Italian automakers have become known for sweet-handling sports cars, Leno describes the driving experience as “truck-like.”
Isotta Fraschini stopped making passenger cars shortly after World War II, and was absorbed in a merger in 1955. But its cars are still coveted by collectors, and are a rare sight on this side of the Atlantic. This one has spent decades in preservation, winning awards at Pebble Beach in 1976 when the collector-car hobby was still a fairly novel idea. It still gets plenty of exercise, as you’ll see in the video when Leno takes it for a drive.
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