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By Ben Selby
In the years leading up to World War One, motor racing was very much in its infancy. The idea of helming one’s motorcar in original Grand Prix and city to city races of the day made heroes of the brave, and often very wealthy, people who drove those original racing cars to glory across Europe.
The quest soon began to squeeze as much power out of these internal combustion engines as possible. Prior to the invention of the Double Overhead Camshaft Engine by Swiss Engineer Ernest Henry, which allowed greater power from a smaller engine, many car makers stuck to the principal of who ever had the biggest engine would guarantee them the biggest power output.
No one took this to greater lengths than Fiat. Inspired by the success of the Blitzen Benz which had recently carried off the Land Speed Record, Fiat decided to build a car which would be the fastest and most powerful to beat the Germans in an event where all that mattered was top speed.
In 1911, they unveiled the S76, and it was quite simply the largest and most terrifying car ever to turn a wheel during that time. This was largely down to a couple of things. Firstly, it’s size. It was so intimidating to many drivers of the day they wouldn’t go near it, let alone get into it
The second, that engine. A 28.4 litre chain driven four-cylinder engine producing 290hp. No, that is not a misprint. This behemoth of an engine was basically the size of four big-block Chrysler 440 Magnum V8s in one car. The engine featured three spark plugs per cylinder, water cooling and ignition with low voltage magneto which was quite ahead of its time.
Mated to a four-speed manual gearbox, the S76 tipped the scales at 1700kg, making it the heaviest racing car by far. It wasn’t long before people started to call it “The Beast of Turin.” A name which it still carries today.
Fiat built two S76s, one for the speed record, the other for Russian Prince Boris Soukhanov. The Prince sent his “beast” to the famous banked Brookland’s circuit in Surrey, England to contest some local events there. It caused such a stir when it fired up, spitting flames from its exhaust and emitting a cacophony of noise that people, drivers and spectators alike, simply ran away. It is alleged that Italian driver Pietro Bordino did his best to drive fast on the banked circuit but found it so uncontrollable he refused to go faster than 90mph.
The Fiat S76 did contest the Land Speed Record in Belgium. Fiat signed up driver Arthur Duray to drive the car in the run. Duray, fully aware of the Beast’s reputation, plucked up the courage to ring its neck on the first speed run. He managed to achieve 132.2 mph which was astonishing for 1911.
While the record was never unofficially recognised to technical issues preventing the Fiat from doing a run in the opposite direction, which you need to do when setting a land speed record, the Fiat was still by rights the fastest car in the world.
The S76 never went faster thanks to world events. After World War One, Fiat took the beast apart and the chassis ended up in Australia. The new owner decided to take it racing and fitted the engine from a Stutz. Sadly, the car was severely damaged and became a looting fest for car enthusiast and other would-be racers. It would spend the next six decades as a neglected wreck.
However, the chassis was bought in 2003 by British driver and enthusiast Duncan Pittway. He saw an oppourtunity to bring the S76 back from the dead and thus began a lengthy restoration process. During the build, Pittway was able to source the original 28.4L engine. He was also able to build from scratch a new gearbox and drivetrain from the original Fiat design drawings. The car finally made its public debut at the 2015 Goodwood Festival of Speed.
The Fiat S76 has quickly become a fan favourite and since it hasn’t been running in over a century, Pittway is certainly making up for lost time by exhibiting the beast in regular events and car shows. The “Beast of Turin” legend lives on, though can you imagine what it must have been like in 1911. It wouldn’t come as surprise if children had nightmares after seeing this beast of a motorcar in action.