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*Please note that this vehicle is titled AR10190453.
Claude W. Benedum, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (acquired via Isotta Fraschini Motor Co. in 1917)Whitney Snyder, Sewickley, Pennsylvania (acquired from the estate of the above in 1959)Willet H. Brown, Los Angeles, California (acquired from the above circa 1975)Current Owner (acquired from the estate of the above in 1995)
Indianapolis 500, 1913, Tetzlaff, No. 27 (DNF)Indianapolis 500, 1914, Gilhooley, No. 49 (DNF)
Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance®, 2010 (Tony Hulman Trophy)Louis Vuitton Classic Serenissima Run, Monte Carlo, 2012Goodwood Festival of Speed, 2012La Jolla Concours d’Elegance, 2014
At the dawn of motoring, Isotta Fraschini established itself as the premier Italian manufacturer of innovative, high-quality automobiles. More than a century later, it is still revered as one of the all-time great marques.
Though the Milanese firm is most commonly associated with the eight-cylinder luxury cars it built during the 1920s, Isotta Fraschini forged its reputation in the crucible of motor racing’s earliest years. Led by the talented engineer Giustino Cattaneo, Isotta developed the Tipo I Corsa in 1907, which won that year’s Coppa Florio and, in modified form, the 1908 Targa Florio.
Isotta Fraschini then pioneered the design of the high-performance light car, typified by the Tipo FE Voiturette, but also produced several colossal high-horsepower models that were a match, in quality and performance, for anything built in France or Germany. This type of large-displacement design was especially popular in the US where there existed a tremendous appetite for European luxury cars.
Isotta Fraschini certainly appreciated the significance of the American marketplace and made considerable efforts to promote their cars in the US, most often through racing. In 1908, an Isotta finished second to the winning “Old 16” Locomobile in the Vanderbilt Cup, and the Italian cars won several important races on American soil, including the Lowell Cup, Savannah Trophy, and Briarcliff Trophy. The origin of the Tipo IM is deeply rooted in the American market, as it was commissioned by Isotta Fraschini Motor Co. of New York, with the expressed purpose of competing in the Indianapolis 500.
A limited series of six cars was built in spring 1913, and its design was largely based on the successful KM and TM models. The aircraft-inspired overhead cam, 16-valve engine was substantially modified, with a revised bore/stroke ratio that reduced capacity to 7.2 liters, allowing it to slip under the limit set for American racing events. This redesign also had the added benefit of increasing power output and rev range by 50%. In racing form, the Tipo IM engine produced 135 hp at 2,350 rpm, with power transmitted to the rear wheels through a precise four-speed gearbox. Another important feature of the Tipo IM was its use of a four-wheel braking system – a very advanced technology first used by Isotta Fraschini.
Just as the Tipo IM cars were nearing completion, production was delayed by strikes at the factory. On May 25, 1913, a popular Italian motoring magazine reported the following:
“Isotta Fraschini, overcoming a thousand difficulties, and despite the desertion of its workers has managed to keep faith with its contacts in America and to prepare to send in time, three stupendous race vehicles of the newest model, complete in every particular and destined to take part in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis… The marque Isotta Fraschini is accustomed to succeed in this way, it has it in its blood the elegant and impeccable style that even in the extraordinary circumstance hasn’t been forgotten, and hasn’t gone through the smallest alteration. The three cars have come out perfectly, beautifully, scrupulously manufactured in their mechanical parts as in all their arrangements in the installations.”
Once completed, the Tipo IMs were transported to Le Havre, France, where, on April 29, they were loaded onto the Lusitania. They arrived in New York on May 24, and were sent to Indianapolis by express train, making it there just in time for qualifying.
The 1913 Indianapolis 500 proved to be a turning point in the event’s history. Then in its third year, the race’s prestige and monetary rewards attracted several factory-backed European teams to compete in the US. In his book The Indianapolis 500, Brock Yates writes: “1913 marked the first serious invasion of the Speedway by foreign cars and drivers… Much of the advertising for the event ballyhooed the fact that this would be an international race pitting the best of Europe against the champions of the United States.”
Significant fanfare greeted the arrival of the exotic Isotta Fraschinis and their all-star team roster, which included factory driver and Targa Florio winner Vincenzo Trucco; legendary American racer “Terrible” Teddy Tetzlaff; and two-time Vanderbilt Cup winner Harry Grant. A little-known New Yorker named Ray Gilhooley was named as the relief driver and he was lent a Tipo KM, which he used to drum up excitement in pre-race exhibition laps.
The Tipo IMs were very fast and showed promise, but their hasty preparation in the midst of a labor strike proved to be too much for the demanding conditions of the Indy 500. As a result, all three cars succumbed to minor mechanical trouble. Grant went out on Lap 14 with a split gas tank and Trucco followed him on Lap 39 with the same issue. Tetzlaff, who had been entrusted with the Tipo IM presented here, lasted 118 laps, when a broken drive chain ended his race.
After the race, the Tetzlaff car was returned to Isotta Fraschini Motors in New York, where it was modified and prepared for a return to Indianapolis in 1914. At this stage, the car was stripped of its streamlined rear bodywork to expose the riveted gas tank that had been responsible for much of the trouble at Indy. Additionally, two hood scoops were added to improve engine cooling and a streamlined shroud was placed ahead of the flat radiator.
The Isotta was next seen in this form at the 1914 Indianapolis 500, where it was entrusted to Ray Gilhooley. On Lap 41, the Isotta suffered a tire blowout in Turn 3, which ensnared the drive chain. This caused the car to spin wildly, eject both the driver and riding mechanic, and roll over before landing on its tires in the infield. This incident famously earned Gilhooley a place in the history books – though his racing career was brief and unremarkable, the phrase “doing a Gilhooley” was used for decades to describe a spectacular spinout.
Following the race, the Tipo IM once again returned to New York, where fenders and lights were added in an effort to transform the competition car into something resembling a scaled-up Mercer Raceabout. In March 1917, the car was advertised for sale in The New York Times and was sold later that year to Claude Worthington Benedum, whose father, Michael, was America’s most successful oil wildcatter and one of the country’s wealthiest residents.
Less than a year after purchasing the Tipo IM, Claude enlisted to fight in WWI and was trained as a pilot. Tragically, he contracted pneumonia during his tour of duty and died in October 1918 at age 20. Heartbroken by the death of their only child, the Benedums established a foundation in Claude’s name and stored his Isotta Fraschini sports car in the stables of their sprawling Pittsburgh estate.
Following Michael Benedum’s passing in 1959, the estate sold the Isotta Fraschini to Whitney Snyder, a well-known antique car collector living nearby in Sewickley. During the 1960s, Mr. Snyder commissioned Thurman Schreil of Lawrence, Kansas, to restore the Isotta to its former splendor. It was refinished in light gray with red leather upholstery, festooned with period accessories including a monocle windscreen, chain guards, and a full set of brass lamps. The Isotta remained in the renowned Snyder collection until the mid-1970s, when it was sold to Willet H. Brown of Los Angeles.
Another pioneering collector, Mr. Brown worked for the famous Cadillac dealer Don Lee and became close friends with Lee’s son, Tommy. Mr. Brown and Tommy Lee built and raced cars together during the 1920s, established one of the earliest television stations in the 1930s, and were involved in Don Lee’s Indianapolis 500 race teams through the 1940s. During his successful career in and around the car business, Mr. Brown assembled a fantastic collection of important automobiles that included a Bugatti Type 37A Grand Prix, Mercer 35C Raceabout, and Ferrari 166 MM Barchetta. The Tipo IM was a fixture in his collection for approximately two decades, remaining with him until his death in 1993.
In 1995, the current owner purchased the Isotta from the Willet Brown estate auction and has since restored the car to its famous 1914 Indy 500 configuration. During this process, several important original components, including the hood, were acquired from Thurman Schreil and reinstalled. Since this work was carried out, the Isotta has been toured and shown extensively in the US and Europe. It has been invited to the Goodwood Festival of Speed on several occasions and was shown twice at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance®, winning the Tony Hulman Trophy for Best Open-Wheel Race Car in 2010.
A testament to its sensational performance, the Tipo IM participated in the 2012 Louis Vuitton Classic Serenissima Run, scaling some of the highest Alpine passes and keeping pace with Italian thoroughbreds of a much more recent vintage. Today, the car looks fantastic in its patinated blood red paint and performs like a true racing pedigree car should, with breathtaking acceleration, excellent roadholding, and impressive brakes for a car built in 1913. Not only is this Isotta Fraschini a thrill to drive, it is among the most original pre-WWI racing cars in existence, having retained virtually all of its major chassis components, including the frame, engine, and gearbox, and much of its bodywork.
According to famed automobile illustrator, collector, and historian Peter Helck, the Isotta Fraschini Tipo IM was “elegant in exterior design… [and] presented an interesting clash of eras. It was the first with front-wheel brakes. It was also the last of the chain-drive species.” This is certainly an apt characterization of this fascinating, large-displacement Italian racing car, which was purpose-built to run at the 1913 Indianapolis 500, a race won by the twin-cam Peugeot – a car that represented an entirely new direction in automotive design.
Possessing a fantastic mechanical specification, a superb racing history, and a rich, well-documented provenance from new, this Isotta Fraschini is a truly magnificent machine – as exciting today as it was when it first thundered around the Brickyard more than a hundred years ago.