A Vintage Italian Job

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Written by The Staff of Motorsport Marketing

From the Jan. 2004 issue

Posted in Buyer's Guides

<br>Story By Andy Reid

At first glance, Paul Smith’s 1959 Fiat 1500 OSCA looks a little like a Fiat 124 Spider, the Italian roadster familiar to sports car enthusiasts.

But wait a minute. The Fiat 124 didn’t arrive until 1967, nearly a decade after the model year of this particular car. If this isn’t a mass-produced 124, what exactly is it? And how in the heck did it find its way to a restoration shop in Virginia?

To find out, we have to set our Wayback Machine to 1959, when this rare car, a Fiat 1500 OSCA, belonged to Count Vittorio Camerana, the aristocratic head of Fiat’s advertising and marketing department and a member of the Agnelli family, the owners of Fiat. The car had been shipped to the U.S. for Camerana’s use, and also for the convenience of other Fiat executives, who when in New York City camped out at the swank Hotel Volney in Manhattan and used the 1500 for transportation about town.

One day in 1959, Camerana drove the car to a meeting with Fiat’s advertising agency, Calkins Holden. Because he was leaving New York after the meeting, he asked Paul Smith, Fiat’s account manager at the agency and a friend, to drive him to LaGuardia Airport in the 1500.

When they arrived at LaGuardia, Smith asked where Camerana wanted the OSCA taken. “Take it back to the agency, or to your house, because it’s yours,” Camerana replied.

Sure enough, a few months later the title to the car arrived from Fiat’s chief accountant, transferring ownership to Smith. It was a new year and Fiat had already shipped over a new car for Camerana and other visiting Agnelli family members, so they no longer needed the old one.

There was one slight oversight by Smith’s generous friend: The count neglected to tell Paul about the 100 unpaid New York City parking tickets in the glove box. It seems titled Italians parked wherever they wanted in those days. Smith paid off the parking tickets and kept the car, eventually giving it to his son, Paul Jr.

Son Paul drove the car for a number of years and recently decided to restore it. As with any restoration, knowledge of the model’s history was an essential ingredient in the process.

Creating a Sporting Tradition

Historically, Fiat has always been a marque that wanted a sporting model alongside its bread-and-butter economy cars. This is a Fiat tradition that exists even today with the company’s Barchetta Spider and Coupe. Fiat traditionally sells fewer of these cars than other models, but it enjoys the “halo” effect that building sports cars has on the brand.

This practice was never more evident than during the late 1950s and all through the 1960s. Fiat used independent tuning companies and coach builders to create Abarths, Morettis and Dinos. The idea was to take off-the-shelf mechanical parts, hire a coach builder to create a stylish body and have various tuning shops enhance performance.

The story of the 1500 OSCA, a direct product of that tradition, begins with the Fiat 1100 sedan. The first car of the series, named the 1100 Trasformabile, was Fiat’s first unit-body production car. Its pushrod engine displaced 1089cc, produced 53 horsepower and topped out at 85 mph. In 1957, a 1221cc engine became available, providing 55 horsepower and a top speed of 90 mph.

Sales of the Trasformabile were strong for such a specialized car, with 1030 copies of the 1100 version and 2363 of the 1200 version sold.

An interesting feature of the Trasformabile was that it had swiveling driver and passenger seats to ease entry and exit from the car, hence the derivation of the car’s name from the Italian “trasformare”—transform.

Buoyed by the success of the model, Fiat hired designer Pininfarina to create a new body to turn the 1100 TV (turismo veloce) convertible into a more modern sports car. Fiat used the increased displacement 1200cc engine for the new 1200 Spider convertible. Production for the cars began in 1959.

The OSCA-Designed Engine

In 1958, Fiat retained the OSCA company, owned by the Maserati brothers, to design a high-performance engine for the Pininfarina-designed Spider. Fiat may have intended to race the OSCA-powered car (one was, in fact, raced at Sebring with indifferent results) or just offer a “tuner” version to its affluent customers and shareholders. The reasons have never been made clear.

Contrary to popular belief, this engine was not assembled at OSCA, but was in fact built by Fiat, though it was a hand-fitted, bench-made engine. The reason was simple: The Maserati brothers had found a way of securing engines for their own cars at a minimal cost to themselves. Instead of footing the tooling and labor costs, they simply licensed the design to Fiat, which then also provided them with the engines they needed for their own cars.

The arrangement had another advantage for both companies, as homologating an upgraded engine for FIA production classes required that at least 500 had been manufactured and made available to customers. By using the engines in several different production cars, the companies could easily meet the requirement.

The OSCA powerplant has nothing in common with the Fiat 1100-1500 pushrod engine. Many people will say that it is a Fiat block with an OSCA head, but any mechanic who has worked on both engines knows that this is incorrect. The OSCA engine has a cast-iron block that was built for this model only. And the rods, pistons and crank are forged pieces instead of the standard cast Fiat items.

The alloy front cover of the engine and the beautiful finned oil pan announce that this engine is indeed something different. It is fitted with an alloy twin-cam head with chain-driven cams and a mechanical tensioner. A Weber carburetor, of a larger size than the one used on the 1200 engine, was installed, and the exhaust manifold was replaced with a tubular header. This engine gave the car 90 horsepower at 5800 rpm and a top speed of 105 mph.

Those numbers may not impress us today, but they don’t tell the whole story. The engine looks, sounds and acts Italian. It is a wonderful mate to the Pininfarina-styled body.

The Fiat 1500 OSCA

With the OSCA engine, the car was sold as the Fiat 1500. In later years, to distinguish it from the Fiat-engined 1500 introduced in 1964, enthusiasts began to refer to the car as the Fiat 1500 OSCA.

Aside from using the same body, the 1959 Fiat 1500 OSCA was different from the standard Fiat 1200 Spider in several ways. It had different drum brakes; used five-lug, 15-inch wheels in place of four-lug, 14-inch wheels; had wing windows that opened; and most important, used the twin-cam OSCA engine.

The Fiat 1500 OSCA was produced until 1962, with the only mid-model change of consequence being the addition of front disc brakes in 1960. In that year, a two-carburetor variant also was introduced, called the Fiat 1500S.

Road tests of the time were favorable, citing the free-revving engine, accuracy of steering and good road holding. Also mentioned were the excellent top mechanism and driver comfort in comparison to other cars of the period.

In 1964, perhaps because the OSCA engine was expensive to produce or couldn’t be built in series-production quantities, Fiat introduced a 1481cc engine of its own design. From this point, all Fiat 1500s had the Fiat engine.

Limited quantities of the OSCA engine continued to be built, with capacity increased to approximately 1600cc. The larger engines were installed in a small number of the Spiders, designated the Fiat 1600 and 1600S. The 1600 also sported a quad-headlamp treatment similar to the Series 2 Ferrari 330 GT 2+2.

OSCA-engined Fiats are quite rare and almost unknown in the U.S. Because Fiat’s production records from the period are vague, it’s not possible to determine how many OSCA-engined Fiats were built. Estimates vary from 80 to 500. The restorers of the Camerana car, Sportscar Workshops, believe the number is around 200. Chris Obert, of C. Obert & Company, a respected source of Fiat parts in the U.S., says enough 1500 OSCAs have survived to lead him to believe that the figure of 200 may be low. What is known is that Fiat would have had to produce 500 of these engines to meet homologation requirements, so that’s likely the upper limit.

Restoring the Camerana 1500

From 1959, let’s jump forward 42 years to August 2002, when Ken Knehe and Michael Fatsi of Sportscar Workshops were given the daunting task of restoring Count Camerana’s 1500 OSCA.

Sportscar Workshops was actually the second shop asked to restore the car, as the initial restoration had proved a bit of a disaster. While the car had been given a decent paint job, and its original interior was still in good condition, many of the exterior trim pieces—removed when the car was stripped for painting—had gone missing.

In addition, even though the engine had been rebuilt, it was reassembled so poorly it could not be started. This proved to be a hidden blessing. Had the original rebuilders been able to start the engine, many of its scarce parts likely would have been irreparably damaged.

Thankfully, upon disassembly, most of the parts from the failed rebuild proved to be okay, and Knehe was able to correctly assemble the engine. He did find, however, that the Weber carburetor was not the right model. After months of searching, a proper one was obtained from a collector in California. And only recently was the correct air cleaner located, this from another collector in California.

Parts for the brakes were also hard to find. The 1500 OSCA has four-wheel, five-lug drum brakes with a twist: The liners need to be machined in the drums to match the angle of contact with the shoes. This is a tedious process and can take as long to get right as locating a set of the correct drums.

Many of the missing trim pieces for the 1500—such as the grille center that distinguishes the 1500 OSCA from the Fiat 1200—were unavailable, new or used, and the only option was to fabricate them. (Smith’s experience drives home the importance of working with a reputable restoration shop.)

Driving Impressions

A drive in Paul Smith’s 1500 OSCA reveals firsthand the car’s distinctive heritage. The Nardi wheel, a standard part of the OSCA 1500, is oddly at a very non-Italian, vertical angle. The shifter falls nicely to hand, though near the dashboard like an Alfa. The ventilation controls are a bit cryptic, not clearly labeled. The auxiliary controls are a row of unlabeled toggle switches under the dashboard, barely visible to the driver.

The windows are standard hand-crank affairs, but still better than the side curtains typical of British cars of the period. Similarly, in contrast to the crude and leaky British tops, raising or lowering the top on the 1500 is a model of simplicity and great design. Like every other Fiat convertible top, a pair of clips secure the top on each side of the windshield, and a central handle is provided to assist raising and lowering it.

The trunk in the car is spacious, offering plenty of luggage room for a weekend trip for two. Quality is apparent in all the details. Pieces such as a jewel-like ashtray with a spring-loaded release lever, a cast-aluminum passenger-side footrest and the beautifully finished cloisonné Pininfarina trim help round out this wonderful car.

The OSCA engine easily starts with just a little bit of choke needed to get it going, and after warming up for a few minutes, sounds eager to be off. The engine is a mechanical masterpiece, revving freely and eagerly to its 7500 redline and making all the sounds associated with the best Italian engines.

The steering is light and direct with little or no slop, due in part to the center-linked steering. The ride is firm, but with plenty of suspension travel, very comfortable. The car holds the road like the Fiat 124 Spiders, with just a bit more lean. Overall, it is a great handling car, especially compared to other cars of the period.

A Buyer’s Checklist

If one is interested in an Italian roadster, specialists will generally recommend the Fiat 124 Spider or the Alfa Romeo Spider 2000. The Fiat 1500 or 1600, whether with the OSCA or the Fiat engine, should be bought only by those with an interest in history, they insist.

It is true that the OSCA-engined cars are rare and historic, with a wonderful free-revving engine designed by a storied maker, but their rarity means they are less well supported than the Fiat 124 or the Alfa 2000. Body-repair parts and floor-pan patch panels are no longer being made. This means that any car with rust or accident damage will require fabricating sheet metal to effect repairs.

As for running gear, the transmission is common among the Fiat 1100, 1200, 1500 and 1600 models. However, the OSCA engine has no parts in common with any other Fiat. Beyond bearings, parts are difficult to obtain and can get expensive. Anything that is broken, such as rods or a crankshaft, will have to be fabricated.

The same holds true for trim pieces. Grilles, emblems and other pieces are made from “unobtanium.” Brakes are unique to this particular model; after the 1500 OSCA, all Fiat roadsters had disc brakes on the front.

Enthusiasts who really love the looks of the car and aren’t concerned about the pedigree of the engine should consider the non-OSCA-engined 1200 or 1500 Cabriolets. For styling that is a bit more updated, the 1964-’67 model may be a good alternative. Parts are much more readily available for these cars.

It’s likely that the owner of a Fiat 1500 won’t encounter many others on the road, as few survive in any condition. With the OSCA engine, it is a rarity indeed.

Our thanks to Ken Knehe and Michael Fatsi of Sportscar Workshop for making Paul Smith’s car available to us.

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Reader comments:

nestormoya3
July 3, 2009 11:44 a.m.

Very informative writeup.

GlobalViperRecords
Feb. 19, 2010 8:24 p.m.

Very Nice, I also have a 1958 Fiat 1500 osca, Picked it up from a old truck stop that is now just a service center. Was getting something fixed on a car i was pulling and walked around only to find one in the corner, It needs some work but body is straight, all hub caps there, engine there most everything is there except for the two chrome strips on the side, front and rear bumbers, rear emblem, needs to be cleaned up but was surprised on how clean the body was and no damage with original paint. Not sure if im going to keep her, think i will put some new tires on her, get her running, clean up the inside, maybe redo the door panels, seats and carpet, put a top on her then let someone take over with the few things she needs to complete her. GlobalViper@aol.com

GlobalViperRecords
March 4, 2010 6:32 a.m.

Have a 1959 Fiat 1200 for sale as well, missing the front bumper but rest is all there, needs restore, taking offers, week by week will start to restore little by little. Globalviper@aol.com the 1500 i had sold a few days ago to a guy in Hungary, and it was also a 59.

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