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Cesare Isotta and the Fraschini brothers Vincenzo, Antonio and Oreste, entered the world of automobile manufacturing when they decided to start importing French cars to be assembled in Italy. In 1904, Isotta and the Fraschinis, with the simple motto "Import, sell, repair cars", founded their own company, the SocietÓ Milanese Automobili Isotta, Fraschini & C. In 1905, the budding automobile company hired engineer Giustino Cattaneo to be Isotta-Fraschini's technical director.
Just one year after Cattaneo was hired by the firm to lead product development, Isotta-Fraschini managed to secure second place behind Fiat as Italy's largest automobile producer. While the 300 automobiles built by the firm in 1906 were a far cry from Fiat's output of 1,800 units, this was quite an achievement, given the company's relative infancy.
The acceptance and praise of the Isotta-Fraschini marque in these early years can largely be credited to the company's successes on the racetrack, of which there were many, including a win at the 1908 Targa Florio. Winning a race in the budding years of the automobile industry not only earned a company excellent press, racing success proved to be the ultimate display of reliability, something that was not automatically assumed by customers when buying a new vehicle during the era.
However, the first Isotta-Fraschini race car designed by Giustino Cattaneo may be the most famous, and certainly not for its racing success. The Isotta-Fraschini Tipo D race car was powered by a 17,195 cubic centimeter, (1,050 cubic inch) four-cylinder engine. This massive roadster did not in fact complete its first racing lap, but it taught Cattaneo an important lesson: more than sheer power was needed to finish, let alone win, races.
Seeking further advantages in Isotta-Fraschini's now very successful racing campaigns, the company began the development of a four-wheel braking system that would improve both the car's driving dynamics, and its safety. Isotta-Fraschini unveiled its new brake design at the 1910 Paris Auto Salon, mounted on one of their production vehicles. However, this innovation was received with widespread skepticism. Pioneers in front-wheel braking had found that attempting to slow the front wheels of a vehicle in motion created dangerous instability, and everyone had given up on the idea, save one man. It was Cattaneo, who picked up where all others had failed, and succeeded in the creation of a four-wheel braking system that was inherently balanced, providing equal braking force to the front wheels, regardless of the steering input or wheel position.
As impressive as Cattaneo's front-wheel braking system was, its significance was overshadowed shortly after the First World War when Isotta-Fraschini introduced the Tipo 8/50. It is generally agreed that the Giustino Cattaneo-designed engine powering this car was the world's first production inline eight-cylinder engine. The Tipo 8/50 also marked a polar shift for Isotta-Fraschini: no longer were they interested in producing both a wide variety of vehicles and chasing success on the racetrack. In a bold and deliberate move, Isotta-Fraschini put all of its eggs in one basket, and decided to become a single-model car company. This model would be unlike any other, as Isotta-Fraschini had decided to start building the most luxurious cars in the entire world. Their reasoning was simple: after the war, only the wealthiest Europeans and Americans were financially able to afford a new luxury car.
The Tipo 8 was succeeded by the 8A, which by every measure proved successful in redefining all previously known conventions of luxury cars, by virtue of its mechanical refinement and impressive proportions. With its light alloy pistons, drop-forged connecting rods, overhead valvetrain, and ten main bearings, the engine was at once powerful, reliable, smooth, and quiet in operation. Naturally, the four-wheel braking system was quite advanced for its time; with four huge brake drums at each corner, and a vacuum servo booster (a technology that remains essentially unchanged today), the big car could easily and quickly come to a stop from high speeds. The chassis, made of heavy-gauge stamped steel, carried a standard wheelbase of 145.6 inches, but could be stretched up to 157.5 inches, to accommodate limousine-type coachwork.
As expected, only the very best coachbuilders were commissioned to provide bodies for Isotta-Fraschini. With a sterling reputation among Italian coachbuilders, along with its proximate location in Milan, Carrozzeria Castagna was a natural choice for many newly completed Isotta-Fraschini chassis. In fact, with its roots dating back to the 1830s, Castagna was already a favorite coachbuilder for royalty, long before they began the production of custom coachwork for automobiles. The Isotta-Fraschini marque attracted the Hollywood elite, including Rudolph Valentino and Clara Bow, as well as business leaders, including newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who chose a Castagna-bodied example for his personal transportation.