An Art Exhibit In New York Made This Collector Fall In Love With The Cisitalia 202 Berlinetta
Would you expect someone’s interest in a specific car to sprout from a visti to an art museum? You should if the car in question is a Cisitalia 202 SC. “My love for it came at first sight, and was sparked by a piece of New York’s Museum of Modern Art,” recalls the owner of this magnificent 1947 example.
Many years ago he came upon this wonderful example of Italian automotive style by accident when he discovered that it was on display at the MoMA, chosen for the harmony of its shape and its function. The innovative lines of the “Rolling Sculpture,” as they captioned the model—even the most illustrious art museums in the world aren’t above using this cliched phrase, apparently—enchanted him when they included it in the museum’s permanent collection in 1951. “It’s the first modern car,” he states with a type of confidence that resists argument.
After falling love with the Cisitalia, he didn’t hesitate to buy a 202 SC he found for sale on the American west coast in 1995. He jumped on it as soon as he found that it was up for sale. Used to this variety of decision-making ruled by the heart more than the head, this was his first time doing such a thing. Some years earlier, he’d traveled overseas with the specific aim of purchasing a historic Ermini, which he did, and which he also brought back to Italy with him.
While writing about such a monumental influence in car design as Cisitalia’s is interesting enough, to actually see such a car like this in the hand-formed metal is like getting to commune directly with a history whose ramifications are still visible.
These 202 Berlinettas were a true landmark in terms of styling, and they are extremely rare and highly sought after today; the racing driver and businessman from Piedmont who controlled Cisitalia, Piero Dusio, built about 200 examples of these cars between 1946 and 1952. It’s the kind of masterpiece that a car enthusiast living or vacationing in Italy would go to see at the national automobile museum in Turin (known as “Mauto,” which also houses a Cisitalia 202 SMM “Nuvolari” Spyder). Otherwise the best chance to see one is perhaps a visit to the Mille Miglia route when the historic race travels through the country.
Speaking of vintage events in Italy, this particular car has participated in five Freccia Rossa races, the first being in 2000. In preparation, “The mechanicals had to be completely overhauled, after a general strip-down and cleaning of all the major parts,” the owner recalls. “Also the aluminum fuel tank had to be remade as it was missing, as was the radiator grill and other small things.”
Soon after starting the restoration of the car, which was red back then, “The original metallic silver color of the body started to come out,” he continues. An Italian engineer who has spent more than 30 years in the domain of classic cars as a hobby, this is one of his favorites among a worthy group of cars in his ownership history.
Cisitalia only produced the 202 Berlinetta in four colors; gloss black, and three metallic finishes: silver, light green, and light blue. He decided to take the car back to its factory silver scheme. Perhaps during its time in US the owners over there had wanted to give it the same paint job as the example that was in the MoMA, or, since the Berlinetta took part in several competitions, perhaps they wanted to pay tribute to its identity with the national Italian racing color. We’ll probably never know that part of its history, but certainly before being sold in US to the Italian sports car importer Antonio Pompeo, this 202 was raced on its home soil in Italy. Then, later on, it continued its career with races at Watkins Glen, Bridgehampton, and other circuits on the east coast with a Mr. Logan Hill, who achieved good results with the 202 when he owned and competed with it. “Even if the engine is small [a 1089cc unit developing 55HP at 5,500RPM) the drive feels very rewarding; the car is light and has very good road holding,” the current owner assures me. The design of the aluminum bodywork is the main draw though, an inspired piece work penned by engineer Giovanni Savonuzzi at Pinin Farina.
The founder of the make wanted a machine that was big like a Buick, low like a grand prix thoroughbred, comfortable like a Rolls-Royce, and lightweight like the company’s own Cisitalia single-seater called the D46, from which the 202 took its tubular space frame chassis. As a result, he got a fast and beautiful racing berlinetta with slippery aerodynamics and an inline four-cylinder derived from the Fiat 1100, along with other components like the brakes. That’s what the constructor could call on in a period of austerity following the end of Second World War.
Nevertheless, despite the situation, the engine in the 202 was a dry-sump twin-cam from the legendary Carlo Abarth (I’ll let you guess what he’s known for) and was paired together with other performance modifications by the famous constructor and race preparer from Austria.
The interior has a particularly spartan look to it with the steering wheel of the Fiat Topolino commanding most of the attention, and that’s probably the major annoyance inherent in the model, as the wheel is very unwieldy to operate, especially at low speeds. “Another black mark is the lack of heating system,” the owner adds, “but that’s not an issue: it’s sufficient to wait for the engine to warm up,” he jokes—another good reason to keep the rev needle on the far end of the tach. And if the car isn’t driven with sufficient brio, it becomes lumpen and unresponsive. Even if it has good potential agility in the bends, it’s not easy to drive it as fast as it’s capable of: “You have to know what you are doing,” the driver of this one tells me, in part for its characteristics and of course in a different sense, because of its rarity and value. And that’s part of the joy of owning it too, it feels like something special that requires great care. After all, aren’t the most delicate things in this world typically the most beautiful?