Italy’s Motor Valley Owes Its Existence In Part To Manufacturers Like Stanguellini
Photography by Andrea Casano
The province of Modena in northern Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region has no shortage of stories involving fast cars. Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Maserati tend to dominate the attention with their contributions to motorsport lore and the ascendency of the supercar, but they’ve never been alone.
The city of Modena has long been a primary source of Italian automotive pride thanks to these internationally revered brands, but some of the lesser-known names are no less interesting than the headlining acts. Whether absorbed by other corporations or just by the trials of time, there are plenty of smaller stories that have contributed to the narrative of the motor valley. Stanguellini isn’t an obscure name to genuine enthusiasts of motorsport tradition, but the company’s history deserves a larger audience all the same.
A few decades after founding a company for the production of orchestral eardrums with a mechanical tuning system that he’d patented, Celso Stanguellini’s grandson Vittorio took over the family businesses and wasted little time pivoting its engineering interests toward his own: cars. Before the second world war broke out across most of the planet, Vittorio had already proven his talents in the late 1930s by preparing cars that would go on to take class wins at the most important races in Italy, the Targa Florio and Mille Miglia.
The Stanguellini name had begun to assert itself before the eyes of the motoring world thanks to its short but impressive resume, and the cars prepared and later produced by the small Modenese company garner more than just attention. Stanguellini cars were winners, bringing the silverware home to the manufacturers that hired the company, and keeping its own trophy case well stocked when racing under the Squadra Corse Stanguellini banner.
I’m not trying to discount the glory of the Ferraris and Lamborghinis of the world, but I’ve always been an ardent admirer of Stanguellini’s history. This is a company that was part of the top class of Italian motorsport during a definitive period of it, and although it never turned into a megalith of production sports cars like some of its peers, the fact that the company is still so linked with that particular era of the Mille Miglia and such makes it all the more romantic. Though Stanguellini has long focused on the past, I was given the privilege this past summer of meeting Francesca Stanguellini, Vittorio’s daughter, the last owner of Stanguellini.
When I arrived at the Stanguellini museum in Modena, I was warmly welcomed by Francesca and Guglielmo, one of the many youthful staff members who look after the museum and its treasures. If you’ve never been to the Stanguellini Museum, which I assume most of you outside of the region haven’t, I would not skip it should you find yourself in Italy. There is great history, some immense machinery, but better still is being surrounded by the kindness and familiarity of the people who run it. It’s the opposite of a cold display of the past. I felt at ease, but also humbled by the history I was standing between—the perfect mix of feelings one can have at a museum, in my opinion. After going through the tour and doing a briefing on the location for this shoot, we were stymied by a downpour. All the more of an excuse to wander the cars and memorabilia, for the summer days here are long, and we are relaxed, patient.
The Stanguellini 750 Sport waits with us in the center of the museum, exuding an almost anthropomorphic beauty. Vanni—the mechanic who takes care of the whole collection—performed a quick checkup before we headed out on the sun-dried roads. Seeing us off with the rest of the staff was Giorgio, a wonderful person, a gentleman like few other, who had guided me through much of the museum up to that moment.
We depart in a pack of four cars, me in my usual post in the trunk, camera aimed back at Francesca and the Stanguellini. She’s as genuine a car enthusiast as they come, and also far from an unskilled driver, having participated in many races onboard this very Stanguellini, like the modern interpretation of the Mille Miglia. For this outing though, Guglielmo is at the wheel, adding to the mood with a blue Fiat-Stanguellini mechanic’s jumpsuit and smiling as broadly as ever. The sound of the tuned 750cc echoes through the streets whenever we pass through the small towns, putting pedestrian heads on a swivel without fail. And getting away from the population is even more fun.
We arrive at the primary location and once the car is set we enjoy the isolation we’ve found for ourselves—a few minutes away from the modern world we’ve found a context that suits the car, free of the old-new juxtaposition. It’s easier for our imaginations to bring us back in time, and we enjoy the moment in mutual silence for a few tranquil moments.
But I remember that I’m also here to tell their story, so I turned on the camera and started to shoot, asking Francesca about the origins and the history of the car, and her family.
“You know, we were perhaps the first to breathe and bring some of the histories of motoring into our territory,” she said, “Modena back then was a smaller community, and everyone knew each other. And all—I refer to Ferrari, Maserati, and also drivers like Fangio—always had great respect for my family. Enzo Ferrari for example often came to visit us to spend time with us, my grandfather and my father in particular.
“And Fangio, I have always heard my grandfather and father tell me, he was a great person, especially because he provided us with technical help that proved invaluable. His suggestions and early tests in our cars strongly contributed to the success of the Stanguellini Junior 1100, the single-seaters of the new international training formula. The Modena Junior earned all sorts of cups and trophies, collecting a hundred victories, as many as the amount of cars built, and in 1962, ANCAI awarded my grandfather Vittorio Stanguellini the World Trophy for Formula Junior constructors.”
As the sun started to set, I asked Guglielmo and Vanni if they could remove the hood so I could shoot the engine, also taking the opportunity to ask Guglielmo more about it. With a strong Modenese accent, he answers me matter of factly before going into more detail: “Well, this is a great engine! Vittorio Stanguellini did not become famous for his elaborations on Fiat engines alone, but also and above all for his own engines, which have become much sought after by collectors. Victories in competitions such as the Formula Junior, the Targa Florio, the Mille Miglia—in which this 750 ran, the real one!—helped the company to improve its knowledge of power and reliability, and the result was things like this car, which is 100% pure Stanguellini. The engine is a Stanguellini 750 bi-shaft, four cylinders producing 90 horsepower at a maximum speed of about 9500rpm, an engine that screams!”
With the shots logged and the sun all but gone, it was time to bring the 750 home, and with my trunk duties done with for the day, I hop in the passenger seat for the return journey. The vibrations and the heat coming from the engine are directly translated through the thin firewall, contrasting with the cooler air whipping over the short windscreen. I try in vain to take some photos from the interior, but the car is rigid, and changes of direction come quickly. It’s hard enough to keep myself in my seat, let alone the camera focused. We exit one hairpin with Guglielmo giving it the beans, and the engine promptly shuts off. No worries though, just my elbow bumping the emergency power cutoff on the dash. It’s a good a sign as any to put the camera down and enjoy this rare moment free of filter. It’s hard to say what was more inspiring, the fantastic sound and sensation of being in the car, or being around so many people of all ages who share the same enthusiasms for these old pieces of metal, fiberglass, and rubber that affect us so deeply.
I could go on and on, but to close I’d like to offer my biggest thanks to all the staff of the Stanguellini Museum, in particular to Francesca, Guglielmo, Giorgio, and of course Vanni; excellent new friends who made me feel immediately at home and thoroughly welcomed.