Modena’s Original Motorsport Company: Taking In The History of Stanguellini
Story by Alexander Byles
Photography by Marco Annunziata and the Stanguellini Museum archives
Stanguellini transformed common Fiats into lightweight racing cars. The result was something between a Ferrari and a Maserati of the period performance-wise—with some reaching speeds up to 180km/h—and though the Fiat underpinnings were humble, Staguellini’s work epitomized the Italian creative stereotype like few others. Perhaps only in Modena, the home of Italian motorsport, could one run a business concerned with drilling holes in cars to shed weight. At Stanguellini, every component of the automobile was dieted, and removing all but the most vital parts to reduce mass would cost its owner 20,000 lire for each kilogram shed.
Guido Piovene, an Italian writer and journalist, wrote about the city of Modena and the genius of Stanguellini in his 1957 book Viaggio in Italia. In that book, he also wrote about meeting Enzo Ferrari, who told him that, “Cars are like people, each car has a soul, and making cars to me is like taking cocaine.” Make of that what you will. Anyway, much more has been written about Mr. Ferrari and his company, so we are in Modena not for his history this time, but to visit the Stanguellini Museum.
The story of the Stanguellini family’s company, which in 1900 became registered as one of Modena’s very first automotive businesses (the family Fiat received the city’s first license plate, as shown above), begins further back, albeit not directly with personal transportation. Back in 1879, patriarch Celso Stanguellini began to produce and sell his patented design of timpani kettledrums (a kettledrum is still the first thing you see when you step into the museum) in the workshop he ran in the center of the city. As the story goes, Celso’s son Francesco, who had a love of early automobile racing (think tricycles with engines), inspired the family company to shift its focus towards providing spare parts for these machines.
Coming of age at the helm of said company, Francesco also opened the first Fiat dealership in Modena in 1925. Thanks to his love of speed, within a few years he went beyond replacement parts and sales and began customizing some of these otherwise typical vehicles into competition-spec cars, and thus Scuderia Stanguellini was officially born.
Francesco died rather suddenly a few years later, and in 1932 the family business passed to the hands of his son, Vittorio. At just 19 years old, Vittorio had already learned a great deal about engineering performance parts and cars thanks to his father’s tuition, and in the hands of the third generation Stanguellini, the family company continued to find success.
In 1937, the first Stanguellini factory racing effort, Squadra Corse Stanguellini, was set up under Vittorio’s direction to compete in the 1938 season. For drivers, Giulio Baravelli was assigned to a Fiat 500, Lotario Rangoni was put in a Fiat 508 Sport, Francesco Severi had a Maserati 1500, and Efisio Zanella in another Fiat 500. They would swap around and drive a number of Stanguellini-prepared cars, but notable results early on included Severi taking first place in the 28th Targa Florio in 1937 with a Stanguellini-modified Maserati C6M 1500.
With these upgraded Fiat and Maserati automobiles—and coming off of the excellent first attempt, first place finish in the Targa Florio—Squadra Stanguellini also saw Giulio Baravelli win his class in the 1938 Mille Miglia in heavily modified Fiat 500. The race was not held in 1939, but he won the Tobruk-Tripoli in a Stanguellini car that year, and in 1940 when the Mille Miglia came back, Stanguellini-enhanced cars won the 750cc and 1100cc classes.
After the break from motorsport and World War II came to an end, Scuderia Stanguellini returned to racing, only to find a familiar opponent from the same region wearing a new official name: Scuderia Ferrari. The battles between the leading drivers of the era, such as Fernando Righetti for Stanguellini and Franco Cortese for Ferrari, in Italy and abroad, created some of the most memorable racing in grand prix history.
Racing driver Ferdinando Righetti was also from Modena. Beginning his career in the 1930s in a Stanguellini Fiat, he became personal friends with both Vittorio Stanguellini and Enzo Ferrari, and worked as a test driver for both marques. Responsible for most of the testing of the first official Ferrari, the 125 S, Righetti was heralded for his professionalism outside of the car and his speed and consistency inside of it. Crowds recognized him for his elegance too, dressed as he always was in white overalls and an unmissable silk scarf. The kind of guy bon vivants aspire to be, and at the very least, look like. Here he is below, wrapped up a bit more than usual when on the job.
He came to prominence at the Modena Grand Prix of 1936, when he finished second in a beautifully prepared but outdated Maserati 4CS upgraded by Stanguellini. Moving on to become a driver for Scuderia Ferrari in sports cars, he also drove for Alfa Corse in the late 1930s, and in 1939 he won the Targa Abruzzi. In 1947 he drove for both Stanguellini and Ferrari, winning the Grand Prix of Piacenza for Stanguellini before spending a year with Ferrari in 1948 only to come back to Stanguellini in 1949.
Following the consistent results of the immediate post-war era, Stanguellini’s 1100 twin-cam Fiat-based engines had proven to be durable, competitive, and affordable, and were in high demand. By 1950, Vittorio was producing a unit that would become legendary: a dual-overhead cam 750cc engine which would be used successfully in both single-seater and racing sports cars. Stanguellini’s engineering skills led to several other innovations and, thanks to his perseverance and his trusted collaborators, they added to their trophy case with success at races like the 1957 12 Hours of Sebring, where Herm Behm, Carl Haas, and Sandy MacArthur drove a Stanguellini Sport Bialbero 750 to a class victory. They were quite good at small-capacity racing, and even went a bit littler at times, as you can see in the adorable scaled-down Stanguellini below.
In the late 1950s, Count Giovanni “Johnny” Lurani Cernuschi had an idea for a racing series that would be less expensive than Formula 1 and could help younger drivers prepare for the next level of racing. The series would be called Formula Junior, and it was intended to provide an entry-level class where drivers made use of relatively inexpensive mechanical components from ordinary automobiles. In the Formula Junior, Vittorio Stanguellini saw a big opportunity, and by 1958 he had selected some racers that would qualify for this new series. Thanks also to the advice of Juan Manuel Fangio, who by this stage was a close family connection, they developed a car as well: the Stanguellini Junior 1100.
This little single-seater won the first international Formula Junior championship in 1959, driven by Swiss racer and engineer Michael May, and went on to make motorsport history after that, achieving over 40 national and international victories and several championship titles. In 1962, the Associazione Nazionale Corridori Automobilisti Italiani (ANCAI), awarded Vittorio Stanguellini the World Prize for Formula Junior builders as a figurative cherry on top.
Besides sprint, circuit, and hillclimb racing, speed records were another challenge that Vittorio obsessed over. In 1963 the Colibrì—pictured above in the museum today, presided over by Vittorio and Enzo, and on the banks of Monza, this was a futuristic aerodynamic car with bodywork fabricated by Franco Scaglione and with a single-cylinder Guzzi 250cc engine for power—conquered six world speed records at Monza. Back on the track however, the well-designed frame of the beautiful shark-nosed Junior Delfino—Stanguellini’s rear-engine single-seater for 1962—was not enough to contend in the point because of lower power of the Italian vehicles compared to the well-known Ford Anglia engines of their rivals.
And so the last years of Vittorio’s life were marked by a decline in his company’s results due to fierce competition from an engineering and economic standpoint. As the slow retreat of the team from official races continued, Vittorio Stanguellini died on December 4, 1981, at the age of 72. From then on, the company’s focus has solely been on its history.
These photographs were taken in the museum created by Vittorio’s son Francesco, which opened for the first time in 1996 and has recently reopened following a renovation. Inside you will find many of Stanguellini’s masterpieces, and with the collection peppered by other cars and automobilia from the family’s personal stash, there’s a sense of Italian performance car provenance on a general level too.
Included in the group is the first sport editions that Stanguellini built from Fiats around modified 750cc and 1100cc motors, the Formula Junior that won at the 1959 Monte Carlo Grand Prix (pictured above), the speed record-breaking Colibrì, the Formula 3 cars, just about all of it is in here. In addition to a collection of engines on their own, the Stanguellini family’s eclectic assortment includes further inspiration outside of the Stanguellini efforts, with beautiful cars from Maserati, Ferrari, Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, and more.