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A Vintage Italian Job: Classic Motorsports Magazine Articles 5/18/10 4:03 PM

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A Vintage Italian Job

From the Jan. 2004 issue by Andy Reid

A
t 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 With the OSCA engine, the car was sold as
Camerana, the aristocratic head of Fiat’s advertising and the Fiat 1500. In later years, to distinguish it
marketing department and a member of the Agnelli family, the from the Fiat-engined 1500 introduced in
owners of Fiat. The car had been shipped to the U.S. for 1964, enthusiasts began to refer to the car as
Camerana’s use, and also for the convenience of other Fiat the Fiat 1500 OSCA.
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.
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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.

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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 Th e OSCA C ompa ny

With the OSCA In 1937, facing difficult financial times due to the
engine, the car aftereffects of the Depression and the increasing
political turmoil in Europe, the Maserati family sold
was sold as the its interest in the Maserati Company and all rights
Fiat 1500. In later to the Maserati name to industrialist Adolfo Orsi,
years, to and the company was moved from Bologna to
Modena. Three of the brothers, Bindo, Ettore and
distinguish it Ernesto, remained under contract to the Maserati
from the Fiat- Company through 1947.
engined 1500 After their contract expired, the brothers, still
introduced in unable to use their family name, formed Officine
Specializata Costruzione Automobile de Fratelli
1964, enthusiasts began to refer to the car as the Fiat 1500 OSCA.
Maserati in Bologna to build race cars and racing
engines carrying the OSCA badge.
Aside from using the same body, the 1959 Fiat 1500 OSCA was Their small, graceful cars with free-revving engines
different from the standard Fiat 1200 Spider in several ways. It had were quite successful. The marque came to
different drum brakes; used five-lug, 15-inch wheels in place of four- American notice with Stirling Moss and Bill Lloyd
taking a class win at Sebring in 1954 in the cigar-
lug, 14-inch wheels; had wing windows that opened; and most bodied OSCA 1500 Sport.
important, used the twin-cam OSCA engine.
The brothers also built engines for Formula 2 and
Formula Junior cars during the 1950s. The engine
The Fiat 1500 OSCA was produced until 1962, with the only mid- installed in the Fiat 1500 was an adaptation of their
twin-cam 1500 racing engine. They also used the
model change of consequence being the addition of front disc brakes
Fiat-built OSCA engine in their own road-going GT
in 1960. In that year, a two-carburetor variant also was introduced, model, but this foray into sports cars for the street
called the Fiat 1500S. was unsuccessful. The brothers eventually sold the
company to MV Agusta, a manufacturer of racing
motorcycles, in 1963. The last OSCAs, powered by
Road tests of the time were favorable, citing the free-revving engine, V4 engines from Ford of Germany, were produced
accuracy of steering and good road holding. Also mentioned were the in 1967, but were unsuccessful and the name was
consigned to history.
excellent top mechanism and driver comfort in comparison to other
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consigned to history.
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 Fi a t 1500 OSCA (1959-’62)

From 1959, let’s jump forward 42 years to


Layout: Front engine, rear drive, unit body
August 2002, when Ken Knehe and
“Engine”: 4-cyl. DOHC 1491cc
Michael Fatsi of Sportscar Workshops were Bore x stroke: 78x78mm
given the daunting task of restoring Carburetion: One twin-choke Weber
Horsepower : 90 SAE/80 DIN at 5800 rpm
Count Camerana’s 1500 OSCA.
Transmission : 4-speed gearbox, non-synchro
first gear
Sportscar Workshops was actually the Suspension:
Front: independent with coil springs, shock
second shop asked to restore the car, as
absorbers and stabilizer bar
the initial restoration had proved a bit of a disaster. While the car had Rear: semi-elliptic spring, with shock absorbers and
been given a decent paint job, and its original interior was still in stabilizer bar
Wheels : 15-inch, 5-lug steel disc
good condition, many of the exterior trim pieces—removed when the
Tires : 155x15 in.
car was stripped for painting—had gone missing. Brakes : Aluminum-finned drums with steel friction
surfaces on all four wheels
Front: Two brake cylinders on each wheel,
In addition, even though the engine had been rebuilt, it was
operating one shoe each
reassembled so poorly it could not be started. This proved to be a Rear: One brake cylinder on each wheel, operating
hidden blessing. Had the original rebuilders been able to start the self-centering shoes
Emergency brake : Strap clinching around drum
engine, many of its scarce parts likely would have been
on driveshaft
irreparably damaged. Weight : 2040 lbs.
Wheelbase: 92.1 in.
Length : 158.7 in.
Thankfully, upon disassembly, most of the parts from the failed
Width: 59.8 in.
rebuild proved to be okay, and Knehe was able to correctly assemble Height: 51.1 in.
the engine. He did find, however, that the Weber carburetor was not Produced: 80-500 (est.)
Price New: $3298
the right model. After months of searching, a proper one was
Value Now: $7500-$15,000
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
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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.

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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.

Like this story?


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Reader comments:

1. nestormoya3: — Jul 3, 2009 11:44 a.m.


Very informative writeup.

2. 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

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3. GlobalViperRecords: — Mar 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.

MO R E

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