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The fascination of history

In this month's HEROICS, we look inside the HERO Premier Members and find a young man with a wonderful motorsport background passed to him by his Grandfather, Count Giovani 'Johnny' Lurani. Read the wonderful story of Nibbio and how he won a very famous Trophy recently.

The fascination of history

How strange to bring a land speed record car, a car the very essence of which is to swiftly remove itself from one point in space to the very next, to an event which is mainly static. Even stranger, that this very car should win over the hearts of such a qualified audience, when shadowed by names like Bugatti, Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Rolls Royce and shapes sculpted by the fabulous hands of Pininfarina, Scaglione, Park Ward and the like.

I can say with absolute confidence that the people most surprised about this unexpected prize were my family and me. As a matter of fact, we were about to ask for permission to push the car back into the shade of the garage and retire to change for dinner. And yet there it is. The little Nibbio, which has never sold for millions of pounds at auction, has never benefited of a long string of extravagant owners or received the care of a specialised restorer has brought home the famous Coppa d’Oro di Villa d’Este.

I have known Nibbio for as long as I can remember. From the moment I was being locked into the deep cockpit for being naughty (way more difficult to escape from than a nursery bed, I assure you, plus the fuel fumes do wonders to silence a crying three-year-old), to the moment I couldn’t wait to grow quickly enough to view through the small windscreen. Wherever my family and I would move, Nibbio would have been lugged from one place to the other, always a static showpiece with a history that was completely unknown to me and a fading memory in people’s minds. During all of those years, I have always wondered what it would be like to drive it, what noise the engine would make, what feedback the steering wheel would have and it was last year that someone, seeing the Nibbio and its shapes, asked me why I hadn’t brought it to a concourse of elegance yet. I dismissed that notion very quickly, as I never thought Nibbio would make the mark.

However, the metaphorical seed was planted, and when I saw that the theme for the legendary Concorso di Eleganza di Villa d’Este would have been “a voyage through an era of records” I took the plunge. At the very least that would have given me an excuse to drive the Nibbio and quell my curiosity once and for all… The creation of a small car had already been on my grandfather’s mind during his university years, but it wasn’t until 1934 when at the Lecco – Maggio hill climb he met with Ulisse Guzzi of Moto Guzzi fame and it was decided to build a small record breaker - it must, of course, be understood that beating land speed records was the ultimate achievement even for famous and accomplished racing car drivers - to attempt the International Class I Records for cars under 500 cc.

In October 1934 plans began to materialise. It was decided that the ideal vehicle would sport a front wheel drive and a frontally mounted motorcycle engine, but after some consideration it became apparent that fitting a front wheel drive to the bicylindrical Guzzi which had been chosen to power this car-to-be would have been extremely challenging and so this idea had to be scrapped, reverting to the orthodox choice of rear wheel drive. It was this choice which fuelled the idea that the little record breaker should be built after the same philosophy as the rear-engined “Auto Union” cars which were proving to be so successful during those years.

The plan was made and the dice was drawn and the gentlemen met at the Guzzi works on Mandello al Lario on the shores of Lake Como to figure out where to go from there. This was not as glamorous as one might think, as the shape of the car was decided by sitting my grandfather on a discarded wooden produce tray which was found to be the right size and drawing the dimensions of the car around him and the Guzzi engine resting on the floor behind his back. The track had to be exactly 2.42m, just as the Maserati he raced at that time in order to give at least some degree of familiarity to the creature.

When I say “built” it, I mean it as the French landowner who says he “makes” wine, even though he does nothing more than supervise with binoculars from the comfort of his study. So, we can say that it was designed and coordinated, but the craft which went into the actual building of the car is an even more fascinating story, as it really is a patchwork of the work of the ingenuity of the Milanese craftsmen of the time. The wheels were Rudge Withworth, which a young chap from Milan registered as Ruote Borrani some years later, the engine was Guzzi, the windscreen was hand shaped by Bianchi of Touring Superleggera, which, at the time, was the only coachbuilder able to do so, the chassis was built by the Quadrio works of Milan out of Colombo aeronautical steel tubes, making it the first tubular chassis car of the time, the aerodynamics were once again shaped by studies undertaken in Moto Guzzi’s wind tunnel, which at that time was the only wind tunnel in the whole of Italy, and the final coachwork was hand beaten out of aluminium by Carrozzeria Riva of Merate, a mere 600 meters from my grandfather’s home.

It is after all of this effort came together that the car finally rolled out of the workshop, still in clothed in bare aluminium, and driven through the streets around Lake Como, as I would do 82 years later, much to the amusement of the public and less that of the Italian Police, seeing that it didn’t and couldn’t sport a license plate. The absence of a muffler also meant that many a Café window was shattered in the process.

This brings us to November 1935. Finally painted in traditional Moto Guzzi red and christened the “Nibbio”, or kite, a bird very common around the area, it was brought to the Firenze – Mare motorway, where after three days of torrential rain it broke its first four International Class I records on the standing mile/kilometre and flying mile/kilometre reaching speeds up to 162 km/h. It was so that Nibbio became the first 500 cc. engined car to break the glorious barrier of 100mph.

Put away after its first outing due to the start of the war in Somalia, Nibbio was brought out again in 1939, but to Dessau, in Germany, where it shared the motorway (and the expenses for closing it down to traffic) with Major Goldie Gardner, there to break different class records with a 1100cc. MG. This would be the start of a great friendship which endured for many years.

In Dessau, in 1939, painted in a red/black colour scheme much of the same design it sports today, Nibbio broke another 8 land speed records in the International Class I, this time reaching 172km/h. Not a mean feat with just half a litre at its disposal.

After the war, in 1947, now almost obsolete, Nibbio was brought out for the third time, but with a different objective: International Class J records for cars up to 350cc. Fitted with a 250cc. supercharged Guzzi engine, which was for unknown reasons nicknamed “Gerolamo”, painted in black and blue, the colours of Scuderia Ambrosiana, which was the racing team founded by my grandfather, Franco Cortese, Luigi Villoresi and Eugenio Minetti, the Nibbio was unloaded on the shining straight at Jabbeke, near Ostend, Belgium, where for a second time Major Goldie Gardner was also present with his MG.

Another 6 records came to Nibbio during those days in Belgium, and, I’m sure in part to calm his wife’s worries, my grandfather decided that Nibbio’s days had come.

There are two anecdotes about those days.

In 1949, Goldie Gardner modified his MG by disconnecting one of the three pistons and went on to break the Nibbio’s 1947 records. As can be read in Gardner’s memoirs “Magic M.P.H.” this earnt him the following rather amusing telegram:

“You pig. Stop. Nevertheless bitter congratulations from Nibbio”

Finally, there has been quite a bit of chatter about whether or not Nibbio gave way to the class of motorcycle engined rear wheel drive cars which became famous under the name of Formula 3.

Of course, my grandfather had something to say about Formula Junior some years later, but that’s another story…

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