Date:1 November 2012
Flying on the ground: Jay’s 1917 Fiat Botafogo Special is a raucous ride with a massive aircraft engine under the bonnet.
For me, there’s nothing quite like driving a really big, torquey vintage engine. Put an old aircraft engine in a car and it’s even better.
Early-20th-century plane engines were simply bigger and better-constructed versions of automotive powerplants. All the moving parts were machined to aircraft standards, which were much higher than a car’s for obvious reasons. They had redundant features, such as two ignition systems, in case one didn’t work.
After World War I, a small group of speed enthusiasts started putting surplus warplane engines in big and sturdy car frames. It was a tremendous feat of engineering. With that giant engine in the car, you were basically flying on the ground. Racing aircraft-engine cars became especially popular at the Brooklands circuit in England. It was one of the first banked oval tracks and perfect for powerful cars with little to no braking. Count Louis Zborowski’s four Chitty Bang Bang specials were the most famous examples. The origin of the odd name is disputed, but the cars became renowned, inspiring the similarly named children’s book and later the movie.
I have four cars with aircraft engines. Three of the engines are from World War I, and one is from World War II. My newest car is a 1917 Fiat called the Botafogo Special. It was built by an Argentine racer named Adolfo Scandroglio. He was an admirer of Sir Ernest Eldridge, who owned the legendary, record-setting Fiat Mephistopheles racer that went 235 km/h in 1924 on a public road in France.
Scandroglio built this car as a copy and named it after the racehorse Botafogo, Argentina’s Secretariat.
The Botafogo Special’s World War I 21,7-litre Fiat A.12 engine was used in more than a dozen kinds of Italian aeroplanes. It has six huge cylinders with four valves each, overhead cams, twin magnetos and a dry sump – pretty modern, considering it was designed in 1912. Each piston’s displacement is bigger than that of a 3-litre engine. It barely makes 240 kW at 1 800 r/min, but all that torque just wafts you along. At 100 km/h you’re using only 800 revs. The heat the engine puts out is incredible.
The Botafogo originally didn’t have brakes or a transmission. I have no idea how the car stopped, but that didn’t prevent Scandroglio from racing it. An old photo I have shows a big vertical hook on the front. When the car went off the road, the hook was supposed to prevent injury by catching any of the barbed-wire fencing common throughout the Argentine countryside. Sadly, Scandroglio was killed while racing this car in 1949. Then the Botafogo disappeared.
Luckily, the engine was found in the 1990s by the guys at Pur Sang, an Argentine company that builds exact replicas of Bugatti Type 35s and Alfa Romeo 8C 2300s. They reconstructed the car and added an old Mercedes-Benz four-speed transmission and two rear-wheel drum brakes. I bought it from them last year.
The Botafogo can probably go about 240 km/h, so it also has a modern hooter now. With only two brakes, the car doesn’t stop fast, and you want to warn people to get out of the way.
Before heading out, some pre-driving maintenance is necessary. It’s part of the romance of these old aircraft engines. With its exposed valve gear, you don’t want to start up anything dry, so you give the valves and rockers a few squirts of oil. Then you pump up the fuel pressure by hand using a big lever in the cockpit. Next you pump, or “tickle”, the carbs to open the floats and let in more fuel. Finally, off you go. On the road, it’s as if you’re actually taxiing in a World War I aircraft. It’s great fun. You feel like you ought to be strafing other cars as you go down the highway. Redline is 1 800 r/min, so the engine pulls 300 or 400 revs with incredible stumppulling torque – tic-tic-TIK-TIK-TIKA-TIKAVROOOMMMM!
A huge chain drives each rear wheel, so you have to remember not to drop your hand over the side of the cockpit. I love the raw mechanicalness of old chain-drive cars. It’s like you’re Marley’s ghost, with those exposed chains clattering. People stand on the street and just stare. When you drive a noisy, smoking monster car, you quickly realise how far we’ve come with modern vehicles.
The Botafogo isn’t the best car for LA; low speeds on the city’s typically congested streets result in a carbon build-up in the combustion chambers that causes the plugs to “load up”, or fire intermittently. But get it out on the open road, put your foot down, and it’s fantastic. There’s no modern equivalent, not even a Hemi.
Video: Take a closer look at Leno’s 1917 Fiat Botafogo Special