Società Milanese Automobili Isotta, Fraschini & C. was founded on January 27, 1900. The firm was focused on the assembly of Renaults before advancing to production of its own namesake automobile. Early on, they focused on production of high horsepower cars: veritable fire-breathers that achieved notoriety in the crucible of racing. Of early note is Isotta’s victory in the 1908 Targa Florio. In 1919 the firm established itself as a luxury manufacturer with the introduction of the Tipo 8, which became the first production car to feature a straight-eight engine. The successor to the 5.9-Liter Tipo 8, the 8A, had a 7.3-Liter straight-eight that could easily propel the car to cruising speeds of well over a hundred miles an hour.
Like other luxury marques, the Isotta-Fraschini was offered as a running chassis with grille, bumpers and fenders that would be sent off to be clothed with coachwork produced by the finest craftsmen of the day. The length of the massive 8A engine lent itself to a long hood and cowl that became signatures for the model. Carrozzeria Castagna gained serious traction after it began producing automobile bodies in the early 1900s, and soon bodies by Castagna were frequently finding their way onto the most exclusive chassis of the day including Mercedes-Benz, Rolls-Royce, Duesenberg and of course, Isotta-Fraschini.
Chassis #1540 is a long-wheelbase Tipo 8A with this gorgeous Cabriolet coachwork by Castagna. It was first displayed at the prestigious 1930 New York Auto Salon at the Hotel Commodore, a show that would later evolve into the renowned New York International Auto Show. Subsequently known as “The Commodore,” approximately 10 similar examples were constructed, of which this is one of two known to survive. With massive yet well-balanced proportions, the word “sporting” is an understatement. Highly appealing are the distinctly European dual rear-mounted spare tires, as is the stylish 1920s look of the squared-off windshield pillars and rear of the convertible top. “The Commodore” also has a number of bespoke finish details like the gorgeous radiator stone guard with a unique cubist chrome overlay, sunburst inserts on the rumble seat moldings and the highly detailed running boards with chrome ribs.
The first owner of 1540 was Eugene Maxwell Moore of the well-known New York manufacturing family, who purchased the car new off the show stand. Moore died later that same year, and his widow Margaret Graham Moore turned the car back into the Isotta-Fraschini dealership in New York. In January of 1931, the dealer sold the car to John Kelly, whose fiancée had seen the car on the show stand at the Commodore Hotel. The engagement gift was titled in the name of his bride, Miss Celia Cameron, in January 1932 after their wedding. At the time the car had only 4,000 miles on the odometer; the Kellys nicknamed the car “Algernon,” and for the next two decades the couple thoroughly enjoyed it. After John Kelly’s death in 1954, the car remained with Celia Kelly until it was found in a secret garage in Parkersburg, W. Va., with only 9,000 miles on the odometer. She eventually sold the car in 1964 to its third owner, John Eads. Eads retained 1540 for several years and even had it restored in 1968 with the help of funding from his brother, Dr. Charles Eads of Oklahoma. Well-known classic car dealer and one of the Barrett-Jackson founders Tom Barrett bought the car from Eads and brought it to Arizona, selling it to its fifth owner Michael Berry of Detroit, Mich., around 1977. Berry was a famous attorney and the former airport commissioner; after his death Berry Terminal, the international wing of the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, was named after him. The car then was bought by a Greek shipping group in the U.K. and shipped to England. In 1983 Don Williams of the legendary Blackhawk Collection became only the seventh owner of this beautiful Cabriolet and once again brought the car back to the United States with only 13,350 miles on the odometer.
Although the car had been well looked after during its years, Williams opted to have the car refurbished in the early 1980s. Today it is still liveried in the colors Williams chose: beige with cream fenders and a burgundy coachline. The colors are complemented by the subtle tan cloth top with tan leather interior and chrome wire wheels dressed with white wall tires. The model was offered with both a long and short chassis, which worked better with some body styles than others. Williams feels that the extra length of this model brings out better lines on this open coachwork; as the owner of many thousands of significant classics over the years, his trained eyes and taste are second to none.
Just as when these motorcars were new, the Isotta-Fraschini is coveted internationally. It possesses engineering and cosmetic advancements as refined as any contemporary competitor but was produced in smaller more exclusive quantities. Chassis 1540 represents the near-zenith of the coachbuilding art with later cars lacking the panache of these earlier examples. Says Williams, “I don’t know of any other coachbuilder that is more highly regarded during the period. Castagna was the finest coachbuilder that Isotta ever affiliated themselves with.”
Amazingly, Mr. Eads’ son John has recently come forth and disclosed that he has retained his father’s cache of original paperwork and documentation pertaining to chassis 1540. This paperwork includes the original Bill of Sale dated 2/20/1930 and confirms 1540 as being the very example displayed at the Hotel Commodore.
Adding an additional level of prestige to this rare offering is an invite for 1540’s new owner to display it as a part of the prestigious LeMay Museum display at the New York International Auto Show in April 2012. If the new owner accepts this gracious invitation, it would be only the second time in the show’s history that an original display car has returned to the event. Examples of open coachwork on long-wheelbase prestige chassis are becoming increasingly sought after; with its universal appeal this 1930 Isotta-Fraschini Tipo 8A will be a ready source of enjoyment and liquidity for future generations of the hobby.
— By Jonathan Sierakowski