Part 13 – Brixia-Zust and Zust
By David Cavaliere
In this week’s feature I look at two car companies that are really one. Brixia-Zust and Zust were produced in different factories, but the cars and chief designer are really inseparable. Rather than describing each separately, the company is presented in its entirety within this feature.
In the early part of the 20th century, before the majority of people had actually seen a motor car in person, there were a number of endurance races intended to prove the durability of man and machine. On February 12, 1908, hundreds of thousands lined the streets of New York, straining to see the competitors of what was to be called “The Great Race.” Proceeding north along Broadway, streets were lined for miles with spectators a dozen deep. The loud engines drowned out the crowds as the cars went by. The race was on! But I am getting ahead of myself…
Roberto Zust was a Swiss engineer who moved to Italy in 1868. He joined the small Italian firm of Giiller & Groff as a partner in 1871. Based at Intra, on the shores of Lake Maggiore, the company specialized in precision machining and the manufacture of steam engines. The company moved to Milan in 1900 and thereafter began design and production of internal combustion engines. After a number of prototypes, in 1905, Roberto founded the Zust Company for the manufacture of cars and commercial vehicles. His first models were huge and expensive machines propelled by four-cylinder engines from ranging from 7,432 cc to 11,308 cc. These were joined by a slightly smaller 5-litre (305 cu in) model in 1908.
Features of the Zust design were pair-cast cylinders, low-tension magneto ignition and honeycomb radiators. The transmission was by a four-speed gearbox with a sprocket and chain drive. Three Zust machines were among the 48 that started the 1906 Coppa d'Oro trial (Gold Cup of Resistance). This grueling event was the first time that a race had been organized in Italy to traverse the majority of the peninsula, 2,485 miles, from Milan to Naples. One of his cars placed second in the event. A Brixia-Zust also took part in the 1907 Coppa Florio, but did not finish.
An extraordinary motoring event was held in 1907. It began in Peking (now Beijing), China and ended in Paris, France, covering a distance of 9,317 miles. The idea for the race came from a challenge published in the Paris newspaper Le Matin on January 31, 1907. It read:
"What needs to be proved today is that as long as a man has a car, he can do anything and go anywhere. Is there anyone who will undertake to travel this summer from Peking to Paris by automobile?"
The race starting point was the French Embassy in Peking on June 10, 1907. The race was won by Italian Prince Scipione Borghese of the Borghese family, accompanied by the journalist Luigi Barzini, Sr.
The event was not intended to be a race or competition, but it quickly became one. In part due to the technical superiority of the Italians' car - a 7,433 cc Itala 35/45 hp, Prince Borghese arrived first in Paris on August 10, 1907. The Itala marque will be covered in a subsequent edition of The Italian Tribune. The 1907 race was followed by an even greater challenge.
The New York to Paris Race was to become the ultimate long-distance automobile endurance test - a 22,000 mile race around the world, never since equaled. The competitors represented four of the automotive superpowers of the day – the United States, Germany, France and Italy. There was much at stake and the eyes of the world would focus on the race daily, with front page news in the New York Times and Le Matin, co-sponsors of the historic event.
Italy entered a 1908 Brixia-Zust for the event, thereafter known as ”The Great Race.” The car had a 4-cylinder engine producing 40 HP, with a 4-speed transmission. Maximum speed was 60 mph, weight was 3,500 pounds. The car carried 132 gallons of fuel in three reservoirs. The 1908 race would be contested over the North American continent, followed by ship across the Pacific, then overland through Asia and Europe, with the finish in Paris. The Italian members selected to uphold the nation’s honor (and victory the preceding year) were Giulio Sirtori - aged 26, Henri Haaga - aged 22 and Antonio Scarfoglio - aged 21.
The only present race that comes remotely close to the races of 1907 and 1908 is the Dakar Rally, which originated as a 6,000 race from Paris to Dakar, but in recent years has been run in South America. The rally takes about 2 weeks to complete. This pales in comparison to the two months that it took Borghese to complete the race in 1907, let alone the nearly six months of “The Great Race” the following year.
The Italian team faced catastrophic breakdowns, hunger, disease, blizzards, raging rivers, snow covered mountains, deserts and wild animals (the team was attacked by wolves in the western U.S.). At one point, the team was forced to cast an engine bearing out of lead from their rifle bullets, which was then hand filed to make a replacement. Their car finished behind the winning American car (a Thomas), but nonetheless, completing the arduous journey was a victory - they finished! The car was put on display in London after the event, only to be badly damaged by fire. An inquisitive porter at the railway station held his lamp too close to the tarpaulin covering the car setting it aflame.
While “The Great Race” was in progress, the 1908 season saw a new addition to the Zust range in the shape of a four-cylinder 18/24hp model with a 4,084 cc engine. Unlike the larger models, this had shaft drive. It represented the start of a trend towards lower-priced models and the opening of a new branch factory at Brescia, where a less expensive range was produced. The first car to emerge from the new works in 1909 was a reworking of the old three-cylinder engine. The car had a high-tension magneto and shaft drive. It sold for one-third the price of the more expensive models. Also new in 1909 was the 20/35 hp four-cylinder model of 4,986cc. The Brixia-Zust name lasted until 1911, but was then abandoned as a result of integration between the two factories.
By 1912, the range had taken on a more modern look, with the cars modelled closely on the contemporary FIAT. There was now a 2.8-liter 15/25 hp and a 6.2-liter 35/50, both with monobloc side-valve engines. The biggest car produced was the 7.4-liter model called the 50/60 hp.
In 1913, came another modern monobloc, the 4.7-liter Aipo 300, whose pear-shaped radiator continued the recent Italian automobile industry’s trend (and Zust in particular) to model the latest designs by FIAT. At the outbreak of war, the Zust factory was fully occupied with automobiles, commercial vehicles and airplane engines built in the factory. The name was not destined to reappear on the roads of Italy after the Armistice. Due to financial constraints, in 1918, the company was acquired by the Officine Mecchaniche of Milan. The S305 OM of 1918-21 was no more than an updated 1914 Zust model. Thus ended period of automotive creation by Roberto Zust. His cars were produced for a short time within the previous century of automotive history, but one brought attention, admiration and pride to Italy by completing the longest automotive race of all-time.