Part 7: The Tiny Jewels of Forli – Bandini Automobili
By David Cavaliere
Throughout the first six features on the automobile manufacturers of Italy, a number of small companies that produced a limited number of cars over a short span of time were covered. In this installment, I present Bandini Automobili which produced a grand total of 73 cars over a period of 45 years!
Many people are not familiar with Bandini Automobili. That is not surprising, unless you followed motor racing back when Ike was in the White House. Even though the production of the Bandini cars spanned over four decades, most of the cars were produced between 1950 and 1967. Bandinis were tiny race cars that dominated their sporting classes and remained successful racers for years beyond that. Much of the car’s success was actually on this side of the Atlantic. Bandini’s were very popular in the SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) small displacement class of 750cc in the 1950s and 60s. Even though the first car that Bandini built was based on a Fiat, his innovations and design inspiration were later applied to the Crosley inline 4-cylinder engine. Powel Crosley, Jr., of Cincinnati, Ohio, was an industrialist, owner of Crosley Broadcasting Corporation and the Cincinnati Reds baseball team. During the late 1930s, he had ambitious plans to build a subcompact car. Although the company did not produce a lot of cars, its small engines were light and powerful for their displacement. It was THE engine to have in the 750cc displacement class in SCCA during the 1950s.
Ilario Bandini was born in 1911 in Forli, the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. He grew up the son of a farmer and he apprenticed as a mechanic in Forli. In the 1930’s, he competed as a motorcycle racer, racing at Faenza, Lugo di Romagna and Imola. At the age of 25, he moved to Eritrea, in East Africa (then an Italian colony), where he operated a highly successful transport business. He returned to Italy in 1938, and with his savings, opened a garage in downtown Forlì. In 1940, he took part in the Mille Miglia, driving a Fiat Balilla "Coppa d'oro." Bandini, known as "Lili" to his friends, was a remarkable man. Short of stature, long on determination, he never took a wife, but was married to his cars. From the “La Prima” in 1946, until his death in 1992, he hand-built his tiny, jewel-like sports racers. Remarkably for racing cars, 46 of the 73 cars that he built are known to exist today – most of which are in the U.S. For those of you who think of England’s Colin Chapman as the first designer to use aircraft methods and weight savings to achieve performance, take a deep breath. Lili Bandini had him beat by a couple of years. Compare the Lotus Mk II to the Bandini Sport Siluro and you’ll see what I mean.
The first car built by Lili was the Bandini 1100, nicknamed ‘La Prima” for obvious reasons. The car used a Fiat steel frame which was modified to carry independent front suspension using a torsion bar and he fitted inboard rear hydraulic drum brakes. The suspension for the rear was adapted from a motorcycle and its clutch lever was a salvaged door closure from a local restaurant!
The one-piece hand-hammered aluminum body was done by Rocco Motto. The small, two-seat car had lovely curved lines and an elegant, sporting shape. The engine was a Fiat 1100, tuned by Bandini.
The Bandini badge featured a bantam rooster crowing, the symbol of the town of Forli. It was an appropriate symbol for the bantam-sized Bandini. After completing the 1100, he concentrated on producing purpose-built racing cars to compete in races such as the Mille Miglia in Italy and the SCCA series in America. Bandini’s sharp mind, racing knowledge and his eye for detail ensured that Bandini cars were a force to be reckoned in Europe and the U.S.
The model that established his reputation was the Bandini 750 Sport Siluro (torpedo). He produced these tiny sports racers between 1950 and 1956. The first Siluro had cycle fenders, which could be removed and a tonneau cover placed over the passenger seat, which made the cars eligible for the Formula Three open wheeled class. The car used a modified inline four cylinder Crosley engine, four-speed manual transmission, coil-spring independent front suspension, live rear axle with semi-elliptical leaf springs and four-wheel hydraulic drum brakes. The 750 sports torpedo was used to contest dozens of races from hill climbs to road courses; from airbase circuits to six and twelve hour endurance events, including the 12 Hours of Sebring and the Mille Miglia. The car proved to be competitive and versatile, with precise steering, good traction, a low center of gravity and efficient aerodynamics. From 1953, the 750 sport torpedo featured a dramatically revised and improved engine. It was fitted with a new aluminum cylinder head with dual overhead camshafts (DOHC). The block was cast in aluminum and fitted with cast iron sleeves in the cylinders. New connecting rods were machined for the engine. The power increased to 71 HP for the tiny engine at 8500 rpm. With a curb weight a shade above 800 pounds, this was enough to give the car a top speed of 109 MPH. Interest in America surged when the Bandini Siluros, with their screaming 750-cc engines won SCCA class championships in 1955 and 1957 (the car also captured the SCCA South-West division championship from 1961 until 1963). During this span, the tiny Bandinis claimed many victories in different categories on both sides of the Atlantic. By the mid-50s, SCCA rules required that fenders be attached to the cars. In response, Bandini produced the Siluro with beautifully blended front fenders, which aided the aerodynamics of the car.
In 1957, Bandini introduced his Sport International. The two-seat sports car had a tubular steel frame and enough room for engines of up to 1.0 liter. The design of the car body was very striking – with its very low nose almost touching the pavement! The smooth lines and small size led to the nickname "Saponetta" (little soap). The car was remarkably petite, the doors barely reached knee-level, while the tops of the rear fenders were only 27 inches from the ground. Under the hood was the 750cc DOHC four-cylinder Crosley block/Bandini head engine. The car used 15-inch Borrani wire wheels that were only 2.75 inches wide and with a curb weight of only 900 pounds, the Saponettas gave highly spirited performance.
The Bandini Saloncino sports coupé was presented at the "Salone Internazionale dell'Automobile di Torino" (International car show of Turin) in 1968. Rather than referring to the car as a Berlinetta (a little saloon, or in American terms - a small car with an enclosed roof and two doors), Bandini named the car Saloncino – a tiny saloon. It had a distinct and streamlined alloy body with a new front and rear independent suspension, plus rack and pinion steering. Its chassis followed Bandini’s tradition of using elliptical section tubes of aircraft-grade steel. The car also featured hydraulic disc brakes for all four wheels. The engine was a DOHC 1000cc unit that had been well-developed over the years. In the case of the Saloncino, it was mounted amidship.
Bandini continued to make one-off cars well into the 1980s. Ilario, sometimes known as the "great Drake of Forli" died in 1992. Since then, Lili’s family has preserved all of his documents and collected the most representative of his cars for display in his last workshop. Ten Bandinis are in the museum and only shown by appointment.
On November 16, 2002, the city of Forlì remembered Ilario Bandini by dedicating a piazza in his honor and to the remarkable racing machines that bear his name.
Next week I will step away from the A-Z History of the Italian automobile manufacturers for a special feature on a rare Italian car that is contained in a private collection. I think you will find both the car and its story to be fascinating.