Car: Fiat S76 300hp, 1911

The quest for ultimate speed has led to some bizarre-looking machines—none more so than Fiat’s elephantine S76. Built in 1911, it tried to wrest the land speed record away from Germany’s “Blitzen Benz.”

The Italian engineers reckoned there could be no substitute for engine capacity, as demonstrated by the Benz’s 1,281ci (21,000cc). They came up with a monumental overhead-valve engine of 1,730ci (28,353cc)that produced its 300bhp at 1,800rpm, yet still employed just four cylinders. The engine was so tall the driver had to almost peer around the edge of the hood, but to aid aerodynamics, it was extremely narrow.

1911 Fiat S76 300hp
With one of the most enormous conventional car engines of all time, seeing over the towering hood of the Fiat S76 was a challenge to drivers.

Model of the car Fiat S76 300hp was dispatched to Britain’s Brooklands circuit where it was put through its paces by intrepid factory driver Pietro Bordino. After a subsequent journey on public roads, it thundered to a best speed of 116mph (187kph) at Saltburn Sands, Middlesborough — setting the record for the fastest flying mile time.

1911 model car Fiat S76 300hp

Fiat was satisfied, but Prince Boris Sukhanov, a wealthy Russian, was hooked on the enormous vehicle. He is thought to have acquired one of the two cars made, but too timid to drive it himself, he sponsored a record run with French driver Arthur Duray at Ostend, Belgium. It was said to have reached 137mph (220kph), but suspect timing equipment and bad weather prevented two runs within an hour — a requirement for a world record qualification. Sukhanov’s team spent a further six weeks trying in late 1913 before admitting defeat.

“These power plants were used in aircraft as well as for automobile racing. They are as beautiful on paper as in reality.” FROM FIAT 1899–1989:

An Italian industrial revolution, a book to accompany the eponymous exhibition at the science museum, London, in 1989

Video model of the car Fiat S76 300hp

Video Fiat S76 engine

Specification model of the car Fiat S76 300hp

  • PLACE OF ORIGIN: Turin, Italy
  • HISTORICAL STATUS: speed record car
  • ENGINE: four-cylinder, 1,730ci (28,353cc)
  • MAXIMUM POWER: 300bhp
  • LAYOUT: front-mounted engine driving the rear wheels
  • BODYWORK: two-seater racer
  • TOP SPEED: 137mph (220kph)