The Milanese Connection

Few episodes in Ferrari’s history are as unusual as its creation of a small four-cylinder car that was put into production by a wealthy Milan enthusiast.

Photo: The Milanese Connection 1
January 19, 2023

Every December, Enzo Ferrari would meet with journalists to sum up the past racing season and offer hints about the future. So on December 19, 1959, Enzo rose early, went to barber Antonio in Corso Canalgrande for his daily shave, then drove a grey 250 GT, brought by his driver Peppino Verdelli, to Maranello. There, a hundred press men were shown the latest Ferrari developments in racing and road cars. They then congregated at Modena’s Hotel Palace to interview Il Commendatore.

One item seen at the factory went unmentioned in the meeting until a half-hour in, when writer Giovanni Vitagliano asked about the small engine mounted on a stand with no explanatory placard. The only clue was a number cast into its valve cover: 854. The “4” was obvious, for the engine was obviously a four-cylinder, but the “85” allowed many interpretations. Also on the factory grounds had been a small blue coupe, anonymous but resembling something Fiat would build.

“Ferrari’s commercial program is very simple,” Enzo began. “Ferrari builds the 250 Gran Turismo cars in various editions and the new 400 Superamerica, which will be displayed at the Brussels Motor Show. Ferrari has no possibility of manufacturing other designs, although Ferrari studies prototypes, engines of different displacements. We can assure you that the results this engine offered us are truly flattering but I rule out our manufacture of the engine or the car.”

Photo: The Milanese Connection 2

Franco Rocchi’s 850-cc “854” engine was inspired by Colombo-designed Ferrari V12.

It was now obvious that the four-cylinder powered the small car. But why?

“Any manufacturer must always study more prototypes,” Enzo continued. “Times could change and he must not find himself without a work program. However, the 854 is an engine that fits my character, a controversial engine. I wanted to demonstrate how, by transferring the positive experiences of racing to a small-displacement engine, it was possible to create a light car with reduced fuel consumption that could offer exceptional performance. It is an engine you can keep at full power on the motorway from Milan to Bologna.

“However, I exclude that the car will be called ‘Ferrari,’” concluded Enzo. “I exclude that it would be produced by Ferrari. Nor am I of the opinion that the Ferrari name, even in the form of licensed production, can be used by other manufacturers. The Ferrari must be a 12-cylinder car. The 850 could be a small car for young people who love a GT. This is the truth about this much discussed 850.”

Photo: The Milanese Connection 3

Enzo Ferrari sits behind the wheel of the “Ferrarina,” a Fiat 1200-based test bed for the four-cylinder engine.

THE ENGINE REFERRED TO, the 78th developed by the Ferrari company, offered exceptional features for the era. These included hemispherical combustion chambers and inclined overhead valves, operated from a single overhead camshaft by rocker arms. This was a direct adaptation of the principles of the V12 gifted to Ferrari in 1947 by engineer Gioachino Colombo, as was camshaft drive delivered by means of gears and roller chains.

In developing the Type 854, Franco Rocchi chose a bore of 65 mm (the same as that of the 2.3-liter V12 of 1951) and a 64-mm stroke, which gave a displacement of 849.49 cc—near enough to the “850” referred to by Ferrari in his remarks. An aluminum head with coil valve springs rested on a cylinder block of the same material, outfitted with wet iron cylinder liners and a five-bearing crankshaft. From a base compression ratio of 9.0:1, Ferrari claimed three possible power outputs: 64 bhp at 6,000 rpm for touring, 72 bhp at 7,000 for grand touring, and 84 bhp at 7,000 rpm for competition.

“The important work of final tuning by Luigi Bazzi was particularly laborious,” Rocchi recalled, “with trials of different types of carburetors and jets for optimum tuning. I drove the car several times from Maranello to Reggio Emilia, enjoying its sportiness and brilliance. Before the final choice of engine tune, we tested three more to arrive at one with 75 bhp at 6,800 rpm, as was presented to the press.”

Photo: The Milanese Connection 4

Bertone Mille debuted at 1961 Turin Motor Show.

Enzo Ferrari disclosed the engine’s power curves to technically adept French journalist Jean Bernardet. “The 26.5 bhp which the 850-cc engine of the Renault Dauphine develops at 4,250 rpm the mini-Ferrari gets at 2,500 rpm,” wrote Bernardet. “The power curve, if you can call it that, is practically flat up to 6,400 rpm, the speed at which 75 bhp are obtained. As for the torque, the maximum of 64 lb-ft at 4,500 rpm corresponds to what the engine of a medium-sized car like the 1.3-liter Simca Aronde can deliver.”

Rocchi and his team designed the engine mounts, clutch dimensions, and other relevant parameters to make the 854 engine a direct replacement for that of the Fiat 1100.

“Toward the end of 1958,” noted coachbuilder Sergio Scaglietti, “Enzo Ferrari called me into his office to tell me to prepare the bodywork of a small car that was supposed to house a four-cylinder engine of about 850 cc. As a basis, we used a Fiat 1200 coupe made on the 1100 platform by Pininfarina, with its wheelbase shortened by almost 20 centimeters.”

Photo: The Milanese Connection 5

Production-ready ASA 1000 GT arrived one year later, at 1962 Turin Show.

“Ferrari tried to involve some people from Fiat,” engineer Giotto Bizzarrini related, “and I was charged with bringing some technicians from Turin to test the ‘Ferrarina’ on the winding roads from Maranello into the Apennines. The technicians were impressed by its performance.

“Later, I had the industrialist Innocenti try the car and someone from Beretta,” added Bizzarrini. “At that time, the two Milan factories were considering the possibility of entering the automotive sector. The small submachine gun at the center of the 854 grille was intended to heighten the interest of Fabbrica d’Armi Beretta because they seemed the closest to mass-producing the ‘Ferrarina.’” Indeed, a member of the Beretta family did meet with Ferrari to discuss the idea.

“I’m the one who drove the ‘Ferrarina’ most of all,” said American test driver and racer Richie Ginther. “For a while I was the owner on its registration certificate. When I went to Monza, I could cover the Autostrada from Modena to Milan, 160 kilometers from tollbooth to tollbooth, in just under an hour. The best memories of my test driving at Ferrari are linked to the ‘Ferrarina.’ When I left Maranello to go to BRM, I would have liked to take the car with me, but of course that wasn’t possible.”

Photo: The Milanese Connection 6

Ferrari’s Giotto Bizzarrini designed ASA chassis (shown here without rear axle or leaf springs).

ALTHOUGH NO FORM of production had yet appeared, Enzo had enough faith in his inspiration to continue its evolution. He authorized Franco Rocchi’s further work on the engine, which began with a modest 2-mm increase in bore to 67 mm and a substantial increase in stroke to 69 mm to produce 973 cc. With a 9.1:1 compression ratio and fueled by two Weber 32WX46 twin-barrel carburetors, the four developed 80 bhp at 7,000 rpm.

Rocchi’s next engine, 81st on the Ferrari honor roll of power units, had “square” dimensions of 69 × 69 mm. This further increase in bore provoked a change in the engine’s structure, with thin dry-steel liners shrunk into the aluminum block’s bores. Now with two Weber 38DCOA3 double-throat carbs and a 9.2:1 compression ratio, this 1,032-cc four delivered 98 bhp at 7,200 rpm and was nominated, bearing Maranello workshop code 173, to be used in the definitive prototype.

In parallel, Enzo tasked Bizzarrini with developing a chassis to house the four-cylinder. In a traditional Ferrari manner, he created a platform of braced steel tubes, the largest being oval-section at the sides, rising over the rear axle and extending forward to the engine and front suspension. Said suspension consisted of parallel wishbones and coils with rack-and-pinion steering, while the live rear axle was guided by lower semi-elliptic springs and upper radius rods.

Photo: The Milanese Connection 7

Early examples featured quilted interior.

The new car’s wheelbase was the same as that of the Ferrarina—86.6 inches or 2,200 mm—with an increase in track width to 48.5 inches. Borrani 13-inch Turbo Sport wheels, steel with aluminum rims, were retained by three-eared knock-offs on Rudge splines.

Although Enzo first discussed the project with Pininfarina, he turned to Nuccio Bertone to design and produce the car’s bodywork. Bertone assigned the task to a relative newcomer on his team, a 21-year-old named Giorgetto Giugiaro.

Within the halls of the 43rd Turin International Motor Show, which opened on October 29, 1961, a special area was set aside for concept cars from Turin’s famed carrozzerie. There, visitors viewed the Bertone Mille. Although its interior was semi-complete, its hood was not opened, but the well-informed knew that roughly 1,000 (mille in Italian) cubic centimeters resided underneath.

Photo: The Milanese Connection 8

Giancarlo Baghetti and Lorenzo Bandini gave demonstration rides in this pair of 1000 GTs at ’62 Turin Show.

“The Bertone Mille sported a slender silhouette,” wrote Franco Varisco, “practically devoid of sharp edges, whose modern elegance remained current with the passing of years. It featured, on a smaller scale, the same fascinating light, soft, and rounded lines that the Maranello cars continued to enjoy, in contrast with the angular lines favored by some emerging stylists. According to Bertone’s official definition, this ‘bodywork study for a mid-sized sports car’ was truly an example of discreet and refined elegance, a harmony of sober, clean, and tapered lines.

“At Turin, an immense crowd gathered around that car, asking for the price and delivery times, demanding advance bookings, creating a real brouhaha,” Varisco continued. “But the Mille was a classic show prototype, not production-ready. Nuccio Bertone himself hastened to throw water on the fire of enthusiasm, specifying that it was not yet possible to talk about manufacturing.”

“Whatever production plans are made for this baby Ferrari will undoubtedly depend on the reactions from its debut at Turin,” opined a reporter from The Autocar. “It does seem that there is an increasing demand for a small GT series-built car, but whereas this latest Maranello creation fits into an increasingly important competitive class, a slightly larger engine of around 1.5 liters might have made it more attractive as a road vehicle.”

Photo: The Milanese Connection 9

ASA’s four-speed transmission featured electric overdrive.

BY EARLY 1962, plans were solidifying for the Mille’s manufacture. Two key players were Gerino Gerini, who successfully raced Ferrari and Maserati GT cars, and the De Nora clan, whose father Oronzio and son Niccolò were well known to Enzo Ferrari. Prominent in Milan’s electrochemical industry, the Industrie De Nora SpA remains active today. As a sideline, the De Noras also made the “Snap” exhaust-pipe tips that featured on Ferrari road and racing cars.

Negotiations transferring the project to the De Noras included payment to Ferrari of some $300,000 for all rights to the design. To build the new car, on April 5, 1962 De Nora incorporated the Autocostruzioni Società per Azioni, from which was derived the uninspiring acronym ASA. Chassis manufacturing facilities were set up on via San Faustino at Lambrate in Milan’s northeast quarter.

The bodies—steel with aluminum hood and trunk lids—were built first by Bertone, then coachbuilder Ellena was added after a dozen were completed, and finally taken on by Merazzi. Frame components and subassemblies came from the usual Ferrari suppliers, while the engine was manufactured in Modena at the works of former Ferrari and Maserati engineer Vittorio Bellentani. Bertone ultimately handled final assembly.

Photo: The Milanese Connection 10

Quilting made way for carpet in most examples.

Badged the ASA 1000 GT, the production car differed little from the Mille prototype. Externally, that car’s Plexiglas-shrouded headlamps gave way to conventional positioning. Underneath, Bizzarrini’s road-testing had led to frame stiffening by lattices of small tubes under the door sills. Rocchi’s final 1,032-cc four-cylinder was specified, with peak torque of 75 lb-ft reached at the exceptionally high speed of 6,000 rpm. This was an engine intended to be kept revving to give its best.

Turin’s 1962 Salon was conveniently late for ASA, opening on October 31. Four of its cars were on hand. One was on the ASA stand, another displayed by Bertone, while two more were outside with Prova badging. These were to be demonstrated on roads in the adjoining Valentino Park by two of Italy’s up-and-coming racers, Giancarlo Baghetti and Lorenzo Bandini.

“I had a spin around the test track with Bandini,” wrote Henry N. Manney III in Road & Track, “and it looks, sounds, and feels like a baby Giulietta, albeit with a little less body roll. In the hands of the good Lorenzo, the ASA comported itself immaculately at a helluva lot quicker rate than I would have gone on this miniature Targa Florio, barring a graunch from the low-mounted exhaust system from time to time. Price in Italy is supposed to be under $4,000.”

Photo: The Milanese Connection 11

Bizzarrini handled testing duties.

After the January 1963 Monte Carlo Rally, two ASA 1000 GTs and Bandini were made available to a few journalists at that enclave on the Mediterranean. One was Charles Bulmer of The Motor, who found the shifting draggy and the steering too low-geared at 3.75 turns lock to lock, but felt the disc brakes were “definitely outstanding.”

As for the engine, said Bulmer, “One’s inbred reluctance to exceed 4,500 rpm must be replaced by a determination never to fall below this speed. Then it becomes a sort of Formula Junior car for those who demand comfort and refinement.”

The ASA 1000 reached 50 mph in around 10 seconds and 60 in 14, and needed 19.3 seconds to cover the standing quarter mile. One consideration here was the car’s 1,870-pound weight, versus the Ferrarina’s 1,560 lbs.—little wonder, then, that the driver had to keep the revs up to make lively progress. The ASA’s forte, thanks to excellent aerodynamics, was top speed; it was able to reach and maintain 180 km/h, or 113 mph.

Commercial director Gerini made arrangements for ASA distribution. Ferrari outlets could and did offer the car in Italy, but other agents had to be found in the rest of Europe. In the United States, the cars were handled by Ferrari’s U.S. importer, Luigi Chinetti, whose friendship with both Ferrari and De Nora had helped ASA become a reality. The first 1000 GT brought into the U.S. by Chinetti was sold in September 1964 for $5,920. Another, sold a few months later, went for $6,200.

It would prove hard to maintain these high and profitable prices, which stifled sales of the newcomer. By 1966, serious financial problems began to assail the ASA operation. Even at the peak of production, in 1964 and ’65, deliveries were no better than one car per week. While production figures are unclear, it is estimated that no more than 96 ASA GT coupes were built, with 32 officially sent to the U.S. The company closed its doors in 1967.

Journalist Mike McCarthy later had a chance to drive an ASA. “The first thing that strikes you,” he said, “is that it isn’t as small inside as you might think it is. It feels like a 1500, in fact. There’s plenty of space to stretch out, with only a small transmission tunnel and no center console.

“The little engine is a bit disappointing at first. It sounds like any other small four, not especially smooth and without the Fiat-like exhaust crackle you might expect. On the other hand, it feels a lot more torquey at low revs than the torque curve might suggest. It’s as docile as any small engine. In fact it feels like—wait for it—a 1,500-cc engine.

“A couple of bursts up to the higher reaches of the rev counter brings on a very Ferrari-like impression. There’s a quarter-scale wail from the exhaust, blurred with a hint of camshaft chains, overlaid with a semi-racing hard-edged but surprisingly deep crispness that—yet again—sounds as if it comes from a much bigger engine. Make that a noisy engine at the top end.

“I realized the ASA is like no other small sports car,” McCarthy concluded. “There’s that ever-present sensation that it actually is a 1,500 or 2-liter in all but engine capacity. You can see why ASA decided to put it into production. It was a credible high-speed GT, capable of taking on Porsche—as was the intention in America. There was the cachet of a Ferrari background, too. But it didn’t give a tingle to the spine as it should have.”

That’s not a criticism typically aimed at Maranello’s creations, and lends credence to Enzo’s unwillingness to attach his name in any form to the ASA project. Still, the engine’s performance for its size was remarkable, and certainly a testament to the engineering talent of Ferrari.

Also from Issue 204

  • SF90 vs 296
  • Dino 206 GT
  • Ferdinando Cannizzo on 296 GT3
  • Mauro Forghieri remembered
  • 312 T2 care and feeding
  • F1: Changing of the Guard
Connect with Forza:   Facebook icon Twitter icon Instagram icon