The sad story of the Cisitalia CIS 360

My father’s famous CIS models lie in chains, but the racing wildcats, as they were called, will soon roar again… My mother – who by the way was one of the most beautiful women in Turin – has sold her glorious town house at least to partially satisfy my father’s creditors… I am just returning from negotiations with our many good friends… Cisitalia will reconquer its world fame, the car with the fastest times will not be defeated by its competitor Mammon and will again earn the victory laurels.”

Somehow you can sense and feel the confused emptiness of these words – quotes from an interview that journalist Pitt Schultes conducted in the 1950s with Carletto, the son of industrial magnate and sportsman Piero Dusio. The conversation appeared at the end of a long and promising story about Porsche’s most unfortunate (but from today’s perspective, most valuable) Grand Prix car, the Type 360.

Cisitalia CIS 360

Among its potential opponents in the post-war era (Mercedes, Ferrari, Maserati and the Alfas!) it represented the peak of racing car development, though relaxed and completely in step with the company’s trim style; a brilliant Porsche design through and through:

with the horizontally opposed 12-cylinder mid-engine set deeply in the frame (competitors were still driving cars with the power units up front)

with four-wheel drive, and the ability to disconnect the drive to the front wheels while in motion

with a five-speed synchromesh transmission that had only two gate planes – like a motorcycle gear shift

with four independently suspended wheels, based in the front on the parallel trailing-arm layout from Auto Union’s racing cars (a Porsche design!). In the rear there was a double swing axle in accordance with the principle seen on the early Volkswagen

with an aluminium body over a chrome-molybdenum steel frame and a weight of just 630 kg.

Ideally it would have been possible to obtain a power to weight ratio of 1.4 kg/bhp – provided that the engine produced the 450 bhp at 10,500 revs that it was calculated as developing when in top form. Something to keep in mind:

At that time there was a 1.5-liter displacement limit, but mechanical supercharging was allowed (Porsche used Roots or Centrik superchargers at boost pressures of approximately 1.8 bar). The fuel question was dealt with liberally, which is why a racing fuel mixture with an octane level of 150 was assumed to be available.

The fact that the quoted power ratings (theoretical, practical, on the testing rig, or idealized) are so far apart is in the nature of the matter. 280 bhp, 363 bhp, 385 bhp, 450 bhp with an option for 500 – the figure was of little significance. The car was never really able to demonstrate its abilities.

Its long, unfullfilled story began when businessman Piero Dusio from Turin gained some respectable sports successes with his own Cisitalia marque. The little CIS with a Fiat 1,100-cc engine, something of a post-war Formula Junior race car, was driven successfully by people like Nuvolari, Taruffi, Stuck, and above all, Bonetto. Cisitalia’s rise to the Grand Prix league seemed to be a natural development.

Co-operation with the Porsche design office came about-through the engineers’ grapevine, members of which were the two Austrians Rudolf Hruschka (later to develop the Alfasud) and Carlo Abarth. Later they were joined by Eberan von Eberhorst, the man with Auto Union Grand Prix experience, (who later fell out with Carlo Abarth). Nuvolari and Millanta, an Italian automotive journalist, established important contacts, but only the top man, Ferdinand Porsche, was still unreachable in French custody. On December 20, 1946 Dusio met with Porsche’s people in Kitzbühel: Ferry (Ferdinand’s son), his sister Louise Piëch, and chief designer Karl Rabe.

Besides more remote projects they agreed to work on the plans for a top-class GP racing car, and to supervise construction of the car in the Cisitalia works in Turin. The engineering team consisting of Porsche, Schmid (transmission), Komenda (body) and Mickl (calculations) worked under Project Manager Karl Rabe. When the 72-year old Ferdinand Porsche returned to Gmünd from French internment, he praised the completed plans: “I would not have altered a single screw.”

Nevertheless, completely unforeseen problems arose as the project was realized in Turin. Translation problems, unresolved detail questions, a particularly high percentage of self-produced components, and the first financial restrictions delayed its completion.

By the end of 1948, Cisitalia was financially ruined. Nevertheless, Dusio would not loosen his iron grip on the project and succeeded in nearly completing one of two cars. Car number two was little more than a crate full of spare parts.

Dusio’s contact with General Peron fostered the hope that ongoing development of the car might take place in Argentina, but the project ran aground completely as soon as the car reached Buenos Aires. The lifeline to the designers had been cut off, and the Type 360 was in danger of being forgotten, only to become the victim of unsuccessful attempts at recuscitation.

Beginning in 1952, the Grand Prix rules prohibited the use of mechanically supercharged engines, so plans were made to save Argentina’s motor sport glory by at least setting up a new South American speed record. The GP pilot, Clemar Bucci, was selected to take the car down the airport highway, which was closed for the occasion, but due to a lack of suitable temperatures, spark plugs and fuel, the engine never reached its true form and only propelled the car up to a disappointing average speed of 233 km/h (145 mph) – though this was fast enough for the record. The attempt was made with rear-wheel drive, since front tires of the correct size were not available and it was therefore not possible to establish the correct transmission ratio.

After intensive support from the Buenos Aires Institute of Technology, enough confidence was built up to enter the car for a non-formula race in 1953 at the Buenos Aires Autodrom. The first test lap proved that Bucci was not able to master the gear shift. Felice Bonetto, the old Alfa, Maserati and Lancia pioneer, drove the next lap, but returned followed by a trail of smoke: dramatic oil loss, probably a split line. The car was taken out of the practice session.

Back to the test rig. There, in a magic moment under clinical conditions, the engine reached 385 hp at 9,000 rpm. Nevertheless, possibly because the mixture was too lean, one or two pistons burned out. The complicated engine was dismantled, reequipped with spare pistons, reassembled, and then dismantled again after it was discovered that a few small parts were left over. It never completely recovered from this process, and burned out again in later tests. In the end, the car was jacked up and offered for sale.

An entreprising American was found who wanted to put a Chevrolet engine in the car and enter it in dragster races. Yet he too underestimated the problems and his interest waned enough to allow a crafty Hungarian, Anton von Döry, who owned a Porsche and NSU dealership in Buenos Aires, to succeed in shipping the car back to Germany, after bringing it through customs as a Porsche RSK. (This was a story in itself, involving a flooded boat house, a rescuing Unimog, and other activities under cover of darkness.) Since then the most adventurous GP car of all times has been kept in the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart.

Later, the second car also turned up in a garage near Turin and was restored for an American collector (or more accurately, was built up for the first time). This was achieved with the aid of the original plans which were available on microfilm. The engine, at least, had already been put together.

After the death of the American owner, an English racingcar owner acquired the car, which can be seen today in the Donington Grand Prix Collection, though without its crankshaft, the famous Hirth design with seven roller bearings.

Here are a few more informative tidbits to round the story off: The engine weighed 145 kg, the dry sump lubrication (two suction pumps, one pressure pump) had to handle 25 litres of oil. The two pairs of double overhead camshafts were driven by vertical shafts. Two Weber downdraft carburettors supplied the mixture, which was compressed to 9.2:1. Maximum torque of 270 Nm (199 lb.ft) was reached at 6,000 rpm, the alleged peak output of 450 bhp at 10,500 rpm. Finally – count along – the firing order: 1, 10, 5, 7, 3, 11, 6, 9, 2, 12, 4, 8. Are they all there?