The Perfect Christmas Present? Siata’s 208/S
The beltline and “hips” on Siata’s 208/S are nothing short of superb. The small rear fins look totally appropriate, and give the design a bit of tension. Not sure how much good those taillights or the bumperettes would do when actually needed, but both integrate well into the overall design.With just 35 208 spyders made in the first half of the 1950s, these jewels are rarely seen today—especially being used on the road. And that’s a tragedy, for it is one lovely and very balanced drive.
The 1950s was an extremely yeasty time in Italy. Small constructors and coachbuilders proliferated, and some built some real jewels such as the machine seen here, the Siata 208/S.
The Siata 208/S is an extremely balanced machine on the road, with the engine, transmission, chassis and brakes working well with the other. But if there is a weak link, it is the last component, as the drum brakes require a good shove to slow you down.And speaking of balanced, those Giovanni Michelotti designed lines are quite nice, too…
What makes this car so special?
The tale starts in 1926 when Giorgio Ambrosini founded “Societa Italiana Auto Trasformazione Accessori” in Turin. That name was the perfect fit for a manufacturer of aftermarket products that helped cars go faster, and by the early 1930s business was going well enough that Siata started making its own cars. The most notable prewar model was the Fiat Topolino-based Gran Sport that won an Italian championship and later set a series of 500cc class records.
The Fiat Connection
Such successes caught the eye of hometown giant Fiat and, in the late 1930s, Siata became part of the Agnelli empire. That helped the small firm survive the War, and allowed it to construct a new factory after hostilities ended. The first project was a small engine that bolted onto a bicycle that sold over 100,000 units. The resulting cash flow saw Ambrosini return to automobile manufacture in 1949 with the diminutive Amica; it and subsequent Siatas used a proprietary chassis and Fiat 4-cylinder engines and transmissions.
Three years later Siata substantially moved up the performance ladder when Fiat introduced the startling 8V at 1952’s Geneva Auto Show. That radical Fiat had a 1995cc V8, trick chassis, independent suspension front and rear, and intriguing, wind tunnel-inspired coachwork. Regarding the car’s advanced underpinnings, “It was a complete blank sheet of paper,” Dante Giacosa, Fiat’s former chief engineer, told me. “The idea was to have it strong and rigid with a suspension that was independent.”
“Frank Bullitt” Was Here
Siata’s 208/S is a rare jewel, and a wonderful reflection of the buoyant automotive scene in postwar Italy. The 208 spyder debuted in 1953, and its beautifully balanced design features lines drawn by the incredibly prolific freelance stylist Giovanni Michelotti. I think I want one for Christmas…
Fiat turned to Siata to construct the 8V because, in Giacosa’s words, “they were used to working on these special types of cars,” and from this commission came Siata’s super sports car, the 208/S. It debuted as a rakish competition coupe in 1952, with the Giovanni Michelotti-designed spyder coming the following year. Of the 35 spyders made, the 208/S seen here (chassis BS 523) may be the most famous, thanks to ownership by the King of Cool, Steve McQueen.
That connection gave its next owner, Dr. Bruce Sand, the surprise of his life. Not long after purchasing BS 523 Sand and a friend were driving in Beverly Hills late one night when a Ford convertible came roaring up and forced them over to the curb. Out popped McQueen, and “he just walked up and said he wanted to drive the car,” Sand told me. “There was no ‘hello’ or ‘may I…’”
Sand moved to the passenger seat, his friend to McQueen’s car, and soon the 208 was going flat out though Beverly Hills. “I was glued to the seat and didn’t even have the time to be frightened,” Sand said. “At the end of the drive Steve…pulled in behind his car, had not uttered a word…and returned to his car. My friend John moved back to the Siata’s passenger seat (and) we sat there for a few moments, looking at each other, wondering if this fantasy really just happened.”
Former owner Tony Singer behind the wheel of Siata 208/S chassis BS 523. The dashboard is beautiful in its simplicity, the speedometer and tachometer (right) the largest instruments. The wood-rimmed steering wheel was most lovely to grip, and the car’s bucket seats held you reasonably (but not firmly) in place.
Several decades later, this marvelous Siata ended up seducing me as well. After photographing and being driven in it by its then owner Tony Singer, he threw me the keys and said, “Go enjoy it. Return it when you are done.”
If you insist…
Off I went, blasting up and down a stupendous, several mile stretch of road that snakes its way up and down the California hills near Laguna Seca raceway. The 208/S is about the size of a Porsche 356 but with a longer wheelbase, so it comfortably swallows my 6’3” frame. All instruments are easily legible through the large three-spoke wood-rimmed steering wheel. The bucket seat doesn’t have much padding but offers good side support for the era.
No sooner had I settled in than one issue cropped up: the large diameter steering wheel made it difficult to easily reach the brake pedal. At first that proved a bit daunting, for the brake pedal needed a good shove when cold. They offered more bite as they warmed up, but those drums were a reminder of how much the sports car equation changed when Jaguar introduced disc brakes.
The all-alloy V8 was the exact opposite—an absolute sweetheart from the first moment. One typically associates Italian cars with cammy engines, but that’s not the case here. When merging onto Carmel Valley Road a large truck barreled towards me, but once the two Webers cleared their throats, the Siata steamed forward in one long continuous push.
An Old Friend
As the miles passed, the Siata resembled another torquey Italian thoroughbred—Iso’s Grifo GL 365. Both the Siata and the Iso’s solid lifter 327 have gobs of torque so they simply pull harder the higher the revs go, but never come on cam like a Ferrari. The accompanying soundtrack was absolutely fabulous, and is another trait the Fiat V8 shares with the 5.3-liter Chevy. You hear the melodic sound of tappets intricately at work, sounding even silkier than the Iso.
The very cool badge found on the nose of Siata 208/S chassis BS 523. The 1995cc engine had a 70 degree V8, and was very linear in its power delivery. It didn’t come on cam like so many Italian engines, but instead just seemed to build more speed the higher the revs went. And it sounded great, with that intricate symphony of valvegear dancing away.
The four-speed gearbox had a long throw and no synchro in first, and there was a slight effort to the H-pattern as second and fourth come back slightly toward the driver. This catches you off-guard at first but after a couple of shifts it felt perfectly natural. You also learn to brake early, let the rear set up and use the engine’s torque to power through a corner, a technique guaranteed to have you grinning from ear-to-ear. And when you hit a series of faster turns and slight straights, engine braking means you don’t touch the center pedal at all.
The Perfect Holiday Gift
At the end of two days, I was seriously smitten. The 208/S has subtle touches you don’t initially notice, like the small “SIATA” on the steering wheel and the “S” pattern on the pedals. And while it takes time to understand the chassis, learn the engine, gearbox and brakes, in many ways the 208/S is better than contemporaries such as Jag’s XK120 and Ferrari’s 342 America because of its superior balance, refinement and agility.
So with Christmas fast approaching, if any of you out there have good connections to Santa Claus in the North Pole, could you please let him know I’m hoping to find a Siata 208S under my Christmas tree…