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“It couldn’t have been a Bandini,” says Dino Bandini, referring to a photograph he spotted in a car magazine while he was in New York, depicting a Formula Junior with a rear-mounted engine.
“I knew it was impossible, because all of the single-seaters made by my uncle were front-engined.
“This anomaly made me decide to take more care of his legacy.”
The uncle in question, Ilario Bandini, had left an indelible mark on the history of motorsport as one of a gaggle of innovative little Italian manufacturers, including Stanguellini, Moretti, Nardi and Ermini, that flourished during the 1950s.
“I loved my uncle,” explains Dino.
“I often went to see him at his garage, but my dental studies didn’t leave me much time, or money, and it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that I was able to start putting together the Bandini museum.”
Born in 1911 to a farming family near Forli, a village in Emilia-Romagna not far from Bologna, Ilario Bandini was passionate about engineering.
After abandoning his theoretical studies, he was hired as an apprentice at the local garage, then a Bianchi dealer.
With his first pay cheque he bought a Harley-Davidson 1200, but while hoping to land a job as a mechanic at Ferrari he suffered a nasty fall that left him hospitalised for three months.
This mishap made him rethink and, like many young Italians, he decided to seek his fortune in the Latin colony of Eritrea.
Having left Italy at 25 years old, he built up a small nest egg that allowed him to start a car-rental business upon his return in 1939.
Bandini’s dream was to race and he started out on a Gilera Saturno motorcycle, but luck didn’t favour him on two wheels and a second crash in 1940 took him away from ’bikes for good.
He continued on four wheels and took part in the Mille Miglia that same year aboard a customer’s Fiat Balilla Coppa d’Oro.
After taking the lead in the 1100cc category, an excursion off the road forced him to retire.
More races in other loaned cars would follow, before Bandini set out to build his own vehicle. It saw the light of day in 1947, on a chassis of his own design fitted with a modified Fiat 1100cc engine and a barchetta body fashioned by Rocco Motto, a former Carrozzeria Bertone employee.
The following year, his second car revealed the blueprint for future Bandinis: a chassis made up of two curved, elliptical-profile tubes made of a steel used by Caproni in the aircraft industry.
This time the Fiat engine was topped by an Alfa Romeo 6C-1900 twin-cam cylinder head that Bandini had shortened to fit and, in addition to Motto’s barchetta coachwork, there was a basic two-seater body with cycle wings for competition use, tagged the ‘Siluro’ (torpedo).
Meanwhile, New York-based Pescara native Tony Pompeo began taking a particular interest in Italian racing cars and importing them for wealthy American customers.
The compact Bandini 1100 Sport and Siluro were just the kind of machines that were ideal for entry in the various small-displacement categories of Sports Car Club of America events, where local brands were all but absent.
Pompeo bought a Bandini Siluro and success immediately followed, with driver Giovanni Bracco also travelling to the USA to help promote the marque.
But competition was hot in the crowded 1100 class, so Pompeo suggested that Bandini use the American Crosley 750 engine instead.
Fabricated rather than cast, this unit was designed by engineer Lloyd Taylor to be light, strong and efficient, with five main bearings and a single overhead cam.
It was used in the marine industry and for various ancillary applications. Bandini immediately saw the engine’s potential and designed his own twin-cam cylinder head, calling it the testa piatta (flat head) for its distinctive shape.
This treatment took the little Crosley ‘four’ up to almost 70bhp – nearly 100bhp per litre, a remarkable figure for the era – and it’s a 1953 example of the 750 Siluro that represents the oldest car in Dino’s collection, with the unpainted aluminium bodywork that was a trademark of the first Bandinis.
“I found it in 1994 in Ohio,” Dino recalls.
“When I brought it back to Forli, I told [former driver] Massimo Bondi and he came immediately, looked at the car and said, ‘This is the one I drove on the Mille Miglia.’ The following day he brought me the Coppa Trofeo Franco Mazzotti he won in 1953.”
With further development, the Crosley unit gave birth to the 750 Sport Siluro.
Oscar Pretolani, who produced Bandini’s bodywork from 1952-’63, recalls that Bandini drew his own chassis designs and then, with his team, shaped the tubes and put them in place before handing them over to the Fontana brothers for final welding followed by a pressurised oil test.
“We were close and dreamed of taking over the world,” says Pretolani, reflecting on the atmosphere at the workshop.
Never afraid to get his hands dirty, Bandini is described by those who were close to him as stubborn in his technical decisions, but a warm man.
“The secret of his cars was lightness and simplicity,” recalls Bondi, “without sacrificing rigidity.”
Bandini dressed the new 750 Sport Siluro in a more streamlined two-seater shape, with headlights that retracted into the body by simply rotating, helping the little 350kg projectile to hit 110mph.
This was the car that would truly propel Bandini into the motorsport limelight.
In Italy, his machines stood out in hillclimb events and on the Mille Miglia, but it was in the United States that the marque really took off.
Americans went crazy for the little racer, and it soon began achieving success: in 1955 and ’57 the 750 category of the SCCA championship was won by the Bandinis of Dolph Vilardi and Melvin Sachs respectively, beating famous names such as Panhard, Nardi, Morelli, Renault and Siata – the latter having also adopted the Crosley engine on Pompeo’s suggestion, but without Ilario Bandini’s tweaks.
“The Bandini had less predictable handling than the Siata, but it was faster,” explained Sachs.
The collection’s second Sport Siluro is a later car that, in its original form, took part in the 1955 Mille Miglia with the Marquis Rusconi and Vanni Sintoni.
“It was destroyed in a fire in Florence after being refuelled too hastily,” says Dino.
“My uncle remade it with a 1000cc engine and I found the car near Siena, Italy, with a dentist who had put it in his living room where he and his wife sat and watched television!”
In 1960, Ilario himself finally went to the United States, where he was welcomed like a movie star.
The mayor of Daytona gave him the keys to the city, saying: “I’m happy to present this award to someone who knows how to use their hands, not just their head.”
In 1981, he was awarded a Doctor Honoris Causa in Engineering Mechanics from Pro Deo University in New York, an honour he shared with Enzo Ferrari and Ferruccio Lamborghini.
Fame and on-track success quickly translated into showroom sales, too.
From a total production of some 75 cars, around 40 would be shipped to America, yet when Bandini was offered the chance to set up a Stateside factory in the early ’60s he declined, too attached to his native Italy.
Back home his cars took part in diverse events, be it on a circuit, hill or road, often climbing on to the podium in their class.
In 1952 Bandini won his category in the Raticosa Hill Climb, and he placed fifth there the following year in the general classification, and there were victories at the Coppa della Consuma in 1954, at the Predappio-Rocca delle Caminate in 1955, at the Aerautodromo di Modena in 1956…
The cars continued to be developed, too, with a new, more effective cylinder-head design for the Crosley 750 and removable profiled wings for the Siluro to qualify for both ‘sport’ and ‘racing’ categories, before the birth in 1957 of an even more successful model nicknamed the ‘Saponetta’ (soap) for its fluid form.
Conforming to the Sport International formula, this pretty sports-racer’s light weight and the performance of its twin-cam Crosley-based engine brought further success.
Ilario himself took several class victories from 1958-’62 in events such as the Bologna-San Luca and Predappio-Rocca delle Caminate races.
He even clinched an overall victory in the Compiano Vetto d’Enza.
As a model that is emblematic of the marque, it’s no surprise to find a 750 Sport Internazionale Saponetta as part of the collection.
“This car was in Massachusetts,” says Dino. “It was one of the two Saponettas that competed in – and retired from – the 1957 Mille Miglia, in the hands of Carlo Camisotti and Giovanni Sintoni.”
Bandini made nine Saponettas, all of which have survived: four are in Japan, two in the USA, one in The Netherlands and two in Italy.
The Saponetta was also available in 850cc and 1000cc versions, and Bandini was keen to explore other categories so in 1955 he developed a one-off 750 GT Zagato hardtop berlinetta.
Today, this unique coupé represents undoubtedly the most beautiful car in the museum.
“It was based on a 750 Siluro chassis and engine,” explains Dino.
“For the bodywork, my uncle installed a wooden crate in the bare frame and drove it by road to Zagato in Milan.”
The famous carrozzeria produced a simple, fluid shape in aluminium, inspired by the ’54 Moretti 750: “My uncle was quite small so the car’s low roofline suited him perfectly, but soon after this car Zagato developed its famous ‘double-bubble’ roof to accommodate taller drivers.”
The GT’s elegance helped it land victory in the 1957 Rimini Concours d’Elegance before being exported to the USA, where it competed at Daytona, Sebring and Watkins Glen as part of the Racemasters equipe.
“When I found it in 1999, in Connecticut, it was in a very poor condition,” recalls Dino, “but it was mostly complete.”
“Over the following three years I had the body rebuilt and tracked down various missing parts such as the Marchal headlights, which are identical to those on the Ferrari 166 and which I unearthed in Imola,” he continues.
In parallel with his elegant two-seaters, Bandini developed a pair of front-engined single-seaters for use in Formula Three and Formula Junior.
The examples in Dino’s collection today were both found in Italy: a 1954 F3 machine with Crosley power, and a 1960 Formula Junior with a modified Fiat 1100 engine.
“This model fought against Stanguellinis and Volpinis, and today would be ideal for the Grand Prix de Monaco Historique,” says Dino.
From the mid-’60s, however, regulations began to change in the United States and larger manufacturers entered the scene, pushing Bandini out of contention.
After the Saponetta, Ilario designed several competition models for his privateer customers, all produced in small quantities, such as the pretty 1000 GT coupé, the mid-engined 1000 P barchetta, the 1000 SP berlinetta and the 1300 P prototipo.
In 1954, he created the Gruppo Piloti Bandini to unite the marque’s drivers, which in 1962 led to an association with the Arcangeli team under the Scuderia Riunite Arcangeli-Bandini banner.
In a rare appearance outside Modena, Enzo Ferrari appeared at the team’s 1964 awards ceremony after being invited to speak, saying: “When I told my mother, who is 92 years old, that I was coming to Forli, she replied, ‘You will greet my city!’ It was in Forli she was born.”
“He was also friends with Bindo Maserati,” adds Dino, “and they sometimes helped each other out in competition.”
Ilario took the wheel in anger for the final time in 1985 on the Predappio Hill Climb, and passed away in 1992 while still putting the finishing touches to his 1000 Turbo berlinetta.
This forward-thinking machine featured a mid-mounted, Bandini-designed powerplant, this time with forced induction and dry-sump lubrication, but if anything the rather baroque body is even more surprising, with its cabin placed dead centre between pouting grille and rounded rump.
The spartan interior, with its flattened steering wheel, confirms the car’s resolutely sporting focus.
The two youngest cars in the collection were easier to find, Ilario having kept the mid-engined 1980 1300 prototipo and the 1000 Turbo berlinetta that he was working on at the time of his death.
“The prototipo was powered by a twin-cam, 16-valve, fuel-injected engine that was 100% Bandini’s work,” explains Dino.
“It was designed for hillclimbing and was the last car in which Ilario competed.”
Dino Bandini’s mission to acquire an example of each important model and compile a register of surviving cars turned into a life’s work.
“My uncle was a mechanical genius,” laments Dino, “but very bad at business. He wasn’t interested in money and didn’t have a dime at the end of his life.
“I was aware of some misinformation about his cars, and I wanted to make it all clear.
“Out of a total of 75 cars built, I found traces of 47 survivors.”
In the early, pre-internet days, Bandini began contacting all of the sports and racing-car dealers he could find in the classic press, particularly in the USA: “I sent them faxes, explaining what I was looking for, and little by little I began to track down the cars.”
Now, having secured his uncle’s history with his museum, the register and contributing to a comprehensive book – not to mention participating in the Mille Miglia five times – Dino Bandini has decided to turn the page, and his own legacy went under the hammer with Artcurial in March 2022.
These machines bear witness to a period of Italian sporting success from the 1950s to the ’70s, when passion overcame the sacrifices that needed to be made to create the purest machines, whose simplicity, lightness and ingenuity all served a single purpose: to win.
Words: Serge Cordey
Images: Peter Singhof/Artcurial/Dino Bandini Archive
Thanks to: Artcurial, which sold Dino Bandini’s collection at its Rétromobile auction in Paris in March 2022