$2.5 Million Dollar 1905 FIAT

by / Saturday, 16 November 2013 / Published in Upcoming Events

Every old car has a story.  Some beg to be told.  Others practically shout their acclaim.  Such is the case with a lightweight 1905 FIAT that appeared at this year’s STL Auto Show.

Most amazing is that the car is worth well over $2.5 million.

This FIAT* has several St. Louis connections which make it a prefect draw for visitors to the show. It was only one of 20 made and was bought by senior August A. Busch of beer fame.  He got word about the model from Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, another owner.  The car was sold by the Busch Estate upon the sudden passing of its owner in 1934.

Legend holds that the Kaiser, age 46 in 1905, was friendly with Busch and, since they were of similar age, encouraged him to tool around in a fancy sports car that was an equal to the Kaiser’s.  Busch took the bait.  The car was ordered and ended up at the Busch Mansion.

The FIAT was constructed to be a 60 horsepower beast, suitable for racing.  Its front fenders were removable for competition runs.  This particular vehicle is a survivor.  Generally, its condition reflects astute care:  it is unrestored and in pristine appearance, right down to its original red-leather interior.  Red also graces the body and wheels.  Rich brass trim outlines the car’s rare features.

This immensely valuable and significant FIAT had one of the best power-to-weight ratios of its day which made it a sizzler if it took to a race track.  The removable fenders add credibility to that potential.

Busch, who turned 49 years old in late December of 1905, must have felt pretty spry at the wheel of this FIAT which sported a 647 cubic inch T-head four cylinder motor (with cylinders cast in pairs).  Based on a fairly lightweight 117.5 inch chassis, the very American coachwork is credited to Quinby & Co. based in New Jersey   The sale was handled by Hollander & Tangeman which was the American distributor for the fledgling brand in 1905.  Total cost for the chassis and body is believed to have been more than $17,000 in 1905 — similar to ordering a high-performance sports car today for much more than half a million dollars!

An aside to the story is also interesting.  E.R. Hollander and Cornelius Hoagland Tangeman of New York City began importing FIATS in 1902.  Over corporate finagling, FIAT and the two New Yorkers split company shortly after the sale of the 60 hp FIAT.  What resulted was a dealership-distributorship without many cars to sell. This further resulted in initiating a creative agreement with the Moon Motor Car Company of St. Louis to market the Moon automobile along the East Coast under the name HOL-TAN (for Hollander-Tangeman).  Those Moon cars carried custom bodies by Locke, Demarest and (yes) Quinby!  The price on a sporty HOL-TAN was $3,000 which was a considerable drop from the price of the FIAT.

It remains to be verified if the Busch connection formed a segway between Moon and Hollander/Tangeman, but the thought is romantic. Historians speculate that Busch drove the mighty FIAT up and down Gravois Road which was a main route in and out of St. Louis.  Interestingly, it was the same route that Ulysses S. Grant took from his wife’s family’s estate before and after the Civil War.

Upon Busch’s passing in 1934, the car was snatched out of the estate by operatic singer James Melton who was at his artist height in the 1920s through 1950s.

Melton had his own car museum in Florida although he spent much of his professional time in New York City.  The car was sold about six years later to Dr. Don Miller where it settled in for a long time.  Then in 1973 the FIAT became part of the Louis Biondi Collection in Connecticut. There is remained until 2012.  Under present ownership (with a degree of humility about being revealed), the car has been refurbished but not restored, since its originality is quite impressive and notably unique.  It’s been made functional and driven about 50 miles per hour which is really humming for a chain-driven 1905, even with racing sprockets.  Still, the four-speed transmission is meant to go faster, and at 50 it remains in third gear.  Interestingly, the car has water-cooled brakes.

Following its refurbishing with keen attention to preserving its originality, the car took awards in 2012 at the Pebble Beach Concours and at the Kirkland Concours, two of the most prestigious events of their type.

Every significant car has a tale.  Now you know about this fabulously super-rare FIAT with some unbelievable Midwestern connections. See the car yourself at this year’s Saint Louis Auto Show!

*Made by Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino (FIAT)

Captions: 

In remarkably original condition, this 1905 FIAT garnered two concours trophies in 2012, breaking its long streak of quiet existence.

Leather upholstery is bright red to match the exterior paint and red wood-spoke wheels.  The car’s unrestored condition mystified and thrills onlookers.

The motor has its four cylinders cast in pairs.  A FIAT of this magnitude was a match for any comparable Mercedes in 1905.

 

Article provided by Gerald Perschbacher (LL.D.)

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