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To most, the name Bianchi evokes images of pistachio-painted bicycles or the motorbikes raced by such greats as Nuvolari, Varzi, Brambilla and Tonti.
The diverse output of the Milanese company also included commercial vehicles and badge-engineered Fiats, but before the First World War founder Edoardo switched from pedal power to producing one of the finest early Italian cars.
Surviving examples of the exclusive 40hp model are almost extinct, but in England one family enthusiastically promotes the golden eagle badge with a mighty 4-litre Edwardian ‘big four’.
Be it motoring across Europe over the city-to-city race routes, chasing other chain-drive titans around Goodwood or charging up a muddy Welsh track, father Peter and son Luke Roberts enjoy this super-rare Bianchi to the full.
Edoardo would be proud of their exploits, which now include building a new engine to conserve the original.
Surprisingly for such a distinctive machine, the early history of this 1907 40hp is little known.
The first record of chassis 389 dates from the early ’60s when it was acquired by Lord Montagu for his newly opened museum on the Beaulieu estate.
The young aristocrat kept the the car until 1968, when it was purchased by renowned Irish collector Jim Boland.
The deal included a SCAT for £550 and the Bianchi for £450, with then-curator Michael Ware signing off the sale.
Typically, Boland decided to drive the Bianchi back to Dublin, but he found its performance disappointing as it struggled along at 30mph for the 250-mile trip from Hampshire through Wales to the ferry port.
The impressive tourer continued to tempt other prominent collectors, including Abba Kogan, before it ended up in The Netherlands.
When the Roberts acquired the Bianchi 46 years later, they discovered that its performance was handicapped by the peashooter-style exhaust, tiny Solex carburettor and odd-sized pistons producing mixed compression.
Little wonder Boland had struggled for pace.
Peter Roberts is an inspiring enthusiast who only buys cars for a purpose.
A keen historic rally exponent who relishes a motoring adventure, he has campaigned a Big Healey and completed the Peking to Paris in a Delage D6 with his chum Colin Beasley.
During the epic cross-continental challenge, Roberts continually marvelled at the heroic endeavours of the pre-WW1 monsters – Tim Scott on his reputed 1903 Mercedes 60hp and the 1907 Itala of David Ayre – which brilliantly evoked the winning performance of Prince Borghese in the original event.
“I’ll never forget following early machines across the Mongolian Desert, and I decided I had to have a ‘Mister Toad’-style car,” recalls Roberts Snr.
“We started looking for a suitable Edwardian and discovered the Bianchi for sale in Holland.”
A deal was done and in April 2014 the Bianchi 40hp arrived at the Roberts’ barn in the Cotswolds hills.
Despite frustrations with the performance, not helped by the heavy four-seater touring body, Roberts’ son Luke gave the Bianchi its debut in the Vintage Sports-Car Club’s Prescott hillclimb.
“Being local, we drove to the event,” explains Peter.
“When we first ran the Bianchi we were constantly looking at the oil tap drippers on the scuttle, and it struggled to reach 35mph.
“We set slowest time of the day despite constant fettling, then broke down on the way back when the fuel system lost pressure.”
Undeterred, the Roberts started researching the history of the Milan marque, and planning a full restoration to release the true performance potential of the ‘big four’.
“The 40hp was clearly an Edwardian exotic, and was more expensive than an Itala or Fiat,” relates Luke.
“That early automotive era around Milan and Turin was a melting pot of young engineers including Giuseppe Merosi, who worked at Bianchi before joining Alfa Romeo to design its first racing cars including the RL.”
“Even Alfieri Maserati raced a Bianchi, but there are very few survivors. We think there’s another 40hp in America, but with a heavy landaulet body and a different radiator.
“When we started examining the Bianchi in detail it was clear that the design and build were very high quality.
“When it was parked next to Ben Collings’ Mercedes 40hp at Prescott, the design similarities were obvious. It was clearly copied.”
Although frustrated by the scarcity of information and reticent help from Italy, the Roberts knew they had something special and enlisted specialist Craig Collings for the full restoration.
The engine was rebuilt with new internals, and the tiny Solex carb was replaced by a Zenith design similar to that fitted to the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost.
The eight-plug ignition (with two per cylinder) was converted to a rare twin-spark Bosch magneto found on eBay in America.
Simpler than the dual set-up, it was rebuilt by Carl Kenney at Vintage Magnetos.
“It was always a weak link, but the twin-spark system was good for aircraft and is now well sorted,” says Luke.
“The performance was transformed.”
Collings also confirmed the similarity with the Mercedes design, which he knew well having grown up with the early Teutonic supercar.
As the Bianchi was dismantled, Collings discovered that the gearbox, hubs, sprockets, steering wheel and gearbox were uncannily alike.
Only the wet clutch and conventional H-pattern gear gate were different, with first and second nearest the driver.
The four floor pedals might look confusing but two are brakes, one on the input shaft and the second on the left-hand drive sprocket, which are rarely used.
“Most of the time you only use the handbrake, which will easily lock up the rear wheels in the wet,” says Luke.
“The other two we call the ‘oh sh*t!’ brakes and are only used in an emergency.”
Removing the body confirmed its hefty build and plywood construction.
“With all the bracketing and extra stuff, the body weighed a quarter of a ton,” says Luke. “It had to go, so we sold it back to Holland.”
After studying Bianchi brochures and period photos, a new body was built with the option of a two-seater or four-seater tourer configuration.
Following lengthy debate, it was decided to repaint the Bianchi in red to match its Italian roots.
“It looks a bit like a fire engine when polished, but once covered with road dirt and mud it looks great,” says Luke.
“Dad prefers the two-seater style, while I like the four-seater because it’s perfect for trials and taking pals to the pub.
“The VSCC Welsh Trial is a favourite: I like the preliminary 200-mile road section because it cuts out the specials.
“The Bianchi’s torque and grip are impressive, but it struggles on wet grass. Once you’re on the firm rocks it storms away.”
Conscious of preserving the 40hp, a set of rear wheels has been cast in metal for trials to save the wooden originals.
The gearing is also dropped with a set of sprockets, made easier with adjustable radius arms.
After several years of ownership, the Roberts decided that the only way to safeguard the rare original engine was to build a spare from scratch.
“When the engine of Mark Walker’s historic Darracq detonated at Mallory Park, we started thinking about a replacement,” says Peter.
“The original was in good condition but we didn’t want to risk it. It’s so rare and we’d never find another.
“The original still has ‘21-1-06’ date stamps but, with hairline cracks appearing in the cylinder castings, it was also getting incontinent, which scrutineers don’t like.
“We felt we were chasing our own tails a little with it.”
Collings was enlisted to make the new unit and, aided by specialist engineer Alistair Pugh, he set about organising new castings for the crankcase and T-head cylinder blocks.
“We’d already remade all the internals during our first rebuild so the crank, rods, pistons and valves were used in the new engine,” says Luke.
“But if it was needed we could easily transfer them back and make the original engine run again.
“There’s no rev counter, so initially we fitted a small KTM tachometer, but at speed we couldn’t read it.
In contrast to his son’s love for muddy trials, Roberts Snr prefers longer rally events and has successfully completed the Paris-Vienna in the rebuilt Bianchi.
“There were no dramas and we won the class,” he smiles.
“Some of the special stages were off-road, and for one clay route we were invited to take a local dignitary for a ride He was wearing a white gaberdine coat, and when we finished it was covered in mud.
“This summer I’d like to enter more rallies, starting with the Shamrock Vintage Challenge in Ireland.”
“We had hoped to do Angoulême last year but it was cancelled,” he continues.
“The Bianchi is happy with about 1000 miles a week.
“We’ve fitted Hartford dampers to settle the car down, particularly over bumpy roads. You need to be comfortable for long distances.
“At 80mph it feels very exposed and goggles are essential. But the wind is really the most tiring thing.”
Although Peter enjoys the challenge of European events, his best runs have been locally across to Hereford: “Nothing beats a summer’s evening drive on roads you know.
“The high seat gives great visibility over the cars in front. The lights are good at night, but we now keep the modern LED FIA racing lamp strapped to the back so other cars can see us.
“Driving in the Alps is spectacular but it’s always disconcerting going down steep passes.
“The knowledge that you can’t bale out because your exit is blocked by the gear and brake levers really focuses the attention.”
He adds: “We’d like to take it back to Italy one day and park in front of the factory in Treviglio, just to educate them about the company’s early history.”
The reactions when driving the chain-drive Edwardian on the road never fail to amuse the Roberts, as proved when Luke entered the 2018 Crystal Palace sprint.
“We strapped a keg of our Wriggly Monkey beer on the back for the event party, and drove from the Cotswolds to London.
“On the M40 we passed a family, and the kids in the back made their dad chase us all the way until we stopped to find out more about the car.”
“After a break for a pizza in Kensington we came out to discover tourists sitting in the Bianchi for phone pictures,” he goes on.
“We did the sprint and then drove home with my wife Susan in the passenger seat.
“Her father was Adrian Boyd, the Irish rally legend, and she’s a great sport. We took a Frazer Nash on our honeymoon around Ireland.”
Last October the Bianchi was invited to race at the Members’ Meeting in the SF Edge Trophy.
As always there was no option but to drive the car to Goodwood, with Luke going solo: “I left at 8am, stopped en route for a bacon sandwich and was at the track by midday.
“I had to use some dual carriageways because the new engine was still running in, but we were the only Edwardian to drive down.
“Without a trailer, getting in and out of the paddock was easy. For the race we just removed the headlights.”
Despite very wet weather, the Goodwood indoctrination proved hilarious and Luke was 16th fastest with a best lap of 2 mins 39 secs.
“I’ve never driven on opposite lock so much,” he laughs. “We weren’t very quick but it was great fun.
“The Bianchi handles like a big go-kart. You can pitch it into corners and drift.
“The steering is very precise and the gearbox is lovely, much better than our Bentley 3 Litre.”
After minor problems with the carburettor icing up (most of the other entrants had already fitted heated carbs), Luke recovered from a hopeless start in the second race and shaved 26 secs off his practice best during a fantastic battle with Rob Hubbard’s Vauxhall 30-98
“We were never more than 20ft apart throughout the race and kept trying different lines to gain an advantage.
“When you’re doing 85mph down the straight the wind really pins you back, but the Bianchi feels very planted and doesn’t weave around.
“The following morning we refitted the lights and drove back home.”
With the classic spirit of owners driving their race cars to meetings now vanishing, even in the VSCC, the drive-anywhere enthusiasm of the Roberts family with this 115-year-old, open-wheeled machine with no front brakes is truly inspirational.
Long may that continue.
Images: Luc Lacey
Thanks to Peter and Luke Roberts