Remember Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the kids’ musical about the flying car? Did you know it was based on a real car? The real one couldn’t fly (at least not in the literal sense), but it did have one thing in common with an airplane: the engine.
In the early days of motoring, there really was no replacement for displacement. Engineers hadn’t yet figured out how to make reliable engines that ran over 3000 RPM. The only way to squeeze more horsepower out of an engine was to increase the volume.
Many very large engined cars were designed for racing and to test land speed records in the early 20th century. Arguably the original was the famed Blitzen Benz, whose 21.5 liter engine could output 200 horsepower at 1,500 RPM. Not wanting to be outdone, Fiat constructed the Tipo S67, using a 28.5 liter, four cylinder airship engine. The S67 could output 300 hp at 1,900 RPM. Arguably, Fiat put in motion the trend of using aircraft engines in racing cars.
The trend really revved up following World War I. There were suddenly numerous warplanes not being used, and Germany had been forbidden from building aircraft. It was relatively easy to get a hold of aero engines. In 1921, an eccentric Polish aristocrat (obviously the best kind of aristocrat) named Louis Zborowski, got a 23 liter engine from a German bomber and had it fitted to a Mercedes chassis. The car could make 300 HP at 1,600 RPM. He called the car Chitty Bang Bang, either in reference to the sound that it made when it started up or to a lewd WWI soldiers’ song, depending on which motoring historian you ask.
Zborowski was living in England at the time, and raced Chitty at the Brooklands race track. He won his first race at the track at an average speed over 100mph and won or placed in many other races. Over the years he had a number of other similar cars constructed which he predictably called Chitty 2, Chitty 3, and Babs. Babs utilized parts from one of the original Blitzen Benzes and is on display at the Brooklands Museum.
In its heyday, Brooklands could accommodate more than 280,000 spectators. Among the many attendees was a young Ian Fleming. Fleming grew up to be, most notably, the creator of James Bond. He also wrote a children’s novel called Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: The Magical Car. Although the story of the talking, flying car that fights organized crime had very little to do with Zborowski or even racing in general, Fleming decided to name the book as a tribute to the driver who had captured his imagination as a child.
Although we can now make much smaller engines much more powerful, there is still a certain appeal to the idea of getting behind the wheel of one of these roaring, fire-breathing monsters. One enthusiast put together a restored Fiat S67, from the parts of two originals. You can see a video of it here. Although the car can’t fly, we guarantee that the feeling you’ll get watching it is pretty magical.
Written by Dan Smolinsky.