* Our thanks to Vincenzo Manzo and ranocchio61
In 1900, Vincenzo Florio organized his first endurance motor race in Brescia. Dedicated to ‘voiturette’ racing machines, though also open to motorcycles, tricycles, quadricycles and coaches, the 220km road course was a circuitous route from Brescia, through Cremona and Mantua, back to Brescia again, and was won first time out by Baron Franchetti of Milan aboard a Panhard Levassor.
Admittedly, the Italian nobleman had actually finished 3rd behind two tricycles, but the ‘voiturette’ win was nevertheless his.
On its second running in 1904, the Brescia-to-Brescia race – now reduced to 167km but run twice for a 372.2km total distance – was included as part of the Brescia Automotive Week for the first time. Even Vincenzo Florio competed, though the event founder’s 3rd place didn’t disguise what had been a tough race: Alessandro Cagno suffered a nasty accident when his Fiat, having run wide out of a corner, ended up in a canal.
In the end, the 1904 event was won in just 3 hours and 12 minutes by Vincenzo Lancia. Running a Fiat on that occasion, the Italian would go on to establish his own car company, one that would change the face of rallying forever more, just two years later.
For the third running though, Vincenzo Florio was looking to make a change, and in November 1904, the Italian entrepreneur offered a prize of 50,000 lire to the winner of the brand new ‘Coppa Florio’, a figure that Autocar magazine considered excessive even
for “one of the richest men in Italy”. To the winner would also be awarded an artistic silver Coppa, made by a Parisian goldsmith of polish origin known simply as ‘Polak Ainé.’
The definitive Coppa Florio winner though would not be the first-placed driver at the inaugural running in 1905. Nor even the second. The Coppa would instead be awarded to the manufacturer that could achieve the most wins across the first seven editions of
Florio’s brand new event.
Few released at the time that two decades would pass before the first Coppa Floriowinner was finally confirmed…
The first official ‘Coppa Florio’ took place on the 167km of roads linking Brescia, Cremona, Mantova, and Brescia again. It was a circuit that would be covered five times, for a grand total of 505.7km, by an impressive entry list that included five Fiats, five Mercedes’, three Italas, three De Dietrichs, two Darracqs, two Clément Bayards and two Isotta Fraschinis.
The quality of driver was equally as impressive, with Lancia founder Vincenzo, former land speed record holder Arthur Duray, future two-time Targa Florio winner Felice Nazzaro, ‘gentlemen’ drivers Henry Rougier and Louis Wagner, future Le Mans podium finisher Albert Clémen, and even event founder Vincenzo Florio himself joining the field.
Competitors were sent off at four-minute intervals, with only the humble telegraph available to keep track of their progress. With live tracking still many decades away, those covering the race had to get radical to find out who was leading: periodicals at the time document one French journalist, having been arrested by the local police, being held in custody in the timekeeper’s shed!
After completing three 167km laps of the Sicilian circuit in 4 hours and 46 minutes, Giovanni Battista Raggio was declared the first event victor aboard his Itala 112 HP. Incredibly, the young Genoese driver was making his motor racing debut, having bought his new performance machine only six weeks earlier.
Just 10 minutes further down the road, Arthur Duray was classified 2nd with his de Dietrich 24/28, Vincenzo Lancia (Fiat) crossing the line 90 seconds later to claim 3rd. Vincenzo Florio’s Mercedes meanwhile, cursed with several timely punctures, was eventually classified 9th.
Though the inaugural Coppa Florio was hailed a success, the 1906 edition was cancelled on safety grounds, the milling spectators having proven impossible to police on the exceptionally long route. That Florio was now focused on his latest venture – the Targa Florio – certainly didn’t help either.
Back after a one-year absence, the second Coppa Florio was once again run on the ‘Brescia’ circuit, albeit cut by 60km and with competitors now expected to complete eight loops for a grand total of 485.7km. 29 cars were registered for the Sicilian event, and once again, the entry list was strong, with Isotta Fraschini, Benz, Rochet-Schneider, Darracq, Bianchi, Gaggenau, Wolsit, and Zust all represented on the grid.
The one notable exception was Fiat, the 1905 podium finisher having refused to participate. Eventually, Vincenzo Florio himself would enter his own personal Fiat under the ‘Panormitan’ name, but ironically, this only made matters worse. The Turin manufacturer, furious that one of its cars was being run under an assumed name, lodged a complaint with the Coppa’s regulatory committee. The ‘Panormitan’ Fiat was deemed an invalid entrant, and Florio was forced to remove it from the event even though he was footing the bill!
On its event debut, Benz, still 19 years away from its defining tie-in with Mercedes, completed the podium, Victor Hemery claiming 2nd eight minutes ahead of aviation magnate, René Hanriot. Neither though could catch future European Grand Prix Champion Ferdinando Minoia, who completed his eight laps in an Isotta Fraschini in 4 hour 39 minutes, 10 minutes quicker than either of his French rivals. The Coppa Florio would be just one of the three major endurance events the Italian conquered before his passing in 1940, as ‘Nando’ would also become a Le Mans class winner in 1926 and the inaugural winner of the Milla Miglia with Giuseppe Morandi in 1927.
Coverage of the 1907 Coppa Florio wouldn’t end there. As organisers celebrated their second Italian winner, suggestions arose – mainly from the French and British press – that prior knowledge of the Brescia circuit had unfairly favoured the ‘home’ competitors. Sicilian newspapers immediately shot back that, “if [drivers] do not crash their cars, they will always reach the finish line”, such was their apparent resolve and determination.
A bold statement, albeit one that was severely tone deaf. On lap one, Baron Guido de Martino had suffered a fatal accident when the steering failed on his Brixia-Züst 14/18 HP.
Furious with the Brescian organizers for refusing his entry one year earlier, for 1908 Vincenzo Florio moved the Coppa to Bologna, and thus away from the Automobile Club di Milano. It was a very different circuit, just 52km long, with competitors asked to completed 10 laps and a total of 528km.
Though only 17 cars start the event, the entry list was still impressive, featuring as it did ’07 winner Ferdinando Minoia, event incumbents Vincenzo Lancia, Louis Wagner and Alessandro Cagno, and even Vincenzo Trucco, who, together with Maserati founder Alfieri, would go on to patent the spark plug. In the crowd meanwhile stood a young 10-year-old, witnessing his first-ever motor race, and who’s name would go on to define the very nature of motorsport: Enzo Ferrari.
Having finished 6th at the inaugural event in 1905, Felice Nazzaro took his first Coppa Florio win in 1908 in just 4 hours and 25 minutes with the returning Fiat, the acrimony of 1906 now forgotten. Indeed, the 1908 edition would prove particularly memorable for the Turin manufacturer, as Lancia, also aboard a Fiat, set the race’s fastest lap at close to 132kph en-route to 5th place. The result could have been so much greater, however: 2nd-placed Turcco (Lorraine-Dietrich) was well out of site, but 3rd placed Alessandro Cagno (Itala), celebrating his maiden podium on ‘the Coppa’, finished just 12s ahead of Lancia. A broken exhaust and rocker arm had clearly cost the Lancia founder dearly.
Though the winner’s remarkable average speed – 119kph – proved competition was rising on the Coppa Florio, the increased expense of competing, plus the monopoly of Italian and German brands, meant the 1908 edition was the last one to be run until 1914. Upon its return, significant changes had been made to Vincenzo Florio’s original creation…
After a six-year absence, the Coppa Florio returned for a fourth edition in 1914, and for the first time, the event was moved to Sicily. Not only that, but Italian competitors, now no longer with the ‘home field advantage’ their French and British rivals continued to promote, Vincenzo Florio’s prodigal endurance event was also held for the first time in Spring rather than Autumn. Alongside the treacherous mountain roads, drivers had to contend with changeable and less predictable weather conditions as well.
Interestingly, 1914 also marked the first time that the Targa Florio and the Coppa Florio were run on separate circuits, with the former run for the third year in succession on the established 979km Giro di Sicilia.
Don Vincenzo though had other aspirations for the ‘Coppa’ and the event took place for the first time at the 148.823km Grande Circuito delle Madonie, a counter-clockwise route that sent its competitors through Cerda, Caltavuturo, Castellana Sicula, Petralia Sottana, Geraci Siculo, Collesano, and Campofelice. The eventual victor would need to complete three laps for a combined race distance of 446.5km.
Of the three previous winning manufacturers – Itala, Fiat and Isotta Fraschini – only the Turin brand returned for the 1914 event, though its sole entrant, Luigi Lopez, could only manage 7th.
Ironically, having taken his first Coppa Florio win with Fiat, Felice Nazzaro took his second in consecutive events, this time at the wheel of a 4,400cc Grand Prix machine he’d built himself. Of course, the greater, and significantly more dangerous, Grande Circuito delle Madonie now took a formidable 8 hours and 11 minutes to complete, but an impressive 54.94kph average speed was still nothing to sneeze at.
Event returnee Erneste Ceirano finally took his first podium in 2nd with SCAT, while Alfa Romeo’s Nino Franchini, who took the clover leaf’s first racing success at the 1913 Parma-Poggio di Berceto hill climb, finished 3rd.
A world on the brink of war inevitably led to another break for the Coppa Florio.
Vincenzo Florio’s event was on the move again for the fifth edition in 1921, the Coppa now being re-located to the brand-new Circuito della Fascia d’Oro asphalt circuit in Brescia.
To add further gravitas to the event, and with entries now limited to three-litre Grand Prix cars, the fifth Coppa Florio is officially recognised as the first running of the Italian GP. One year later, the future Formula 1 staple would re-locate to Monza, where the Italian Grand Prix has been hosted at 88 of the 98 editions held since then.
Following the retirement of Italian duo Pietro Bordino and Ugo Sivocci, the latter of which would go on to take his first Targa Florio victory in 1923, former Indy 500 winner Jules Goux led home an all French podium, having completed 30 laps and the 519km race distance in a storming 3 hours and 35 minutes.
Goux’s victory was all the impressive given that his Ballot 2LS had suffered myriad reliability problems since its debut earlier that year, ditto its supercharged engine. Compatriots Jean Chassagne, also driving a Ballot, and Louis Wagner (Fiat) completed the podium.
1921 would prove a curious one-off for the Coppa Florio though, as one year later, the event was back in Sicily at the Piccolo Circuito delle Madonie.
For 1922, the sixth round of the Coppa Florio was once again run as a stand-alone event, now at the 108km Piccolo Circuito delle Madonie. Fittingly, the venue had already hosted the Targa Florio that year on 2nd April.
Known as the ‘Medio Circuito’ from 1919 to 1930 (a shortened, 72km Piccolo layout would host the Targa Florio from 1932 to 1936), Madonie was run counterclockwise through Cerda, Caltavuturo, Polizzi, Collesano and Campofelice and featured nine competitors representing four car brands.
Interestingly, while the two Peugeots of André Boillot and inaugural Spa 24 Hours winner Maurice Becquet raced in their national blue, and the three Diattos and two OMs were finished in Italian red, the two Sunbeams forewent the traditional British Racing Green for dark grey. During a race battered by rain, it was an apt change.
1907 winner Ferdinando Minoia was the first entrant to leave at 07.30 hrs with Paolo Arnone’s departure at 08.10 hrs bookending the field. Sadly, the event was barely underway before tragedy struck. After just 16km, Milan’s Guido Meregalli went off the road at high speed in his Diatto GP305, an accident in which his mechanic Giuseppe Giacchino was fatally wounded. Out of respect, Meregalli’s teammate Arnone retired from the race after the opening lap.
Despite Giacchino’s tragic passing, the race continued, André Boillot setting fastest lap after fastest lap, and in the end, the Frenchman added a comfortable Coppa Florio win to his Targa Florio win of 1919, completing the 432km course for Peugeot at an average speed of 60.403kph. Maurice Becquet collected a second podium for Peugeot in 3rd, the pair bookending Britain’s Henry Segrave in 2nd. So commanding was Boillot’s win, the podium finishers were split by more than an hour at the chequered flag.
Incredibly, in the first six editions of the Coppa Florio, six different manufacturers – Itala, Isotta Fraschini, Fiat, Nazzaro, Ballot and Peugeot – had taken one win apiece. Each brand was thus still eligible to collect Vincenzo Florio’s 50,000 lira prize purse, meaning competition couldn’t be tighter heading into the seventh edition, two years later…
For only the second time in its history, the Coppa Florio once again shared its route with the sister Targa Florio. Drivers competing for ‘the Coppa’ were requested to complete five laps of the 108km Piccolo Circuito delle Madonie, while the chequered flag would fly on the Targa – celebrating its 15th edition in 1924 – after four laps.
It proved a popular decision: of the 41 drivers entered for the Targa Florio, 35 also participated in the Coppa.
After a heated fight between Mercedes and Alfa Romeo (the only two teams to have seriously prepared cars and drivers for the Targa/Coppa Florio assault), both trophies were awarded to Christian Werner, the German’s 2-litre Mercedes completing all five laps of the ‘Medio Circuito’ (540km) in 8 hours 17 minutes and 13 seconds at an average speed of 65.162kph.
Alfa Romeo’s Giulio Masetti, who led after the first lap, and Giuseppe Campari locked out the podium on the Coppa Florio. Interestingly, though he missed the overall podium, a young Mercedes driver called Alfred Neubauer finished an impressive 3rd in his class. Two years later, he’d begin his famous tenure as the Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix team boss.
With Mercedes becoming the seventh different winner in as many races on the Coppa, Vincenzo Florio’s prize purse goes uncollected, and an eighth edition is required to declare an outright winner. Mercedes’ dominant performance though has caused a philosophical shift: no longer can anything be left to chance, and preparation of the team, the drivers, the mechanics and the car – many of which will thereafter be designed and built specifically for the Sicilian road rally – if teams wish to win on the Madonie.
Much like 1924, the Targa-Coppa Florio ran as an interconnected event. But while the Coppa was once again run across four laps of the 108km Piccolo Circuito delle Madonie in 1925 (432km completed), the total race distance on the Targa had now been upped to five (540km).
Theoretically, seven car brands came into 1925 in contention for the Coppa Florio. But with Felice Nazzaro’s company now out of business, three others – Isotta Fraschini, Ballot and Fiat – not entered for the event, and Mercedes focusing on the Grand Prix scene, that left only Peugeot and an Itala entered independently by Silvio De Vitis still in contention for the Cup. Against the might of four factory-entered Peugeots, the Italian had a difficult race ahead of him…
Indeed, having set off first at four-minute intervals, three of the four Peugeots – André Boillot, Louis Wagner and Christian Dauvergne – began to extend their advantage over teammate Louis Rigal and the hard-charging Bartolomeo Costantini, one of three Bugatti factory drivers signed up for the French marque’s event debut.
After one lap, Boillot led Wagner and Dauvergne by just 14s and 53s respectively with Costantini only two minutes further back. Come the end of the second lap, Wagner was ahead of Dauvergne by almost 40s, Boillot just 14s further back in 3rd. Costantini’s Bugatti remained in striking distance.
Drama unfolded on the final lap of the Coppa Florio though when Dauvergne’s 174 S overturned and caught fire. Mercifully, both driver and travelling mechanic were unharmed, but with Wagner stopping to help and Boillot in the pits with intermittent tyre problems, it was an opportunity Costantini grabbed with both hands.
Thereafter the Bugatti T35 would not be caught, and the Italian went on to secure, what would be, the first of two back-to-back wins on the Targa Florio. Boillot, a distant 2nd but eligible for the Coppa Florio trophy, secured Peugeot’s second win on the event, and in the process, the 50,000 lira prize ahead of teammate Wagner. The remaining Peugeot – that of Louis Rigal – was classified 3rd, but had already crashed out come the end of the race.
After 20 years and eight editions, the inaugural winner of the Coppa Florio – Peugeot – had finally been crowned.
Turns out 1925 and the crowning of the first Coppa Florio winner did not spell the end of Sicily’s first endurance motor race.
Indeed, in January 1926, Peugeot administrator Lucien Rosengart confirmed that the Coppa would once again be up for grabs from that year onwards, and would this time be awarded to the first manufacturer that could win three editions.
Four months later, the green flag dropped for the ninth Coppa Florio, the Sicilian classic once again run concurrently with the Targa Florio. Interestingly, on this occasion, both events would complete five laps of the 108km Piccolo Circuito delle Madonie, equating to 540km in total.
36 participants were registered for the event, including five former winners of the Targa and the Coppa: André Boillot (Coppa, ’22 and ’25; Targa, ’19); Count Giulio Masetti (Targa, ’21 and ’22); Bartolomeo Costantini (Targa, ‘25), Jules Goux (Coppa, ‘21), and Ferdinando Minoia (Coppa, ‘07). Between them, these drivers represented Bugatti, Peugeot, Delage, Alfa Romeo, Diatto, Maserati, Itala, Steyr, Ceirano, Amilcar, Salmson, Citroen AND Austin. It was a field the likes of which the Coppa Florio had not seen in more than a decade.
Departures begin at 7am with the Bugatti T35s quickly proving their superiority. Lapping at an average of just shy of 75kph, nobody could touch the French marque, with eventual winner Costantini even setting the event’s fastest lap on the final tour (1h 26m). At a winning speed of 73.507kph, Costantini smashed the record he’d set the following year and was even 6kph on average faster than 1924 winner Christian Werner.
Ferdinando Minoia Jules Goux complete the Bugatti podium lockout in 2nd and 3rd. Peugeot’s nearest contender meanwhile - Louis Wagner - was classified 4th, 15 minutes behind the lead trio.
Sadly, almost 20 years after Baron Guido de Martino’s fatal accident on the 1907 event, tragedy once again struck the Coppa Florio on its opening day. Gunning for his third Targa Florio win with Delage, Count Giulio Masetti went off the road after 27km and ended up pinned beneath his 2LCV in the aftermath. Despite the quick efforts of teammate Robert Benoist, who arrived on the scene 12 minutes later, the Italian count would succumbed to his internal injuries shortly afterwards. To mourn the passing of ‘the lion of the Madonie’, Automobiles Delage summarily withdrew its three sister entries.
22 years after the inaugural running, competitors lined up for the 10th edition of the Coppa Florio at the fourth different venue to host the event, the 13.406km Saint-Brieuc Circuit. To crown a winner of the Coppa Florio though in 1927 would prove much more complicated than normal.
After 30 laps (402km race distance), each of the event’s five classes – ranging from sub-1,100cc to over 3,000cc – would declare a winner, and from those five, the driver with the most consistent times across his 30 laps would be declared the winner.
An already complicated system was made yet more complex by one of the most curious editions of the Coppa Florio there had ever been. Episodes included a Salmson, in an attempt to overtake a Bugatti in front of the grandstand, ending its race in a ditch after its brakes failed. Later on, an accident between a Talbot and a Tracta ended with their respective drivers jumping from their cars to ‘discuss’, with their fists, who was responsible.
By far the most curious incident though took place on the home stretch. Marcel Lehoux, who had led almost unopposed from the start and had set a blistering pace, stopped his Bugatti T35A within sight of the chequered flag, got out and lit a cigarette. Only after his teammates Pierre Etancelin and George Eyston had passed did Leyhoux jump back into his Bugatti to cross the line.
Debate rages as to whether Leyhoux was attempting to bring his average laptimes down and simply miscalculated, or, more likely, had cared only about being the first car at the finish, such had been his devastating pace. Nearest rival Peugeot meanwhile had taken a more systematic approach, Louis Wagner and Louis Rigal having stopped at a roadside timing desk on every lap and only continued when an allotted timekeeper allowed them to do so.
Even more consistent than that though was Robert Laly's performance in a three-litre Ariès. Under the direct control of the car brand’s chairman of the board of directors, the Frenchman set lap times variable by only fractions of a second, but proved quick enough to claim victory in the 2,001-3,000cc category. Ironically, though Laly crossed the finish line only 4th overall, nine minutes behind the Wagner and Rigal Peugeots and a further six minutes behind race ‘winner’ Louis Charavel (a.k.a ‘Sabipa’), the Frenchman’s consistency was enough to secure him his first Coppa Florio win, as well as the first for Ariès.
Back to Piccolo Circuito delle Madonie for 1928, the Coppa Florio was again held concurrently with the Targa Florio, both endurance events scheduled for five laps of the 108km ‘Medio Circuito’.
Unlike the previous year though, where Robert Laly (Ariès) and Emilio Materassi (Bugatti) took Coppa and Targa victory respectively, a commanding run for Albert Divo meant the Frenchman took victory on the 11th Coppa Florio and the 19th Targa Florio simulatenously, having completed his five laps (540km) in 7 hours, 20 minutes and 40 seconds. Crucially, 1928 also marked the second victory for Bugatti, making the French brand only the second manufacturer, after Peugeot, to take a second win on the event in 11 editions.
Ironically, though Divo’s speed in the T35 was beyond question – his 73.478kph average was just 0.029s shy of the outright record Bartolomeo Costantini set in 1926 – the winner’s race had actually been very calm and rational: during the opening four laps, Divo had sat comfortably in 3rd, only making his decisive move for victory on the final 108km tour.
As a result, even with its new 2,300cc engine (with compressor), the T35, a machine built specifically for the Coppa-Targa, was actually 11 seconds ‘slower’ than Costantini had managed across the same distance in 1926. Even Divo’s final storming lap to take victory did not beat the 1h 26m 29s benchmark Targa winner Emilio Materassi had set one year earlier.
Having led two of the opening four laps, Giuseppe Campari – first of the 1,500cc runners – eventually finished 2nd aboard his Alfa Romeo 1500. In a remarkably tight finish, Campari, beset by tyre issues, finished just 96 seconds behind the leader, while Divo’s Bugatti teammate Caberto Conelli, driving a newer T37A, was only 17s behind at the line. The early race leaders meanwhile – Louis Chiron (Bugatti) and Madame Elizabeth Junek (privately-entered Bugatti) – finished 4th and 5th.
Out of the 36 competitors who started, only 14 were classified, but few could argue the depth of talent through the field. ’27 Targa winner Materassi had been running in the top five when his engine seized on lap three, as had his illustrious Bugatti teammate Tazio Nuvolari, who lost a possible podium finish to piston failure on the opening lap.
The 20th edition of the Targa Florio would prove to be one of the toughest editions of the race to-date, with only four of the 19 entered cars able to reach the finish line. It would also prove to be a bittersweet farewell to the Coppa Florio, run for the 12th and final time in 1929 at Piccolo Circuito delle Madonie.
Like the previous year, Albert Divo’s approach to the Targa Florio was one of consistency, the Bugatti works driver, now running a developed T35C, running 4th after the first lap before moving into 2nd for laps two and three. Unlike the previous year though, the reigning Coppa-Targa winner made his move early, and was already in the lead when the fourth lap began.
At his quickened pace, Divo came through to complete his five laps (540km) in a record 7 hours, 15 minutes and 41 seconds. Not only was this more than five minutes faster than his run the previous year, his 74.366kph average speed also smashed Costantini’s 73.507kph standing record. Such was the Frenchman’s speed, the now two-time Coppa-Targa Florio winner finished more than two minutes clear of Bugatti teammate, and 1907 Coppa Florio winner, Ferdinando Minoia, and a further five quicker than Alfa Romeo’s Gastone Brilli-Peri in 3rd. Out of luck for the second year in a row, Alfa Romeo teammate Giuseppe Campari was the final classified runner in 4th.
Admittedly, the no-longer young Minoia had not enjoyed the easiest of races. The Italian had in fact held the lead during the opening three laps, but all hope of a second event win 22 years after his first were dashed when his Bugatti T35C suffered steering issues.
In taking its third event victory in four years, Bugatti was also crowned the new outright winner of the Coppa Florio, emulating Peugeot in the process.
Introduced by Vincenzo Florio in 1905, and now usurped by the Targa Florio that arrived just one year later, 1929 also marked the end of the Coppa Florio in its original guise. 46 years later though, the ‘Coppa Florio’ would be reborn, and from 2020 onwards, it will live on.
You can also check out this story in the 2020 COPPA FLORIO 12H Sicily magazine, available for download at the link below: