Peter Boyle might have been disappointed by his 1938 Steyr 220 Roadster’s showing at the recent Cobble Beach Concours d’Elegance, if the competitor that outshone his recently restored beauty hadn’t turned out to be his own superb 1928 Isotta-Fraschini.
The pedigreed, sporty and stylish Italian-built, American LeBaron-bodied Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8A SS, one of only two constructed, took Best in Show honours, and first in the European Classics class, relegating Boyle’s rare Austrian Steyr, which has won three Best of Shows over the past year, to second.
The inaugural Cobble Beach Concours, was staged earlier this month at the Cobble Beach Resort Golf Resort overlooking Georgian Bay near Kemble, Ont., attracting a field of high-calibre entries and an estimated 4,000 spectators.
The classy Isotta Fraschini, purchased from the 1928 New York Auto Show by aviator Harry Williams and his wife, silent-screen-star Marguerite Clark, was hidden from public view for six decades before being restored by Boyle and winning an award at the Pebble Beach Concours in 2007.
Isotta Fraschinis aren’t exactly a dime a dozen, but they are a well-recognized classic marque, so it is the little-known Steyr we’ll take a closer look at here. Its appearance at Pebble Beach last year was the first by the marque in that event’s 60-plus year history, and it’s possible Cobble Beach was the first time a classic Steyr has been shown in Canada.
There’s also a latter-day Canadian connection to the brand. Austrian-based Magna Steyr, created in 2001 by Frank Stronach’s Magna International, continues Steyr’s automotive tradition, having built cars for Audi, VW, Chrysler, Saab, BMW and Mercedes, and today making Mini’s Countryman and Paceman, Peugeot’s RCZ, Mercedes’ G-Class and SLS bodies.
Steyr came into being in 1864 as a rifle-maker, which it continued to do through the First World War, after which it diversified into auto making in 1920.
Automotive engineering greats Hans Ledwinka and Ferdinand Porsche soon created a Steyr tradition of advanced design, but by the troubled mid-1930s it had been folded into the Steyr-Daimler-Puch conglomerate. It continued to produce up-to-the minute models, that ranged from the Volkswagen bug-like Baby 50, to the luxurious, six-cylinder 220 launched in 1937. Just shy of 35,000 Steyrs were built by 1940, and after the war it produced diesel engines, cars and motorcycles, before eventually being broken up.
The 220 featured independent suspension all-round and was powered by a 2.3-litre, overhead-valve, six-cylinder engine making 55 hp, with a four-speed gearbox. It was available with four-door sedan and two-door cabriolet bodywork, and 5,900 were built.
But the Glaeser coach-building company of Dresden also turned out half a dozen special 220 Roadsters. Three were destroyed in the war, one disappeared, another is in museum storage, and it is the only one in private hands that Boyle, of Oil City, Penn., and Roger James, of D&D Classic Automobile Restorations in Covington, Ohio, resurrected from a rusted-out wreck in 2011.
Boyle, who worked in the family newspaper business in Pennsylvania – near Titusville where the first oil well was drilled in 1859 – is a long-time car enthusiast, with “a habit of holding on to every car I’ve ever bought.”
He met James when his ’67 Pontiac GTO needed some work and, after visiting Pebble Beach with him, decided “this looked interesting” and asked him to find something suitable to show. That turned out to be the Isotta Fraschini which James restored, and it has since won four Best of Show awards.
Research into the Steyr’s provenance continues, but it is known it was delivered as a dealer demo in Berlin, and it is speculated it might have arrived in North America as spoils of war in the 1940s. It was on its way back from an abortive restoration in New Zealand and for sale by its disillusioned owner when James brought it to Boyle’s attention.
“I’d never heard of Steyr,” says Boyle, although, like many North Americans, he’d likely caught a car-cameo glimpse of a 220, full of Nazi thugs, in the movie The Sound of Music. “But I thought it would be interesting, and so we did it. And it does attract a lot of attention.”
The Steyr Roadster, with its elegant art deco 1930s styling, was made for grand touring, says James, with a set of fitted luggage in a special compartment behind the seat, and its engine enlarged to 2.8 litres and tuned to produce 80 hp.
It was relatively complete, but in “horrible” condition when it arrived in his shop. “It was really bad, just pure rust, with rotten wood underneath. We had to take the skins [panels] off and rebuilt the wood structure. Every nut, bolt and screw has been dealt with.”
That process began with James researching the car in Austria, visiting the original factory and a museum displaying Steyr cars, where he had the opportunity to study first-hand how they were put together.
While there, he also hooked up with a local Steyr restorer, discovering a treasure-trove of parts. “But in order to get any, I had to buy all he had. We got a truck-load of parts, which made the restoration a lot easier.” It also meant more than a few bits and pieces were left over.
He says that in the unlikely event anybody’s looking for new-old-stock headlight lenses or taillights for a 1930s Steyr 220, they now need to contact him. “I own the world market,” he laughs. “We have all kinds of things. We’ll be able to support this car for a hundred years.”
Back in 1938
Two bridges over untroubled waters are completed: the Thousand Islands Bridge across the St. Lawrence is built at a cost of $3-million and the Blue Water Bridge links Sarnia, Ont., and Port Huron, Mich. Each celebrates its 75th anniversary in 2013.
Undersized thoroughbred Seabiscuit beats War Admiral in the “race of the century” at Pimlico in Baltimore, and is later immortalized in a number of films, the latest produced in 2003.
Singer Gordon Lightfoot, hockey player and later senator Frank Mahovlich, golf legend Gary Cowan, and Canada’s 21st prime minister, Paul Martin, are all born.