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WINNERS OF Italy’s Mille Miglia come readily to mind: Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz. And Italian forklift manufacturer O.M.
Yes, the firm wasn’t into forklifts back in 1927, but the first Mille Miglia 1000-mile cross-country road race was won by Officiene Meccaniche, O.M. With Italian brio, this carmaker placed competition high on its agenda despite technical aspects that were termed Edwardian in its 13 years of car production, 1919 to 1932.
Origin of the marque traces to 1906 in Brescia, the northern Italy city destined to be the starting and finishing point of the Mille Miglia. The automaker chose the name Brixin-Züst, the latter after its Swiss hydroelectric link, the former an ancient name for Brescia. Just before World War I, Brixin-Züst became part of Officine Meccaniche, a vast foundry and manufacturing enterprise making railway stock, locomotives, ships and other heavy machinery.
From the beginning, O.M. cars displayed exemplary foundry expertise combined with traditional engineering. Its first engine was a 1.5-liter four cylinder with lightweight castings of iron for the block and detachable head. A separate crankcase cast of light alloy was notably shallow enhancing its rigidity. These were very state of the art for 1919.
However, the engine also featured side valves, old fashioned at a time most designs had evolved to overhead intake and exhaust valves, often with overhead camshaft actuation. Side valves, derogatively termed uhv, “underhead valves,” gave the O.M. only marginal intake and exhaust flow dynamics. Its 1496-cc engine produced only 30 hp (comparable ohv designs were getting 50 hp and more). On the other hand, the engine’s lightweight construction helped to make the O.M. a spirited performer for its day.
The company used racing to demonstrate its performance. In 1920, a 1.5-liter O.M. won the Coppa del Garda, around Lake Garda just east of Brescia. By 1923, O.M.s were placing 1-2-3 in class in venues such as the Circuit of Brescia and Coppa delle Alpi.
In 1924, O.M. extended the engine design to six cylinders, though side valves were retained. This 2.0-liter O.M. became even more successful in racing.
The first Mille Miglia was held in March of 1927. This was Europe’s first cross-country race in 25 years, after governments had declared an end to such racing after a deadly 1903 Paris-Madrid event. The Mille Miglia was to have 23 more runnings until the 1957 race took the lives of 13 people, including 11 in one accident.
The 1927 victory of Ferdinando Minioa and Guiseppe Mordani in their 2-liter O.M. Tipo 665 S was an impressive one. The pair took just under 21 hours 5 minutes averaging 47.7 mph. Two other O.M.s finished 2nd and 3rd overall.
To put this dominance in perspective, an Isotta-Fraschini took the 8-liter class averaging just over 45 mph.
The O.M.’s fame extended to England, where its concessionaire imported some 350 of the cars. R.F. Oats, one of its employees, devised an overhead valve conversion for the six-cylinder and also successfully raced the marque.
By 1928, other manufacturers were demonstrating the enhanced power of supercharging, and O.M. followed suit. At one point, its catalog listed choices of normally aspirated or supercharged, side valve or ohv conversion. This, however, was the catalog; in fact, only six ohv cars were built, though blown side-valve cars were delivered in reasonable numbers.
Racing improves the breed, but not necessarily the bottom line.
In 1932, O.M. gave up car production in favor of heavy machinery, ironically at the encouragement of car guy Benito Mussolini. I suspect Il Duce figured things were covered by Alfa Romeo.
Today, as OM Carrelli Elevatori S.p.A., the company thrives as a specialist in forklifts and other warehouse technology. Do you suppose the guys zipping around Italian warehouses realize the rich heritage of their carrelli elevatori?
Yes, knowing Italians, I’m confident they do. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015