The story of the Mefistofele started in 1908, when Fiat introduced the SB4 chain-driven Grand Prix racer. After seeing it race, Sir Ernest Eldridge from Britain bought the car with the aim of turning it into speed record breaker. However, there was one problem: the original car's 18.0-liter engine was considered rather small by Eldridge, who decided to replace it with a massive airplane powerplant. He opted for a liquid-cooled Fiat-built 21.7-liter inline six-cylinder unit (type A-12 Bis) that developed 320 horsepower at 1,800 rpm after various upgrades such as the fitting of four valves and four spark plugs on each cylinder.
The story goes that in order to accommodate the long and heavy engine, Eldridge lengthened the SB4's chassis using parts from a London bus. The car was chain-driven and had brakes only at the rear, which made it a handful for even the most experienced of drivers. Interestingly, experts fail to understand even today the mechanism that allowed the car to reverse, since there is no trace of it left.
On July 12 1924 the Mefistofele, which obtained its name by the press because of the smoke and explosions produced by its massive engine, had its finest moment when it set the world land speed record in Arpajon, France. The 5.1-meter long, 2-tonne car driven by Eldridge recorded an official top speed of 234,980 km/h (146 mph) in what is said to be the last land speed record event organised on public roads. And even though its record stood for only 32 days, the fame of the Fiat Mefistofele survived more than a century after its birth.
In 1969 Fiat's boss Giovanni Agnelli bought the Mefistofele from Sir Eldridge's heirs and shipped it to Italy, where the car underwent a major restoration and was added to the company's historical collection.
The car is perfectly functional and can be admired at the Centro Storico Fiat in Turin. Unfortunately, there aren't any videos of the car in action, but you can check out the footage below from the 2011 Geneva Motor Show, where the 21.7-liter Mefistofele was displayed next to the 0.9-liter […] Fiat 500 TwinAir.
By Dan Mihalascu
Sources: Fiat, Bigscalemodels