You may be wondering what the Gordini, made on Boulevard Victor in Paris in the 1950s and known (if not famous) for Grand Prix cars, is doing in a series on etceterini, which were Italian road racers, usually small and often based on Fiat engines. At first glance the Gordinis, painted French racing blue and often with 6 or even 8 cylinders, don't seem to fit. But founder Amedee Gordini, known in France as "le sorcier de la mecanique" for his wizardry with machines, was born in the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna (home to Maserati, Ferrari and Lamborghini), and moved to Paris in 1926 after Italian army service during the Great War. He surprised race fans with the performance he coaxed out of a Fiat Balilla in the early 30s, then in '34 approached Italian-born Simca director Henri Pigozzi about going racing. He persuaded Pigozzi to support Gordini's racing efforts by making running gear available from the Simca product line…which consisted entirely of Fiats built under license at their big factory in Nanterre. So the Gordinis fit the etceterini pattern because they started small and were Fiat-based in a roundabout way.* This pattern continued into the postwar period. Below is a Type 15 from 1950, based on a Simca 4 cylinder block and with Gordini head incorporating twin overhead cams.
The pattern changed after the 1951 season when the light, nippy Gordinis blew up a lot of their supercharged 1.5 liter engines and Simca withdrew its support, forcing Gordini to finance his operation by selling the occasional car, collecting starting money, and selling seats in his racers to wealthy privateer enthusiasts. For the 1952 season, there was a new Gordini Formula 2 engine, a light alloy inline six with gear-driven overhead cams. The engine had opposite effects on Gordini's fortunes at the bank and on the track, as it was expensive but gave the little blue cars a fighting chance. For '52 and '53 the governing body for the World Driving Championship had decided to run it by Formula 2 rules after Alfa Romeo dropped its participation and narrowed the field, so Gordini's new engine would allow his cars to be more competitive in a variety of settings. You're likely wondering how a tiny, cashed-strapped machine shop could develop a new engine in such short order. So we need to look at another Italian connection, the one to the Maserati brothers…
Earlier, in 1949-50, Gordini had explored a project with the Maserati brothers at OSCA to jointly develop a 4.5 liter V12 for the then-current Formula One, and after failing to persuade Simca to finance the engine, obtained funding from Emperor Bao Dai of Indochina. Only a handful of the OSCA Type G (for Gordini) had been built by the time the rule change obsoleted them, and by then Gordini had dropped out of the shared engine program. But he salvaged something of value from the effort anyway, as his deal with the Maserati brothers allowed him to share the basic architecture of the new OSCA F2 engine (it was like one bank of that 4-cam V12), and allowed twice as many cars to challenge the new F2 Ferraris and Maseratis. Why did the Maserati brothers want to beat the Maserati cars? Because years earlier they'd sold their name along with their original car company (you're likely beginning to suspect that building race cars is risky business) and were now focused on making OSCAs. Compared with the OSCAs, the Gordinis looked more like the kind of racers that daydreaming school kids would draw (think "The Little Car That Could") and they proved that they could indeed prevail, given a twisty track and a crafty driver who could avoid flying out of the car (more on that later). The new Type 16 Gordinis had some surprising success in 1952, including Jean Behra's outright win over the new 4-cylinder Ferrari 500s at Reims, and in 1953 American drivers Harry Schell and Fred Wacker bought rides in Gordinis. Wacker, from the same family for which Chicago's Wacker Drive was named, had formed that city's chapter of the SCCA in 1948, and started racing in an MG. Prior to his brief GP career, he was known as a jazz musician, and for an accident which essentially ended racing on public roads in the United States, and prompted improvements in safety measures for spectators. In the 1952 race at Watkins Glen, Wacker moved left to avoid a collision with a Cunningham, and the rear of his car clipped a curb. Spectators lined the street, and a group of them were actually sitting on the curb. Several people were injured, and a 7-year old child died. It's not clear whether the shadow cast by this disaster prompted Wacker to pursue a racing career abroad; what is clear is that he soon encountered European notions of driver safety. Here's Fred Wacker leading Andre Pilette at the Belgian GP on the first day of summer in 1953...
Note that Wacker's Gordini is taller than Pilette's Connaught, which typifies the lower, wider stance designers were already seeking, and which would lead eventually to mid-engined designs. Wacker noted that in his first test drive he nearly fell out of the car through that tall side cut-out. Remember, there were no seat belts then. According to Wacker, the approved technique was to push against the firewall with your left foot to keep your back firmly planted. You would, however, eventually need your left foot for pedal duty… In his first race, a non-championship event, the GP des Frontieres at Chimay, Wacker took 3rd, the first podium finish in a postwar GP by an American and only 2.5 seconds behind Trintignant's winning Gordini. In the Belgian GP pictured, his first championship event, Wacker finished 10th, 2 places behind Harry Schell. It was the first GP race featuring two Americans. At his next event, the Swiss GP at Bremgarten, Wacker flipped the car on his last practice lap and was rushed to the hospital with a fractured skull, extensive friction burns, and fractured ribs.
He returned to the GP circus late in the '54 season, and Wacker's two year old, 2 liter F2 car was now competing against the 2.5 liter F1 cars in that year's new formula. After breaking the transmission at Bremgarten, he managed 6th place at Monza. This was remarkable, considering he was competing against the all-conquering Mercedes-Benz team, the new Ferrari 625s, and a Maserati 250F. He ran two more races before retiring from the sport. Gordini plugged their 2.5 liter six, already used in sports cars, into the T16 and saw Jean Behra win at Pau and Cadours, both non-championship races. Then, in mid-1955, they introduced the new Type 32, with a lower profile, 4 wheel independent suspension and 4 wheel disc brakes, inboard with twin calipers at the rear. In the photo below, the Type 32 contrasts with the older design.
The surprise under the hood was a beautiful 2.5 liter straight 8 with twin overhead cams driven by a gear train from the front of the crankshaft. Along with the Mercedes W196 and ill-fated (though transverse mid-engined) Bugatti 251 from the same year, it marked a brief return of straight 8s to racing, just as they were disappearing from passenger cars, and before designers turned to more compact engine and chassis configurations. Unlike the Mercedes which won back-to-back GP championships in '54 and '55, the Type 32 was too heavy to be very competitive...
There were a few 3.0 liter straight 8 sports racers too, and a couple of these were sold to enthusiasts, including the writer Francoise Sagan. Unlike the Formula 2 engines or the stillborn V12, the straight 8s had no OSCA equivalent and have to be considered the purest of Gordinis. The expense of building them hastened the bankruptcy of Gordini's machine shop in the Boulevard Victor, and Renault brought Gordini into its competition department in 1957. There the Sorcerer worked his magic on hotter versions of rear-engined sedans, and eventually on engines for the Alpine Renaults that won Monte Carlo Rallye and World Rally Championship, as well as the mid-engined Alpine Gordini V8s that raced at Le Mans. In 1977 the first turbocharged Formula 1 engine, a 1.5 liter V6, contested a GP. It had Gordini's name on it. Gordini died in May 1979, weeks before it won its first race.
*Like other etceterini, Gordinis were built in tiny numbers. There were lots of types, culminating in Type 32, but the highest chassis number I've found in race entries is #44.
Top: 1950 Gordini Type 15, Wikipedia
2nd: Fred Wacker in Gordini Type 16 at Spa 1953, 8w.forix.com
3rd: 1955 Gordini Type 32 & Type 16, Wikipedia
4th: 1955 Gordini Type 32 (Chassis #42), the author
5th: 1955 Gordini Type 32 (Chassis #42), the author
Bottom: 1953 Gordini Type 24 (Chassis #37S), the author