COLLECTORS: Count Carlo Felice Trossi

COLLECTOR: Count Carlo Felice Trossi

As a mixture of ingredients for the foundations of a great collector, being a member of the Nobiltà italiana (and by extension sufficiently wealthy to afford certain indulgences), a successful racing driver in a period of intense competition and risk, plus distinct mechanical sympathies leading you to build your own car, are certainly an extremely useful combination.

While many a collector simply has the financial ability to build an impressive roster of cars and/or watches, it takes someone with a true passion and understanding of the workmanship and energy that goes into creating these objects to stand out. Count Carlo Felice Trossi clearly fell into the later category, able to commission bespoke items from some of the most important manufacturers, even going on to offer not only financial but manufacturing support for an extremely unusual Grand Prix car.

Racing

A superbly capable driver, Trossi would compete against such greats as Early Howe, Louis Chiron, Pierre Veyron, Jean-Pierre Wimille, Alberto Ascari, Achille Varzi, Hans Stuck and Tazio Nuvolari during his pre-war and post-war career, regularly setting fastest laps and winning multiple races including the Montreux, Vichy and Biella Grand Prix in 1934 (Alfa Romeo Tipo-B “P3” for Scuderia Ferrari), the Italian Grand Prix in 1947 and the Swiss Grand Prix in 1948 (both in the Alfa 158 with Alfa Corse). He also finished 2nd in the 1932 Mille Miglia in an Alfa 8C-2300 Spider Zagato for Scuderia Ferrari, with Antonio Brivio as his co-driver.

 

Trossi was elected  president of Enzo Ferrari’s formative team when it was just three years old, having been founded in 1929, when the Count was just 23 years of age. 1932 was a significant year for il Commendatore, as it was the year Dino was born and the iconic Cavallino Rampante made its first appearance on their cars at the Spa 24 hours.

A cutaway drawing of the Monaco-Trossi by Brian Hatton from Motor magazine, June 1971

Trossi left Scuderia Ferrari in 1935, at which point he partnered with Augusto Monaco in a pursuit to build an extremely unusual car that would bear their names, the Monaco-Trossi. Using his home Castello Gaglianico in Biella, northern Italy, as their manufacturing base, the pair created the car to conform to the to the 750kg formula of the period, but fitted it with a 4-litre, 16-cylinder two stroke radial engine with two superchargers. The cylinders were configured as two rows of eight with common combustion chamber and spark plug, and the engine reputedly produced 250 hp, which was all pushed through the two narrow front wheels. In a car weighing 710 kg, having this much weight in the nose resulting in a 75/25 weight distribution front/rear caused some handling issues such as extreme understeer, plus it also suffered from overheating when the bodywork was fitted.

The car made its first and only competitive appearance at the 1935 Italian Grand Prix, but did not make it to the race due to the noted development issues. After Trossi’s premature passing due to illness in 1949, the car went on display at the Museo Nazionale dell’Automobile in Turin, and made a special outing earlier this year for a, evening celebrating Il Conte and his exploits between land, sea and sky, at the Yacht Club Itaiano in Genoa.


A elevated rear 3/4 angle of the Count Trossi SSK, courtesy of Ralph Lauren

The SSK

Perhaps the two must famous objects to pass through his ownership are his apparently unique oversized Patek Philippe chronograph and his special bodied Mercedes SSK, which we will take a closer look at first.

Count Trossi’s car provides us with a bit of insight as to what was going on in the automotive industry at this time. Off the back of the Great Recession in 1929, demand for the ultra-luxe vehicles which had reigned supreme throughout the previous decade fell off dramatically, leading to the early demise of a some of the great marques and models. The once mighty Peerless in the US ceased production in 1931, Bentley went into liquidation in the same year to be be effectively acquired by Rolls-Royce seriously neutering the brand, and Bugatti, having planned to make 25 of the Type 41 Royale, produced just seven (one of which was destroyed in an accident in 1931) with only three eventually being sold to end clients.

So with all of this going on the SSK, (standing for Super Sport Kurz, the German word for short due to the 480mm reduction in chassis length over the stand Modell S) came into the world and was in production for four years following its debut in 1928, during which time fewer that 40 were made. Due to its shortened wheelbase together with its 7.1 litre supercharged inline six, the SSK proved agile, light and fast, with a top speed of approximately 120 mph, resulting in wins at the 1929 Ulster TT and 1931 Mille Miglia, among others. The SSK would be the last design of Ferdinand Porsche for Mercedes before he would go on to set up his own firm, first working on the Auto Union Grand Prix cars, then the Volkswagen “Beetle”, and post-war seeing the creation of the 356 under the watchful eye of his son Ferry.

The elegance of the Trossi SSK is overtly clear in profile, courtesy of Ralph Lauren

When chassis 36038 was completed in 1930, it was initially shipped to Japan in February of that year without a body (as was standard during the coach built period, so the owner could commission their own design), but when it couldn’t find a buyer it went back to the factory to then be dispatched to Carlo Saporiti in Milan in October of 1930. It was first sold to signor Antonio Maino, who fitted it with a two-seater spyder body from Carrozzeria Touring, and used it to compete in the Mille Miglia and various other events, until it was sold to Trossi in June 1933. He then went about commissioning his own dramatic bodywork for the car, and while the designer remains unknown, the results are no less arresting.

With great, swooping streamlined wheel covers that totally enclose the rear axle, an elegant and refined narrowed rear section, and the “long bonnet short deck” proportions of SSK, the Trossi provides a sense of drama topped off by its gloss black paintwork, that would define the following decade of coach built cars, including such legendary designs as the Figoni et Falaschi bodied Talbot-Lago, Bugatti Type 57 Atlantic and the Embiricos Bentley. Trossi traded the car back and forth between 1933 and his passing in 1949, when it was sold to Ricardo Polledo in Argentina. Unfortunately, Polledo was not able to get the car into the country, so it went to the Manhattan car dealer Carlie Stitch in 1952 to be purchased by American collector Carter Schaub. It then passed through the hands of a number of notable connoisseurs including Sir Anthony Bamford and Tom Perkins, before arriving in the garage of a certain Mr. Ralph Lauren.

Following the acquisition of the car by Lauren in 1988, a full restoration was undertaken by Paul Russell, who not only did a spectacular job of returning the SSK to its former glory, but also extensively researched the history of the car including uncovering original drawings from the Trossi family archives, and reuniting the engine with its original sump. It would go on to win the 1993 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, 2007 Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este, 2008 Cartier Style et Luxe concours at Goodwood Festival of Speed, and would be on display at the Louvre in Paris for the L’art de L’automobile exhibition in 2001.


The Trossi Leggenda together with a feature from the 1937 Scuderia Ferrari Magazine from 1937, courtesy of Sotheby’s

A Very Special Patek Philippe

There have been an extremely small number of genuinely important Patek Philippe chronographs that have come to market over the past two decades, from pieces such as the steel reference 1518 sold in recent years, to the more obscure including the unique reference 1527 that sold for 6,259,000 CHF in 2010, and the aviators hour angle split second chronograph that would end up in the Patek Philippe museum. Count Trossi’s watch can certainly be included among those.

Delivered to Il Conte in 1932, the same year he came president of Scuderia Ferrari, his watch was cleared intended for legibility while racing at high speed and was truly mammoth for the period measuring 46 mm in diameter, only comparable to the split-second chronograph reference 2512 (sold in 2000 for 1,439,750 CHF) that would be the inspiration for the modern reference 5070. With the chronograph actuated through the crown, Trossi’s watch also featured a slide lock to prevent accidental activation or stopping of the chronograph while it was running, quite a risk on such a large wrist-worn instrument in the tight cockpit of a race car.

Betraying its pocket watch origins with its hinged case back and cuvette, as well as the position of the subsidiary dials relative to the crown (when fitted to a pocket watch these would be in a north-south orientation which was common for the period), it makes perfect sense that Patek would repurpose one of the these larger calibres for this commission, as they allow a great amount of space for the base scale, which is ideal when timing at a circuit. Given its sizeable proportions, it’s not surprising that Trossi took to wearing the watch over the cuff of his race suit, as shown in the images above, a style that would be adopted by another great of the Italian automobile industry, Gianni Agnelli, some years later. The "Trossi Leggenda”, as the watch would become known, was sold at Sotheby’s in May 2008 for 2,345,000 CHF.

 Clearly a man of taste and means who was well ahead of his time, it is amazing to see elements of the seductive styling of Trossi’s car permeate the decades, with images of his SSK appearing on countless “mood boards” of designers, automotive or otherwise. To also see how a commission for an oversized chronograph from the almighty Patek Philippe that would end up being worn over the cuff in the 1930s, pre-dating the sprezzatura of Agnelli and the modern iterations such as the 5070, perhaps both the watch and car can serves as reminders than these mechanical objects can offer a way for our own names to survive long after us.

 

Sources

Sotheby’s
Veloce Today
Motorsport Magazine
Old Machine Press
Museo dell’Automobile
Paul Russell
Road and Track
Sports Car International, June 1995