IT IS the evening of the 24th July 1956, in a villa in Merville-Franceville, a small locality on the Calvados coast, near Caen. An elderly man, his life slowly ebbing away, when suddenly from the road the screeching noise of a motorcycle engine at maximum revs is heard. The affectionate nurse sitting by his bed gets up to shut the window. The man, seemingly unconscious, shuddered and with great difficulty sat up in bed and tried to prevent her and whispers "do not shut the window, engine noises do not disturb me." Then exhausted by the effort slumps back upon the pillows and falls into a deep sleep from which he will not awaken.

AT 79 years old Alessandro Anzani was dying serenely, a great pioneer, an Italian technician whose place will be more than justified in this review.

EVEN if only marginally he was known as a maker of aeroplanes, it could be said, without a shadow of a doubt, he was the most famous inventor and constructor of aeronautical engines of this pioneering period. Although he lived a great part of his life in France he retained his Italian nationality. He was a knight of the crown of Italy, and in spite of all his achievements in the fields of sport and technical and industrial development he never once entertained the idea of becoming a French citizen. Had he done so he would have benefited greatly in his field and the privileges would have been enormous.

WHEN he retired and sold all his business interests he kept only the Monza factory, more for sentimental value than for profit. Just before his death a journalist was asking him why he had never taken French citizenship, he simply replied; "You do not renounce your country even though I owe France all my wealth."

HIS answer was honest and full of dignity, which should make politicians and actors ashamed of having changed their allegiances purely for personal gain and to escape paying taxes.

ALESSANDRO Ambrogio Anzani was born in Gorla, a popular suburb of Milan, on the 5th December 1877. His parents were Angelo and Teldolinda Bruno, a family of modest means. His education was limited due to lack of resources and his own distaste of studying. In spite of this he showed a lively interest and a notable disposition for anything mechanical, and in fact, following his passion he started working at a very early age in a small workshop belonging to his uncle. But Alessandro was a very ambitious young man who perceived his future beyond the smoky walls of a small workshop in Milan at the end of the 19th century.

A FANATIC about cycling, and a very good cyclist himself, at a rally in Milan where he was a spectator, he had the pleasure of meeting and becoming a good friend of a French cyclist named Gabriel Poulain. This meeting brought about a sudden and dramatic change in the life of the young Milanese mechanic.

THE young French cyclist invited Anzani to France to take part in races in a velodrome in order to gain some money. Anzani was still liable to military service in Italy but promised his new found French friend that he would take up his offer as soon as he was discharged. Therefore, in 1900, in common with many other young Italians, at the age of 23 with little money in his pocket, he crossed the Alps and emigrated to France. He lived in St. Nazaire in Brittany as a guest of his friend Poulain.

WITH the help and encouragement of his friend he started racing, with modest success but he didn't feel particularly talented in this field and at the first opportunity he abandoned the sport, because deep down he still had a burning passion for anything mechanical especially engines which were still his main interest.

FOR the second time his destiny changed when he met a man from Marseilles named Cornet, an amateur engineer who was building motorcycles in a small workshop. To know him and to become his friend was easy because both men were consumed by the same interest. During their conversations Cornet became aware of Anzani's talents and put at his disposal a small workshop where he could work in his spare time to develop a motor cycle engine all of his own. It must be said that Anzani had a strong aptitude in this field because his first task was to build a two cylinder engine lighter in weight and more powerful than any other engine at the time. Having mounted the engine in a motorcycle he raced it with immediate success. The young man won many races and in 1905 established the world speed record of 100 kph for an engine of ? litre capacity and also won the world championship at Ostend in 1906.

THE resounding victories of this relatively unknown Italian astounded the designers and engineers of the day and the sporting media to the extent that they began to dedicate more and more space to his achievements. One day a group of Belgian sporting journalists in collusion with the Flemish champion Jan Olieslagers, a champion of proven ability, challenged Anzani to a contest with a proviso that it should take place in Anversa. Anzani, who was so sure of his own ability replied, "anywhere will do." And to prove his confidence he clocked 110kph. on the circuit of Anversa.

DURING this time he experimented with an original motorcycle assisted by a propeller with which he reached a speed of 80kph.

Picture credit: Musée de l' Air et de l'Espace de Paris-Le Bourget
Alessandro Anzani in the saddle of Ernest Archdeacon's ‘aéro-motorcyclette’, September 1906

WITH the proceeds of his winnings from the motorcycle racing he set up a small workshop at Asnieres, near Paris, employing three workmen. After his first prestigious engine others followed and all were considered to be at the forefront of technical design. In setting up his workshop he did not rely on others but he took a personal hand, even in the bricklaying. While his workers busied themselves in this workshop in 1907 producing motorcycles Anzani achieved great progress in the quality of his workmanship. At this time he was thinking about diversification by running his motorcycle production along with other products in the field of motor engineering. In secret, and without letting even his closest colleagues know, he was working on the design of a seaplane that even today is considered a point of reference. The float was built on his instructions by Deschamps and Blondeau; it weighed 500kg, was 6.25 metres in length, and was driven by a 20cv. Anzani engine with an aeroplane propeller.

AFTER the test flight was completed at Monaco among the interested public and the media was Anzani himself who was reminded of Jules Verne and aptly named his craft Anzani-Nautilus. At a meeting on the 18th August 1907, at Juvisy, Anzani-Nautilus performed with such ease that all the media present could not fail to be impressed.

AFTER this Anzani supplied the same engine to Enrico Forlanini to be installed in his seaplane. Subsequently in the trials that took place on Lake Maggiore Forlanini reached 79kph.
The small workshop in Asnieres soon became too small for demands put upon the increased workforce but Anzani who had wisely invested his winnings from the competitions and his earnings from the sales of his new engines opened a new and much larger factory at Courbevoie, near Paris. Once again he isolated himself from everybody and began work on yet another new project in the form an aeroplane engine. These were the years when the passion for flying was spreading all over Europe, and France in particular was the most advanced country in this new conquest. Anzani, the self-taught engineer, after various designs, came up with a very simple solution, he added a third cylinder to his twin cylinder, air cooled motor cycle engine. Most of the engines of the day were water-cooled because they originated from the automobile industry. The aim of Anzani was to make all engines air-cooled. He did this by arranging the cylinders in fan shape and later on in radial form. In consequence he was able to eliminate the radiator and all the water-cooling apparatus thereby reducing the weight of the engines significantly.

THE new revolutionary lightweight engine with the three cylinders arranged in fan shape, and air-cooled, constituted a highly technical revolution in this field. The weight of the engine was around 65kg and the power to weight ratio was 25-30cv.

AT THIS point of Anzani's life he met the great aviation pioneer Louis Blériot and in a very few months, thanks to Anzani's technical expertise, Blériot's name was on everybody's lips for having flown across the English Channel at the first attempt. He had been considering a cross Channel flight in one of his own planes, but his engines were so unreliable that he was petrified of drowning, being unable to swim.

HAVING read in the press of Blériot's intention, and advised by the pilot, Raymond Saulnier, later an associate of Robert Morane, of the famous Morane-Saulnier aircraft factory, Anzani took the initiative and went to Blériot to offer him his new engine. Blériot had recently produced his Blériot XI engine for the very purpose of the attempt to fly across the Channel, but was still unhappy with the performance of his own engine and its unacceptable power to weight ratio. Anzani was able to allay his fears and offered to build and install an engine which once installed could be guaranteed to complete the crossing without failure.

HAVING learned of Anzani's past sporting achievements, and his success in producing powerful lightweight engines with uncanny regularity, Blériot, the cunning fox, hesitated to see if he could make Anzani reduce the price of his engine, but because of Anzani's excellent workmanship and expertise he finally agreed to pay the asking price. Anzani produced, in a very short time, an engine to be mounted in Blériot's model XI plane. The two pioneers decided first of all to enter the plane in a race which was about to take place in nearby Orleans on the 13th July 1909. They won the race and the Prix de Voyage Cup and prize money 4,500 francs which was divided as follows:
2,000 francs to Blériot for the aeroplane;
1,500 francs to Anzani for the engine;
1,000 francs to Chaviere for the propeller.

AFTER this convincing demonstration the only thing left to prove was the crossing from Calais to Dover.


Picture credit: Musée de l'Air et de l'Espace de Paris-Le Bourget
Louis Blériot and Alessandro Anzani, shown here with a type IX, July 1909

THE rest is a fact of history, thanks to the ongoing success of the Anzani engine. On the 25th July 1909 Louis Blériot became the first man to fly across the English Channel, his plane powered by this same engine.

TWO months later, 16th of September 1909 Moissant successfully completed a Channel crossing, but Blériot was the first and to him went all the glory and a prize of 25,000 Francs and a significant boom for his aeroplane.

MANY years after Anzani recollected the occasion of his first meeting with Blériot and what he said, "You know Anzani, it is MY skin that I am risking!" to which Anzani replied, "You can leave, I have every confidence in MY engine!" Anzani continued, "My friend Piero Magni who I shall always remember, with affection, as an infinite source of information, used to say, Anzani's engines may be difficult to start but will only stop when the fuel runs out."

AFTER congratulating Blériot on the success of his achievement, Anzani added, "I thank you very much for having so much faith in my engine."

BLÉRIOT'S flight heaped more praise on Anzani and the achievement was later recorded by Orazio Curti, Director of the Science and Technology in Milan, in the periodical Museo Scienza No.4 of 1972 edition pages 25 & 27,as follows, "At 3.30am. on the 25th July 1909 Alessandro Anzani opened his hotel room window (Hotel des dunes in Calais) to see that after many days of terrible weather the sky was now clear and there was not a breath of wind. Anzani exclaimed, "Blériot must go to-day." In his excitement he ran from his room calling to his mechanics telling them to prepare the engine for the flight. At breakneck speed he drove to the Hotel Terminus where Blériot was staying, nearly knocking over the night porter in his haste to get to Blériot's room, waking most of the hotel guests by shouting, "The weather is fine!" Blériot, who had had a terrible night, due to the pain he still suffered from a previously fractured leg, said in a whisper, "I don't think I can make it today." His wife said, "Look at him Mr. Anzani, it would a folly for him to fly today.... perhaps tomorrow..." "Tomorrow!!!" shouted Anzani. "If Blériot doesn't go today, I will!" And followed this outburst with a string of expletives, in Italian. It was just as well that the people there didn't understand. And ended up by demanding payment for his engine, because he knows that Blériot doesn't have a cent, to even begin to repay his debts. Confronted with this threat Blériot reluctantly agreed to fly.

IN GREAT pain Blériot got up and began dressing while Anzani was already on his way to prepare for the flight.

A LITTLE while later Blériot and his loyal friend Leblanc made their way to the field where everything was ready for the historic flight. The plane was all ready and waiting and only had to be flown.

IT WAS 4am the sky was clear, the sun not yet risen; Anzani meticulously and lovingly inspected his engine for the last time, while Blériot, feeling much better perhaps because of the freshness of the morning air, climbed on board to execute a trial run. After about ten minutes in the air and feeling confidant he lands and is ready for the challenging flight ahead. The rules of the competition, as set out by the Daily Mail, sponsors of the competition and donors of the 25,000 franc prize money, stated that the flight must take place between dawn and dusk, by an aeroplane propelled by a gas which is heavier than air. Blériot is nervously waiting to start his flight and as he looks to the east he suddenly sees the sun appearing over the horizon. He looks at his watch, it is 4.30am, he adjusts his helmet. Leblanc waves the starting flag: "We can start! The sun is up."

THE mechanics, their hair blowing in the wind, are hanging on to the fuselage to restrain the plane. We hear an order, "Let go!" The plane leaps forward, lifts and points ahead, in the direction of Dover. It is the start of the first great undertaking in the history of flight. The flight from Calais to Dover was in fact such an exceptional occurrence, demonstrating the ability of the aeroplane to fly great distances, and its superiority over any other means of transport. An exceptional achievement carried out by two exceptional men. The Anzani engine fitted to the Blériot aeroplane was the real reason for the runaway success of the flight.

AFTER the celebrations in England, the return to France was triumphant. Blériot, his wife, Anzani and Leblanc paraded in a carriage flanked by applauding crowds and the magnesium flashes of the photographers. In the evening the Aero Club of France held a great banquet for the occasion, the Minister of Justice, Barthou, and the Minister of Public Works, Millerand, representing the government, presented Blériot and Anzani with a silver medal of the Aero Club of France, and in addition Anzani was also given the "Palme di Acca demico di Francia." Blériot's triumph also reflected on Anzani: his fame, and that of his "miraculous engines" rapidly spread throughout the world and orders flooded in for the acquisition of all types of engines, for motorbike, outboards, and aeroplanes.

AS OFTEN happens when two people have to share the limelight, in this case Blériot and Anzani, albeit only in print, a controversy developed through an article published in the magazine "La Domenica dei motori, cicli e sports" following an interview given by Anzani. In reply to which Blériot, in order to enhance his own ego, gave interviews himself to journalists, saying that the engine often misfired but, in spite of this, he went ahead with the flight. Anzani's riposte to these criticisms was to say "Blériot wants all the glory for the flights, but while we are alone he has nothing but praise for the engine." "In the presence of journalists or VIPs, I don't exist and he takes all the credit." "Blériot is a very clever man; he knows how to look after his own interests."

DURING this same period Anzani built his own aeroplane, a high winged monoplane, with a wing span of 8 metres, and a cockpit area of l6m², it goes without saying that the engine was an Anzani, with three cylinders in a fan shaped disposition, exactly the same as that fitted in Blériot's plane in which he completed his mythical Channel crossing. Of particular interest in this plane was the large diameter of the driving belt between the engine and the propeller. But this particular design proved to be of limited success and persuaded Anzani to concentrate on the design and construction of engines, a field in which he had no rivals or competition, but he subsequently went on to become a very good pilot both of monoplanes and biplanes.

ANZANI began to fly as a pilot at Chalon sur Marne, and soon afterwards he came to Italy to exhibit at Primo Circuito Aereo Internazionale di Brescia a biplane AVIS, an aeroplane type Voisin with an Anzani 35cv. engine, produced in Italy by Ataliers Voisin Italie Septen trionale, a company owned by the Swiss-French man Octave Thouvenot.

THE first trial flights of Anzani at Brescia were dogged by bad luck. In fact on the 9th September 1909, through the 13th and 14th he tried in vain to take off, and on the l2th he actually suffered a broken propeller and damage to the plane. But in spite of his failures the jury at Brescia presented him with a diploma of honour for his engine and at the end of the exhibition they also presented him with a shield.

THE demand for the Anzani engine had become so great that in addition to the new factory at Courbevoie, already being planned, another one, in London was added.

IN 1911, at Novara, a firm called Alessandro Anzani & Co., established for the distribution of his engines, in particular a 6 cylinder star arrangement of 50 to 60 cv. and also a 20 cylinder of similar arrangement of 200cv. He swept away all competition even of the richest companies producing aeronautical engines by offering his engines of any power, or type, at 100 francs per horsepower. The range of power of his engines varied, according to type, from 15cv to 1250cv, giving the clientele a great choice of products, ie. covering any application.

HAVING reached the pinnacle of his successful career as an engineer and become quite a celebrity among his peers, Anzani, in spite of all his efforts could not keep up with the demand for his engines decided to allow them to be built by other manufacturers, under licence, making him a millionaire overnight. When his accountant told him he was worth 100,000,000Fr. his response was just a wry smile.

BECOMING enormously rich, for such a simple man, not only was a testimony to his success as a designer, but was also a guarantee that he could now dedicate himself to the design of future engines without any financial problems.

IT WAS only at the beginning of the first world war that Anzani built also in Italy, at Monza, a factory to produce 10 cylinder radial engines in double star arrangement, ranging from 100cv at 1250cvs. The first engines of this type came of the production line towards the end of 1916, and were installed in Maurice Farman's biplane MF 1914 with dual control, used by flying schools, and also in Caudron G3 reconnaisance planes.

IN ADDITION to the engines built in Monza, the Italian aeronautical industry also fitted engines imported from France, for example, the 3 cylinder, 35cv in fan arrangement to the 6 cylinder 45cv double star arrangement, employed in Gabardini and Blériot mono-plane trainers.

IN 1920, always in search of a new challenge, Anzani built a small racing car fitted with one of his 2 cylinder, 750cc engines, air cooled and with overhead valves. These small ventures brilliantly established themselves in the Cyclecar category in various competitions in several countries including France and Italy. Among the victories we remember was the Parma-Poggio-di-Berceto, won by Cesare Brambilla in 1923. The next year, on the 10th May 1924, Anzani himself took part in the same race, sporting no. 17 and came fourth in the Cyclecar category.

IN 1921, Anzani continuing his experimentations, thought of motorising bicycles. To this end he built a small, 4 stroke engine, 75cm² capacity, with belt drive. These small engines were easily fitted to normal bicycles and could run for 70-75 km. on a litre of petrol. Anzani, therefore was the precursor in the production of cycle engines which would corner the market in the post-war period.

JUST before his 50th birthday, and already a rich and famous man, he grew tired of his inventions and his factories because they ceased to represent a challenge. The progress of technology was by now so rapid that he felt that it overtook his self-taught ability, and this great mechanic from Gorla thought it was now time to retire and rest on his laurels. He decided to sell his factories, the one at Courbevoie he sold to the aeronautical industrialist, Henry Potez. The factory in Monza he kept for sentimental reasons because of his ties with his native Lombardi and Italy, and to provide work for his Italian work force, in which he could see a reflection of his own career from humble origins

HE BOUGHT a villa in Merville-Franceville, a region of Calvados, which he named "Ker Yves," where he spent the last years of his life

LITTLE is known of the private life of Anzani, the man, but his son, Roberto, who suffered for some time with Alzheimer's Disease, and unable to write, asked his wife to write to the author on the 28th 1995, from their villa in Merville-Franceville. She described the intimate details of Allessandro Anzani's life in France. From this hand written, and signed letter, it was revealed somewhat disconcertingly, that he had lived simultaneously with at least three different women at the same time, and each one of them bore him several children although, strange as it may seem, in spite of all the women, and there were many, he never married at all.

AS WE have already seen Anzani died on the 24th July 1956. The world, partly because of the second World War, had changed enormously, and although he tried to keep abreast of events through the media, he found the pace of developments impossible. With his honest approach to life and his application and hard work, the young immigrant, without any means, was able to overcome all obstacles and achieve fame and fortune. In his career span he designed and built engines of all types and capacities.

HIS engines, simple, robust, and cheap but of assured reliability, not only made him rich and famous but also contributed in a decisive way to the development of worldwide aviation. During his lifetime he collected acknowledgements, prizes, decorations and honours of every kind, and from every country. In addition to these he was also made a knight of the Legion of Honour and a knight of the Crown of Italy.

AFTER his death there was a procession of friends, acquaintances, personalities, admirers, and the plainly curious, all wanting to see him just one last time. For his funeral people came from every part of Europe and put considerable strain on the ability of the hoteliers of this small locality of Calvados, near the English Channel, to provide accommodation. The Villa seemed anonymous, although every room seemed to talk of Allessandro Anzani, his cups, his relics and inumerable photographs from which he still seemed to be looking at the visitors.

EVERYONE had the impression that, at any moment, he would appear with his usual smile with which he welcomed the few friends who still visited him in the last days of his life. Alessandro Anzani, in every sense was a great Italian, he loved his country, he brought honour to it through his work and conduct, and remained faithful all of his life to his country, even at the cost of some sacrifice, including being considered a foreigner in France where he worked. He was a likeable man, open, full of life and enthusiasm; he was gifted with a great affability and driven by an exceptional will-power. With his ingenuity and strength, starting from nothing, he created an industrial and economic empire, but the success and the money did not change him.

ON THE 2nd June 1984, the city of Monza remembered and honoured this great pioneer who had provided work for many citizens of Monza, by naming the elementary school of no. 27 Correggio St. after him.


This article is ©Giorgio Evangelisti and is taken from his book Gente dell'aria 4 published by Editoriale Olimpia, Firenze. ISBN 88-253-1602-X 1996. It can be purchased direct at www.edolimpia.it

The pictures on this page are ©Musée l'Air d'Espace in Paris. The authors of this site would like to thank them for giving us permission to use them. If you would like to visit their site please follow this link http://www.mae.org

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