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.
79 years old Alessandro Anzani was dying serenely, a great pioneer, an
Italian technician whose place will be more than justified in this review.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
this convincing demonstration the only thing left to prove was the crossing
from Calais to Dover.
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.
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
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."
congratulating Blériot on the success of his achievement, Anzani
added, "I thank you very much for having so much faith in my engine."
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.
GREAT pain Blériot got up and began dressing while Anzani was already
on his way to prepare for the flight.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
BOUGHT a villa in Merville-Franceville, a region of Calvados, which he
named "Ker Yves," where he spent the last years of his life
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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