Both drivers and car constructors have taken many differing paths to success in racing's top ranks, such as Formula One or IndyCar. Over the last few decades, the route more often than not has been paved with myriad open wheel "training series": Formula Vee, Formula Ford, Formula Atlantic...Formula this, Formula whatever. Even the highly professional minor leagues, such as today's Indy Lights program or the FIA's Formula 3, are acknowledged farm team systems designed to prepare new talent for the Big Show. Those familiar with the various series (Formula Ford, in this example) also know the names of the winning brands, such as Van Dieman, Swift, Zink, Ralt and dozens more. Their ancestors however, carried names like Dagrada, Bonde and Ausper. Almost innocuous labels such as DRW, BLW and BMC. Their stomping ground was Formula Junior. And one of their indisputable kings was Stanguellini.
FJ began as an outgrowth of the Italian Formula Corse and Formula 500 series in about 1958. Though born in Italy, Formula Junior's popularity spread quickly to the rest of Europe (particularly England) and the United States. The cars were relatively simple, and owing to their "junior" designation, rather compact. Rules specified that primary components be production based, and even moderately techy hardware such as overhead cams and self-locking differentials were prohibited. Minimum weight was barely 900 pounds, while the maximum width of the bodywork was a decidedly svelte 37.5 inches.
Initially, all of the cars were front engined, though rear-engined machines would later infiltrate the ranks about the same time they did at Indy. Owing to the Italian genesis of the Formula, most of the earliest cars were Fiat powered.Stanguellini, though not quite a household name in the U.S., is one well known in Italy, and one inextricably tied to Fiat. Francesco Stanguellini was the first Fiat dealer in Modena, the acknowledged exotic car mecca (as a matter of fact, the Stanguellini family's dealership is still open today). When the elder Stanguellini passed away in 1929, son Vittorio assumed control. Like Siata and Abarth that would follow, Stanguellini modified and raced various Fiat models, and built his own race cars around Fiat mechanicals. Stanguellinis experienced reasonable success, particularly in pre-War Mille Miglias, though the limelight may have been somewhat stolen by the dominating big bore cars of Maserati and an upstart named Ferrari.
Stanguellinis won the Formula Corse championships in 1956 and 1957, making the accession to the new Formula Junior a natural. The Formula Corse design was revised and rebodied. A Fiat 1100 series (1089 cc) OHV four replaced Stanguellini's own 750 cc twin cammer. The engine was mounted at a slight angle longitudinally, to allow the shifter (four or five speed) to fall to the driver's right. Running twin Webers, the production based four banger gave about 75 bhp. Later version were said to produce close to 100. This may not sound like much for a "real race car" but remember, total weight is less than half a ton.
The chassis was a simple tube frame affair, and carried unequal-length wishbone front independent suspension. Out back was a solid axle, and braking was via ventilated drums. Wheelbase was a mere 80 inches...ten inches shorter than a Miata's! The cockpit of these diminutive monoposti is elementally spartan, the steering wheel resting at a somewhat bus-like angle and framing the large tach. Don't waste time searching for the on-board computer, active suspension, digital readouts, boost gauge, driver adjustable brake bias or any other such hardware; things were a bit simpler then.
If races were won on looks alone, no Stanguellini FJ would have ever lost. Attempting to pick history's most beautiful open wheel racers would be like trying to balance the nation's budget with a pocket calculator...on your lunch hour. Some would vote for the Bugatti Type 35; those of another generation may prefer something like a Lotus 79. Any such list, however, must include these front engine Stanguellinis: pure of line and ideally proportioned, they somewhat resemble a three quarter scale Vanwall Formula One machine. There's also a bit of late-50s Indy roadster in there. A well restored Stanguellini, poised on its classic Borrani knock-off wire wheels, takes on an almost jewel-like appearance.
Some of the best drove Stanguellinis at one time or another: Jo Siffert, Lorenzo Bandini, "Taffy" von Tripps, Richie Ginther...Fangio himself reportedly did some neighborly test driving as well. 'Stangs had their own way with FJ in Italy, winning the 1958 championship. They also won both the Italian and International championship in 1959.By the 1960 season, two changes in FJ put a halt to Stanguellini's unbridled monopoly: the above noted segue toward rear engined cars, and FJ's increasing world wide popularity, brought more than 100 car builders into the fray...tightening the competition considerably. Emerging British makes such as Lotus, Cooper and Lola started winning, and though Stanguellini countered with more powerful engines and ultimately its own mid-engined cars, their days of singular dominance had come to an end. Bernard Cowdray, in his book Formula Junior, estimates that perhaps 150 of the front engined Stanguellini model FJs were built.
1963 was the last major season for FJ altogether, as a reformulated F-2 emerged as the new premier small-bore open wheel series in 1964. The emergence of historic racing has introduced Formula Junior to a new generation of enthusiasts, though anyone wishing to see the quintessential front-engined Formula Junior need only look as far as the nearest Stanguellini.