Way in the back of the Fiat booth at this year's Geneva Motor Show, behind all of the shiny modern machinery with their tiny, fuel-sipping engines, sat a car that looks like one of those wood-carved models you see at every knick-knack store. Curious though it was, we knew right off the bat there is something far more significant to this car than met the eye. And indeed there is.
Nicknamed "Mephistoles" by the French public in the 1920s, this 1908 Fiat SB4 racer was, at the time, the fastest car in the world. Sir Ernest Eldridge bought it on the cheap after it crashed in a race at Brooklands in the UK, thereafter setting about turning it into a land speed record car. To get there, Sir Ernest and company replaced the engine with a 22-liter(!) inline six-cylinder aircraft engine that delivered 320 horsepower to the rear wheels via chain drive – a combination (hardly) kept in check by a single brake on the rear differential.
Mephistoles set a top speed of 143.26 miles per hour over a flying kilometer in Arpajob, France in 1924, but was later disqualified because the regulations stipulated the necessity of a reverse gear, which the Fiat lacked. Sir Ernest developed a system and came back, regulations satisfied, just days later to set a new record of 146 mph... the last such record achieved on a public road. To this day, according to the lore, nobody knows how Eldridge got the thing to go in reverse, but after over three years of restoration, Fiat is proudly exhibiting Mephistoles in Geneva, and we snapped a few photos to help you ponder the mystery and majesty for yourself.