Felice Nazzaro had brains as well as a heavy right foot and he used them well to work his way up from the shop floor to motor racing stardom in a career that spanned three decades.
A native of Monteu de Po, a small village east of Turin in Piedmont region, north-western Italy, he was born into a well-to-do coal merchant family in 1881.
He had been apprenticed to Ceirano, who were acquired by Fiat at the turn of the century; his abilities as a driver were soon realised by the new owners, and in 1900 he was entered in the Padua-Vicenza-Padua race with a 6 hp Fiat, and came second.
Nazzaro’s first racing victory came the following year when, driving one of the new Mercedes-inspired, front-engined, 3.8-litre, four-cylinder Fiats, he won the Giro d’Italia at an average speed of 27.7 mph. Shortly afterwards, Nazzaro became chauffeur to Vincenzo Florio; Florio’s taste for high-powered touring cars and his love of automobile sport ensured that the new appointment was not devoid of interest for Nazzaro, who was able to take part in various local competitions.
In 1904, however, with an old 70 hp Panhard, he came fifth in the first Coppa Florio (which was won by Lancia at the wheel of one of the new Gordon Bennett Fiats), beating such crack drivers as Cagno in the process. This performance earned Nazzaro a place in the Fiat team for 1905, and he responded with a spectacular second place in the Gordon Bennett, beaten only by Leon Thery driving a Richard-Brasier. He achieved sixth place in the Coppa Florio that year, and came second in the first French Grand Prix in 1906.
1907 was a brilliant year for both driver and car, in which Nazzaro carried off the un-equalled feat of winning the season’s three major races all run under entirely different rules, with cars ranging from 7363cc to 16,286cc.
Because of the cessation of major international motoring competition in the period 1909 – 1912, Nazzaro made few appearances, apart from his record attempt at Brooklands in the summer of 1909 with the sister car to Mephistopheles. Then, in 1912, he sought to emulate his former colleague, Lancia, by turning to car manufacture. This lasted only a few years and then he returned to Fiat.
In 1923 he became head of Fiat’s competition department, staying until his death in 1940.