Born in July 1897, Ernest Eldrige, coming from a wealthy family, quit his formal school education to join as a patriot the first World War. In this period he became part of the Red Cross and served as an Ambulance Driver. Furthermore he became a fighter pilot and even survived one crash.
These difference experiences built his way after the war. He needed the adrenaline and knew cars and planes. From his point of view, it was a near solution to combine both and become a race driver. As it is still the epoch of the gentlemen driver, this was only possible thanks to his family background, as the drivers not only sat behind the wheel, but also had to buy their own cars and update them to the sports. Eldridge’s vision was to use standard sports cars and implement them airplane engines to boost their power.
In his 1922 he transferred a 20L Maybach airplane engine into his Isotta-Fraschini. This gave him a for this time incredible, 240HP. With beginning success, one year later he bought a dysfunctional Fiat SB4 from 1908. As other car manufactures as Alfa Romeo, BMW, Rolls Royce or Scania, also Fiat produced airplane engines in its early years. Due to this, Eldridge acquired an Fiat A.12 22L engine, originally used in first World War planes. To fit it into the SB4 chassis, the axis distance had to be enlarged and also a body customized. The result had been a car with monstrous proportions and 320 hp. With the small seat behind the large hood and its black color (only later the car had been re-painted in red), the machine looked as it came right from hell. Furthermore this impression got underlined by the dark infernal sound of this engine.
The car’s nickname “Mefistofele” (Italian for “Mephistopheles” or short “Mephisto”), was well deserved. Ironically, this demon was based on German folklore. A creature that first served men and then took the souls of the damned. In opposite to Lucifer itself, Mephistopheles not tempted men, but visited the humans, which already had been damned due to their ambitions and behavior.
In 1924 Eldridge took his car to Arpajon in France, where he set a new world speed record, reaching 235 km/h over the flying kilometer. With this task achieved, Eldridge sold the car still in the same year to concentrate on his career as race driver.
In opposite to its name, Eldridge had not entered a pact with the devil. In fact, the car never had been involved in any accident and can be visited today at Fiat’s historic museum in Turin, Italy. In rare events, the car can be spotted on different race tracks, as it still is fully functional.
Less known than the Mefistofele, Fiat build an even more extreme car already in in 1911. “The Beast of Turin” was another record car with a 28.5L engine. After 100 years, this predecessor was restored and is working again.
- Farnham, Willard (1969): “Twentieth Century Interpretations of Doctor Faustus.”
- Henz, Patrick (2017): “Italian Race Tales”