Bonhams presents its Scottsdale Auction at The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa on January 27, opening its sales year with an assortment of enticing automotive offerings. Many of these will appeal to collectors with a penchant for the rare and esoteric. One such example is this roadster from Siata, the once-ascendant automaker whose sports cars are among the most collectible of the so-called “Etceterini” marques from Italy’s past.
Siata is an acronym for Società Italiana Auto Trasformazione Accessori, the Turin-based firm founded in 1926 by Giorgio Ambrosini, and which ceased production in 1970. Much like Abarth, Siata developed its business by manufacturing performance parts for Fiat, gaining greater exposure after World War II as motorsport came back to the fore in Europe and the Americas. As 750 cc-powered race cars grew in displacement, Siata-modified vehicles gained prominence and the attention of stateside racers like Briggs Cunningham and Ernie McAfee. The latter was a Los Angeles–based importer who drove one of the first Siata-enhanced examples in the 1953 Carrera Panamericana race.
Fiat, meanwhile, had developed a 2.0-liter V-8 engine for its luxury sports car, the Otto Vu. While only 49 examples of that model were constructed, there remained additional Fiat V-8 engines that were acquired by Siata to power its new 208S Spider, unveiled in 1952. Only 33 examples were bodied by Carrozzeria Rocca Motta, of Turin, from 1953 to 1955. The car was not only powerful for its day, but supremely beautiful.
Designed by Giovanni Michelotti, these perfectly proportioned roadsters defined the iconic look of the era’s rugged sports cars. Equally stunning was the 208 CS, a coupe version of which only 18 were made, 11 bodied by Balbo and seven by Stabilimenti Farina. Topped with twin Weber carburetors and tuned by Siata, Fiat’s 2.0-liter OHV alloy V-8 engine develops more than 125 hp at 6,000 rpm, which is good enough to give the car a top speed of nearly 125 mph.
A four-speed manual gearbox, independent coil suspension, finned alloy drum brakes and an aluminum body all contributed to the model’s competitive personality on road and track. Actor Steve McQueen was one of McAfee’s customers who bought a Siata 208S, which was priced at $4,995 when new (expensive for its day). McQueen called the car his “little Ferrari.”
Based on extant records, chassis No. BS518 was built in 1953 and is number 18 of 33 Motta-bodied cars made. It was sold “new” in 1957 from the backyard of Bill Doheny’s Beverly Hills estate. The oil tycoon and developer was responsible for financing McAfee, and the four-year lapse between the model year and sale year suggests that McAfee may have used the car for racing or promotion, a not-uncommon practice of small-volume marques.
The example’s first owner replaced the original engine, a fate endured by at least 15 cars in period, with a Chevrolet V-8. The 208S on offer subsequently passed through a number of more sympathetic hands, one of whom sourced a correct engine, No. BS078. In 2012, Epifani Restorations in Berkeley, Calif., undertook a comprehensive restoration that was completed in 2015.
This Siata has gone on to receive awards at concours that include Pebble Beach, Villa d’Este, Amelia Island and, most recently, at Pebble Beach again in 2022, where it won first in class. One of the most enduring designs of its era and one of the finest Siata 208S Spiders ever to come to market, it carries a high-end estimate of $1.8 million.
Click here for more photos of this 1953 Siata 208S Spider.