He was born in Casale Monferrato, in the Italian Piemonte region, and soon developed a keen interest in anything mechanic, with his main interest being engines. Soon enough, he was enrolled by Fiat and his first major feat was to develop the racing engine for the Fiat 804. In 1922, he was spotted by Louis Coatalen, technical director of Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq
In those roaring twenties, many automotive brands were rising and falling, and one of them was Talbot, resulting from the consortium Clément-Talbot, born out of the merger of the British businesses of Adolphe Clément and the count Schrewsbury and Talbot.
Becchia designed the iconic T120 short wheelbase Talbot-Lago “Baby Sport”
This brand Talbot had a British arm in London, and a French one in Suresnes. The Talbots built in Suresnes were sold as Darracqs on the British market.
The French division Talbot Suresnes was then led by two young talented engine designers, Vincenzo Bertarione and Walter Becchia, and they created in 1923 the 1500 Talbot 4 cylinder, followed by the 8 cylinder in line 1,5 liter engine in 1926.
The same Talbot-Lago T120 seen from the rear…
While Becchia stayed at Talbot, he would concentrate on combustion technology, and he developed further the design the use of hemispherical combustion chambers with the valves angled in V, actuated through overhead camshafts. In this design work, he was actually inspired by the pioneering constructions and designs of… Belgian car builder Pipe(!).
The upcoming regime of Mussolini was not to the liking of Walter Becchia, and in 1926 he decided to become a French citizen. He continued to work at Talbot, also when the firm had been bought by the venetian engineer Antonio Lago, with the reorganized company continuing as Talbot-Lago.
The Talbot-Lago T 150 C which was built from 1937 to 1939 remains one of the most stunning automobiles ever…
He became legendary as an engineer, capable of creating and designing an engine in detail within just a few days. In 1935, he designed the iconic T120 short wheelbase Talbot-Lago “Baby Sport” and of course his engine designs were even more famous. The V16 engines, both in 3 litre and 1,5 litre form, are from his hand.
The designer of the 2 CV engine…
In 1939, Citroën was eying to his design talents for good reason: Pierre Boulanger and his team were working on the development of the revolutionary “Bauhaus” principle 2CV, the minimalist people’s car. He hesitated for two years, and in 1941 finally took the decision to join them, and to succeed engine designer Maurice Sainturat, who had retired. His first major feat was to fully redesign the engine of the prototype, and rebuild it from scratch. The Citroën engineers and designers had used motorcycle engines for their prototypes, and history has it that Walter Becchia was inspired by the twin cylinder boxer BMW R12 owned by Citroën stylist Flaminio Bertoni. The result is known to all: the iconic and famous air cooled two cylinder boxer engine of the 2 CV.
Sainturat had drawn the outlines for a 375-cc twin-cylinder engine before he retired, and Becchia used this as the basis for his own design. Becchia first switched Sainturat’s design from water cooling to air cooling, with an eye on saving both weight and complexity. He added a fourth gear to the integrated transmission that Boulanger had first designed for the car. Becchia took things a step further, adopting light alloy for the engine block, making it very light.
This was one of the most important postwar engines that anyone developed, anywhere. It took Becchia all of a week to get it done.
A thoroughly modern engine, which it remains right until this day. Of course, without electronically controlled fuel injection, it could not meet the emission standards from the ‘90s, and that was the end of this formidable engine.
Becchia and the Citroën DS…
When designing the DS, Michel Lefebvre and his team originally aimed at building a flat six, which would be mounted ahead of the front axle. Walter Becchia built both an air and water cooled 1,8 liter six cylinder boxer engine. With the air cooled version, Becchia and his assistant, Corner, ran into cooling problems with the middle cylinders, and the engine also made simply too much noise, certainly when cold, with the whine of the fan certainly not helping things. The laws of physics cannot be escaped: everyone knows for example that an early Porsche 911 is not a very silent, albeit melodious machine either…
The water cooled flat six 1.8 litre engtine designed by Becchia never made it into production: too noisy, too expensive and developing insufficient power …
The problem that the water-cooled six cylinders was not developed further for the DS is mainly the cost. For these reasons, the block of the Traction four cylinder was retained, with Walter Becchia and his assistant Poillot coming up in very short time (some speak of as little as eight days) with a new cylinder head to be fitted on the old block. The design of the cylinder head was based on the same principles Becchia had used at Talbot: pushrods operating the inlet and exhaust valves inclined under a V angle to give hemispherical crossflow combustion chambers.
Becchia designed further milestones at Citroën. In the ‘60s, Walter Becchia would still design a 3 liter V6 engine, but alas, also that engine never went into production. He kept working of course also on the CX, the SM’s, retiring only in 1968 at the age of 76!
Hans Knol ten Bensel