Passion is the real engine

Interview with Giuseppe Genchi, founder and managing director of the University of Palermo's Museo Storico dei Motori e dei Meccanismi

Art is born when talent meets passion on the road named perseverance. The Museo Storico dei Motori e dei Meccanismi [Historic Museum of Engines and Mechanisms] and its founder Giuseppe Genchi have won their place in history thanks to the award of international Mechanical Engineering Heritage Collection status by the ASME.

"When is a passion born? Well, in my case it was a combination of a lot of factors; it's hard to put a finger on a single moment when anything big starts."

We are talking to Giuseppe Genchi, founder of the Museo Storico dei Motori e dei Meccanismi, Palermo, a part of the University of Palermo University Museum System, which with effect from 31 May 2017 can proudly claim international Mechanical Engineering Heritage Collection status.

This accolade was awarded by the ASME, American Society of Mechanical Engineers, as part of its History and Heritage Landmarks programme, which internationally promotes major collections, landmarks and artefacts of outstanding historic and technical value, considered to represent a significant step forward in the history and evolution of Mechanical Engineering. We met Giuseppe Genchi, who explained how the Museum came to be founded ... and lots more.

"I'll try to describe the Museum's history as if it were a four-stroke engine. Intake, in terms of inputs and inspiration, is a phase of life that lasts from infancy to twenty-one years of age. Even as a small boy, I loved everything related to mechanics and engineering. I was curious about how things worked, from the simplest devices to the most complex. The process by which a raw material becomes something clearly defined and functioning fascinated me. I used to play with machines, with myself as engine. I built scale models of cars and planes, some of which I designed myself. As I grew up, I developed my passion by studying engineering in Palermo and reading about the world of automotive design.
I became very interested in classic cars: I own one, which nowadays I would say I got quite cheap. At the age of 21 it cost me all my savings.

That brings us to the second phase: Compression. One evening, walking around Palermo with a friend who also loved cars, I came across this lovely classic car, it was the first time I'd seen it, it seemed to have been dumped. That very evening I left a note with my phone number on the windscreen. I got a call the next day and met the owner. In spite of everything, the car was still in working order, and the bargaining didn't last long ..... I couldn't offer anything more than the few savings I'd put together. The evening before I finalised the deal, I decided to tell my family what I had in mind. “Eat up”, my mother replied, shutting down the topic at once. She hadn't said "no" (at least not in so many words!), so the next day I bought it. This was a turning-point in my passion for cars, because I was able to try my hand at restoration for the first time.

Phase 3: Combustion and expansion. After initially studying Mechanical Engineering in Palermo and preparing my dissertation on a programme of experimentation run at the Fiat Research Centre, I went back to Palermo to take my specialist degree. During my final year in Engineering, I started work on what, a few year later, was to become the Museum. One day, almost by chance, I found myself in a warehouse stacked full of old engines, left there when they became surplus to requirements for teaching or research in the University.

I put on my lab coat and gloves and got to work to restore the first one, on my own suggestion and on a volunteer basis, and seeing my enthusiasm they let me continue with the second and the third. We're talking about old steam traction engines or aviation engines, such as the Fiat A.74 or the Fiat A.80, truck engines but above all car engines. I realised almost immediately that premises also had to be found to display and conserve the collection.
So, after finishing my specialist degree and after three years of non-stop work, I managed to complete most of the restoration work and to create a location that illustrated the history of mechanics and the way engines evolved over the decades using the engines I had restored up to that time.

As a result, in February 2011 the Museum opened, in the exhaust phase, always followed by the start of a fresh cycle. Thanks to a small grant from the University, sponsors who had faith in the project and donations from private benefactors, we were up and running. Today, we have about 300 pieces, all displayed strictly in chronological order and complete with an informative poster.
Mechanical Engineering Heritage Collection status is a well-earned reward for the work done to restore fine engines belonging to two different centuries. We are proud of this international accolade, not only because it comes from the ASME, which has been promoting the most important landmarks in mechanical engineering since 1971, but also because it is the 1st time the award has been made in Italy (the 18th time in Europe). What's more, it is very rare for the status to be granted to the collection of engines in its entirety (rather than a single artefact).

The Museum's engine is not only running but performing well: it has overcome any initial inertia, got properly into gear and become a point of reference for historic engine enthusiasts. We regularly receive new pieces for us to restore and display, even from members of the public, and the engines the University retires from its teaching labs will all eventually join the collection. What's more, the numbers of visitors coming to admire it are increasing year by year. In May this year we have already equalled the number of visits for the whole of 2016, which we are expecting to double by the end of the year. The Museum organises a large number of cultural activities, temporary exhibitions and seminars and also hosts major sporting events, including the last six editions of the international Targa Florio Classic race, with the relative Ferrari Tribute. The restoration workshop is still in operatoin: its most important project was the restoration of the historic FIAT G.59 aircraft, one of just 5 still in existence, and one of the key items in the Museum's collection.

Naturally the biggest attractions for visitors include a large number of Fiat engines, such as those of the Fiat 501 or the FIAT 8V sports cars, but also the engines of some iconic Lancia models like the Stratos and the Flaminia 2500, not forgetting the revolutionary twin shaft engine of the Alfa Romeo Giulietta 1300. They're incredible cars, and like all fans, I dream of driving them just once more - and I'd have to take the wheel, because I get terribly car-sick".

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