Alfa Romeo 158 – Weathering the Storm

O helpless few in my country, remnant enslaved!
Artists broken against her,
A-stray, lost in the villages,
Mistrusted, spoken-against,

Lovers of beauty, starved,
Thwarted with systems,
Helpless against the control;

~The Rest – Ezra Pound~

Museum Crop

The first rule was: “Don’t drive in Rome.” The second rule was: “You know what, just don’t drive in Italy at all.” But I didn’t want to go to Rome. I just wanted to go to Torino. It was true we generally avoided driving in large cities, using public transport to access the tourist meccas of Paris and London. But I wanted to visit the Museo Nazionale dell’Automobile and eat lunch at the old Lingotto Fiat Factory. Once the site of the iconic rooftop test track it had been lovingly preserved and converted into a shopping mall, the striking spiral ramps now transported strolling pedestrians rather than swift machinery. With no direct train route from our remote medieval village, it was either drive or not go at all.

The children were keen, a long drive always preferable to a long walk. My husband was less keen. He was the one who had to cope with the chaos inherent in negotiating Italian traffic. My role as navigator was less intimidating, merely juggling Sat Nav and maps while trying to thwart any unexpected diversions from our intended destination. Looking at Google Maps the quickest route was to skirt the eastern side of the city. It looked…easy…probably.

The first hour and a half on the road were tranquil, mountain vistas slowly replaced by spreading fields of corn. Our Sat Nav, however, was more adventurous than we were. Paper maps were only good for the big picture, the labyrinth of roads close to urban areas inseparable from each other. Suddenly we discovered that instead of circumnavigating the city we were now heading towards its centre. It may well have been shorter. I’m sure it wasn’t quicker.

Approaching every intersection required careful positioning of the car in the appropriate lane for the intended action. Surprisingly the throng of Italians that surrounded us was unfailingly polite…maybe because we were ensconced in a big and bulky Mercedes minivan. Unable to swiftly zip between cars and change lanes with alacrity, we tentatively poked the nose of our vehicle in the direction we wanted to go and invariably got courteously let in. Size matters when driving in Italy…or maybe it was just patently obvious that we were tourists and the madding masses took pity on us.

The August day was stifling, even for Australians. Walking the short distance between mall and museum the heat radiated off the black tar. We jaywalked across the road to take advantage of any shade on the offering. A welcome blast of frigid air met us on entering the foyer. The only heat inside was visual – emanating from numerous sparkling lights giving centre stage to a mass of scarlet machinery. As the family was keen to start home before the onset of rush hour complicated our escape from the metropolis, it’s just as well that I didn’t know about Valentino Park, the venue of the 1948 Italian Grand Prix. Unknowingly we drove right past. It was probably for the best. Our progeny exhausted, any suggestion to stop and have a stroll around the park would have been vehemently vetoed.

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Scarlet cars and bright lights at the Museo Nazionale dell’Automobile   Photo: Cameron Mowbray

There was heat of a different kind in post-war Italy. Drawing the fine line between patriotism and practicality required a finesse that was sorely lacking in the prevailing atmosphere of revenge and retaliation, fuelled in large by fear. Novelist Umberto Eco wrote, “In 1942, at the age of ten, I received the First Provincial Award of Ludi Juveniles (a voluntary, compulsory competition for young Italian Fascists—that is, for every young Italian). I elaborated with rhetorical skill on the subject “Should we die for the glory of Mussolini and the immortal destiny of Italy?” My answer was positive. I was a smart boy.”

By 1945 there were few left willing to die for the glory of Mussolini. He was summarily executed by the Italian resistance on April 28, captured while trying to flee Italy, disguised as an inebriated German soldier skulking in the midst of an evacuating military convoy. That same day Alfa Romeo manager Ugo Gobbato was assassinated while riding his bike to the Portello factory to pick up some paperwork. Less than twenty-four hours before he had been acquitted of any misconduct by a popular court, but there remained plenty of reactionaries keen to administer justice to those they saw as complicit with the now outed political regime. Alfa Romeo would once again have to rebuild themselves from scratch.

Money was in short supply at Alfa Romeo even before the war. After a decade of struggling to make ends meet, in 1933 they were rescued from the greedy clutches of Fiat. Their shares were passed over to the Institute for Industrial Reconstruction, and Alfa Romeo was now in effect government owned. A loan of ten million lire helped jump-start their pragmatic divergence into the manufacture of military equipment. Ugo Gobbato had spent ten years honing his organisational skills instituting assembly-line fabrication for Fiat at their cutting-edge Lingotto factory. Now he would be stretched even further, taking up the challenge of reversing the fortunes of Alfa Romeo. Six months after his appointment on December 13, 1933, he wrote a memo that painted in stark relief the dire situation of the company: “Low-quality machinery…Irrational layout…unnecessary material movement…non-existent accounting.”

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Gobbato was there to save Alfa Romeo; he wasn’t there to make friends. Splitting the company into two divisions, Giustin Cattaneo was employed to oversee the vital areas of aero engines and diesel trucks. With Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, followed by their assistance of General Franco in the Spanish Civil War, the military was buying. All Alfa had to do was produce the goods. Veteran engineer Vittorio Jano was demoted from overall technical director to manager of only the car division which, despite its prestige, was struggling to survive on the small change stingingly handed out to those engaged in non-essential operations. Scuderia Ferrari metamorphosised into the official racing team of Alfa Romeo. Enzo Ferrari would preside over this in Modena.

Car production dropped precipitously. Little demand for luxury cars in the depressed Italian economy meant it was nonsensical to make cars that nobody could afford to buy. All available money and manpower were diverted into the cash cow of military production.  A loss of 2.3 million lire in 1935 resulted in the manufacture of only ten vehicles the following year. 1936 saw a profit, their first for multiple years. Accumulating an intoxicating stash of 300,000 lire, in 1937 work began on the Alfa Romeo 158 ‘Alfetta’.

Jano was already on his way out. With a lack of academic credentials, his genius was difficult to discern in the challenging climate of increasing workload and decreasing resources. Despite the overwhelming success of his legendary P3, he was looked on as a relic of the past, unable to produce a car capable of challenging the might of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union. A designer being only as good as his last car, when his upgraded chassis for the Tipo 12C failed to perform in front of the partisan crowd at the 1937 Italian Grand Prix, he was sacked and replaced by Spanish designer Wilfredo Ricart. Jano’s Lancia-Ferrari D50 would later prove just how wrong his detractors had been.

Enzo Ferrari was the impetus behind the inception of the Alfetta. Racing having to survive on the smell of an oily rag, competing head-to-head against the Germans was never going to be a viable proposition. Mussolini was supportive, but that support was limited to words – vacillating between encouraging and demanding – rather than financial. Enzo thought laterally. Voiturettes were smaller capacity cars, their engines limited to 1.5 litres. Winning would be a possibility rather than having to wait ignominiously for any dregs that just might happen to fall from the master’s table. Mussolini may have affiliated himself with Hitler, but that only made it more imperative for Italy to prove their prowess on the track. Gioachino Colombo, Jano’s longtime assistant, was invited to Modena to discuss the proposed project.

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Alfa Romeo Alfetta 158   Photo: kitchener.lord – Flickr

Having spent 13 years under Jano’s tutelage, assisting in turning creative ideas into practical realities, Colombo was now 34 and impatient for greater responsibilities. He had already been brainstorming possibilities…formulating plans for a rear-engined car. But Enzo was still in charge, and that idea was swiftly vetoed. It would be multiple years before Enzo would be ready to abandon the premise of the “ox before the cart”.

Colombo remembered that “In a little room in the old Ferrari works in Modena, we worked very enthusiastically for several months on planning the new car. Cavaliere Bazzi, Ferrari’s friend and right-hand man was with me; years earlier he had been one of the technicians who worked most closely with Vittorio Jano. Then there was Nasi, a very young designer “on loan” from Alfa Romeo, and finally Alberto Massimino the engineer who had been taken on directly by Ferrari to strengthen our little working team.”

The Alfettas were still in pieces when they, along with Enzo Ferrari, were fetched back to Milan. Now that the company was savouring the sweet taste of solvency, Gobbato wanted Alfa Romeo to bask in any glory emanating from the new project. He bought 80% of the shares of Scuderia Ferrari, and in 1938 the team raced as Alfa Corse, Enzo staying on as manager. Having to march to the beat of someone else’s drum was not Enzo’s style. Ricart was the opposite of Jano – his strength lay in the theoretical rather than the practical. Irreconcilable differences in both ideology and personality resulted in the departure of Enzo before the end of the season…along with the proviso that he had to wait four years before manufacturing cars under his own name.

The Alfetta’s first competitive outing was on August 7, 1938. The Coppa Ciano Voiturette race comprised 25 laps of a 5.8-kilometre track traversing the dusty and bumpy streets of Livorno. Three Alfa Romeos lined up against a multitude of Maserati…twelve in all. Reports on the looming competition resulted in Maserati enhancing the suspension and revising the bodywork of Luigi Villoresi’s 6CM. Luigi’s little brother Emilio was driving an Alfa.  The three fledgeling cars took the first three places on the grid, with the Maserati of Luigi the best of the rest. The Villoresi brothers competed as only brothers can, Luigi leading for the first fifteen laps before being forced into retirement due to engine issues. The race victory went to Emilio, teammate Clemente Biondetti only two seconds behind him. First race…first victory for the Alfetta.

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1938 Coppa Ciano Voiturette – Clemente Biondetti (Alfa Romeo 158) 
Photo:  Attila Gergász- Flickr

One week later and another Italian city, this time hot and hilly Pescara. Six laps around the lengthy 25.8-kilometre circuit was a different proposition to the previous weekend. Not only were there considerable changes in elevation but also two seemingly interminable straights, one five kilometres, the other more than nine, sorely tempting the drivers to misuse and abuse their engines. It might have been the hills, it might have been the straights, it might have been the horrendously hot weather, or it might have been the brutal blend of all three, but whatever the cause, the Alfetta was unable to cope.

Motorsport Magazine reported that “The expected clash of the two makes did not materialise, however, for the Alfas were beset by an exasperating plug trouble. Emilio Villoresi was continually at the pits, finally giving up, while Severi managed to finish fifth. In between their visits to the pits the little cars went like bombs, so there is obviously not very much wrong with them.” Severi actually finished fourth and despite his engine issues was only seven seconds behind eventual race winner Luigi Villoresi.

Alfa Romeo withdrew from the next two races, but the last two events of the season told a similar story…dominating at the Milan Grand Prix with another 1, 2 finish, followed by all four cars failing to finish the Modena Grand Prix.

It might have been plugs…or it might have been much more sinister. Eventually, all nine engine blocks developed large cracks in their crankcases. It is unclear if this was early or late in the 1938 season. The bearing caps were held in place by two short bolts. Directly above them were another two short bolts to hold down the cylinder block. Between the ends of these two sets of bolts, large cracks developed. With no resources available to redesign and recast the original cylinder block, the bolt holes were drilled through and the two short bolts replaced by one large bolt, in essence keeping the engine from falling apart. Despite the need for emergency surgery, these engines would last for the next 14 years.

Alfa Romeo Engine

At the beginning of 1939, the world was not yet at war, but below the surface, uneasiness bubbled like thick polenta porridge. Mussolini banned Italian drivers and teams from participating at French events. Irked and irritated by the German domination of racing, Italy decided to remove them from the equation entirely and in September of 1938 legislated that all Italian races would be run for only the smaller capacity 1.5-litre cars. Tripoli, capital city of the Italian colony of Libya, was considered a “local” race.  Renown as the Monaco of Africa it was exotic and tropical, and there was prize money in abundance. German cars had taken the top step the four previous years…though at least in 1936 the Auto Union pilot had been Italian driver Achille Varzi.

Mercedes-Benz showed that they could not be gotten rid of that easily when they turned up for the first race of the year with their own voiturette car…the W165. Two lone, silver cars battled against the crimson horde of six Alfa Romeos and 22 Maserati. Despite being surrounded by scarlet machinery, Mercedes-Benz drivers Rudi Caracciola and Hermann Lang took first and second in a commanding fashion in the 40-degree heat. The car never competed again, probably because trying to win two formulae concurrently could potentially result in failure in both. Conclusively proving their point, they would forthwith concentrate on dominating Grand Prix racing for the remainder of the season.

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Hermann Lang – 1939 Tripoli Grand Prix – Mercedes W165

Twelve months later and the Tripoli Grand Prix would be raced with more than just the rumblings of war. There had been rumours that Mercedes-Benz would be in attendance, but Germany had more important fish to fry. Two days before they had invaded Holland, airborne troops swiftly followed by 10 panzer divisions and 64 infantry divisions gushing en masse across the border. The day after the race, Rotterdam was bombed – flattening the city. Alfa Romeo also demolished their opposition…Nino Farina, Clemente Biondetti and Carlo Felice Trossi capturing the top three positions. Three weeks later Italy would enter the war, Mussolini not wanting the conflict to be over before he had a chance to throw his hat in on the side of the victors.

Looking to the bright future rather than dwelling in the sombre present, Ricart and his colleagues continued to design and build cars, even running a test at Monza. It was only in May 1941 that Gobbato ordered everyone to halt their current projects. A year later the Allies started to bomb Italy. As a manufacturer of war equipment, Alfa Romeo was a prime target. The Air Force spent 30 million Lire moving the offices and workshops to various rural localities. The Design and Experimental department were transferred to Orta, its team of engineers lodged at the local hotel. The Alfettas were dismantled and sequestered away from prying eyes and exploding projectiles, allegedly in a cheese factory owned by an Alfa enthusiast.

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Alfa Romeo Portello factory destroyed by Allied bombing    Photo:  www.alfa-male.com

Alfa Romeo was caught between a rock and a hard place by the end of the war. Italy changing sides had muddied the waters. Mussolini had been imprisoned. The German SS had rescued him – setting him up as a puppet ruler of the Italian Social Republic at Salo. Situated in German-occupied Northern Italy, the Alfa Romeo factory was seized by the German SS in September 1943. Any workers suspected of anti-fascist activities simply disappeared. Raw materials were requisitioned and sent to Germany. The factory was ordered to build parts for the Junkers Jumo aero-engine. There was sabotage by the resistance. There was sabotage by the workers. Finally, the Allies bombing of the factory in October of 1944 bought a halt to all production.

German occupation of northern Italy was overthrown on April 25, 1945. The war in Europe ended on May 8 when the Allies accepted Germany’s surrender. Germany was given a 5-year ban from racing. Only four months later the Allied victory was celebrated in style by a race meeting in Paris. The Coupe des Prisonnieres for cars over 3-litres was won by Frenchman Jean-Pierre Wimille driving a 4.7-litre Bugatti. Fighting with the French resistance during the war, and now a member of the Free French Air Force, he had only just arrived in time to race. Missing practice, he was forced to start from the back of the grid. He wrenched the lead from fellow compatriot Raymond Sommer on the fourth lap of the 43-lap race. Wimille would shortly be racing and winning in the Alfa Romeo 158.

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Jean-Pierre Wimille – 1945 – Coupe des Prisonnieres

For their first post-war race appearance, Alfa Romeo sent two cars to the René Le Bègue Cup – held in Paris on June 9, 1946. Their drivers would be Nino Farina and Jean-Pierre Wimille. The race was significant only in what resulted from it…both cars affected by clutch trouble and failing to finish. Raymond Sommer won in a privately entered Maserati 4CL. From then on Alfa would not leave anything to chance. Four cars would be dispatched to every race they attended so that they might take every available opportunity for victory.  

The 1948 Italian Grand Prix was held in Turin on September 5, Monza still undergoing repairs after being mistreated and abused by both sides of the conflict. First used as a storage facility for army supplies, the final insult was when the Allied armed forces celebrated their victory with a fleet of tanks taking a spin around the iconic circuit, though not at any significant speed. Turin’s 4.8 km road circuit consisted of a twisty infield section through Valentino Park, followed by two long straights joined by a hairpin bend. The route encircled a charming 17th-century royal summer palace, meandered along the verdant banks of the river Po, and then wended its way past the ethereal Fountain of the Twelve Months…designed by Carlo Coppi and built fifty years before to celebrate fifty years of the unified Kingdom of Italy.

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1948 Italian GP: Raymond Sommer (Ferrari 125) briefly leads Jean-Pierre Wimille (Alfa Romeo 158)    Photo: Cor Draijer – Flickr

The race heralded the debut of the first grand prix car for Scuderia Ferrari, and finally some long awaited competition for the preeminent Alfetta which had not suffered a defeat in more than two years. It would be Colombo’s post-war car taking up the gauntlet thrown down by Colombo’s pre-war car. In mid-1945 Colombo’s employment had been temporarily suspended by Alfa Romeo, due to the complex political backdrop holding sway at the time, when he was invited by Enzo to pay him a visit at Modena. Colombo wrote, “A call from Enzo Ferrari absolutely could not be ignored. It was something which could obliterate for me in one stroke those five years of war, bombardments and sufferings, and all the upsets of evacuation.” A few days later, while sitting under a tree at a family lunch, Colombo would sketch out the design for the cylinder head of the first Ferrari twelve-cylinder engine.

Over the next few years, Colombo would chop and change between Portello and Maranello as both Alfa Romeo and Scuderia Ferrari vied in turn to secure his services. In November 1945 he was reinstated as head of Sports Vehicles at Alfa Romeo, charged with reassembling and readying for racing the concealed Alfettas. Relations deteriorating once again with Alfa Romeo, in January 1948 Colombo returned to Ferrari – now as Consultant of the Planning Office. He would further finetune his original V12 engine…its horsepower deficit negated by the smaller and lighter chassis of what was the Ferrari 125 C.

There was precipitation in plenty at Turin over the weekend of the 1948 Italian Grand Prix. The atrocious conditions advantaged those qualifying on the front row, reduced water spray from vehicles in front making more evident standing water on the road ahead. Jean-Pierre Wimille, driving an Alfetta, was on pole, but it was Raymond Sommer’s Ferrari in fourth who got the best start. He led until the end of the first straight when he was overtaken by Wimille who was never seen again. Wimille would eventually win, a lap in hand after more than three hours of racing.

Battling for second was the now double-stage supercharged Maserati 4CLT/48 of Gigi Villoresi and Sommer’s fledgeling Ferrari. They pitted together and emerged from the pits still nose to tail. Sommer eventually lost ground to Villoresi when he was unexpectedly caught out by the slick surface and spun, losing almost a minute to the Maserati ahead of him. Late in the race, it was Villoresi who started to leak time in abundance, his engine unable to sustain its initial pace. Sommer rapidly closed the gap. By the end, they were only two seconds apart, but the Maserati held onto second…just. It had been a race of attrition. Foul weather and failing engines resulted in three different stables taking the three top places.

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Alfa Romeo 158 – Nino Farina and Jean-Pierre Wimille – 1946    Photo: Cor Draijer – Flickr

 

Alfa Romeo had won their last ten race appearances, but the writing was on the wall for the Alfetta. Now eleven years old, there were rumours of a new car design in the pipeline, but Alfa Romeo probably also lacked the requisite funds needed to build it. They also lacked drivers. Achille Varzi had perished in an Alfetta while practising for the 1948 Swiss Grand Prix and Jean-Pierre Wimille had a fatal accident in a Simca-Gordini while practising for the 1949 Buenos Aires Grand Prix. Count Carlo Trossi was already unwell with a brain tumour and would die later that year. Alfa Romeo would not race in 1949.

Rodney Walkerley, writing for The Motor, gave his forecast for 1949: “The coming season bids fair (to coin a phrase) to be memorable. It may be said that the Type 158 Alfa Romeo, dominant vehicle of 1946-1948, is no longer in that satisfactory niche. We saw at Turin that this design had more or less met its match at last, as all designs must sooner or later, which is a good if inevitable thing.”

The car had not only survived the war, it then went on to dominate after the war. Built to give Italy some small measure of pride in the era of German domination, after the cessation of hostilities it would come into its own. For more than two years it won every race it entered. But as is always the case with racing, the competition would eventually catch…and then surpass it.

“The Alfa Romeo 158 had met its match at last” …or had it? It would return in 1950…

Take thought:
I have weathered the storm,
I have beaten out my exile.

~The Rest – Ezra Pound~

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References:

Alfetta The Alfa Romeo 158/159 Grand Prix Car – Ed McDonough

Alfa Romeo – Peter Hull and Roy Slater

Origins of the Ferrari Legend – Gioachino Colombo

Classic Grand Prix Cars – Karl Ludvigsen

Story of the Alfa Romeo factory and plants: Part 2 – Patrick Italiano

The Golden Era of Grand Prix Racing: http://www.kolumbus.fi/leif.snellman/main.htm

Ur-Fascism – Umberto Eco: https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1995/06/22/ur-fascism/

Motorsport Magazine September 1938: Good Racing at Pescarahttps://www.motorsportmagazine.com/archive/article/september-1938/24/good-racing-pescara

2 responses to “Alfa Romeo 158 – Weathering the Storm

  1. An exquisite write up of my favourite marque. How different history would have been if Enzo had been retained as Master of all he surveyed..

    Just a small point, Turin is English for Torino

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