Alfa Interlude

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A reflection on 20 years endeavour after a day with a T33/3 V8 sports racer

On October 28th, 1951 Juan-Manuel Fangio drove his 1 ½ -litre supercharged eight-cylinder Alfa Romeo Tipo 159 to victory in the Spanish Grand Prix on Barcelona’s now-defunct Pedralbes circuit, making the final triumph for the classic Alfetta design which had served the Italian team so successfully since the end of the Second World War. Almost 20 years later, on April 2nd 1971, Andrea de Adamich and Henri Pescarolo won the BOAC 1,000 kilometre race at Brands Hatch, this being Britain’s round of the World Championship for Makes, sharing a 3-litre Group 6 Tipo 33/3 V8-engined Alfa Romeo sports racing car. To the historian those two World Championship victories were separated by two decades of enormous activity in the motor racing world, but they were by no means lost to the Italian marque who certainly did not “drop out” of the sport, but maintained a consistent presence at lower levels to lay the foundations of the Alfa Romeo involvement in Grand Prix racing which continues into 1981.

There were a variety of reasons behind Alfa Romeo’s withdrawal at the end of the 1951 season, not all of which are relevant to this article. Suffice to say that the enormous cost of building a new Grand Prix engine for the planned 2 1/2–litre Formula One was enough to deter them for a start and, anyway, they were (and indeed still are) in the business of making motor cars on a large scale basis. Being State owned, Alfa Romeo were subject to all sorts of political, financial and industrial pressures, both from Government and trade unions, in much the same way as BL is affected in this country. A major international racing involvement for such a company raises all sorts of difficulties and is worth remembering that, to this day, the firm’s racing activities are still administered by Autodelta S.p.a., originally an independent “factory blessed” organisation and now a wholly owned subsidiary of the Milan parent company.

As the last embers of the immediate post-war Formula One programme flickered and died, the factory still nurtured some ambitious sports car racing plans. Plans for a big six-cylinder sports car were laid in 1952, and when Touring of Milan produced a striking open roadster powered by a new 3-liltre six-cylinder engine (in effect an enlarged Giulia with two extra cylinders) capable of over 150 m.p.h. it was immediately dubbed the “Flying saucer” – Disco Volante. This fascinating roadster evolved into a rugged two door competition coupé – further enlarged to 3.5-litre, three examples of which were entered for the 1953 Mille Miglia. They were driven by Fangio, Karl Kling and Consalvo Sanesi and proved to be highly competitive. Sanesi was leading at Pescara, but retired; Kling took over at the head of the field until just after Rome, only for an oil leak to eliminate him from the race; so it was left to Fangio’s sole surviving Disco Volante to inherit the lead. Unfortunately a steering arm breakage left Fangio with only one wheel steering and he dropped to second place, overtaken by Gianni Marzotto’s 4.1-litre Ferrrari in the Apennines.

At the same year’s Le Mans race the Disco Volantes were driven by Fangio/Marimon, Kling/Riess and Sanesi/Carini and although they were easily the fastest cars in the race, they all failed to stay the distance, Sanesi’s being the last to retire with clutch trouble in the early hours of Sunday morning. Following an outing later in the year at the GP Supercortemaggiore sports car race at Monza, the Disco Volantes were never gain seen racing for the Milan factory which thereafter withdrew from competition. But Alfa Romeo’s name was inextricably linked with competition and, as interest in both rallying and production car racing expanded during the 1950s, it wasn’t surprising that attention focussed on the company’s products. By the end of the decade the advent of cars such as the Giulietta saloon attracted amateur drivers in their droves and a busy tuning industry built up as many people prepared these cars for competition purposes. In that connection it should be mentioned that a number of specialist preparation companies began working on Alfa products, notably Conrero of Turin, and by the early 1960s one could detect more than a hint of competition flavouring to the offerings from the main Milan factory. The 1962 Turin motor show marked the debut of the attractive little Giulia TZ (tubolare zagato), a sleek little coupe with independent suspension and disc brakes all round, and shortly afterwards the GTA, followed by the GTZ tubolare and the GTA lightweight coupe came on the scene as if to confirm and emphasise that Alfa Romeo were still keeping very much “in touch” with the racing scene, even though they were not involved in “direct” participation.

However, without doubt the most significant development in this story occurred when former Ferrari engineer Carlo Chiti, who at the time was still “licking his wounds” after being involved with the abortive ATS 1½-litre Formula One project of 1963, not to be confused, incidentally, with the current-day Grand Prix team of the same name, established the Autodelta organisation in the Italian town of Udine. Chiti, in conjunction with an engineering friend Ludovico Chizzola, originally set up in business to superintend race development work on the Alfa Romeo Giulia TZ coupe, examples of which were raced by Boley Pittard and Tony Hegbourne for British entrant Ian Walker. But the car for which Autodelta’s early efforts will be best remembered is the Alfa Romeo GTA coupe which won the 1966 and 1967 European Touring Car Championships as well as the touring category of the 1967 European Hillclimb Championship. A whole host of Italian youngsters made their name in these Autodelta machines including Andrea de Adamich, Giovanni “Nanni” Galli and Enrico Pinto, while other established names employed by Chiti’s team at the time included Jochen Rindt, Teodoro Zeccoli, Roberto Bussinello and Toine Hezemans. This was important groundwork for Autodelta who became a formal offshoot of the Alfa Romeo company in 1966, moving to a new base close to the main factory in Milan.

In 1967 Autodelta first came up with the T33 coupe, at that time a two-litre V8 (78 x 52.2 mm., 1,995 c.c.) developing just under 260 b.h.p. at 9,000 r.p.m., and an enthusiastic amateur driver could obtain one of these machines from Autodelta for the Italian lire equivalent of around £6,600. When a two-litre T33 won its class in the 1968 Daytona 24 hours sports car race in the hands of Nino Vaccarella/Udo Schutz, Alfa Romeo’s first major step back to World Championship motor racing could be regarded as taken.

The original T33 was a somewhat precarious handling machine, according to those who drove it, built round two large tubular pontoons and the Autodelta race organisation did not always match up either to the well drilled Porsche precision or the practised Ferrari “organised chaos”. In fact, it took several seasons before the works Alfa Romeos got themselves sorted out on the organisational side, and even then there were regular “panics” with such things as screwdrivers being left behind the pedals in the cockpit footwells (this happened to Vic Elford at Buenos Aires in 1972!) or two of the team’s Italian drivers colliding with each other during practice, as happened to Galli and Vaccarella in practice for the 1971 Austrian 1,000 kilometre race!

Although all this promise within the 2-litre class was most encouraging, the ultimate aim was to field a car capable of winning long distance races and, to this end, Autodelta fielded a T33 fitted with an enlarged 2 1/2–litre V8 for the 1968 Targa Florio. Driven by Nino Vaccarella/Udo Shutz, the car challenged for the lead only to retire, leaving victory to the Porsche 907 of Elford/Umberto Maglioli ahead of the 2-litre T33s of Galli/Ignazio Giunti and Mario Casoni/Lucien Bianchi.

By the end of 1969 the Alfa Romeo V8 had grown to 3-litres with a bore and stroke of 86 mm. x 64.4 mm. for a total capacity of 2,993 c.c. It scored its first outright victory in the 200 mile Empresa Nacional de Telecommunicaciones held at Buenos Aires Autodrome at the start of the 1970 season, the drivers being de Adamich and Piers Courage. But not only did Autodelta plan to continue in long distance racing throughout that season, they had also finalised an arrangement with McLaren whereby they would supply 3-litre V8 engines to be installed in one of the British based team’s F1 chassis. With a quoted power output of around 430 b.h.p. at 10,500 r.p.m., the Alfa Romeo V8 should have been on a competitive footing with the Cosworth DFV, but even allowing for the lack of F1 experience on the part of drivers de Adamich and Galli, history records that its results suggest otherwise. Nonetheless, it was an interesting technical exercise which continued with the March team into 1971, gaining a great deal of experience for Autodelta which would later be a great help in designing their 3-litre flat-12 engine which won the World Sports Car Championships in 1975 and 1977 and also found its way into the back of the works Brabham Formula One cars.

By the start of 1971, the T33 V8 sports cars had evolved to the point they were they were built round sheet aluminium “monocoque” central sections in relatively conventional style, and one of these cars telliao – (“chassis”) – “009” was used by Andrea de Adamich/Henri Pescarolo to win the BOAC 1,000 kilometres at Brands Hatch, a triumph achieved despite the presence of the JW-Gulf Porsche 917 flat-12s and a singleton Ferrari 312PB flat-12 prototype. On this occasion it was the Alfa Romeo which avoided the bad luck and pitfalls while its two rival marques encountered the misfortune for once!

The T33/3 – indicating that it was a 3-litre – had a pretty successful season, this type not only winning the Targa Florio and the Watkins Glen 1,000km. race but gaining several other high placings in World Championship for Makes events. Chassis “009” had already finished second at Sebring (Galli/Stommelen) prior to its Brands Hatch victory and later went on to finish second in the Targa Florio (de Adamich/Van Lennep), third in the Spa 1,000 kilometres (de Adamich/Pescarolo), third in the Austrian 1,000 kilometres (Stommelen/Galli) and fourth in the Nürburgring 1,000 kilometres (de Adamich/Pescarolo). For 1972 Autodelta decided to revise the construction of the T33 round a small tube spaceframe chassis, this seemed a much lighter method of construction, and the ensuing machine was dubbed the TT33/3, standing for tellaio tubolare type 33, 3-litre.

At this point British Alfa Romeo enthusiast Richard Pilkington comes into this particular story for he was very keen to own one of these 3-litre V8 sports cars. Richard, who owns and operates Totnes Motor Museum amongst other business interests which also include a model shop “Wheels” run by his wife – “I was a failed car dealer. I opened the museum with the stock I couldn’t sell!”, he jokes – made approaches to Autodelta intent on purchasing one of the 1972 tubolare T33 V8s. “But we got into a bit of a mix-up and I found myself buying this monocoque T33,” he smiles, “Only when I had acquired it did I realise that it was the car which had won the Brands Hatch race. So you might say that I obtained the right car in the event by accident!” Richard acquired this T33 towards the end of 1973, at the time Autodelta were involved in the development of the new flat-12 cylinder engine. Incidentally, the T33 tubolare that Richard Pilkington originally thought he was going to acquire also found its way to Britain and is now in the ownership of Steve O’Rourke.

Very generously, to add some extra interest to this nostalgic article, Richard Pilkington agreed to allow us to drive his Alfa Romeo T33 V8 and since this article should appear in Motor Sport on April 1st, it will be ten years and one day since the car’s successful, historic victory at Brands Hatch. Rather than take it to a pukka racing circuit, and thus turn the whole project into a complicated track test, we were fortunate in obtaining the use of Dunkeswell aerodrome near Honiton, thanks to its obliging proprietor Basil Pring, and since heavy winds precluded any flying on the day of our visit we had the main runway to ourselves for an entire morning.

The T33/3 is a chunky, functional two seater Group 6 racing machine, perhaps not as graceful as its contemporaries the Porsche 917 and Ferrari 312PB, but possessing practical good looks nonetheless. We arrived in the staff Alfa Giulietta, appropriately, to find Richard Pilkington unloading his T33 from a trailer behind his Range Rover. The weather was bitterly cold and we were treated to an instant lesson in the frustration often encountered by professional racing mechanics as we attempted to coax the 3-litre V8 engine into life. With the assistance of a heavy duty battery as a boost to the one situated under the T33’s “passenger seat”, we encouraged the Alfa’s 4 o.h.c. engine to fire up on its “soft” plugs. Unfortunately, after warming up the engine and then changing onto hard racing plugs, in order that we could rev it more realistically and willingly, Richard Pilkington found that the V8 was again reluctant to fire up. A couple of runs down the Dunkeswell runway towed by the Giulietta did the trick and, although another plug had to be changed, we were soon snuggling into the T33’s cockpit to sample the car. The Alfa V8 emits a rasping, flat burble through its megaphone exhausts, and we were surprised to find just what a tractable engine it seemed to be, pulling away at 4,000 r.p.m. with no bother at all. The pedals are offset towards the centre of the footwell, and this racing machine is just like any other Alfa Romeo in that it has obviously been designed with the “standard Italian physique” in mind. By that I mean that anyone more than six foot tall drives with his legs splayed apart!

The cockpit is functional to the point of being sparse, with a rev counter (not red lined!) immediately ahead of the driver through the top section of the leather bound steering wheel, while water temperature and oil pressure gauges are positioned far to the left of the instrument panel. Slipping into the cockpit involves sliding one’s legs below the steering rack, mounted out-of-sight behind the instruments and above one’s knees, and the pedals are just behind the engine oil cooler which is mounted in the nose of the T33. Two large water radiators are mounted either side of the car at shoulder height and the notchy, but quite precise, gearchange lever is on the right, controlling the Alfa Romeo five speed gearbox.

When Richard Pilkington acquired the car from Autodelta, he gave them a loose undertaking that he wouldn’t use it in serious competition, so the V8 engine they built up for this T33 “works alright, but you wouldn’t say they gave us their best racing unit”. Since acquiring it, Richard has “run it in some sprints and hillclimbs” as well as “the 1974 Silverstone Interserie race, when Pierre Aumonier twisted my arm”. He recalls that the car went quite reliably “on its original Firestone intermediates, although I remember being lapped by the Porsche 917 turbos of Kauhsen and Kinnunen about twice a lap. But we scraped home in a top twenty – good enough to collect some money!”

The Alfa V8 hasn’t been stripped down since it was acquired from Autodelta eight years ago, so Motor Sport was determined it wasn’t going to be responsible for instigating its first major overhaul since it left Autodelta’s care! Consequently we limited ourself to “about 8,000 r.p.m.” in deference to Richard Pilkington’s advice. Despite a slight misfire, the T33/3 built up to that rev limit in fifth gear pretty quickly, and although it certainly didn’t approach a Cosworth DFV’s “kick-in-the-back” acceleration, we were speeding down the Dunkeswell runway at about 130 m.p.h. by the time it came to stop and begin the return leg. The car seemed to ride the bumps very smoothly and, enclosed with glass fibre bodywork on all sides, it was a very reassuring, comfortable experience and we were able to see why some drivers enjoy sports car racing – where they can’t see the front wheels at work – and yet cannot come to grips with single seaters.

After several runs in both directions, one with D.S.J. crouched low in the passenger space, we gratefully returned the T33/3 to the custody of its owner, Richard Pilkington manfully concealing any apprehension that he must have felt. It took about twenty minutes to lead the car back onto its trailer and, within another half an hour we were to appreciate just how lucky we had been with the weather as freezing rain swept over Dunkeswell aerodrome, whipped up by a bitter westerly wind. –A.H.

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