A Rarity

Last month brief mention was made of a demonstration run by ‘Mike Sparken’ in a Tipo 158/159 Alfa Romeo at the Vintage Sports Car Club’s Silverstone meeting, and needless to say there was a lot more behind that simple statement of fact than was apparent.

In the first place, unless my memory is playing me false, it was the first time an ‘Alfetta’ has been in action in Great Britain since 1951, though we have seen such demonstration runs by a similar car in various parts of Europe in past years. Much more important is the fact that the car at the VSCC meeting is the first one to pass into private ownership from the Alfa Romeo factory, and that did not come about easily. The story goes back to September 1951.

The Tipo 158 Alfa Romeo was created in 1938, designed by Gioachino Colombo, who had served his time under the great Alfa Romeo designer Vittorio Jano. In the mid-Thirties the German teams of Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Union had taken Grand Prix supremacy away from Alfa Romeo and for the new Grand Prix formula that started in 1938 Alfa Romeo built a 3-litre V16 cylinder car, but it was not going to save Italian prestige in what today we call Formula 1. Running concurrently was ‘voiturette’ racing, or Formula 2 in today’s jargon, and plans were made for Alfa Romeo to contest this similar category where engines were limited to 1 1/2-litres. This move was encouraged by the Italian Federation who decreed that for 1939 Italy would opt out of Grand Prix racing and run all its events for `voiturette’ cars.

The Scuderia Ferrari was still running the factory Alfa Romeos, from their base in Modena, but plans were being formed to bring all Alfa Romeo racing back to the factory in Milan, to run under the four-leaf clover insignia of Alfa Corse. The initial designing and building of these new ‘little’ Alfa Romeo racing cars, quickly dubbed ‘Alfetta’, was undertaken by Colombo at Modena, but it was not long before the whole project was moved to Milan.

Voiturette’ racing at the time was the province of Maserati and ERA and a few lesser makes and was fairly amateurish in Its conception, but when the brand new Alfa Romeo Tipo 158 appeared it set new standards in everything. As the name ‘Alfetta’ suggested, it was a mini-Grand Prix car, purpose-built to represent the factory, with no suggestion of being for sale to private owners or small racing Scuderias. The factory team made its debut at Livorno in August 1938 in the `voiturette’ race before the Coppa Ciano. It was here that the Tipo 158 won its first race, to start a racing record of development and success that is one of the outstanding features in motor racing history.

After a couple of failures, at Pescara and Modena in 1938, and a humbling defeat by 1 1/2-litre Mercedes-Benz at Tripoli in 1939, the ‘Alfetta’ team took off in a big way, being very selective about where they raced, but soon making the obvious point that “when they entered, they won”, and on many occasions finishing 1st, 2nd and 3rd. At the first post-war race, on the outskirts of Paris they suffered total mechanical failure, but from the next race, in Geneva in July 1946, they were unbeaten until July 1951, an impressive record by any standards. In 1950 they entered for eleven major Grand Prix races and won them all. By this time the straight-eight 1500cc engine of 58 x 70mm bore and stroke, which remained unchanged throughout the life of the design, had virtually doubled its power output, from a conservative 180 bhp at 6500 rpm in 1938 to over 400 bhp at 9000 rpm in 1951, with supercharger pressure going up from 17.6 psi to 42.6 psi, principally through the use of two-stage compressors. The original designation of Tipo 158 was quite simple and straightforward, referring to 1.5-litre 8 cylinder, but for some strange and unexplained reason this was changed to Tipo 159, which did not mean 1.5-litre 9 cylinder! It was merely the continuous development of engine and chassis and suspension.

Although the team was beaten on three occasions in 1951, they still won seven races, finishing up by winning the Spanish Grand Prix in October 1951. Alfa Romeo then pulled out of Grand Prix racing, leaving a memorable record behind them. They won the first event they entered with the ‘Alfetta’ team, in August 1938, and they won the last event they entered, in October 1951. Along the way they had won 37 of the 45 events they entered, and they gave Drivers World Championships to Dr Farina in 1950 and Juan Fangio in 1951.

Even though they succumbed to the Ferrari team on three occasions in 1951, they did not give up, and to those of us at the time that waved the Alfa Romeo flag in the face of Ferrari opposition, the Italian GP at Monza in September was an occasion we will never forget. Of the four ‘Alfettas’ that started the race, only one stayed the distance, to finish third, but what a momentous third place it was. The car had begun the race being driven by Felice Bonetto, but then Guiseppe Farina took it over when his own car broke down. In spite of a leaking fuel tank Farina drove that car as hard as it was possible in his chase after the Ferrari team. The fuel leak required extra stops to take on more, but he still drove it defiantly and we all felt that the highly supercharged engine could not go on like that to the end of the 312 miles of the race; but go on it did. It never faltered and Farina kept it at 9000 rpm right to the end, finishing a defiant and fighting third behind the two Ferraris, beaten but unbowed.

I was watching and listening to all this from the top of the great concrete grandstand overlooking the main straight but did not know that down at the last corner was a young man from France who was equally enthralled by this `swang-song’ of the ‘Alfetta’. It was ‘Mike Sparken’ who was always, and still is, a great Alfa Romeo enthusiast. The memory of that last great race for the ‘Alfetta’ on the Monza track never left him. Though he later raced for Gordini in single-seaters, and raced his own Ferrari sports cars, his love of Alfa Romeo never waned, nor his admiration for the ‘Alfetta’.

Through the years he has owned numerous Alfa Romeos and always dreamed of owning a Tipo 158, but it was out of the question; the Alfa Romeo factory never ever contemplated selling one of their cars, even though a lot of rich and apparently influential people tried to acquire one. A few years ago ‘Mike Sparken’ (the name under which he raced for personal and family reasons) owned the works Alfa Romeo coupé that had run at Le Mans in 1938, a car that the factory museum was greatly in need of. By a long and careful process of negotiation a deal was struck whereby the Alfa Romeo Arese museum would become the owners of the Le Mans coupé and Mike would own a Tipo 158. The museum had its own Tipo 159 cars, both running and on display and everyone thought that that was the end of the matter, but it turned out that there was one more lying at the back of the store house, unrestored and lacking a few small bits and pieces. It was this car that came to England and a two-year rebuilding programme began, Jim Stokes doing all the engine work and Paul Grist the chassis and bodywork. Earlier this year Mike achieved his ultimate dream when he first drove his own Tipo 158/159 Alfa Romeo on test, and then took it to Monza for its first public appearance after the painstaking rebuild. On June 16th those of us fortunate enough to be at the VSCC meeting at Silverstone were able to see and hear the ‘Alfetta’ in action on its demonstration laps, recalling a period of motor racing that was a landmark in the long history of Grand Prix racing. DSJ