I wish I'd designed... Alfa Romeo 159

After 50 years in motor sport, the Alfa Romeo 159 is the car which fired Tony Rudd's imagination that this ex-BRM and Lotus designer still holds dear. He learned a lot from watching the team, too.

Juan Manuel Fangio in Alfa Romeo 159 at 1951 French Grand Prix

Fangio on his way to victory with Alfa Romeo 159 in 1959 French GP

GP Library/Getty Images

As a young engineer at Rolls-Royce, I needed a source of inspiration, like most people, and I looked towards the Alfa Romeo 158/159. Then I was lent by R-R to BRM for the V16 project.

When the Alfa was in its heyday it had trailing-arm front suspension and de Dion rear just like the BRM, and carried about the same fuel load, but handled a hell of a lot better. By the time I became a BRM development engineer I was mystified why it didn’t do the things the BRM did. It had the same theme: an extremely powerful engine, ground-level roll centre at the front, hub-level at the rear. If I had already designed that I could have avoided no end of the mistakes BRM had made. But it was too late to change, and no-one wanted to anyway: they believed that they were right.

Alfa were quite Teutonic. No Italian excitement — they were calm and efficient

BRM spent three months testing the V16 at Monza and I saw most of Alfa’s testing. I used to sit in the truck cab and time them by watching in the mirrors. Guidotti used to chase us away, but Sanesi was always chatty. I didn’t speak much Italian but if you kept your eyes open you could learn a lot.

Taruffi showed us how they divided Monza into sections and timed them separately. We were pretty quick around the fast bits, the Curva Grande and the back straight but, through the Lesmos, we dropped a couple of seconds.

BRM V16 and Alfa Romeo 159 at 1951 British Grand Prix

BRM (left) vs Alfa in the 1951 British GP

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During our efforts to run the V16 at Monza, we actually entered for the 1951 Italian GP, but Ken Richardson went off and bent a steering arm. We hadn’t got a spare, so Count Lurani arranged for Alfa Romeo to straighten it. I took it to Portello, where they were very helpful. They pressed it straight and crack-tested it. And I got to see a bit of the racing department.

They were quite Teutonic actually, much more so than Maserati, or even Ferrari early on. No Italian excitement — they were calm and efficient. When they had disasters it was all efficiently managed. It was a very organised team under Guidotti, not the circus you might expect. Their strategy was good, too. And you could recognise who was responsible for which areas. It was different over at BRM nobody was responsible. I used to go round at BRM and say, “Guidotti wouldn’t have this”.

From the archive

The 1951 Alfas were very well made. I could rarely find one in pieces it was always difficult to see things, they would put a piece of rag over it if they saw you looking but the detail work was very nicely machined. There never seemed to be any shortage of money, for cars or drivers as we found out when we had to try and outbid them for Fangio.

I once tried to get out of Reg Parnell what the Alfa was like to drive — Alfa gave him one for the 1950 British GP as a compliment but it was suggested that he had a derated one so he didn’t break it. Or win. But it certainly didn’t do all the things the BRM did — it didn’t twitch and so on. The BRM’s trailing-arm front suspension flexed in all directions, whereas the Alfa’s was more rigid, even though it was fundamentally similar in structure. It was sorted; someone had worked it out.

I only once saw one out of the car, but the Alfa’s was a simple engine to look at, with the Roots blower along one side, sucking though a carb and a big cold-air intake. Simple, logical, somebody laid it out knowing what was going to happen to it. There was nothing in the way, you could work on the car easily. It used to take us ages to change the exhaust manifolds on the V16, and if you wanted to change the cylinder head you had to get the manifolds off first. We finally went to stub pipes and slip joints, but Alfa did that anyway. The Alfa used to have magneto problems and they had a quick-release system so they could change one quickly. Of course, the Alfetta had been raced since ’38 and was a very successful and well-sorted car.

Reg Parnell in Alfa romeo Alfetta at 1950 British Grand Prix

Parnell was given an Alfa drive in the 1950 British GP

National Motor Museum/Getty Images

You couldn’t say it was sophisticated; it was simple, even brutal, with fuel tanks everywhere — it carried 80 gallons. There was no provision for camber change, only ride-height adjustment. We hadn’t provided much at first, either, but eventually we did. We only carried about 70 gallons because our consumption was better — about 1.8mpg. You could see these cars sink on their suspension during fuelling, since they would put 70 gallons in at a pitstop; we used to put 50-60 in — if we got that far. They used fuel barrels pressurised with gas, while we used a pump powered by a Norton motorbike engine. Fangio told me the Alfa was pretty good with all the fuel in.

From the archive

I don’t think a lot of suspension development went on. Most cornering was done with an excess of power — they used to corner with about a 15-degree drift, and you could see the tyre treads change colour as they heated up. The tyres then used to take on a bluish tinge as they got hot. Of course, the Pirellis were the best until Stirling prodded Dunlop into making the D4 around 1954. But you couldn’t drift the BRM; it used to flick in and out of drifts, bits of the suspension flexed, there was friction in the air struts. Later on I asked Fangio how we could improve the BRM through his experience with the Alfa, and he said, “Why, what’s wrong? If it’s not fast enough you should either get another driver or design a new car!”

I think I admired the Alfa engine most, but it was a complete racing car with no weak points. I was always dubious of the transverse leaf springs with a link to the front hubs, though; I never knew why they stuck to that. Easier to calibrate, I suppose.

The Alfa was reliable, though they usually started four or five in a race. You didn’t often see one blow up, and they seemed to handle well; it was a stable car, solidly stuck to the road. Mind you, they had Fangio and Farina, and about 11 Alfettas — I once saw eight lined up together in the Monza paddock. The most we could manage was about one and seven-eighths BRMs.

Tony Rudd was talking to Gordon Cruickshank