Aqua Romeo!

Too long in the tooth for the track, a squadron of Alfetta engines found a new arena of combat

By Doug Nye

When Denis Jenkinson died in 1996 I fell heir to his archive (he always did have a wicked sense of humour). As yet I still haven’t tunnelled my way through more than a fraction of it, but just recently a letter surfaced which throws fascinating light upon the ex-Formula 1 Alfa Romeo 158/159 engines which found postretirement use in racing and record-breaking boats. Jenks’s informant was Dott Ing Carlo Leto di Priolo. This aristocratic Milanese was one of the three racing brothers, Dore, Carlo and Massimo, who had been prominent in the Scuderia Ambrosiana cooperative team based in Milan from 1946 on. Jenks had evidently written to him to ask about the retired Alfa Corse team’s 11/2-litre supercharged straighteight engines. And Leto Di Prioli responded:

“You would be interested to know why Achille Castoldi was so lucky (as) to have this wonderful engine installed first among the others. During the Second World War, two Alfette were hidden under a coal mountain in Castoldi’s works in Abbiategrasso, 25kms from Milan. The coal mountain was so big that on occasion of a ‘blurt-out’ [sic – but selfexplanatory] the German SS came and looked for the Alfette but they get tired before succeeding to remove by hand all the coal pieces protecting the two cars.

“The installation of 158 engine on a boat follows four different trends:

“The first was with horizontal engine with a reduction drive [to the propeller shaft itself]. The second one was that on Arno II with engine horizontal at the back of the driver connected with the inboard-outboard unit made by Cattaneo and driving two opposed contrarotating propellers.

“The third trend was the standard one today with engine in front of driver, inclined and direct coupled with the transmission propeller shaft. The Alfa Romeo engine was always assembled with the original clutch and a special bell-housing…

“The fourth trend was used only once by Mario Verga when he made his fatal attempt, with two 159 engines in longitudinal position but opposed, one in front of the other; this was to eliminate the dynamic effect [ie the torque] of the crankshafts. The two engines were connected with a transfer case to a single inclined propeller shaft.”

Luigi Castoldi, a cousin of Macchi aircraft designer Mario Castoldi, had used Alfetta power in his boat Arno I to set a 400kg class power boat record of 81mph as early as 1940. In 1946 he became President of the FIM – Federazione Italiana Motonautica – and raced his latest power boat San Ambrogio fitted with an Alfa Romeo V12 aero engine in the Detroit Gold Cup. By 1953, when Mario Verga assumed Alfa Romeo `motonautica’ backing, Castoldi turned to Enzo Ferrari instead, his latest boat Arno XI promptly inheriting an exFormula 1 4.5-litre Ferrari 375 V12 engine as an 800kg class contender. In October 1953, Castoldi then raised the flying kilometre water speed record to 241.71kmh, 150.224mph, on Lago d’Iseo, near Bergamo in northern Italy.

Two days after Christmas, 1953, Mario Verga, a 43-year-old silk manufacturer from Milan, used Alfetta straight-eight horsepower to win the Miami Grand Prix over Florida’s Haulover Beach course, then raised the 151cu in-class hydroplane world record to 131.680mph despite his Alfa straight-eight engine displacing just 91.5cu in.

Verga had campaigned a series of Alfettaengined boats. His first, Laura I, had made him 450kg class World Champion. Laura II had followed in the 800kg division, in which he raised the class record to 140.73mph. By 1953 he was 800kg World Champion, and progressed to Laura III, a three-point hydroplane built for him in marine plywood by Carlo Timossi on Lake Como and powered by a pair of Alfa Romeo 159 supercharged engines prepared by the Alfa works and developing a combined 800 horsepower. The shapely, tail-finned Laura III was lightly built, with its twin engines slung in a tubular spaceframe which bolted into the wooden hull. But late in 1954, again on Lago d’Iseo, double World Champion Verga was attacking the world water speed record of 178.497mph set by Stanley Sayres’s Slo-moshun IV when he ran out of luck.

These very powerful, very lightweight boats were critically sensitive to pitch and yaw. Verga’s Italian rival Ezio Selva’s Alfettapowered boat Moschettiere IV had proved so nervous that Selva abandoned his record ambitions. Verga found Laura III extremely tricky to drive. He gave Selva a test run, who returned staring-eyed, to confirm Verga’s impression. Just like Donald Campbell years later Verga was running out of time and money, and also public sympathy. Like Campbell, possibly whistling in the dark, he assured friends: “I’m not afraid… It’s a trial of strength, but we are going to do it”.

On October 9, 1954, with Lago d’Iseo’s surface ruffled by the local II Tivano wind, Verga set off in Laura III in a win-or-bust world record attempt. His speed was estimated as almost 190mph when the racing-red boat suddenly bounced nose up, exposing its underside to the airstream, and it somersaulted to destruction in a smother of spray and tumbling debris. Divers found Verga’s body trapped in the sunken wreckage, killed instantly upon impact.

In December 1957 Ezio Selva’s Alfetta-engined hydroplane then raised his own Miami beach course record from 141mph to 146.1, but three days later, in the Orange Bowl Regatta’s Grand Prix event, the last appearance of 159 Alfa Romeo engine in boat racing, he ‘did a Verga’ — Moschettiere bounced nose-up over a wave at 100mph-plus and back-flipped. It landed upsidedown and ploughed in stern-first, water pressure hurling Selva forward in the cockpit, crushing his chest against the cockpit coaming and windscreen. The 56-year-old wire manufacturer had been fatally injured in what he had declared would be his last race. And some still said it was motor racing that was dangerous…