Late developer

Today, expert restorers can repair, improve or replicate almost any element of almost any car, given a big enough budget. But there’s one thing in the car world that money can’t buy originality. That is why it is a pleasure to come across a car like Sue Scott’s; a 6C 1750 Alfa Romeo still wearing its handsome Zagato clothes and still flexing the same mechanical muscles installed at Portello 62 years ago.

It belonged for many years to Dudley Johns, an “honorary uncle” of Sue Scott, who bought it in the mid-Fifties from Central Garages in Birmingham. Only days before my visit, Sue had received some paperwork from Johns’ executors, including the original log-book and Johns’s purchase receipt, showing that he handed over £168 for “one used Alfa Romeo”.

He also had an Edwardian sporting Mercedes, a 1907 45hp, which he would drive as course car at Prescott and elsewhere. But he never competed in the Alfa; in fact it rarely left his motor-house, which is why it is not a well-known car.

Though a wealthy man, Dudley Johns could hardly be said to have been thorough about maintaining the car: when something broke he got the local garage to cobble it together, and the notes he kept on it are all on bits of cornflake packets. Thus there was a good deal of restoration ahead when Sue decided in August 1993 that she would do the 1994 MM. At least the choice of restorer was simple: her business partner is David Baylis, to whom vintage Alfas are meat and drink through his restoration firm Beaulieu Cars, and his own much-used Alfa stable. He spent four months on the car; it was very complete and original, but needed some major attention and a lot of detail sorting to be ready for 1000 arduous miles.

The pistons remained, but he line-bored and re-metalled the main bearings and fitted all new valve-gear as a precaution. The gearbox and rear axle, however, were sound. He returned the scuttle to the correct Admiralty grey and tidied the electrics, putting the fuse-box back in the correct place on the scuttle. (Authenticity is crucial in David’s eyes; he recently collected the award for Most Authentic Car at the Louis Vuitton concours with his 6C 2500 Sport.) Very little had gone missing over the years: there’s a new coil for reliability (though one of David’s Alfas still has its original coil), but the horn in its low-mounted position is original. One element which was made from new was the undertray; these were standard from Zagato but very few cars still have the originals.

Inside, most of the instruments are also the original Alfa items, though Baylis added a water-temperature gauge — “prudent, with modern motoring”, he says. There is also a Jaeger chronometer for regularity event timing, which forms the competitive element of the current Mille Miglia rally. New leather graces the plain seats and doors: David and Sue had one single original door pocket as part of the trading stock of their Automobilia business, so David had it copied twice for the 1750. The clever Zagato-patent concealed hood mechanism needed little attention, though the hood fabric has been replaced, keeping the dainty little glass window in its aluminium frame.

By the time Johns bought it, the car had lost its original silver livery for a coat of white, and he re-painted it a traditional bright red. Sue felt it ought to go back to silver, but Baylis thought that was “too Germanic”, so he painted it navy-blue and silver without telling her. Luckily she liked it, and thus it makes a refreshing change from the acres of reds, various, which dominate any corral of vintage Alfas.

At this point the car was ready to do a Mille Miglia, but Sue had barely driven it; she managed a mere 30 miles, including urgent lessons on double-declutching (“it has some syncromesh – just a spot!”, she says), before setting off for Italy and those sinuous mountain passes. Wisely she went in convoy with Baylis, doing an eighth Mille Miglia with his well-known 1500MM, a veteran of the 1929 and 1930 events in the hands of Beretta/Fumagalli; there’s nothing like having a proficient fixer near at hand. As navigator, Sue took Diana Haithwaite, making them the first British all-lady crew since Nancy Mitchell and Patricia Faichnet drove an MG in 1957.

Baylis himself is intensely wrapped up in the history of the Mille Miglia, and the modern retro-run. No-one suggests that it is the flat-out blind of days past — Baylis once asked Johnny Lurani what revs he used in his 1500MM on the event; he got a sideways look and the reply “5000 the whole way, David”. It bothers him that media interest peaks only if someone is killed; he recalls that contemporary defenders of the roadrace claimed that by stopping normal traffic, there were fewer deaths during the event than normal. Some people do try very hard to get the regularity timing exactly right, some are there just for the run in “newer than new” cars. But the sheer distance is a challenge, and as Baylis says “Where else can you see such cars hell-bent on doing 1000 miles?”.

As it transpired, the Alfa performed faultlessly — almost; on the northward leg the screw-top flew off the handbrake lever, scattering springs and catches on the road. Though they collected the parts, no-one nearby knew how to re-fit them, and being new to the car Sue was reluctant to tackle the Futa and Raticosa passes without a handbrake. It’s very easy to burn the clutch on a powerful vintage car. So they retired — “and had a magnificent night out in Florence!”. (Wry interjection from Baylis here: “I’ve been to Florence eight times now, and I’ve never stopped.”) Ironically, once back in Brescia it only took David a few minutes to reassemble the brake; but at least Sue was able to enjoy the drive back to England, which can be as great a pleasure as the event itself. Later that year, Sue took the car back to Italy via Germany, joining Peter Groh’s Nuvolari commemorative run round Lake Garda — that makes 7000 essentially trouble-free Continental miles for a machine which has hardly strayed from home for the last 40 years.

Says Sue: “Dudley would have collapsed at the thought of my doing a 7000-mile trip in it.” But Baylis points out that this was why Johns was keen on Sue having it; she had already done two Mille Miglias with her husband Graham in their 8C 2300 — and the reason they had the 2.3 was because when it came up Dudley told Graham “this is a good car to have”.

Now the oily details. This is a 1933 car, one of the last and sixth series of 1750s. The 6C model, though often now given the shorthand term ‘1750’, was offered in a hearty variety of sizes and specifications over its 8 years: beginning in 1926 at 1500cc with a single cam (44bhp), and blossoming by 1929 to twin cams with or without supercharger, in 1500 or 1752cc sizes according to which class of road-race you were planning to tackle, and finally growing to 1917cc in the last year of production, 1933.

It was Vittorio Jano’s first production design for Alfa following his hugely successful P2 racing car, and it changed the direction of Alfa Romeo’s model policy, substituting a light and powerful sporting machine for the solid tourers of his predecessor Merosi. Racing success came immediately, three MM wins heading a long and varied list, but the march of time finally called for a more powerful successor which arrived in 1931 — the 8C 2300.

By 1932 the 2.3 was winning all the major European events, but it was an expensive jewel, and was still being out-sold by the considerably cheaper 1750 — although we are still talking of fewer than 500 sales in the year. (But don’t forget that the entire production run of the 2.3 amounted to just 188; the value of any one of the survivors today would have built Alfa a new factory in the Thirties.) By 1933 Alfa Romeo’s perpetual struggle for engineering excellence against commercial reality was looking even grimmer, and it entered into a form of receivership, effectively becoming nationalised. In this difficult climate, the biggerbore 1900 model introduced in that final year sold only 197 chassis. Alongside it, another 44 supercharged 1750s trickled out, among them Sue Scott’s. They share some features with their bigger brothers: boxed-in chassis-rails, a freewheel and taller radiator, for example, but the blown Gran Sport engine liberates substantial extra urge — 85 torque-laden bhp, against 68 for the bigger-bore unit.

The two cams are driven by vertical shaft and bevels at the rear of the block, and the Roots-type supercharger is direct-drive from the front of the crank, eliminating much of the whine of the earlier geared-up models. Inhaling through a single 2in SU carburettor on the nearside, the blower feeds to that lavishly finned inlet manifold, ribbed and branched like the claw of some giant bird. Behind, the four-speed ‘box has synchromesh on third and top; the freewheel, attached to the rear of it, works on the ramp-and-roller principle like a ’50s Rover, with a small lever to lock it in or out. Usually it’s kept out of action; theoretically it allows you to slot from gear to gear avoiding the left-hand pedal, but Sue prefers to double-declutch. There’s nothing novel about the underpinnings of the 6C: plain semi-elliptics all round, friction dampers (though cockpit-adjustable at the rear on the Sixth Series), almost straight chassis-rails. But look again at the size and the finning of the brake drums; these are meant for serious motoring. With its stiffer chassis and shorter torque-tube, because of the freewheel, the car has a more solid ride than usual for a 6C, but remains light on the controls and steering, as a good 1750 should be.

A glance inside conveys the first clue that this is a late model: the three-instead of four-spoke steering wheel, and a dash which groups fewer dials in a central panel, with a cubby each side.

As with WO Bentleys, we are more used to seeing open sports coachwork on pre-war Alfas than closed or four-seater bodies, many having been altered from their original fitting. But the six provided a platform for many such closed designs, often built in England, as British importer F W Stiles was Alfa’s best foreign customer. Angela Cherret, historian of the Alfa Section of the VSCC, enumerates them in her Tipo 6C book, noting that James Young built almost as many bodies as Zagato — 57 against 60, with even the other Italian carrozzerie a long way behind. Most of the last 6Cs carried more formal coachwork, but Sue Scott’s is one of a small number which went to Zagato to receive sporting two-seater bodies. It looks particularly clean, thanks to Zagato’s clever disappearing hood: a large metal cover swings up to release the rods and canvas, then closes under the erected hood, a little like today’s Mercedes SL. It’s not a quick job, but it’s a fine compromise between good lines and a protective top. And even with the hood stowed, there is some room left for your valises.

Like many similar cars, this one came to Britain when it was no longer competitive abroad, its first owner here being Cedric Trehearne-Thomas of Petersham in 1935, though it is not known whether he imported it or bought from Stiles. The car went to someone in Preston in 1938, and Sue has a handsome photograph of it taken outside Preston Art College that year. The photo came with the car, but it was only recently that Sue contacted the photographer who remembered the place and date. It clearly shows the same bodywork, finished in what is almost certainly the original silver-grey, a standard Zagato colour for 1933. (Unfortunately, much of Zagato’s pre-war records are missing.) Only the side-lamps have gone, and the battery-covers differ: Johns had substituted square lids for the unusual rounded “pie-dish” ones. Picture evidence like this is a real bonus. Says Baylis: “I work on so many of these cars, and there’s a question-mark on most of them about whether the body has gone on in the last 20 or 30 years. Very few owners have a picture right from the beginning.” Or a log-book listing all the owners up to the Fifties.

Both owner and restorer-are proud of their charge, not only a handsome machine but a reliable one. Baylis enthuses: “It’s just a fabulous design — a 60 year-old machine you can still squirt down the road without any modifications”. And Sue Scott sums it up in a phrase: “It’s a car which has been nestling in England for a long time and has suddenly bloomed”.