Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Ferrari flew the flag for Italy with elegant style – and success. How they did it, so rapidly after the ravages of war, is a remarkable tale grounded in politics and passion
Writer Richard Williams
Alfa Romeo’s team of cherry-red Tipo 158s took the first three places in the inaugural round of the Formula 1 world championship at Silverstone on May 13, 1950, with Nino Farina and Luigi Fagioli finishing ahead of the guest driver, Reg Parnell, and only a broken con-rod on Juan Manuel Fangio’s car preventing a one-two-three-four finish. Their success seemed like the definitive reassertion of Italian supremacy.
The crowds were impressed by the scale and thoroughness of the team’s preparation: the big car transporters, the separate lorry for their special Pirelli tyres, the painted nosebands identifying the individual cars – yellow for Fangio, blue for Fagioli, white for Farina, green for Parnell – and the request for a roped-off area of the paddock, with the grass specially mowed. Motor Sport’s correspondent was reminded of the approach of the pre-war German outfits, the ones who had sent an earlier generation of Italian teams into eclipse.
Like England, Germany and France, Italy had recently been engaged in a long and attritional conflict. But its small army of enthusiasts and artisans had taken the ending of hostilities as a signal to leap back into action, swiftly laying the groundwork for an assault on the sport’s highest level of competition. When Grand Prix racing finally organised itself into a pukka championship, the Italians were ready.
Five years earlier, the situation in Italy hardly looked promising. The end of the war was followed by a time of assassinations and sudden disappearances. Amid a ruined landscape, the great reconstruction began in an atmosphere that was confused and ambiguous. Old friendships could override conflicting political loyalties, but the shadows drawn over the past were sometimes violently dispelled by acts of revenge.
Ugo Gobbato, the administrative genius who had rescued Alfa Romeo from impending collapse in the early ’30s, had never hidden his enthusiasm for the Fascist regime. Tried twice by people’s tribunals, he had been acquitted on both occasions. He was cycling to the company’s Milan factory on the morning of Saturday, April 28, 1945 to collect some papers when a car drew up, blocking his path, and men with guns emerged to shoot him dead before disappearing, never to be identified.
Three weeks later Edoardo Weber, the inventor of the twin-choke carburettor, met a more mysterious fate. Another prominent Fascist sympathiser, and allegedly a supporter of the paramilitary Brigate Neri who fought the partisans in the final months of the war, on May 17 he left his Bologna factory on foot, apparently intending to take his customary evening stroll down the tree-lined avenue.
He was never seen again.
Both men were friends and former associates of Enzo Ferrari. Weber had been guided by Ferrari towards a collaboration with Shell, one of Scuderia Ferrari’s early sponsors, resulting in the development of a carburettor that became standard equipment on high-performance engines. Gobbato had relished his firm’s racing successes with works-sponsored cars entered under the banner of Scuderia Ferrari, although in November 1939 he had ended the relationship when it became clear that there was no other solution to the festering feud between Enzo Ferrari and the company’s newly promoted design chief, Wifredo Ricart.
These men were Ferrari’s friends, even though he might not have shared their political allegiance. He had joined the Fascist party in 1934, as every person of even the smallest consequence in Italy was required to do, and had welcomed Benito Mussolini when Il Duce inspected the Scuderia’s cars. He had undertaken military work – whether manufacturing copies of German milling machines or fabricating parts for aero engines – throughout the conflict. But his factory had also repaired the partisan fighters’ rifles and manufactured the little star-shaped steel devices that could be used to puncture tyres and bring a German convoy to a halt at a place of ambush. And among those closest to him was Sergio Scaglietti, the gifted young Modenese bodybuilder, who was also the local partisans’ resident bomb-making expert.
Once hostilities had begun, motor sport was clearly no longer an option. Many former competitors kept their heads down, like Tazio Nuvolari, moving between his homes in Mantua and Rome, and Achille Varzi, living quietly on a salary of 6000 lire a month from Alfa Romeo, and the young star Alberto Ascari, working in his family’s garage business in Milan. Others, like Piero Dusio, joined the war effort. Dusio had used the profits from his successful textile business in Turin to finance his entries in the Mille Miglia and other races throughout the 1930s; now he concentrated his company’s efforts on the production of military uniforms. Less prosaically, the young Marchese Lotario Rangoni Machiavelli, who had commissioned Ferrari to build a car for the 1940 Mille Miglia, joined the air force and was killed while testing a warplane.
For the companies behind the established racing teams, such as Alfa and Maserati, there were new priorities. Gobbato’s company had prepared itself for the coming of a new grand prix formula with the Tipo 158, a machine with a 1.5-litre supercharged straight-eight engine designed by Gioacchino Colombo under Ferrari’s supervision; the first examples were built in Modena in 1938. Ricart’s rival design, the mid engined V12 Tipo 512, got no further than the prototype stage. These and other projects were soon set aside in favour of the 6C 2500 Coloniale, a rugged all-terrain military staff car based on the company’s standard saloon. Aero engines were also produced in the Portello works, but a series of air raids in 1943 prompted the move of the design department to an office on Lake Orta, 80km to the north. In October 1944 a much heavier raid resulted in the almost total destruction of the factory and a consequent halt in production.
As for Maserati, a controlling interest in the Bologna-based team had been bought in 1937 by Adolfo Orsi, a Modenese industrialist. Initially attracted by the Maserati brothers’ ancillary businesses, including spark plugs and batteries, he recognised the publicity value of a successful racing team. Under their agreement with Orsi, the surviving brothers – Bindo, Ettore and Ernesto – agreed to remain as consultants for a 10 year period, moving with the company to a new factory in Modena, only a few hundred metres from the Scuderia Ferrari’s headquarters. Omer Orsi, Adolfo’s son, became the new managing director of a company whose last grand prix success was a fading memory but whose 6CM voiturettes and 4CL sports cars were enjoying success. Wilbur Shaw’s back-to-back Indy 500 victories in an 8CTF in 1940 and ’41 also brought satisfaction as war loomed.
At the Milan trade fair in 1941 the company displayed its grinders, lathes and milling machines. The following year it added a light electric van, produced in numbers throughout the war. Maserati’s batteries were adapted for marine use, and military vehicles were overhauled in the new premises. A less successful project was an unbuilt V16 limousine for Mussolini, intended to match Ferry Porsche’s design for Adolf Hitler.
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When the German forces in Italy surrendered in May 1945, the noise of explosions and gunshots was replaced by the sound of hammers on aluminium as the artisans of the north resumed their obsession with making cars go faster. And since most racing in Italy had taken place on public roads, there was little to hinder the return to competition.
The first new cars to appear were designed for the small-capacity Sport Nazionale categories, popular before the war, with chassis and engines borrowed from production cars and bodies shaped by local craftsmen. By 1946, many of them were ready to go. That year’s Circuito di Modena, for example, featured a Fiat Topolino-based special built by the Avalle brothers of Turin, a Lancia Aprilia stripped down and rebodied by Giovanni Boneschi of Cambiago for Umberto Castiglioni, who raced under the name ‘Ippocampo’, and Franco Bertrani’s Fiat 1100 special, built locally by Vittorio Stanguellini, whose father, the inventor of the pedal-tuned kettledrum, had owned Modena’s first car.
Soon they would be joined by other men of skill and dedication, among them Giorgio Ambrosini, whose teenaged brother Renato had spied on the Germans for the OSS and who built his Siata cars in Turin, Pasquale Ermini of Florence, Sabatino Paganelli of Naples, Giovanni Minardi of Faenza, Piero Facetti of Milan and Mario Bernadini of Bologna. Some of them, like Stanguellini and Moretti, would survive and thrive for a decade or more, finding customers for their work (and Minardi’s son Gian Carlo later made it all the way to F1).
There was also Piero Dusio, who was not a designer but had the bright idea of inviting Dante Giacosa, creator of the Topolino, to design a small, cheap single-seater that could be produced in numbers and sold to amateurs. Tazio Nuvolari was among his supporters, and in September 1946 the old champion, now 53, took the wheel of the little D46 on the Valentino Park circuit for the famous race in which he entered the pits with his arm out of the narrow cockpit, waving the car’s broken steering wheel.
The bigger pre-war names were stirring, too, and Maseratis were soon to be seen on the circuits again, produced in a new red-brick factory that had survived the war unscathed by bombs. The business had teetered on the brink of survival before Orsi’s appearance, but plenty of cars had been sold to amateur racers and squirrelled away during the war. Now Ernesto Maserati supervised the conversion of the pre-war 6CM into the A6 sports model, its prototype based on Luigi Villoresi’s single-seater and tested by the owner in its converted form, minus bodywork, in 1945. The production models would be handsomely clothed by Medardo Fantuzzi, another great Modenese aluminium artist. But soon Ernesto and his brothers would be on their way back to Bologna, there to set up a new company for the production of their little OSCA sports-racing cars.
Maserati’s racing activities recommenced in 1946 with the new 4CL, designed by Alberto Massimino, and a semi-works association with the Scuderia Milan, formed by a group of enthusiasts who included the two Ruggeri brothers of Gallarate. Arialdo Ruggeri was one of the team’s drivers, along with Nuvolari, Franco Cortese, Raymond Sommer and Philippe Étancelin. Nuvolari made his first post-war appearance at the Marseille GP in May: a broken valve forced him out, but Sommer took the victory. That same month the team travelled to Indianapolis with a new 8CL for Villoresi, who was lying fourth before overheating dropped him to a seventh-place finish.
The game changed when Alfa Romeo returned to the fray that summer. Perhaps Gobbato’s last gift to the world had been the decision to disperse the Tipo 158s away from the bombers’ targets. On June 9, two of the cars re-emerged to contest the Coupe René le Begue in St Cloud. The cherry-red Alfettas of Jean-Pierre Wimille and Giuseppe Farina led the race around the streets of the Paris suburb but both suffered broken clutches, leaving Sommer’s 4CL to take the win.
On the streets of Geneva six weeks later, in the absence of Scuderia Milan, the new reality would become apparent. Farina, Count Felice Trossi and Wimille had a trio of 158s, now with twin superchargers, at their disposal, and swept the board in the Grand Prix des Nations. In September, Varzi and Wimille lapped the third-placed Sommer’s 4CL twice in Turin’s Valentino Park in the first race to be held under the war postponed new F1 regulations.
A couple of weeks later the finishing order in Milan’s Parco Sempione was Count Trossi, Varzi and Sanesi, and the team’s complete dominance was emphasised by Farina’s petulant decision to retire from the race after being ordered not to overtake Trossi for the lead.
While the Alfa renaissance took the headlines, Enzo Ferrari was planning his own return. Under wartime regulations that required industries to decentralise, he had moved his base from Modena to a piece of land he owned in Maranello, 18km away. Although the new factory was twice bombed in the closing weeks of 1944, it continued to manufacture milling machines badged with the Scuderia’s familiar prancing horse. When he told his friend Franco Cortese that he was planning to go back to building racing cars, the response was blunt: “You’d have to be crazy to give up a business as profitable as this.” But in March 1947, after more than a year of work, the first Ferrari made its appearance. Colombo, temporarily suspended from his job at Alfa Romeo pending investigation into his Fascist connections by a workers’ committee, had designed its 1.5-litre V12 engine. Summoned by Ferrari, he had driven from Milan, queuing for hours to put his car on a barge that offered the only means of crossing the Po river, whose bridges had all been destroyed.
The little car made its competition debut in the Circuito di Piacenza that May. Soon Cortese was taking the 125 to the first victory for a car bearing the Ferrari name at the Terme di Caracalla, a Roman park, quickly followed by wins at Vercelli, Vigevano and Varese. In July, with the car undergoing continuous development, Nuvolari returned to the fold, winning in Forli and Parma, where he and Cortese secured history’s first Ferrari one-two.
Responding to the appearance of Maserati’s two-litre A6GCS, the capacity of the Ferrari engine was increased. The first showdown between the marques took place on the streets of Modena, a local derby settled when Ascari and Villoresi finished first and second for Maserati. Revenge came two weeks later when Sommer took the Ferrari 159 to a win in Turin after both Maseratis retired. The cars bearing Enzo Ferrari’s name had entered the big league.
In 1948 the big events returned. The Targa Florio restarted that April, won by Clemente Biondetti and Prince Igor Troubetskoy in a Ferrari 166 barchetta. Troubetskoy, the first of Ferrari’s playboy clients, had bought the car with money from his wife, the American heiress Barbara Hutton. In May the revived Mille Miglia was won by Biondetti, this time in a 166 berlinetta. And at Monza, repaired after damage caused by its use as a park for Allied military vehicles, the Alfettas swept the board at October’s Autodrome Grand Prix, with Wimille, Trossi, Consalvo Sanesi and Piero Taruffi in the first four places, Ascari’s Maserati 4CLT/48 – run by Scuderia Ambrosiana, founded by Count Giovanni Lurani, which had taken over from Scuderia Milan as the semi-works team – finishing fifth, five laps behind the winner. In 1949 the Ferrari of Luigi Chinetti, co-driven by Lord Selsdon, won the first post-war 24 Hours of Le Mans, giving the Scuderia a clean sweep of all the revived pre-war endurance classics.
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But all was not sweetness and light in the world of Italian motor racing. At the end of the war Nuvolari had received news that the imprisoned Ferdinand Porsche, hoping to raise money to buy his freedom, wanted to sell the design of his rear-engined, four-wheel-drive grand prix car. He contacted Piero Dusio, who bought the blueprints, but the project proved ruinously expensive. In 1949 Dusio left for Argentina, where he started a new company with support from the president, Juan Peron. His son Carlo stayed in Italy, continuing the Cisitalia name and making small sports and GT cars which, although much admired, were commercial failures.
And the same year that Dusio left Italy, Adolfo Orsi was dealing with industrial unrest provoked by his refusal to hire communists in a strongly left-wing region. He closed the Maserati factory from February to June that year for ‘restructuring’, provoking the departure of Ascari and Villoresi to Ferrari, and a strike at his steel mill led to police firing on demonstrators, killing several. Orsi soon sold most of his companies, while maintaining his ownership of Maserati.
Alfa sat out the 1949 season, leaving the two Modenese teams to squabble among themselves. They were back the following year, for the first FIA-sanctioned world championship. Farina’s tantrum in the Parco Sempione had no effect on his long-term relationship with the Alfa team. Four years later he would lead them in the first season of the new F1 drivers’ championship, capturing the title ahead of his team-mates Juan Manuel Fangio and Luigi Fagioli. Between them, Farina and Fangio had won all six rounds of the series in the invincible Alfettas. A year later it would be the Argentine’s turn to take the crown, at the wheel of the updated Tipo 159.
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When Alfa Romeo withdrew from Formula 1 at the end of 1951, Maserati hired Fangio for what was now a pukka works team. But an accident at Monza in 1952 kept the champion out for the better part of a year, forcing the Orsis to watch Ascari take the title two years in a row for Ferrari. In 1954 there would be further blows: the return of Mercedes, blighting the immediate prospects of Maserati’s new 250F, and the souring of a deal to sell machine tools to Peron. The failure of the Argentinian government to pay the bill seriously undermined the company’s stability, paving the way for the team’s withdrawal from grand prix racing before the end of the decade.
The 250F was a good car, but no match for the new Mercedes W196. Ferrari, too, was in trouble with its Squalo and Super Squalo cars. The arrival of an Ascari-led team from Lancia, previously known mainly for its small family cars, held out hope for Italy, though the company’s sudden bankruptcy proved instead to be a stroke of luck for Enzo Ferrari, who was given six of the radical D50 cars and all the spares, and invited to get on with it. Further luck for the leading Italian teams arrived at the end of 1955 when Mercedes, having trounced them everywhere, including Monza and the Mille Miglia, suddenly withdrew. Fangio won his fourth title with the hybrid Lancia-Ferrari in 1956, and his fifth with the 250F on his return to Maserati in 1957, before the English teams began their period of success.
What factors had allowed the Italians to dominate the immediate post-war scene?
Perhaps, having switched sides in 1943, they had been spared the guilt shared by the other Axis powers, who would take time to show their faces in any form of sport.
Nor, despite the bombing and shelling that had ravaged their towns and cities, were they as mentally and materially exhausted as the English or as spiritually depleted as the French, who had submitted to occupation. In the north, their craft traditions enabled cars to be built quickly and effectively with minimal resources.
Their best drivers, both the professionals and the gentlemen amateurs, had survived, and their cars, with their heritage of racing on pre-war roads, often made up in strength for a lack of technical sophistication.
And as the 1950s began, they were able to bask in the glow that surrounded Italian culture as a whole, that seductive Mediterranean warmth for which, at a time of continuing austerity, those living in colder climates yearned. With food rationing still imposed on post-war Britons, the effortless elegance of Italy’s playboy drivers and their red-painted, high-revving machines seemed to be part of the same exotic and achingly desirable world as a flask of Chianti, the beach at Positano, Sophia Loren’s curves or the slim-fitting suits worn by Marcello Mastroianni, the epitome of la bella figura.
They would be overtaken on the track, first by the Germans and then by the British. Proud names would disappear from the grid, and Ascari remains the last Italian driver to have been crowned champion. But the legacy of that time lives on in the undimmed charisma of the great survivor: Scuderia Ferrari, the sport’s most potent name, still redolent of glamour and danger, the product of those years of reconstruction, when vision, skill and a touch of ruthless ambition dragged Italy out of the darkness and back into the light.
Website poll results
1 Maserati 250F
Some designers are adamant that beautiful Grand Prix cars are quick. The 250F was indisputably both and Stirling Moss described it as the best front-engined car he ever drove.
2 Jaguar D-type
Another machine that was as beautiful as it was potent. Two wins on the trot at the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1955 and ’56, and then a clean sweep of the top six places in 1957.
3 Mercedes-Benz W196
Ex-Fangio chassis 00006/54 went for nearly £20m at Bonhams’ 2013 Festival of Speed sale, which helps indicate how special these dominating machines were in 1954/55. They remain so.
Website poll results
1 Juan Manuel Fangio
Even second-place man Moss admits Fangio was the greatest ever. Supreme car control, the knack of being in the right car at the right time, and a gentleman to boot.
2 Stirling Moss
Mr Motor Racing himself, even if he didn’t win the F1 world title. No matter – a quick glance at his full racing results makes for astonishing reading: first, first, DNF, first, DNF…
3 Alberto Ascari
Utterly dominant in 1952 and 1953, Ascari won both his F1 world championships racing for Ferrari. Italy is still waiting for another F1 world champion.
From Motor Sport June 1955
The recent experience of being part of the fabulous Mercedes-Benz team for the Mille Miglia carried with it experiences almost beyond the wildest imagination, from the sound of Herr Neubauer’s voice morning after morning telling us it was 5am and to be ready to leave on a practice lap of Italy, to being allowed into the very heart of the Daimler-Benz racing department.
When due to test the 300SLR at Hockenheim, we drove the car 100 miles or so, with engineer Kosteletzky showing us the way in the factory 300SL that won the Pan-American race in 1952, still fitted with Solex carburettors, and we ran in convoy along the German autobahns at a very steady 130mph. On another occasion, a short trip in Italy provided the opportunity of going with engineer Uhlenhaut in his personal 300SL. This car is styled on the same lines as the production models, but the body is of magnesium and the whole car has been narrowed and lightened. Most important, the gearbox is in link with the differential and the rear-axle layout is identical to the Grand Prix cars, with of course, fuel injection. This car was built in the winter of 1952/53 and was the prototype for the team Daimler-Benz was going to build before it decided to make sports car versions of its Grand Prix racer. Joining an Italian autostrada, Uhlenhaut accelerated up through the gears to 150mph without a break, and cruised steadily at 140mph on ordinary roads.
He drove hard all the time, keeping the engine working in the 4500-6000rpm range, and with a boyish determination. It was fascinating to watch this boffin in his middle forties.
After I had commented on the way he used engine and gearbox, he demonstrated that he only did it for fun, showing that this particular SL would pull in top gear at 500rpm without the use of the clutch. Then he pushed the throttle to the floor and the car went straight up to 5000rpm, still in top gear, and to really convince me he kept in top gear around some very wiggly parts in a tiny Italian village we were visiting. On another occasion he left a hotel in Brescia in this same car, with spinning wheels leaving two snaky black lines for 20 yards up the road. When I remarked afterwards that this sort of SL motoring was my idea of “real motoring”, Uhlenhaut grinned and replied, “Yes, it is fun, isn’t it?” Of such stuff are the Daimler-Benz engineers made. Before leaving the subject of Daimler-Benz, I must write about a remarkable experimental vehicle that the racing department has built. It is called Uhlenhaut’s High-Speed Transporter.
The engine is a standard fuel injection 300SL, as are the brakes and the front suspension, while the rear axle is a similar swing-type to the Grand Prix cars, with the pivot point well below the centre line of the wheels. The engine is just behind the driving cab, while the radiator is at the rear, fed from air-scoops in front of the rear axle.
It is as easy and light to drive as a 220A Mercedes-Benz and has a top speed of 105mph complete with Grand Prix car on the back, while the roar it emits would do justice to a really good sports car. In view of the performance of this ‘lorry’, it is fitted with a disc brake on the transmission and an exhaust brake on the engine, and can be driven on the autobahns at high speed using only the exhaust brake for slowing down for traffic conditions. Most beautifully finished in blue and chromium, it is an inspiring sight and was built mainly for fun, but with the excuse in the back of the mind that it could prove useful for getting a car to a race meeting quickly, if there had been a delay at the factory, or for rushing a car back to base for any serious modifications.
It is hoped to take this ‘racing lorry’ to Aintree for the British GP, so if a blue lorry overtakes you while on your way in your TR2 or Austin-Healey, don’t be worried, and don’t try to keep up. Its brakes are exceedingly good. DSJ