Vintage and Near-Vintage Alfa-Romeos

by F.W. Stiles,
Late Managing Director of Alfa-Romeo British Sales Ltd.

Part I –
The “21/70” and “22/90” Models.

This contribution continues the popular Motor Sport series of articles dealing with individual makes of sports cars. It has been written for us by Mr. F. W. Stiles, who, as Managing Director to the late concessionaires, Alfa-Romeo British Sales, Ltd., was responsible for introducing the first cars of this famous make into this country. That was in 1924, when a stand was occupied at the Motor Show; thereafter the sole selling rights in the United Kingdom were maintained for nearly ten years from showrooms at No 1, Baker Street, W.1. Mr Stiles acted as entrant and team manager of Alfa-Romeo cars in British races during this time and it is a great honour to be able to publish an article from his pen. He proposes to deal with the specifications, technical aspects, servicing data and performance capabilities of the various Alfa-Romeo cars built between 1924 and 1932, and also to include reminiscences of the successes achieved in classic racing events. This exclusive contribution will, we know, be of great value to the many people who still run Alfa-Romeo cars, and particularly to those users of the later 1 1/2 and 1 3/4-litre cars that are held in such high esteem by enthusiasts. — Ed.

While I was on holiday in France, accompanied by a well-known racing motorist, we decided to visit the French Grand Prix race. This was in 1924 when Alfa-Romeo was racing the famous P2, which won the Championship of the World that season. Having seen Campari win the Grand Prix at 71 m.p.h., we decided to extend our holiday and visit the Alfa-Romeo factory at Milan in order to inspect the production models. On arrival, and having advised the works of our intention, Signor Romeo and his sales manager of that time, Signor Rimmini, gave us an enthusiastic welcome. We were conducted over the factory and were allowed to road-test many models. Alfa-Romeo were not represented in this country and as a result of our visit to Milan we were able to enter into a contract for the sole selling rights in the United Kingdom.

Apart from its name being frequently found in the pages of the motoring journals on account of its racing successes, the Alfa-Romeo was practically unknown to the British public, and the reputation the make subsequently attained over here was due largely to our personal efforts and enthusiasm. Unfortunately, when the Fascist regime came into being the works became controlled and were required to concentrate on heavy vehicles and aircraft for the Italian armed forces, and in consequence it became increasingly difficult to continue with a business dealing exclusively with one make, owing to the very limited number of cars and chassis which were available.

To revert to 1924, one of the models we tried on the road was a six-cylinder long-chassis car known in Italy as the R.L.T., which we introduced to the British market as the “21/70” 3-litre long-chassis touring model. A 3-litre short-chassis was also tested, this being known in Italy as the R.L.S.S. and sold in this country as the “22/90” Super Sports; it was a foot shorter than the “21/70” and had twin carburetters and dry-sump lubrication.

The “21/70” R.L.T. 3-litre long-chassis 11 ft. 4 in.-wheelbase touring model had a six-cylinder 75 by 110-mm., 2,916-c.c. engine with push-rod operated o.h. valves, force-feed lubrication, a single Zenith or Solex carburetter, a Bosch 12-volt lighting and starter set with toothed flywheel ring and Bendix pinion, a ZU.4 Bosch magneto on the off side driven by silent chain from the camshaft, a water-heated jacket cast in one piece with the inlet manifold on the near side, a fan driven by whittle belt, and helical timing gears giving a tandem drive for the water-pump and the Bosch dynamo on the near side. The carburetter had a hot-air intake and was fed by autovac from a 16-gallon rear tank. The sump contained an oil filter and held three gallons of lubricant.

In unit with the engine was a four-speed and reverse gearbox. The clutch was a multiplate with composite linings. The gear lever was central, with a visible gate and the brake lever, also central, operated a transmission brake behind the gearbox. Transmission was by an open Hardy-Spicer propellor shaft, torque being taken by a torque rod, to an underslung rear-axle. Four-wheel brakes were fitted, these having cast-iron linings. Suspension was by 4-elliptic springs and chassis lubrication was by Tecalemit grease nipples. Centre-lock wire wheels carried 820 by 120 high-pressure tyres.

The “21/70” was capable of 25 m.p.h. in 1st, 36 m,p.h. in 2nd, 48 m.p.h. in 3rd and 70 m.p.h. in top gear, the engine being capable of 3,000 to 3,200 r.p.m. As delivered from Milan the solid-skirt electron pistons had excessive clearance at the base, approximately 0.006 in., and in many cases we replaced them with B.H.B. split-skirt pistons. Another shortcoming was that the indirect gear-ratios had obviously been designed for Continental roads, being on the low side for motoring in England. Consequently we had special sets of constant-mesh gears manufactured and offered these to discerning clients, which to some extent overcame the difficulty and also speeded up the gear change. As so many British quality cars employed right-hand controls at this time, we also offered a r.h. gear lever as an optional extra. The noise from the cast-iron brakes was another objection, which we overcame in a number of cars by substituting Len-Servo type shoes with Halo linings, which gave excellent results, being quiet in operation and needing a minimum of adjustment due to longer life.

From the servicing angle the firing order was 1, 5, 3, 6, 2, 4 and inlet and exhaust tappet settings were approximately 0.015 in. (0.3 of one mm.) with the engine warm.

When dismantling, mark carefully two consecutive teeth on the camshaft pinion and one tooth on the crankshaft gear. If this has not been done, re-time by setting No. 1 piston to t.d.c. (t.d.c. settings for each cylinder are marked on the flywheel, visible when the clutch cover has been removed), correctly set the tappets for warm engine, then without mounting the camshaft pinion, revolve the camshaft until No. 1 inlet valve is on the point of opening, then mesh the camshaft-pinion. To time the magneto, set No. 1 piston to t.d.c., uncouple magneto, set hand-control to fully retard, turn magneto until the small carbon of the distributor corresponds with the “I” on the outside of the terminal cover and re-couple magneto. A good mineral oil should be used in the engine. Front wheel toe-in should be approximately 0.5 in., adjusted on the track rod. A bored-out version of the “21/70,” the ” 22/70 ” was listed later.

The “22/90” RLSS Super Sports model was first imported into the United Kingdom in 1925 and was continued with few modifications until 1928. The specification followed that of the “21/70,” but the bore and stroke was 76 by 110 mm. (2,994 c.c.), the Treasury rating being 21.7 h.p., and the wheelbase was a foot shorter, or 10 ft. 4 in. The engine had dry-sump lubrication, oil being carried in a 3 1/2-gallon oil tank on the engine side of the cast-aluminium dash-board. The camshaft-driven gear-type pump fed lubricant through the engine and another pump scavenged the sump and returned the lubricant to the dash tank. Sump oil-level was indicated by dip-stick and the tank level by indicator. Engine layout otherwise followed that of the “21/70,” with cast-iron block and detachable cast-iron head, but twin carburetters, either Zenith or Solex, were used, the induction manifold still being water-jacketed. The rockers were grease-gun lubricated, wicks feeding the lubricant through the rocker-shaft. The solid-skirt electron pistons each had three compression rings and one scraper ring, but, as in the “21/70,” were very noisy when starting from cold and were frequently replaced by closer-fitting pistons.

The crankshaft ran in four plain bearings and steel H-section connecting-rods were used. The engine ran safely up to 3,500 r.p.m. Fuel feed was by a hand air-pump on the facia from a 16-gallon rear tank, to a camshaft-driven pulsometer pump, normal air pressure being 2 lb./sq. in.

The clutch plates operated on splines and the withdrawal mechanism was somewhat heavy to operate, a shortcoming overcome on some cars by incorporating reduction gearing in the mechanism, which improved matters effectively.

The rear-axle ratio was usually 10/41 and a curious failing was that pressure was sometimes found to occur within the axle casing, resulting in oil being drawn past the felt washers intended to act as seals. A simple cure could be effected by drilling a hole in the pinionshaft housing, so forming an air-vent.

Hartford continental-type shock-absorbers were fitted front and rear and the brakes were operated via strip steel and had a compensating device behind the gearbox. The cast-iron shoes were usually modified, as had been found advantageous with the “21/70” cars. Equipment included Telegauge petrol gauge on the tank and rev.-counter, speedometer, oil gauge, air-pressure gauge, Bosch switchbox, etc., on the facia and an exhaust cut-out control on the floorboards. The horn-push was in the steering wheel centre and at the top of the column were located the advance and retard control and hand-throttle. The tyres were again 820 by 120. The “22/90” had a maximum speed of 86 m.p.h., and in 1927 sold for £695 as a chassis, with full equipment.

Servicing data already quoted for the “21/70” applies. Additionally, the airports of the carburetter-heating system should be opened in warm weather and kept partly or fully closed in cold weather. The electrical system is 12 volt with direct-current dynamo. The circuit fuses will be found within the ignition switch-box, the r.h. fuse serving the off-side head and side lamps and the l.h. fuse the near-side head and side lamps. The starter will operate even with both fuses defective.

The dynamo should commence to charge at an engine speed of approximately 900 r.p.m.

We purchased one rather special “22/90” which had been raced by the manufacturers, from whom we acquired it in chassis form without equipment. This car had a radiator lower and narrower than that of the standard cars, a Hele-Shaw steel multi-plate clutch and a lightened chassis, while the engine, of standard dimensions, had a specially balanced seven-bearing crankshaft and raised compression-ratio. We fitted a standard petrol tank, Bosch electrical equipment and a light, racing two-seater body and prepared the car rather hurriedly for an Essex M.C. hill-climb at Kop, due to take place in March, 1925. We appointed Major C. G. Coe as driver and he was successful in obtaining seven “firsts” in various classes.

This car was owned by Mr. Flatt from 1934 to 1939 and was in the Whincops’ hands for a while during the war. It must not be confused with the car which Lanfranchi raced at Brooklands, lapping at 94.15 m.p.h. in 1925, and which Peter Clark owned during the war. Lanfranchi’s car was higher and had a longer wheelbase.