‘The flying Mantuan’ won the 1933 Le Mans 24-hours race in this car. Jonathan Stein describes that victory, the machine’s history and how it feels to drive Tazio’s mount
Entering the final half-hour, Chinetti held a 21-second lead with Nuvolari, the `Flying Mantuan’, gaining. Chinetti stopped fir fuel and the lead changed — again.
W F Bradley of The Motor reported that, “the brakes on Nuvolari’s car were at the last extremity, and although he had a faster car, and doubtless more skill as a driver, he could only show his superiority on the straights.”
Pushing to catch the hobbled Nuvolari, Chinetti ran into the Mulsanne sandbanks, and resumed more than a minute back. Using his better brakes, though, he regained the lead, which he soon ceded to Nuvolari. Tazio was in no mood to give up. He’d come too far to finish second. As they took their final lap, says Bradley, “the two raced, separated by the proverbial pocket handkerchief. We clocked them as they roared over the line, and the diffirence between these two brilliant drivers was only 9sec.”
Shove the key in all the way to turn on the ignition. Push the starter and it catches immediately without touching the wheel-mounted distributor advance or choke controls. Set a comfortable idle speed with the dial-control hand-throttle, and you’re ready to go.
Depress the clutch and gingerly ease the gear lever into first. It goes in silently. Apply just a whiff of gas with the centre throttle, and you’re away — with gentle whir ofsupercharger and deep boom of exhaust.
When the brakes are needed, the pedal is rock hard and the huge drums pull the car U p straight. But you can never fOrget just how short this chassis is the twitchiness and direct steering remind you of that. There is a lot of weight on the front. That doesn’t mean it can’t be driven quickly. It can, but it is sensitive. It handles without vices, but the front end hunts a bit and you must be careful not to overcorrect. This thing, remember, will do 125mph. In current tune it has well over 200bhp. It’s a rocket ship. Before WWII, supercharged 8C Alfa Romeos were the contemporary supercars. Sophisticated, beautifully-built and very expensive. At a time when many engines still had sidevalves, these Alfas, introduced in 1931, boasted twin overhead camshafts actuating two valves per cylinder. Sharing the 65 x 88mm bore and stroke of the 6C 1750, this 2.3-litre straight-eight featured a pair of cast alloy cylinder blocks on a common crankcase housing a split 10-main bearing crankshaft. A pair of helical spur gears was positioned in the centre of the crank: one drove the supercharger, the other drove the camshafts in the cast aluminum alloy cylinder head through a train of gears.
Conceived by Vittorio Jano, this mechanical masterpiece produced between 142 and 165bhp depending upon tune. The 2336cc power unit was mounted integrally with a four-speed transmission in a chassis consisting of twin steel longitudinal rails linked by five crossmembers, with rigid engine bearers functioning as a sixth crossmember. Fore and aft, solid axles were suspended by a pair of longitudinal leaf springs; rodactuated drum brakes were fitted at all comeis. Two wheelbases were offered initially: the corto at 108.3in and the lungo at 122in. Depending upon coachwork, weight ranged from 2200 to 26401bs. Top speed could vary from 102 to 134mph.
The road-going and sports-racing versions of the 2.3 were often bodied by carrozzerie such as Touring, Zagato, and Pinin Farina, although Figoni, Castagna and others also clothed such chassis. In addition to the standard chassis lengths, Alfa Romeo also produced a limited series of the 8C 2300 ‘Monza’, which featured a fighter chassis with a 104.3in wheelbase and an engine tuned to produce 165bhp at 5400rpm. An out-and-out competition car, it weighed a comparatively svelte 20241bs and had a top speed in the region of 130-140mph.
If there was any doubt about either the engineering,or execution of the Jano-designed 2.3, it absolutely dominated endurance events like Le Mans 8 from 1931 through to ’34. The lengthy list of competition success reads like a roll-call of the world’s great events, including the Targa Florio, Spa, the Mille Miglia — and many grands prix. The 2.3 first conquered Le Mans in ’31 when Lord Howe and Sir Tim Birkin drove 2111005, a lungo ‘Le Mans’-bodied car by Zagato, to victory. The following year, Frenchman Raymond Sommer and co-driver Luigi Chinetti topped the finisher’s list driving a 2.3. In his new book,
The Legendary 2 3 , Simon Moore identifies this car as an early Zagato-bodied spider, probably 2111018. It was distinguished by special Figonidesigned streamlined wings and tail; Sommer reckoned that these combined with the lighter Zagato coachwork would give his car a top-speed edge over the other 2.3s. For 1933, Sommer and the great Tazio Nuvolari shared a new 8C 2300 short-chassis Zagato spider, number 2211109. Many observers at the time, and in retrospect, believed that this was the same Alfa Romeo driven by the Frenchman the prior year. This was understandable because all four wings and the tail section were those same Figoni-styled items fitted to the 1932 winner. Photos clearly show, though, that the add-on sections were dark in colour and the bonnet and cowl were finished in a very light hue, corresponding with the original cream livery of 2211109. They also show various differences in the grille surround, windscreen, door hinges and the chrome flashing along the side of the bonnet
Questions remain as to how Sommer and Nuvolari came to drive this fresh 8C 2300 in the 1933 Le Mans 24 Hours. However, research shows that the certificate of origin for this car was issued to S A Alfa Romeo on 31 May, 1933, although the chassis was completed on March 2, which is most likely when it was delivered to Zagato. It was probably loaned to Nuvolari by Alfa Romeo for the race — and Tazio then invited Sommer to be his co-driver, presumably on the strength of his win the previous year. After the traditional Le Mans start, Sommer took the lead, followed by Louis Chiron, Chinetti and Brian Lewis, all in 2.3s. By the 11th lap, Sommer set a lap record of 88.48mph.
After six hours, Sommer and Nuvolari led Chinetti/Varent by two laps. Then it all started to come unstitched. At around 4am, Motor Sport reported: “We were roused from lethargy by the arrival of Sommer coming in to mend a front wing. Just as he was about to start again there was a shout from his mechanics and petrol was seen pouring from a leak in the tank.” During the 16 minutes it took to patch the tank using soap, the Chiron/Franco Cortese car gained the lead.
As dawn approached, Nuvolari was at the wheel and, said MOTOR SPORr, “was driving furiously and was less than a lap behind the two leading cars. Just after 8 o’clock, he raised the record for the course to the terrific speed of 90.07m.p.h.” A lap of 90.93mph took the Hying Mantuan back into the lead at nine that morning. Trying to catch the new leaders, Cortese crashed, and that left the Chinetii car — more than a lap back — as the closest rival.
But that leak returned. On another pitstop, mechanics from the neighbouring Arthur Fox pit were, said Motor Sport, “chewing away for gi dear life. Their rivals had not thought to include chewing gum among g. the spares carried on their car, but somehow or other the Fox equip.[sic] conveyed the ‘adhesive’ to their rivals without being detected by the watching commissaire.”
After this second — and more effective — repair to the leaking tank, Nuvolari was able to increase his advantage between fuel stops although, according to Bradley, he returned to the race a mere 35sec ahead of Chinetti’s 2.3. Their ensuing battle — and the brakeless Nuvolari’s narrow win — would make this one of the most exciting and famous of all Le Mans 24 Hours.
The next month, Sommer took the same Alfa to Belgium for the 24 Hours of Spa. There were larger capacity cars but, as at Le Mans, the Alfas were the pacesetters. Sommer took the lead at the start, barely ahead of the Chiron/Chinetti Alfa, which captured the lead by lap two. At six hours, 2111109— now back to its Zagato body form and cream livery — remained in second, albeit now behind the Eugenio Siena/Antonio Brivio 2.3.
Early the next morning, Sommer flew off to Reims for the Mame GP, leaving co-driver Stoffel in the lead. But Chiron finally caught and passed his worn-out rival, who trailed to the finish. Apparently, the car didn’t compete again in 1933, although it was pictured in an advertisement for Zagato. By the time it raced again the following August, in the Targa Abruzzo (24 Hours of Pescara), documentation is from the Reale Automobile Club &Italia in Mantova shows that Nuvolari had acquired the car from Alfa Romeo 10 days earlier.
Sommer again shared the drive and the pair were leading when an electrical fire forced their retirement after 12 hours.
Following Pescara, Nuvolari retained the car as his personal transportation. When he travelled to New York in October 1936 to drive an Alfa Romeo 12C 36 in the Vanderbilt Cup race which he won he took the Zagato 8C with him. Speed Age’s Harry Steele recalls being driven around the Vanderbilt Cup circuit with Nuvolari in the Alfa, now painted brown. But when the Italian driver returned home, the Le Mans-winning Alfa remained behind with a new owner, Barron Collie*, who owned several other European sportscars. He entered it in the Mount Washington Rally in July 1937. After driving from New York to New Hampshire overnight, he set the fastest time in the
‘Climb to the Clouds’ up Mount Washington. Collier soon sold the car, presumably after his father’s death in 1939 when he and his brothers were scrambling to save the family’s advertising business and real estate holdings.
According to Simon Moore, the Alfa next went to Dillwyn Parrish in Los Angeles, although it seems it was also owned by Otto Zipper and at least one other, before passing to California Cadillac distributor and broadcasting magnate Tommy Lee. Incredibly, it was used in late-night street races. In one surreptitious ‘drag’ on the road, the 2.3 roundly trounced the very quick Fronty Ford of noted hotrodder Bob Estes. Some time before Lee’s death in 1950, California vintner Secundo Guasti bought the car, which he discussed in Road and Track in December 1949. Guasti recounted that Mal Ord, who maintained Lee’s cars, had “rebuilt the entire engine and Ed Winfield reground the cams.” He also cited “body modifications” that “included complete smoothing out of the body, removal of outside racing filler caps for the numerous oil and fuel tanks, and redesigning the front fenders by eliminating the running boards and substituting side panels over the exposed frame rails.”
Guasti competed in time trials and even had the car flown east to race at Bridgehampton in 1949, where he suffered piston failure after starting from pole. Guasti left the car in New York and advertised it in Road &Track in January 1950 for $1650. It then passed to New York plastic surgeon Dr. Samuel Scher, who soon sold it to Phil Moore of Wilton in Connecticut. Moore had the engine carefully repaired and rebuilt by Dick Simonek, who had maintained Ted Horn’s team cars. He then drove it to the train station daily, raced it in several events and racked up 45,000 virtually trouble-free miles.
In February 1955, Moore advertised the Alfa in Road &Track for $1850. It was purchased by Johnny O’Donnell, who soon realised that driving this car from Long Beach to New Jersey was going to be a chore. Unable to sell it, however, he started out for New Jersey and “reached Pennsylvania before the engine threw a rod”.
The Alfa finished its journey on the back of a truck and then was tucked away in O’Donnell’s garage until he sold it to Peter Falk, who repaired it and kept it for some years. The next owner, Pennsylvania collector and dealer Tiny Gould, had it extensively restored.
Once completed, Philadelphia dealer Kirk White handled the sale of the then-red Alfa to Jack Elling in New Jersey.
Aware that the fenders were all wrong, Ening consulted restorer Keith Hellon. Although he realised that the car had been much modified, he didn’t know exactly what the car had looked like when new but, he explained, “I got it as near as I could”, which included new contours for the fenders, having running boards fabricated, and restoring the hatch for the folding top it had been fitted with at some point The car was resprayed in red and correct instruments were installed.
In 1984, Ening sold it to Mr and Mrs Ruckwarth in Germany, by way of Klaus Werner. Simon Moore further notes that 2111109 passed to English collector and dealer Nick Harleyin about 1988. He drove the car extensively and at some point it went to Sweden before being auctioned by Brooks at Olympia in 1992. At that time, some of the provenance was known, although the connection that this was indeed the 1933 Le Mans winner had not yet been made.
Peter Sachs bought the car at the auction and, during the past nine years, much digging, correspondence with prior owners and unearthing photos has helped to document the car’s provenance. The big break came when Italian auto historian Gianni Canceffieri uncovered a photo taken by Nuvolari of his secretary in the car that showed the local licence number. Based on that, Cancellieri was able to obtain a copy of the original paperwork transferring ownership of the car from Alfa to Nuvolari. Although the 8C was quite presentable and mechanically sound, it had been much modified. To correct such changes, it was entrusted to Tony Merrick, who stripped the car down and rebuilt it to its original 1933 factory and Zagato specifications. During the course of disassembly, Merrick realised that much of the body was original and holes that had been filled in the bonnet — which has the original number stamped in it — corresponded with where the straps on the 1933 Le Mans car had been mounted.
Further evidence of the car’s identity comes from the simple fact that Zagato are believed to have bodied just one 2.3 with this particular style. There are also a number of other factors, discovered by Moore and Sachs, which also indicate beyond any real doubt that 2111109 was the 1933 Le Mans winner, including the fact that the body was originally painted a creamy yellow (as depicted in the period paintings by Geo Ham); the design of the windscreen and flashing; the dark red paint on the scuttle in photos taken at Spa, which matches the colour of that component at Le Mans; a statement in the Englebert newsletter that Sommer had used his Spa car to win at Le Mans three weeks earlier.
Despite being far from the site of its greatest racing victory, it’s surely appropriate that it is back in America, for Nuvolari brought it here himself — and nobody knew how to handle an Alfa Romeo quite like the fiery Italian champion. Thanks to Peter Sachs, Simon Moore, Jack filing, Durland Edwanis, Jim Site and Gary Ford