Vintage red

Built to contest the Targa Florio, this Alfa Romeo RLTF found greater fame at Brooklands. Richard Heseltine tells its story. Photography by Peter Spinney/LAT

Having made a point of not learning from past mistakes, there’s every chance this could end in tears. Mindful of the centre throttle, not to mention the seven-figure value, the guardian of this ex-works Alfa Romeo RLTF smiles and tuts with practised ease as control passes to hack. Who promptly stalls it. Again and again and again. Half an hour later, all of this is conveniently forgotten as, having mastered (or at least a close approximation) the hitherto challenging controls, there’s only elation and the dawning realisation of what a privilege it’s been. If you love competition Alfas — and really you should — it just doesn’t get much better.

And this glorious machine has quite a provenance, if one mired in confusion. Originally built to compete in the Targa Florio, there’s some uncertainty over when it first participated. Most historians believe that it was a 1924 team car but it’s entirely conceivable that it raced in Sicily a year earlier. Thing is, much of the car’s success occurred later in private hands as a ‘special’.

Alfa Romeo announced the RL series in 1922 with a 2916cc four-bearing, OHV straight six which produced 56bhp at 3200rpm. The twee English classification, based on a combination of RAC horsepower and ballpark top speed, was 21/70. Almost concurrently, a shorter variation, the RLS, was introduced with capacity enlarged to 2994cc, meaning 71bhp and a top speed of just over 80mph. Ultimate iteration was the RLSS that appeared in 1925; while little changed internally, this produced 83bhp and featured dry-sump lubrication, as did the Targa racers.

Five cars, all based on the RLS but with even shorter chassis, were entered in the 1923 running; Ugo Sivocci was victorious with an oversized 3.1-litre engine. Antonio Ascari was second overall and first in class with his 3-litre car. Later that season he won at Cremona having attained 98mph, with Enzo Ferrari taking the spoils at Savio and double Targa winner Giulio Masetti the top spot in the Coppa della Consuma.

Suitably bolstered, Alfa returned to Sicily a year on with five entries, two of them with slightly squatter bodywork and seven-bearing 3620cc power that produced 125bhp at 3800rpm. Ascari was all set to win only for his engine to seize within yards of the finish, causing the car to spin and block much of the road. Not enough as it happened. By the time he had jostled the car across the line, Christian Werner had got there first for Mercedes-Benz. Masetti in the other 3.6-litre car finished third, completing an extra lap to take the runner-up spot to Werner in the parallel Coppa Florio.

This particular car has led a chequered existence. In the early to mid-1920s, Tony Lago, subsequently of Talbot-Lago fame, was approached by one Agostino Lanfranchi to build a car for Brooklands. Then running a small London firm selling carburettors under the LAP Ltd banner, Lago somehow acquired a Targa Florio chassis, complete with 3-litre engine, onto which was fitted a tidy two-seater body with a pointed tail. Lanfranchi (no relation to Tony) raced the car at the ’25 Whitsun meeting, taking two third places in the 70 and 90mph short handicaps before winning the 100mph encounter with a fastest lap of 93mph. That same day, Jack Barclay drove the car to second in the 90mph long handicap. Next up was the News of the World 100-mile handicap that didn’t prove so successful; it retired. The car’s next recorded outing was at the Whitsun meeting a year later where it achieved a second place, but the next four years of its life remain a mystery, although there’s talk of it taking in sand races. One W Welch is known to have campaigned the car in the Inter-Varsity Speed Trials at Branches Park in 1930. Representing Oxford, he didn’t feature in the results.

Following this outing the car once again slipped into obscurity until Peter Clark found it bomb-damaged and minus rear bodywork during WWII, by which time it had also been re-registered. The car was then bought and rebuilt by SJ Smith, complete with a new tail, and re-registered again. After racing the car on one occasion at Silverstone, Smith passed it on to Dick Knight who sporadically hillclimbed it at Prescott. In the early ’60s the Alfa passed to Philip Mann, who managed to reinstate the original registration number, and any visitor to VSCC meetings during the following decade will remember his son Chris’s spirited drives in the car alongside the family’s Monza and Monoposto Alfas. Now wearing a period rear slab tank, it presently lives in an Essex-based collection.

And it’s a big car, a sense not immediately obvious from photographs. Magnificent, too, upright and emphatic with an almost fetishist level of detailing. Clambering aboard from the left (try from the right and you’ll likely burn yourself on the silencer) requires a certain physical malleability: you sit perched, more on the car than in it. The steering wheel is vast, naturally, the benefits of its size becoming obvious at speed: it gives you great purchase.

Once suitably warmed up, the first thing that strikes you is the uncanny smoothness of the straight six. There’s no lumpy idle or truculence, just a light burble at tick-over. Nor, as is to be expected, does it like to rev: 3000rpm in top equates to about 80mph. And, weighing in at around a tonne, acceleration belies its vintage.

Another surprise is the gearbox. The gate is curious, with reverse in the same plane as first and second, yet it’s simplicity itself with practice, requiring only a little double de-clutch on the up changes. Only when you hesitate with the lever do you find yourself in no man’s land, having to kick in the clutch as far as it’ll go and catch the appropriate cog on the up-stroke. But it’s very forgiving, downshifts needing a modicum of synchronisation as you acclimatise to the centre throttle which, due to its positioning, doesn’t make for easy heel-and-toeing: just getting the car off the line is an effort as there’s only an inch or so of clutch travel.

As is the whim of photographers, much of the driving photography takes place on loose surfaces on which the car feels entirely at home. While ensuring that it doesn’t drop into the many craters that pass for potholes, you’re immediately aware of the firm springing in place to counter the inevitable roll of such a high centre of gravity. The chassis itself seems reasonably rigid with adequate cross-bracing, but the ride is nonetheless predictably not so easy on the rump. The Alfa doesn’t feel as heavy as you might imagine, the steering high-geared but pleasantly light at speed: grip is reasonable and turn-in is pretty snappy, although it does hunt about on camber changes. With both hand and foot brakes operating on all four wheels — originally 1924 TF cars had the handbrake on the transmission — it stops four-square and without any fuss; yet the prospect of competing at race speeds over 268 miles of Targa Florio course, on this sort of unpaved road, doesn’t bear thinking about.

Heading onto the smoother stuff, the car displays admirable roadholding. With greater familiarity, and in a position where you don’t have to sign your life away on insurance, you imagine that it would be easy to throw the car around because it’s so faithful. Like most Alfas before or since, it thrives on being driven hard. Guilt-free hooliganism, though, isn’t on the agenda as there’s no Collision Damage Waiver here. Certainly with its regular chauffeur at the wheel, you’d be amazed at how responsive it is and just how much ground you can cover. To those with little previous experience of centre throttles (in this case, only the one prior), it’s easy to psyche yourself out but it isn’t really an issue. But pride inevitably comes before a fall so it’s best to quit while you’re still behind and just be grateful for the memories.

Our thanks to the Alfa’s custodian, Peter Reeve (0771 965187), for his help with this feature.