A road-equipped 2.9-litre P3 Alfa-Romeo
The monoposto P3 Alfa-Romeo ranks as one of the world’s great racing cars. So, hearing that a road-equipped version was to be seen in Weybridge, we hastened there one crisp February afternoon with a sense of keen anticipation. We were not disappointed.
It is with mixed feelings that we visit Weybridge, that pleasant town in the pine-woods country of Surrey, nowadays. At one time nothing would keep us away and every Bank Holiday and many ordinary Saturdays found us there, travelling at first by train (and once getting into the express for Southampton by mistake, so that we did not see any motor-racing until very late in the day !), later in the luxury of one’s first car, although if this did not start a mad dash had then to be made to Clapham Junction by tram. Later still we almost lived at Weybridge and had a personal record between there and London which enabled us to go home for lunch and back to Brooklands afterwards without missing much of what might be going on.
But now Brooklands is no more and Weybridge merely a place of sad memories. On the occasion of the visit in question, however, these were appeased by the truly exciting car we found at RJ Shanks & Co, in Baker Street. It was none other than the 2.9-litre P3 Tipo B Alfa-Romeo raced pre-war by the late Richard Shuttleworth. Converting really-rotent GP cars for road use has been something of a hobby of rich Englishmen for some time, and such cars as Rodney Clark’s 3.3 Bugatti, Crampton’s 2.9 Maserati, etc, come to mind. But a two seater sports version of the monoposto Alfa-Romeo !
As a matter of fact, neatly as the job has been done, the result is quite as exciting as other GP conversions, although the wide flared wings and running-boards give the appearance of a normal, albeit very exclusive, sports model. As far as could be ascertained very little mechanical alteration has been made, although, while the classic double Roots supercharger is retained, the compression ratio has been brought down to 5.7 to 1. The exhaust system consists now of two separate four-branch manifolds, from which the off-take pipe from the front one feeds into the front of a vast cylindrical silencer under the off-side running-board, and the pipe from the rear branch enters the same silencer at the top.
Steering column (by 8-in) and pedals had to he moved to the right-hand side but the same steering connections and geometry are retained, and the front wings in no way impede the extremely small turning circle. Radiator, bonnet and even scuttle are the original, as the width of the monoposto P3 scuttle (GP rules called for a minimum of 34 in) makes it quite easy to graft on a two-seater body .
As Geoffrey Barnard, for whom this exotic car was built, is comparatively short, the racing fuel tank was retained. This makes the leg-room decidedly cramped, for now, of course, there is no question of the driver’s legs stretching out one each side of the central gear-lever and its visible gate. When Frank Kennington demonstrated the car he had to remove seat cushion and squab in order to get in and, even then, was “knees up, Mother Brown.” Yet, in width, the cockpit is spacious.
The whole conversion, for which Charles Brackenbury was responsible, Herrington doing the body, has been done very soundly, an X bracing of substantial plated tubes stiffening the flared front wings so that no movement occurs over the roughest roads. The problem of fitting starter and dynamo to a GP engine is frequently a battling one, but has been very simply and effectively overcome on this P3 by driving a dynamotor from a Talbot 105 off the nose of the crankshaft. This piece of “elektrickery” lives under a shapely fairing with horn incorporated which blends into the front dumb-iron apron. The front wings flow into short, very wide, firm running-boards, inboard of which a battery is housed in a neat box on each side, the electrical system being 24-volt for starting, 12-volt thereafter. Lucas headlamps are mounted on the aforesaid X wing-bracing, sidelamps on the wings. There are no doors. The tail is more bulbous, and of course wider, than on a GP car.
The polished steel instrument panel carries a big central Jaeger rev-counter reading to 6,000 rpm (two were fitted on the “works” racing cars), oilio and benzina gauges, and two neat dials to remind us this Alfa-Romeo is now a road car—a clock and ammeter. A row of switches on the left, for the lamps, bears a note, “Switch off dynamo when starting.” A pressure pump built into the dash on the right pressurises the tank until a pump driven from the nearside oh camshaft takes over.
This brings us to how effective is the starter. Not only has use of a dynamotor made it unnecessary to find a drive tor a separate dynamo but no starter-bendix is involved. So, to start, you depress the switch and keep it pressed, even after the engine starts to fire. From stone cold this produced a very quick response, after which the engine ran without spitting back, the mixture obviously on the rich side, as is expedient with an Alfa.
On the road this sports P3 was truly satisfying. The engine sound is hard and purposeful rather than noisy, the whine of the various transmission gears delightful. The acceleration was “out of this world ” so far as normal sports cars are concerned. The gearbox is of the later three-speed type, more robust than the four-speed box of the earliest P3s, and bottom gear can be held to quite high speeds. A typically Alfa clutch calls for care in getting away. Behind the gearbox are the reduction gears of the twin-V-propeller shafts, and as Kennington could not tell me the ratios of these or the axle, I do not know how fast we went. Certainly nearly 4,000 rpm came up in third and top and air pressure past the tiny aerosereens (a full-width screen is also available) was such that we knew we were going far faster than the rocksolid ride and absence of mechanical effort suggested. The engine showed a healthy oil pressure and spat back only twice, and that mildly from the blow-off valves, although it did not have much chance to get really warm. As impressive as its urge was its docility, running at 1,200 rpm in top gear being snatch-free and not seeming to foul the sparking plugs of the straight-eight engine. Another surprise—we were on Pool petrol mid ignition advance and retard is automatic, yet no under-bonnet distress signals were evident. This one-time monoposto is perfectly gentlemanly in English built-up areas !
The suspension is naturally pretty hard—this is the 1/2-eliptically sprung non-ifs P3, with racing-type Hartford friction dampers, the hydraulic dampers having been discarded. 6.00-19 Dunlop racing tyres are on the back wheels, 5.00-19 on the front, with a rigidly mounted spare wheel on the near side.
Back in the showroom I had a final look-see at this Alfa-Romeo. The lines are very nicely balanced. I should say the steel-spoked, wooden-rimmed steering wheel is not original. There are two quick action fillers in line on the tail, one for petrol (281/2 gallons), the other for oil (5.1 gallons). The scuttle filler for reserve fuel is there but no longer used. The brakes are immense in size and operated by rods passing through the steering king-pins, this being normal P3 practice. The ignition switch cannot be turned until the oil supply, which you turn off after a run to prevent the crankcase filling up, is again turned on.
It would be instructive to take performance figures for this intriguing sports car. The P3 was built to comply with the 750-kg racing formula, and with tyres, etc, scaled 15.2 cwt, so even with its present generous road-faring wear I imagine the weight is under one ton. These engines originally gave about 190 bhp and rods and crank were safe up to 5,400 rpm. The present output is probably 150-180 bhp and without closely approaching, peak rpm something like 118-120 mph should show up.
Whoever acquires this P3 will have a road-car in a category shared by only about half-a-dozen others, all of them built pre-war cars of which the appeal is as much bound up with perfection of character as with the stupendous performance they possess. Moreover, this Alfa-Romeo is an historic car, for with it Shuttleworth gained many successes, including the 1935 Donington GP from the 3.3 Bugattis, at 63.97 mph, and that year’s Mountain Championship, at 78.2 mph, setting the Class lap record to 82.06 mph. It must be the only road-equipped P3 in the country, although in 1935 such a car was driven to victory in the Mille Miglia by Pintacuda and Della-Stufa, at 71.3 mph.
MPH 374, for that is how the Alfa is registered, should pass as a sports-car at club speed events, although a hood might have to be made up. It should be a very effective car, either for speed events or the sheer exhilaration of driving it on the road. Who, I wonder, will buy It ? WB.
N.B.–Neither Frank Kennington nor Owen Finch will race this year. Kennington uses his Ford V8 Special coupe, which has ifs and a four-speed gearbox, and has puzzled many people when parked at Silverstone, Fangio included, as a fast road-car. For relaxation he is assembling an elaborate gauge 00 model railway layout.