Alfa Romeo 2900B
Vincitore di Mille Miglia
As one of a handful of premier racing marques before the war, it behove Alfa Romeo's British distributor, Thomson & Taylor, to have a racing car to entice the public to its stand at the 1938 Motor Show. The car which the company sent from Italy could hardly have been more topical or more eye-catching — it was the 8C 2900 which had won the Mille Miglia that year in the hands of Clemente Biondetti. Similar team cars were second and third.
In the years after this, its greatest achievement, the car had moments of glory and established an enduring place in British motoring history, before disappearing from view in Scotland for 20 years. When it resurfaced it went to America, where it passed another 15 years in various workshops without getting the mechanical attention it deserved, and it was only in 1986 that it was reassembled in its proper form. True, part of the body had been replaced, but very little else, its mechanical integrity ensured by its long inactivity.
Its "debut" was at the Mille Miglia retrospective run of 1986, where I first saw the car and met its owner, Fred Simeone, a meeting which recently enabled me to drive this, possibly the most significant of all the rare and fast 2900B Alfa Romeos.
When it came to Olympia in 1938, the sensational machine was meant as a showpiece, not for sale, but the amateur racing driver Hugh Hunter managed to persuade T&T to sell it to him. That it should have agreed is not in itself surprising — it was at the Show to sell cars. Yet the four 8C Mille Miglia spiders were arguably the fastest sports-racers in Europe, and barely nine months old. They had a factory racing future assured for 1939 and were unlikely to be eclipsed by any other make (though the company had big hopes of its own 412, comprising a similar chassis and body with a 4.5-litre V12 engine borrowed from the experimental 12C 37 Grand Prix car, but without a supercharger). Thus the decision to release one of these cars, for which most European professional drivers would have given their eye-teeth, to an English amateur seems a peculiar one, especially given that the remaining three were retained by Alfa Romeo and later hidden with the "Alfetta" voiturettes for the duration of the war.
Nevertheless, the car was in Hunter's possession by December 1938, registered JML 1. He had a few minor modifications made, preparatory to a mixed season of road use and racing throughout 1939; a silencer was fitted where there had been none; Ranalah the coach-builders fitted a removeable windscreen instead of the aeroscreens fitted after the Mille Miglia; sidelights were attached, and two extra dials affixed for boost pressure and water temperature. Hunter remembers the car as being exactly as raced in the Mille Miglia, including the engine, but there is evidence to suggest that in fact it made its competition debut fitted with another engine — the more powerful 3-litre 308 unit. Simon Moore, in his exhaustive work The Immortal 2.9, points out that the issue of Alfa Corse magazine reporting on the Parma-Berceto hill-climb shortly after the Mille Miglia describes the car as a 308 MM, but its apparent sister-car as a 2900 MM.
Developed for the new 3-litre Grand Prix formula of 1938, the 308 engine was similar to the 8C 2.9B monoposto engine, but with its bore increased by 1mm to 69mm (giving 2991cc), larger blowers, revised manifolding, cam and valve changes, which pushed the output to 295 bhp — well ahead of the 225 bhp of the 8C 2900B in Mille Miglia specification.
The team cars ran on home ground on a petrol/benzol mixture, but had to be detuned for events outside Italy where pump-fuel was mandatory. Thus when 412031 competed in the Spa 24-Hour Race, it could not run in Mille Miglia form, whether 2.9 or 3-litre. Certainly, tighter scrutineering abroad would have noticed the different manifolding and larger superchargers of the 308 specification. The larger engine might, of course, have been installed only for Parma-Berceto, unlikely though that seems, but the clue which is hardest to ignore is on the chassis-plate.
It is the 2900B which is best known of the 2.9s; the ten earliest 8C 2.9s were known as 2900A from their introduction and had a shorter wheelbase, with chassis and scuttle differences. But 412031 is described on its chassis plate as Tipo C, a factory differentiation which can only refer to its power-unit since in other aspects it was identical to the other three MM spiders, except for one item: the front brake-drums are the same width as 308 units, broader than normal 2.9B drums. One other MM spider carries a Tipo C marking, but does not appear to have been labelled as a 3-litre or 308 in any contemporary reports. Why these cars should have been labelled Tipo C (a designation also used for the earlier 8C Grand Prix car) instead of 2900C, which would have been the logical progression, is unclear.
However it started its career, 412031 undoubtedly had a 2.9 engine when it came over here, plus a choice of normal or high compression pistons, and standard or high Mille Miglia axle ratios. The hc pistons were quickly fitted, and the car began a season which would have been notable enough in its own right (for instance the JCC Members' Day at Brooklands, when Hunter won all but one of the eight events), but which is now famous for the "Fastest Sports-car" Match Races at Brooklands on Whit Monday, 1939.
Arthur Dobson's victory driving Rob Walker's 31/2-litre Delahaye in this BARC backed one-off event failed to satisfy sportscar enthusiasts at the time, and continues to niggle Alfisti today, because Hunter and JML I would most probably have won had not the gear-selector mechanism failed at the start of the second, Mountain course, race after the Alfa had won the first contest on the Campbell circuit. However, the article by John Dugdale in The Autocar (January 27, 1939) which prompted the debate contended that the Hunter car was probably the fastest road car, and supporters of the Italian marque point to the considerable superiority of the Alfa Romeo over the Delahaye in road manners and suspension comfort as a kind of moral victory.
With the 8C 2900B the Milan company took a major step ahead of its competition. Europe had seen Alfas dominating Grand Prix racing with the Tipo B single-seater in the early Thirties, and when Germany began to steal the glory, Alfa Romeo threw itself into a creative frenzy of new models and engines. Much of this experimentation condensed in the specification of the 8C 2900 when it was announced in 1937. The engine layout had already been seen in the monoposto, though there are block differences which show that the units were designed for the sports-car and not left over from the Tipo B programme.
Two blocks of four cylinders split by camshaft gearing were fed by a pair of Roots-type superchargers on the side of the crank-case, also driven by gearing from the centre of the crank, which drew mixture from two Weber carburettors beneath. This central location is highly efficient and makes the big powerful engine compact and beautiful in its symmetry. Twin camshafts operated widely-angled valves.
Further back in the channel-section chassis, the gearbox was placed in unit with the differential, starting an Alfa tradition which even now has one or two models to run before front-wheel drive takes over. Swing-axles with fore-and-aft arms were borne by a transverse leaf spring pivoting behind the differential, while the front hubs and drums moved on small twin trailing arms controlled by an enclosed spring with integral damping. Adjustable friction dampers to the rear backed by a separate pair of hydraulic units completed a chassis which was unrivalled for sophistication and performance until well after the war.
Most of the 43 cars were bodied by Touring in graceful, streamlined shapes which, thanks to the war, took another ten years to become commonplace in car styling. But few designs have approached the almost perfect poise of a long-chassis 8C 2900B with spider body.
For its Mille Miglia entries, the team built four special cars with slender lightweight spider bodies planned by Alfa but shaped by Touring. Dominated by the plunging 2.9 grille, these outrageously attractive machines surrounded a tiny cockpit with teardrop wings blended in by smooth reverse curves to sills which bulged under the tiny doors. A vast 38-gallon reservoir for fuel, a five-gallon oil tank, and a nearly horizontal spare wheel were skinned over to form a tail of tapering elegance. To allow for the low spare, the chassis rails turned down behind the rear aide, a feature unique to the MM spiders. Full-width plastic windscreens were fitted, but these were changed for aeroscreens after the 1000-mile race. Such was the car British enthusiasts were able to watch before the war in the hands of Hugh Hunter, and after it when Tony Crook had acquired it. He often raced it without the enclosed wings, substituting cycle-wings with a simple pointed tail or leaving the tyres exposed for Formula Libre events. He passed it on eventually, in 1951, to a Scottish collector who painted it black and ran it on the road, also with front cycle wings and odd rear pontoon wings. At some point the original rear body had vanished.
In this form JML 1 was auctioned in 1970, going to an American collector, Bill Serri. Apart from rebuilding the engine, only bits and pieces were done to the car until 1982, when Serri (who had just bought the sister car which Pintacuda drove to second place in the 1938 MM) agreed to pass it on to Fred Simeone after he had reassembled it.
Even then the rebuilding proceeded only slowly, the machine receiving the second of two unsuccessful new rear panels. Simeone had entered the car for the 1986 Mille Miglia rally, but although the organisers were ecstatic at the prospect there seemed no hope of it being ready in time.
Then the project was taken over by David George's shop in Pennsylvania, and in a strenuous night-after-night slog of less than a month the chassis was stripped and reassembled, the existing body panels repaired, another new tail and four wings made, and the whole car built up, run-in overnight, painted, and flown to Italy just in time for the start. Over the succeeding 1000 hard miles, its first real journey for at least 20 years, the only thing that broke was a bonnet catch.
Since then the car has not been babied; it is kept licensed, sees regular though not frequent road use, and will join the Mille Miglia gathering again on April 28-30 this year. So there were no special arrangements to be made when Fred and I squeezed inside and settled in the narrow curved leather seats, he driving until the engine warmed. It was difficult to he objective about mechanical things because of the swelling wake of wide-eyed onlookers we created. I saw this sort of fascination in Italy around the Mille Miglia route, but out there everyone is a car-lover; here were people who surely knew nothing of the car's pedigree, drawn to it simply by its shape and the cacophony oozing through the bonnet louvres.
On its tall 19in wheels, the Alfa is little bothered by potholes, the slightly flexible Superleggera body construction dampening out any tremors, and rolls easily in second and third between traffic lights — utterly incongruous for this racing car. We were making a minor detour before escaping the city, but it did catch up with us; although the engine showed no signs of discomfort at the time, we had oiled it up in the traffic and it did not want to restart after a pause.
A phone call brought Dave George out with a spare battery as a safeguard, and after cleaning the plugs and being rewarded with the deep bark of eight cylinders, we loaded that in as a precaution, tucking it under my knees in the long narrow footwell, there being no other space for anything bar a few tools which can be crammed on top of the spare tyre.
However, there was no more problem once out of the traffic; stopping to take on some of the ordinary leaded petrol it now runs on, with a little oil added to smooth the path of the blower lobes (the bearings themselves have been converted to permanent lubrication at some point), it fired again without hesitation, and Fred demonstrated its performance for me. It was not until we were climbing the ramp onto the freeway that the engine had to pull hard, and what an electrifying sound it then becomes, the blowers' fine whistle intensifying to a wail like a distant air-raid warning, backed by an abrasive note from the forked exhaust outlet.
I took over in a garage forecourt, whose open-mouthed proprietor missed the chance of the biggest tankful he'll ever sell, and practised the reversed gearchange — one and two against the driver's left knee, three and four against the passenger's right. Although John Dugdale and Tony Crook both recorded difficulty in getting smooth engagement from the powerful multiplate clutch, it now eases in, quick but smooth, without my fuss.
Contemporary accounts of the 8C's extraordinary flexibility are still appropriate: the power, certainly more than the standard 180 bhp but not recently measured, swells in a steady flow from 2000 rpm up to the 5000 or so seemed a sensible limit — a smooth rise accompanied by a blanket of noise.
Cold wind pours around the tiny aeroscreen and plucks at the arms, which barely have to move to twitch the wheels aside at 70, 80, 90 mph. The worm-and-wheel steering mechanism is balanced to need tiny corrections of the steering wheel, but it is light under the hand on these slender tyres. A few degrees is enough to pitch the long nose into the next bend and a push on the little central throttle keeps the car turning just as much as you want.
The balance is extraordinary, the effort needed so minor that 1000 miles suddenly sounds more exhilarating than tiring — except that Biondetti handled these delicate controls at an average of around 83 mph, streaking over the long plains at 130 mph or more as easily as he sent the car surging up narrow mountain hairpins.
From behind the wheel everything you can see is just as he saw it in 1938: the extra instruments have been removed (though a neat water temperature gauge hinges down from behind the dash when required), and the door panels even retain the original leather, though the seats have been recovered. The scalloping inside the wings reflects the road in a shade of orangey-red which has caused many arguments, but which is reproduced from a patch of unfaded original paintwork found under one of the riveted brake-cooling scoops. Simeone's decision to stick to this unusual red was vindicated when in Italy he met the son of Touring's then proprietor, who confirmed that the team cars had a dash of yellow in the mix to mark them out from customer cars.
With synchromesh and crisp throttle response, flicking from gear to gear is rapid and sure: a bark as the revs kick up for the down-change, then a slower bellow on an open throttle to pull away from the bend. I have paid no attention to the kph speedometer behind the wheel, glancing only at the anti-clockwise tachometer further over, but we seem to be in a different realm to the plodding ordinary traffic. Again and again the blowers scream and the fine slotted cowl sweeps past another car.
The right-hand brake pedal is good and hard, and heavy, but it needs care to avoid locking the narrow tyres. In tighter curves the chassis shows its character: it tends towards oversteer, so that it can be balanced with steering or throttle, the equal weighting of front engine and rear gearbox feeling perfect. You can feel, and even see over the skimpy door, the swing-axle system at work, but its effects are minimal in ordinary cornering on the tall tyres. Even in today's terms the suspension works well; it must have been a revelation pre-war.
It would have been extraordinary if the entire bodywork of this important car had survived a competition career of some 13 years, but to retain chassis, engine, transmission, hubs, brakes — not only all running gear, instruments and seats, but also the bulk of the body from the fuel tank forward including the cowl and the slotted radiator shell — is a rare historical benefit. It is sad to hear of famous cars lying untended in the period between obsolescence and renaissance, but sometimes. as here, that fate can be the car's saviour. GC