No time to be cautious

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Sometimes, respect is the last thing a priceless old racing car requires. The Alfa Romeo Tipo B is one such

Blyton Park is by no means the most beautiful track in the UK and, tucked away in a remote part of Lincolnshire, nor is it the easiest to access. But I would have driven a lot farther just to see this Alfa Romeo Tipo B P3, let alone drive it. And that brings me to the best thing about Blyton Park: anything goes. 

Come to Blyton and no one is going to say you can’t go there or you can’t do that. Want to run an unsilenced Grand Prix car the wrong way around the track and then park right in the middle of it? That’ll be no problem, sir.

What is a problem is that the Alfa won’t start. It’s not done much these last few years, the temperature is hovering just above freezing and while its Jim Stokes-built 3.2-litre straight eight motor is new, today it simply doesn’t want to get out of bed. In proper Grand Prix tradition, the P3 doesn’t have a starter motor so you can either push it or, rather more profitably, tow it behind a Transit, which is exactly what the fine fellows from preparation specialist Hall & Hall – who have brought it here – are doing. Every so often, the gentle rattle of the Transit’s diesel motor is briefly replaced by a deafening shot of straight eight, but it never lasts. It’s as if the P3 is simply opening an eye, looking around, not much liking what it sees and going back to sleep.

But not even a dormant P3 can ignore such constant prodding forever. Eventually it awakes with an angry blast and settles down to a rambunctious idle, daring someone to approach. That someone is me and I’m not going near it yet.

So we wait for needles to jolt off their stops, showing heat to be percolating through both the oil and water systems. And listen. Because nobody makes them any more, people forget that the straight-eight sound is more distinctive than a flat six, more characterful than a V12. And of them all Alfa’s or, more specifically, Vittorio Jano’s is the best. Its timbre bears no relation whatever to a V8, be it with a flat-plane or 90-degree crank, indeed its offbeat voice is to my ears closer to that of a V10. But it is in fact a unique warbling, pulsating growl that’s now filling the Lincolnshire air with sound and smell.

Oh yes, smell. The engine in this P3 runs on pure methanol, which is why the P3 was so difficult to start this morning. Its advantage is that it has a higher octane than conventional petrol and therefore can be used to produce more power, its drawback being that it is considerably less energy-dense, meaning fuel consumption figures usually look like typographical errors. Some love its odour and the way it prickles at your eyelids, but it’s nasty, corrosive stuff, explaining why the P3 has four filler caps on view: water, oil, methanol and a secondary fuel tank containing petrol, which you run through the system after use to make sure that when the P3 stands for any period of time it’s gasoline and not methanol sitting in its arteries.

* * *

While it warms I am at least able to look around and spot certain other salient details. This really is the ultimate specification Tipo B P3. It has the wide body mandated by the 1934 sporting regulations. Its engine is to full 3.2-litre specification, earlier cars having 2.6- or 2.9-litre motors. Its twin Roots-type superchargers help push out what Hall & Hall estimates to be an easy 300bhp. The rear suspension is of the later reversed quarter-elliptic configuration with both hydraulic and friction dampers, while at the front there is the rare independent configuration with trailing arms and encased spring and shock absorber units after a design by vermouth heir and suspension engineer André Dubonnet.

The twin-cam engine, cast as two conjoined fours with power taken from its centre, is considered to be Jano’s masterpiece, but no less clever to me is the location of the differential right behind the gearbox with driveshafts spearing off at 30-degree angles to each rear wheel. This was the first truly ‘monoposto’ Grand Prix car and Jano’s design not only solved the problem of the driver having to sit inconveniently high on top of the propshaft, he also decimated the unsprung mass of the rear axle and, as an added bonus, created the world’s most accessible differential.

It was genius.

The cockpit is no less interesting. There are, for instance, not one but two rev-counters, I presume in case one breaks. One is red-lined at 5000rpm, the other at 4500rpm. There are the usual dials for oil and water, but a further one recording fuel pressure. Why is that important? Because the car’s fuel pump is your right shoulder. You pump up pressure before you start the car using an elegant aluminium handle and, if the pressure looks like falling below 1psi, you pump while you’re driving.

The pedals are odd too, in their lack of oddness. I was sure the P3 would throw me a centre throttle to keep me on my toes, but they’re all where you’d expect them to be. Which is more than can be said for the gears. Bizarrely, it has just three. The absence of a reverse I can understand on a GP car but no fourth ratio in an era where terrifying new rivals from both Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz had five each? Apparently some P3s had four gears and some did not. This one does not. So just to keep you awake it positions first where you expect it at top left, but second at top right with third below. So you have to go right around the corner to catch second and then pull back for third.

* * *

Finally the P3 is hot enough to drive. The prescribed means of access is to creep up on it. Approach from behind, put one foot on a rear spring, the other on the tyre, step into the cockpit and lower yourself down. The driving position locates your body and legs at 90 degrees with your back bolt upright, but once ensconced and if you are able not to think about all the rotating metal just below your limbs, it’s comfortable enough. I move the long, thin gearlever between my legs awkwardly across and forward and gratefully feel it slot into first.

The reason for the three-speed gearbox becomes apparent as soon I lift the clutch; it explains also why it needs be towed rather than pushed. First gear is incredibly long, so long in fact that the ratios should be considered as second, third and fourth with first simply omitted. Thought of that way, the gearing combined with the torque of the engine actually makes sense. But it also makes trailing along behind a camera car a nightmare. Every time you touch the throttle, the Alfa wants to leap forward and it complains when you don’t let it. A steady 30mph is emphatically not what this car was designed to do. Temperatures rise even in this weather, exhausts cough and bang as the P3 becomes increasingly bad tempered and then just raises two fingers to the lot of us and stops dead.

Happily no one from Hall & Hall seems remotely surprised or concerned by this unexpected turn of events, but once the Transit has been re-attached and the straight eight cajoled back to life, the time for crawling along behind a camera car has gone.

* * *

Driving it properly for the first time is a frankly bewildering experience. Other pre-war race cars I’ve driven – Astons, Bentleys, MGs – have been instantly understandable, accommodating and fun. I remember a Type 35 Bugatti that just egged me ever onwards from the moment I climbed on board. But I’m not really getting the hang of the P3. It should be easy because the engine has so much torque gearchanging is almost optional. What’s more the brakes are reassuring and even the gearlever finds its way around the gate simply enough once I’ve learned it needs a big blip between downchanges to account for those wide ratios. But it doesn’t gel. I do lap after lap and it’s not getting any easier. And then, as if in total disdain for the idiot behind the wheel, the Alfa stops dead again.

This time a quick glance at the fuel pressure gauge reveals it’s simply out of methanol. Hard to believe though it is, the P3 burns nearly a gallon of the stuff on every lap, and it’s little more than 1.5 miles round. The tank is refuelled and I set off again, determined to find where I’ve been going wrong with this car. The answer is not far away.

Mindful of the car’s value – which will be determined soon during a Paris auction but definitely stretches into the many millions – old tyres and the damp surface to which they’ve been trying to cling, I’ve been cautious. Too cautious as it happens. And as I’ve noted with other purpose-built racers in the past, a little courage can go a very long way.

Just raising the corner speed a touch puts some heat into the tyres, loads the suspension and starts the chassis and steering talking to you. Confidence builds. More revs reveal preposterous power for a pre-war car. When it was over I got back into a BMW i8, a quick car by the most modern of standards, and it felt broken by comparison. But it is the torque that beggars belief: even in top, which will be geared for something like 170mph, it just throws you up the road.

The suspension is still quite bouncy even with the independent front end, but it soon becomes clear how it should be driven. Never worry about missing the apex because the nose will always find it – the P3 doesn’t understeer at all. So your only concern is the back, which actually responds in quite a cultured way: it doesn’t snap, there’s plenty of traction and, sitting almost on top of the rear axle as you are, you know that if you’re roughly where you want to be the rear end will be there too. 

So despite all the power, torque and absence of understeer, the P3 is not actually a car that naturally wants to be driven at hooligan angles of attack. It’s far more sophisticated than that, far more the precision instrument, at least by the standards of over 80 years ago.

I’m not sure why that should surprise me. This was after all not just a Grand Prix machine, but the fastest and most advanced the world had seen at that time. Until Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union came along with enormous engines and bottomless budgets, nothing could get near it.

And to me at least, the Tipo B will always have something those brutally impressive German monsters never had: a simple beauty born of perfect proportion and exquisite detailing. Which is why, when I think of the archetypal pre-war Grand Prix car, it is always a Tipo B P3 that appears in my head.

The Alfa Romeo Tipo B will be the star attraction at RM Sotherby’s auction at the Paris Rétromobile in February. It is expected to fetch in excess of £5m.

Milestone

How 1920s thinking survives on bikes that are ridden today

Thirteen years before Alfa Romeo REVEALED THE game-changing P3, fellow Italian manufacturer Gilera presented the Rondine – a motorcycle that like the Alfa continues to influence to this day. The Rondine wasn’t the first four-cylinder bike engine, but it was the four that changed motorcycling. The top-of-the-range superbikes sold by BMW, Honda, Kawasaki, MV Agusta, Suzuki and Yamaha today use the same transverse-four engine layout pioneered by Gilera in the 1920s. 

Conceived in 1923 by engineers Piero Remor and Carlo Gianini to offer a silky-smooth alternative to the jack-hammer singles that ruled the market, the engine was sold from one company to another, the industry apparently ignorant of its possibilities. In 1933 two racing aristocrats – Count Bonmartini and Prince Lancellotti – bought the engine and had it redesigned and supercharged in Bonmartini’s Compagnia Nazionale Aeronautica aircraft factory outside Rome. Bonmartini named his motorcycle Rondine, in honour of the CNA plane that had accompanied Mussolini during his march on Rome in 1922.

However, Bonmartini soon grew tired of this sideshow project and the Rondine changed hands yet again. This time motorcycle manufacturer Giuseppe Gilera bought the project, renamed the bikes and put them to work. In 1937 the Gilera Rondine raised the motorcycle speed record to 170.37mph, ridden by brilliant racer/engineer Piero Taruffi. Two years later it won the 500cc European GP series, defeating BMW’s supercharged boxer twin and a host of Norton singles.

Supercharging was banned in the wake of WW2, so the Rondine engine was redesigned by Remor. The new machine won five of the first seven 500cc world championships, even though the horsepower of the immediate post-war bikes overwhelmed their handling.

That changed in 1953 when Gilera poached Geoff Duke from Norton, where the Lancashire rider had learned how to make motorcycles go around corners. With the bike modified, Duke scored a hat-trick of 500cc titles. Today, the Gilera’s engine layout is recognisable in Valentino Rossi’s Yamaha M1 MotoGP bike: forward-inclined cylinders, central gear cam drive and so on. Mat Oxley

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