Bi-motore burblings

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I reckon that Rodney Felton did well to finish fifth in the Alfa Romeo Race in Tom Wheatcroft’s rebuilt and rebodied Alfa Romeo Bi-motore at VSCC Donington, remembering how other drivers, up to the calibre of Nuvolari, the Senna of his day, disliked the handling characteristics of these twin-engined Alfas. It was a tribute to Rodney’s enthusiasm for the marque that he was lent the car — mark you, I bet old Tom, had he entered, would have been as fast…

The history of the two Bi-motores has been well told in books and articles, starting with Peter Hull’s standard work on Alfa Romeo (Cassell, 1964) The larger-engined one gave Nuvolari records at just over 200mph on the Lucca autostrada in 1935, but the origins and design of these exciting cars does not need retelling here. However, it is worth recalling what happened when the smaller-engined of them came to this country, which happened a long time ago, when Brooklands was a racetrack. The Bi-motore built by the Scuderia Ferrari for Louis Chiron, with two 2.9-litre Tipo-B engines, seemed a likely extension of his racing activities to Austin Dobson, a wealthy poultry farmer I believe, who had run monoposto “P3” Alfa Romeos with enthusiasm. I suspect that he had the Brooklands lap-record in mind (standing at the time to the credit of John Cobb and the Napier-Ralton, at 143.44mph and never beaten), when he made a bid for this ultimate in fierce Alfa Romeos.

As Nuvolari had not been enamoured of his drives in these cars (although he was fourth at Tripoli and Chiron second at Avus, with the Bi-motores, in 1935) no doubt the Scuderia Ferrari was glad to dispose of the less powerful one to an English bidder. However, when Dobson’s move became known, rumour was rife. It was said that the car was only on loan to him, with certain parts of it sealed to prevent inspection, and that Ferrari was sending to Britain his own mechanics to look after it. All untrue. Having taken possession of his fantastic motor-car Austin Dobson, whose brother Arthur raced ERA R7B, had to rely on the skill of his faithful mechanic Querico to keep it running. He also had to have the exhaust system made to comply with the Brooklands’ silencer regulations, no easy matter with the front and rear mounted straight-eight engines. (When that chore was over it was said that Austin was disappointed at the Bi-motore’s lack of bark.)

The Bi-motore was unsuited to Donington Park circuit (more sinuous then), so Dobson’s first venture was to book Brooklands in March 1937 for an attack on the Mountain-circuit lap-record, held by Raymond Mays’s 1½-litre ERA at 84.31mph. The brakes had weakened during practice so Dobson had to cut out early before the Fork hairpin. But he was timed by the then-new light-beam apparatus to do his fastest lap at 77.84mph, a record for Class B. This was not such a worthy achievement as it may seem. It was slower than the course lap-record in all classes except those for 750 and 1100cc cars, and that held by Malcolm Campbell’s 4-litre Sunbeam in Class C, set up in 1934. What the Bi-motore had bettered was Campbell’s Class B record, by 2.85sec, set six years earlier, with his Mercedes-Benz, an impressive motor-car, which would now be termed a vintage sports-car.

The first time the British race-going public had a chance to see this Bi-motore in action was in the first race over the new Brooklands Campbell ‘road’ circuit, on May 1, 1937. Andrew Leitch was to have been Dobson’s co-driver, but his gyrations on the Test Hill hairpin made him a wiser man! In fact, the allegedly difficult Alfa went very well. After Earl Howe, who was leading in his ERA, had crashed and “Bira” in the big Maserati had gone into that position, Dobson was in second place. But the Bimotore’s brakes were not up to the corners and the back-axle broke up after 31 of the 100 laps. Nevertheless. Dobson entered the car for the BARC Whitsun Meeting, or rather, the Hon Peter Aitken did. The idea was to run it in the seven-lap Coronation Handicap, for the Star Gold Trophy. There was then the possibility of seeing whether the red 16-cylinder 5808cc Bi-motore would lap the outer-circuit at record speed. It was handicapped to give John Cobb, in the 24-litre Napier-Railton which held it, a start of 12s, and the successful 6597cc Bentley-Jackson was to have left 24sec after Dobson! Alas, the back-axle could not be repaired in time. The Alfa Romeo was indeed such an attraction that the Brooklands authorities put a notice on the entrance gates to the track announcing that it wouldn’t be running!

By this time Austin Dobson must have been wondering whether he was wasting his money, and a little mystery intruded when although his entry of the Bi-motore was again posted as a non-runner in the 1937 JCC International Trophy race, his van nevertheless arrived at Brooklands labelled “B Alder” (who turned out to be Austin) containing the 1½-litre Maserati he was to drive in the race. It retired when the shock-absorber brackets broke. However, the Bi-motore had been repaired in time for the BRDC 500-kilometre outer-circuit race at the end of that 1937 season. Chris Staniland, the noted test-pilot and racing driver, shared the car with its owner and did a lap at 132.8mph (BRDC timed) and they finished in sixth place, at an average speed of 110.2mph, winning their class. Only the winning Napier-Railton and the V12 Sunbeam went quicker.

In 1938 the Hon Peter Aitken bought the Bi-motore and there were hopes of better things. G P Harvey-Noble, who had an intimate knowledge of Brooklands, did innumerable fast laps in it. But it never showed the desired promise and the following year Aitken virtually cut the chassis in half and used the front engine to form the Alfa-Aitken. How good it is that Tom Wheatcroft, who loves single-seaters (his Donington Museum is full of them) has had the car rebuilt as a twin-engined Alfa Romeo! Incidentally, I believe that at VSCC Donington the Bi-motore was towstarted. But years ago George Harvey-Noble told me that although it was possible to hand-start each engine independently, he preferred to get the front engine going, warm it up, then engage the dog-clutch, controlled by a cockpit lever, and so start the rear engine of this remarkable motor-car.

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