Scarlet fever

Alfa's legendary Tipo B and Alfetta scored 78 international wins between them. In the opportunity of a lifetime, Paul Fearnley drives them both --- on the same day!

Centre throttle. Centre throttle. Centre throttle. Please excuse my mantra. Centre throttle. Centre throttle. Centre throttle. The light has gone green. And the marshals give me a quizzical stare. For it's only now that I select first gear and build the revs. With many legendary names lined up behind me, an irreplaceable car beneath me and a slippery, unyielding course ahead of me, this, I have decided, is no time to be rushed. For let's face it, if Michael Schumacher himself were to drive this car even he would be unable to upstage the performances of Juan Fangio in it.

But we have to go some time and this is as good as any. With 3000rpm on the clock I let the clutch out, trying neither to slip it nor to dump it. I get it roughly right, setting neither tyres nor world alight. The car drops its left shoulder as the tail falls away off a slight camber. And we're away— albeit in a cloud of blue smoke.

I pull through to second as we squeeze between the trees. And get wheelspin above 3500rpm. Which is a problem because we have a misfire below that same mark. Having spent most of the morning watching two experienced Alfa Romeo mechanics battle to start the car, glugging neat, cooling methanol into its gaping triple-choke Weber, churning away on the external electric starter and swapping back and forth between soft and hard plugs, I sensed that this wouldn't be a straightforward day. For this was a car stretched to near breaking point in a bid to stave off the inevitable for two more races.

For when designer Gioachino Colombo's svelte 158 Alfetta scored its debut win in the Coppa Ciano Junior at Livorno on August 7, 1938, its 1.5-litre straight-eight developed 195bhp at 7000rpm, and had 37.5gal in its fuel tanks. The following year, with better oil flow around its (now) needle-roller big ends and increased boost from its single Roots blower, it boasted 225 at 7500, sufficient to fire Emilio Villoresi through Pescara's 1km speedtrap at 147.14mph.

In 1950 Fangio's bulkier Alfetta flashed down the same straight at 192.84mph. The key to this large increase was two-stage supercharging, a large blower priming its smaller twin. First used on the Alfetta in 1946, the system had raised power to almost 400bhp at 9000rpm by the time Fangio got behind its wheel.

Now I'm in the daddy of them all: 159M. M stands for Maggiorata, which, if you can believe your ears, means 'enhanced'.

As 1951 reached a thrilling finale, Alfa Romeo found itself under the cosh. Ferrari was in the ascendancy and, having broken the Corse's 26-race winning streak at Silverstone's British GP, Aurelio Lampredi's 4.5-litre unsupercharged 375 promptly won the German GP too. His car was not as powerful as its Milanese rival, but it was fast enough to keep the pressure on, and frugal enough to sweep by during the Alfas' more numerous pitstops. For the latter's fuel consumption had reached panic proportions: an astronomic 1.5mpg. Hence the massive tank in the tail, the large saddle tanks on each side of the cockpit, the scuttle tank over my knees and the side tank to the right of the engine bay. This Alfa could carry 70gal. And it would still have to stop twice during a 300-mile GP.

Supercharging was clearly on its way out, but with no other option available to it, Alfa coaxed an extra 25bhp and 300rpm from those hardworked 1474cc for the final races of the year — and crossed its fingers. For at 42 psi the boost was now more than double that of the original car. But hey, that 'stopgap' of strapping the main bearing caps to the block had hung on for four years now...

It wasn't just the engine feeling the strain. Although designed as a voiturette, the Alfetta had plenty of scope for development built into it (a 1.5-litre GP formula had been on the cards for 1940). Its Porsche-type trailing-link front suspension and rear swing axle (both with transverse leaf springing) was adapted from the much bigger 8C35 GP machine, and this over-engineering (with a hint of parts-bin necessity) stood it in good stead over the next 12 years. By the end of 1950, however, even it was starting to creak and groan under the increased loads. A revamp was initiated: a stronger 'box, bigger brakes and, you've guessed it, more power. The biggest change, though, was the switch to de Dion rear suspension. It had been tested as early as 1940 — it (and the two-stage blower) was lifted from Wilfredo Rican's intriguing mid-engined 512 — but only now was its extra rigidity and wheel control deemed necessary.

All the Alfettas, not just the four new cars, were deemed 159s in 1951, and the single de Dion car, 159A, was passed around: Consalvo Sanesi (Berne and Reims), Fangio (Spa), Giuseppe Farina (Silverstone) and Paul Pietsch (Nürburgring) drove it without success. But come Monza's Italian GP, three (Fangio, Farina and Felice Bonetto) of the quintet of Alfettas were Ms — the first true 159s according to works insiders. With their de Dion axles and beefed-up frames, it was hoped that they could harness the extra power and take the fight back to Ferrari.

The race proved a disaster for the Quadrifoglio; only one Alfa finished as Ferrari scored a 1-2-4-5. The Alfetta's number appeared to be up. After a glorious 13-year career and 33 major wins, was it going to fall one race short of immortality? (See panel, page 83).

Back to us mortals. Nearing the top of the hill, the engine cuts dead momentarily. Concerned, I back off. In a sublimely Italian move, it's only now, after the first run, that my handlers dish out much-needed advice. Apparently, I had flooded the engine with blips that were too staccato. Such is the thirst of the Alfetta, one squeeze of the throttle pump could fill a decent-sized teacup (a mug?) with go juice. Longer, lazier blips are what's needed to allow the throttle bodies to drain before the next splash is sploshed, apparently.

This nugget is put into practice the next morning, which dawns drier but with damp patches under the trees. Caution is still my watchword, especially as a helpful soul has pointed out that the car's Dunlops are of considerable vintage.

After a mild ticking-off for leaving the supplementary electric fuel pump ticking, I roll into station. More revs this time, but less wheel-spin. Then second gear, and up to 4000rpm. A rip-roaring blat bounces off the trees. Past the house and the needle on the black-on-white, anti-clockwise Jaeger tacho flicks past six o'clock: approx 6000rpm. The drilling note sets all my teeth on edge. What must it have sounded like at 9000— or for those bursts of 10,500 on Portello's testbeds?

I toy with selecting third gear. But decide against it. Not because the four-speed gearbox is a problem. Far from it. The lever is by your left thigh, with first and second towards you. Its tiny transaxle (a 4.5in-long cluster with first and second on the layshaft, third and fourth on the main) provides a lovely change. No, what prevents me from crossing its gate is that centre throttle. It's my first experience of this arrangement, and after a million or so heel-and-toes from left to right, my ankle is having trouble about-facing. The hill's trickiest corner is approaching, an over-the-brow left, and this is no place to start practising nifty blippy changes. Remembering that the brake is situated on the right seems much more important. It's superslow, I know, but the thought of a mistake terrifies me...

And then the tail steps out of line on exit. But a slight lift and a small correction and we're okay. Grip restored, the tail hunkers down and we charge towards the forbidding S past that looming flint wall. What a car! No wonder Fangio loved it. It's a Maserati 250F on steroids. I push myself deep into its corduroy seat and the rest of the climb passes in a blur, not of speed but of reverie.

At the top I flick the mag switch, breathe in the sudden silence and hot oil, and marvel at my outrageous four-leaf-clover fortune. There's a Tipo B waiting for me down there somewhere.

The blue-overalled mechanics are doing their Alfetta fan dance once more, and time is ticking by. I do my bit, such as it is, and climb aboard the 1932 Tipo B. Cor, Nuvolari sat here. That chokes me.

Tazio was a tough old bird, let me tell you. Hewn from teak. The bolt upright seat is making my back ache — and I've not gone anywhere yet. The 'Flying Mantuan' would pound this car over jouncing roads for up to five hours — and then breezily hop out, all sinew and brilliant smile, to collect his prize.

Er, time really is running out now. Almost as an afterthought, the guys wander over in my direction, emerging from the Alfetta's smoky fug. One reaches in to check the ignition switch, the other inserts the starter. Woompfl No muss, no fuss, the 8C's mellow bellow fills the air.

I dab the (right-mounted) button throttle. It has a very light action and my intended blip becomes an unruly blare. The clutch is v light too, and mounted so low to the floor that I have to dip it with a pointed Size Nine. Grasping the sinuous wand of a gear lever, I attempt to select first on the more usual H-pattern of this four-speed item. I can feel the cogs fighting. But raising the revs and clutch slightly calms them, and bottom slides into mesh. This is positively road car after the Alfetta.

Like its famous successor, Tipo B would have every last drop of performance wrung out of it during a long career in a desperate bid to stay competitive. By 1935 it had expanded to 3.2 litres, from 2.6 via 2.9, and boasted hydraulic brakes and i.f.s. courtesy of Ariston and Dubonnet. But this is the first iteration, not the last, constructed at a time when its relatively unstressed 215bhp at 5600rpm was enough to keep it in the mix. As were its beam axles, semi-elliptic leaf springs and friction dampers (dual at the rear). What put it way, way out front was its balance, lightness and low frontal area — all of which stemmed from designer Vittorio Jano's single-seater layout.

Monopostos were nothing new in the States — the inaugural Indy winner of 1911 was a single-seater. The Tipo B wasn't even Jano's first shot at the layout. But it was the first truly great GP car to adopt this stance. Riding mechanics had long since been phased out in Europe, but designers had kept a space open for them just in case. That changed with Jano's single-seat Tipo A of 1931. To compensate for this reduction, however, he provided it with two 1750cc engines, two clutches, two gearboxes and two bevel gears. It worked surprisingly well, but Jano had seen enough to realise that some simplification would be beneficial.

His second attempt was based around a reworking of the 2.3 motor from the successful 8C models. Jano kept its basic layout of two blocks of four cylinders on a common crankcase, plain bearings and central drive gears for the cams and ancillaries, but incorporated a fixed alloy head turned through 180deg, increased the stroke from 88 to 100mm and fitted two superchargers — in parallel not sequence — each with a Weber carb and boosting at l0psi. The rest of his 700kg device was wrapped as tightly as possible around this power plant. So tightly that its blowers jutted through the bonnet.

No Tipo B is ugly, but for me the narrow-bodied crimson Corse version shades the burgundy Scuderia Ferrari cars flared to meet the 85cm cockpit ruling of the 750Kg Formula in '34. The great Rudi Caracciola, Nuvolari's team-mate in the car's first season, called it a "ballerina". He was referring to its fleetness of foot. But he could easily have been referring to its lean, muscular allure. From shapely rad to the poised-to-pounce upsweep of the chassis over the back axle, this car is the epitome of effortless grace. Fonteyn to the Alfetta's Nureyev.

And then its gear lever wedges my left knee into a locked position as I select second on my first run. No seriously, I'm stuck like that for the whole way. Klutz! I make sure my leg is turned out, out of the way, for my second attempt.

It's dry now and I am impressed by the traction available. The car will pull from 1000rpm, but it takes an extra 3k to give the crowd something to cheer about. Jano's unusual move to put the differential directly behind the in-unit gearbox, then spear the power off at 30deg via a pair of props and finally to the hubs via bevel gears and two very short driveshafts, has been much debated. From up here I can tell it does not lower the seat any. And it's debatable that there's an overall weightsaving over a conventional set-up. What it does do is place the (thus sprung) mass of the diff towards the centre of the car, making the back axle much lighter (its centre is a plain tube) and so easier to spring and damp. Also, the super-short driveshafts reduce the twisting effect of torque, keeping the unloaded inside wheel in closer proximity to the road.

Whatever the ins and outs, up and downs, it seems to work. It all seems to work. In fact, it's all of a one. You can see where the ultimate 159 got it from — once you've peeled away its extra 200bhp. For these cars share the same steely core and sheen of finesse (their steering feels are remarkably similar) that has always separated the great from the good — and allowed the likes of Nuvolari and Fangio to prove how good they really were.