Racing cars become classics of their era for a variety of reasons. The Alfa Romeo Tipo B Monoposto, more familiarly known as the P3, made its mark when its first appearance in 1932, rendered the opposition obsolete overnight. And yet three years later, in spite of the arrival of the technologically superior German Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union cars, it was still capable of winning Grands Prix. It has a special place in British racing history too, for a number of cars were campaigned by private owners from 1935, and in the right hands they were for a while faster than anything else. Today, of course, the cars are regular participants in Vintage Sports Car Club events, and from time to time threaten ERA supremacy in races for pre-war cars.
Designed by the great Vittorio Jano, the P3 Alfa Romeo was unique among the serious Grand Prix contenders of its day in that it was a pure single-seater, at a time when the rival Bugatti and Maserati models were still two-seaters. Its design was a logical progression from Jano’s six-cylinder 1500cc model through the 1750cc version and the 2.3-litre eight.
Basically a long-stroke version of the 2.3-litre Monza unit, the P3 engine was made up of two alloy blocks of four cylinders each fed by its own supercharger. In its original 65 x 100mm (2654cc) form, it produced 215 bhp at 5600 rpm which, in a car weighing only 700kg, gave a power-to-weight ratio of considerably better than 300 bhp/tonne against the 240-250 of its contemporaries, the Bugatti T51 and Maserati 8C-2800.
Front and rear suspension was by semi-elliptic leaves, but the most unusual feature of the new design was its transmission. The differential was coupled directly to the four-speed gearbox, leading by way of two prop-shafts to a separate crown-wheel-and-pinion for each rear wheel. This was supposedly to allow for a lower seating position. but was more likely to do with some planned development which never took place.
It was long argued that P3 is not the correct designation for this model, but this terminology was in fact being used by the factory before the end of 1933, and possibly earlier. Grand Prix regulations for 1932, the year of the P3’s first appearance, stipulated a minimum duration of five hours — a marathon by today’s standards, but nothing compared with the ten hour grinds of the previous year. Nevertheless, only two races, the Italian and French Grands Prix, were held to these regulations.
It was at Monza in the first of these races that the P3 was launched, and Nuvolari led virtually from start to finish to give it a brilliant debut victory. Three cars started in the French race, at Rheims, and Nuvolari won again, supported this time by his team-mates Borzacchini and Caracciola in second and third places.
Caracciola then had his turn in the 354-mile German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring, not a true grande épreuve but an important event nevertheless. Once again the new Alfa single-seaters proved too fast for the opposition, and Nuvolari and Borzacchini followed the local hero across the line.
There was no stopping the P3 in the second-level events. Nuvolari led another 1-2-3 in the Coppa Ciano at Montenero, and 1-2 in the Coppa Acerbo at Pescara though Fagioli in a Maserati prevented a sweep of the first three places back at Monza; Caracciola won the Monza GP, with Nuvolari third after a fuel pressure problem put a stop to his battle with his team-mate. The only blot on the new car’s copy-book came in the last big race of the year, the Marseilles GP, held on the old Miramas circuit. Raymond Sommer in his private Monza Alfa was declared winner, with Nuvolari second — though to this day the belief in Italy is that the Frenchman actually completed one lap less than their man.
In the midst of all this Caracciola had won the classic mountain climbs at Klausen and Mont Ventoux, amply demonstrating the car’s adaptability to tight courses. Events of that year suggested that 1933 should see Alfa Romeo sweep to victory after victory, for the Bugatti and Maserati opposition had had no answer. But it didn’t happen that way. At the beginning of the year the Milan company was nationalised and, bowing to economic pressures, closed down the racing department.
Furthermore, not only did they stop production of the P3 cars earmarked for the large number of independent operators who had placed orders, but refused to release the existing stock, even to Scuderia Ferrari. This private team had very close associations with the factory and indeed had run Nuvolari and Borzacchini in a P3 in some of the later 1932 races.
The team fell back on Monzas, but this did not suit Nuvolari, who left for Maserati mid-season and won a string of races. This however was a blessing in disguise, for it caused the Alfa administrators to have a change of heart, and with the prestigious Italian Grand Prix looming, they finally agreed to release six 2.6-litre P3s to Ferrari.
As a try-out, a single car was run in the Coppa Acerbo on 15 August. Driven by Fagioli, whom Ferrari had persuaded to leave Maserati, the car won. But it was a lucky victory, for Nuvolari’s leading Maserati had had to stop on the very last lap. Fagioli was then able to dominate proceedings at Comminges, and at Miramas was joined by new team recruit Louis Chiron in a second car. After Nuvolari retired, the two P3s took turns at leading, and when the flag fell Chiron was first and Fagioli second.
The Italian Grand Prix started as anticipated, Nuvolari versus the two P3 Alfas. Chiron’s P3 developed terminal valve trouble but just two laps from the end Nuvolari blew a tyre and the other Alfa swept past to give Fagioli first place. The veteran Campari took the wheel of one of the cars for the afternoon’s Monza GP, but crashed on oil dropped from another car, and was killed. A saddened Chiron and Fagioli splashed their way to the first two places in the following weekend’s Masaryk GP at Brno in pouring rain, and the season ended with the Spanish Grand Prix at San Sabastian, where the placings were repeated.
In spite of the P3’s almost unbeaten record, the 8CM Maserati was faster, at least in Nuvolari’s hands, and for 1934 the Alfa engine was bored out to 68mm (2905cc) which gave 255 bhp at 5400 rpm. Beefing up the gears to cope with the additional power meant there was now only room in the casing for three, instead of four. There were new Grand Prix regulations for this year, limiting weight to 750kg and making a number of other provisions. One of these was a minimum cockpit width, so Scuderia Ferrari modified some of the existing cars, and also built six longer wider versions. The new cars were given five-figure chassis numbers in place of the four-figure numbers of the earlier cars, eg 50001 instead of 5001. But the biggest difference between the 1933 and 1934 seasons was the appearance of not one but two new contenders from Germany. And such were the resources that Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union were able to put into their new cars that Alfa Romeo, as well as their traditional rivals, were immediately outclassed. As an example, the new 2.9-litre Alfa engine gave the P3 a per-tonne power/weight ratio in the middle 300s — a huge increase on what had been seen on a regular basis before. But by the end of the year both German makes were delivering in excess of 500 bhp/tonne, the highest-developed Mercedes actually giving a reading of 573.3. More importantly perhaps, the newcomers had paid considerable attention to areas other than engine performance, both having independent front suspension.
Principal Ferrari drivers this year were Chiron and Varzi, Fagioli having gone to Mercedes. Also on the team’s books were a large number of second-string Italian drivers, plus the very promising 24 year-old Algerian Guy Moll. The Germans teams weren’t ready for the Monaco Grand Prix at the beginning of the season, which left the way clear for the Alfas. Chiron led virtually all race until, just two laps from the end, he somehow landed himself in the sandbags. And so young Moll came home an unexpected winner from the chastened Chiron.
Moll made it two in a row when, driving a special streamlined car, he won the Avusrennen, with Varzi in a normal car second. But the writing was on the wall, for the new Auto Unions, making their first racing appearance, had proved superior while they lasted. It was worse at the Nürburgring a week later, when Mercedes-Benz joined in. Best Alfa placings here was Chiron’s third. The German teams were thus full of confidence before their first appearance outside the Fatherland, in the French Grand Prix at Monthléry. But Chiron was in brilliant form, battling with the fastest silver cars on equal terms. Once again the German threat melted, and Chiron led the sister P3s of Varzi and Trossi/Moll to the line.
But that was virtually the end of the road for the red cars. In the German and Swiss Grands Prix Chiron ran ahead of most, if not all, the silver cars before eventually having to give best. In the meantime Varzi and Moll took the first two places in the Coppa Ciano, but that was in the absence of the opposition. At Pescara Moll traded the lead with the German cars, but then crashed and was killed, bringing to a tragic end a career of great promise. The remaining Grands Prix of the year saw the Germans dominant, with only minor placings left for the Italian cars.
But it must not be thought the season was a disaster, for in the myriad second-rank events on the calendar in those days the Alfas had their best season yet. Varzi won five of these races, Trossi three, Chiron two and Como another; in addition Tadini made fastest time in the Stelvio hillclimb. Indeed, of some 29 events the team contested, Scuderia Ferrari P3 Alfas took 16 wins, 13 second places and 13 thirds.
The programme of development continued in 1935, though a replacement car, which it was hoped would offer more competition to the German designs, was on the books. The P3 engine was bored out another 3mm, to give a capacity of 3165cc, which gave 265 bhp at 5400 rpm, though there remains disagreement over reports that a 3822cc (330 bhp) version was run during the season. At the same time some cars were converted to Dubonnet independent front suspension and, at the rear, reversed half-elliptic leaves, with the original set-up of double friction shock absorbers replaced by a single component of that type and a telescopic unit, to accommodate the conversion to hydraulic brakes.
Upon Varzi’s departure for Auto Union, Scuderia Ferrari signed Bugatti driver Dreyfus to be Chiron’s Number Two. But apparently Mussolini didn’t like the idea of a pair of Frenchmen leading Italy’s most important team, and an appeal was made to Nuvolari’s patriotism, as a result of which II Mantovano Volante returned to his old team.
High point of the early months was Scuderia Ferrari’s preparation of the special P3 for the Mille Miglia sportscar race, which in Italian eyes ranked in importance equal with most Grands Prix. Apart from widening the cockpit to accommodate a passenger, the car’s modifications comprised little more than the attachment of wings and electrics. Junior Scuderia Ferrari member Carlo Pintacuda was given the car, and succeeded in winning the race. Otherwise the first five meetings of the year brought only a second and a couple of thirds. But the cars were very competitive in the French Grand Prix at Montlhéry. Driving at his most masterly, and against all predictions, Nuvolari battled with Caracciola’s Mercedes, until the Alfa was forced out with transmission trouble after 14 laps. There followed a couple of third and fourth places, and then came the 312-mile German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring on 28 July, and the P3’s finest hour. At the start of the race Caracciola shot his Mercedes to the front, but Nuvolari in the Alfa — possibly with 3.8-litre engine — went with him holding second place through most of the first ten long laps. But his scheduled pit-stop was interminable as the handle on the refuelling-pump broke and mechanics had to hand-fill the Alfa from churns.
Tazio Nuvolari was never a man to give up. Back on the circuit he drove as he never had before, passing three of the German cars in rapid succession, to lie third. And when another of them made a stop, the Alfa driver was second.
On lap 15 von Brauchitsch’s Mercedes had a lead of 1min 27sec, but over the next laps the amazing Nuvolari cut into that, reducing it successively to 1.17, 1.02, 47sec, 43sec and then, with just two laps remaining, 32 seconds. On lap 21 however von Brauchitsch increased that to 35 seconds, and it seemed the race would be his.
But on the last lap Nuvolari hurled the Alfa around even faster, and soon had the Mercedes in sight again. It seemed perhaps he would pass after all, when fate stepped in and ensured an Italian victory, as von Brauchitsch blew a tyre. And so Nuvolari gave Alfa Romeo what was his and their greatest victory, defeating the invincible German teams on their home track. It was indeed a brilliant performance.
The rest of the season was naturally an anti-climax. In the Coppa Acerbo Nuvolari battled with the Auto Union of his old rival Varzi until the Alfa blew its motor, but the Swiss, Italian, Spanish and Masaryk Grands Prix again brought mere crumbs, as Scuderia Ferrari concentrated on developing the new 8C-35. When this broke in the Italian Grand Prix however Nuvolari took over Dreyfus’s P3 and brought it home in second place.
When the Germans were absent, the Scuderia Ferrari P3s had continued to have things all their own way. Nuvolari took seven victories in Italian and French national races, Dreyfus and Brivio another two apiece, and Chiron and Tadini one each. Tadini also won the important Grossglockner hillclimb. The privateers had their share of successes too, Sommer and Ralph filling first and second places at Comminges. Indeed, P3s had taken 46 top three placings — including 17 wins from the 31 events they contested in 1935.
But this was the end of the P3’s front-line career. Its replacement had already, as we have seen, been tested in eight-cylinder form, and would run with a 12-cylinder engine in 1936. But the marque would not enjoy Grand Prix success again until after the war.
The P3’s international record speaks for itself however. In the four years that the factory and Scuderia Ferrari campaigned the cars internationally, they started in some 78 races; they won 46 of these and took 36 second places and 33 thirds.
The P3 became a popular choice of British amateurs in the 1930s. A number had placed their orders for 1934, before the factory ruled that the cars were not for sale to foreigners. One potential customer, Noel Rees, did however manage to lease a car from Ferrari for his man Brian Lewis to run in the Mannin Moar on the Isle of Man, and it had no trouble in winning.
A similar car almost won the same race the following year, the sales policy by now having changed and Bugatti driver Richard Shuttleworth having become the first British owner of a P3. But, after disputing the lead, Shuttleworth was out with a broken axle.
Compensation for this disappointment came at Donington Park on 5 October when Shuttleworth won the first Donington Grand Prix; during the year the green Alfa had also won the Brighton speed trials and the short — but important — Mountain Championship race at Brooklands, setting a lap record for the combined road/track course. There had also been some placing in smaller Brooklands and Donington meetings, and Shuttleworth had taken his car across to France a couple of times, placing a fine fourth in the Dieppe Grand Prix.
No fewer than four P3s were imported for 1936 British racing. One of these was 5003, an early model, for Fairey test-pilot (and successful Bugatti driver) Chris Staniland, but the others were all second series cars, for Luis Fontes, Charles Martin and Austin Dobson. Fontes had however lost his road licence, and the car (50001) was never raced in Britain. Shuttleworth had damaged his own second-series car (50007) in South Africa, and it was not seen in action this year either.
Martin’s ex-Sommer car, 50003, was the most successful of this bunch. He started the season with an excellent second place in the Pau GP, losing to Etancelin’s V8 Maserati only because he required more refuelling stops. Retirements followed in the Cork Grand Prix, the Eifelrennen and the Hungarian GP, but at Deauville on 19 July he drove well to repeat his Pau second placing.
Donington Park was perhaps the scene of Martin’s finest performances. After breaking the lap record in May, he won the 25-lap handicap race in July, but was scratched from the following month’s JCC 200 Miles Race after his engine blew in practice. In the second Donington Grand Prix, on 3 October, the Alfa finished in a fine second place, with only the newer Ruesch/Seaman 8C-35 ahead.
Dobson had done much of his racing with 50005, the ex-Nuvolari German GP winner, in Ireland. He made fastest time in the Cork GP but was unplaced in the Limerick Grand Prix and at Phoenix Park. A variety of problems also kept him out of the placings in the two big Donington races, and his Continental sorties were not a success; after finishing sixth in Hungary his Deauville race ended in the sandbags.
Staniland was the least successful of the trio, for although he was in the running in several long-distance races at both Brooklands and Donington, he had trouble in each race and either retired or finished well down. He did, however, take a third at Donington in July.
The following year,1937, Staniland appeared only in the Campbell Trophy where he retired. The car was then dismantled and the parts used in a one-off special called the Multi-Union. Martin’s car was driven early that season by Charles Brackenbury, but without success. The owner took the car back for the 100-mile Coronation Handicap at Donington, taking a fine second place, and setting fastest time on scratch. He also finished third in the Cork Grand Prix.
But Britain’s leading P3 exponent in the years just before the war was young MG graduate Kenneth Evans, with the ex-Dobson car. After running well in the 1937 Coronation handicap at Donington, he was a fine ninth in the German Grand Prix, made third-fastest time at Shelsley Walsh, and ended his season with second place, behind Ruesch, in the annual Mountain Championship race at Brooklands. Old Grand Prix cars in Britain were becoming increasingly outclassed by the voiturettes, but Evans gained a third place, four fourths and a fifth in the major races of 1938 and 1939, and finished 11th in the last pre-war Swiss GP.
Two further P3s had raced in Britain in the late ’30s. The car of Riley exponent Frank Ashby, 50006, was supposedly Chiron’s 1935 mount but, driven by the new owner and R L Duller, made only sporadic — and uninspiring — appearances.
Ashby seems to have treated his cars more as engineering exercises than sports equipment, and completely redesigned his P3’s engine. Although retaining the original bottom end, the car had new cylinder blocks, head and internals and revised porting, the 2992cc unit reportedly revving to 6500. Its only success however seems to have been a handicap win at the 1938 Dunlop Jubilee meeting at Brooklands, though Ashby did for a while hold the Mountain Circuit lap record for his class. Mrs E M Thomas had no luck with her ex-Ralph car, 5006, and nor did Jack Bartlett, who had taken over the ex-Martin car.
Britain’s P3s still had a minor role to play after the war. Evans ran his car in a few 1946 hillclimbs before disposing of it to a young newcomer called Roy Salvadori to cut his international motor racing teeth on. Trials driver Ken Hutchinson took over the ex-Ashby car, had Robin Jackson rebuild it for hillclimbing, and was one of the leading contenders in such events in 1947. This car later passed to Joe Goodhew, who ran it in sprints and minor races until 1953, when it followed the ex-Salvadori car to a new life in the colonies. Brooklands driver Anthony Powys-Lybbe meanwhile aired the ex-Mrs Thomas P3 on both sides of the Irish Sea right up until 1954, winning the Wakefield Trophy in 1949 and 1953 and both the Leinster Trophy and the Ulster Trophy in 1950. No longer viable for even minor races, the cars soon found a new life in historic events. Goodhew in 50006 had actually finished second in the 1951 Seaman Trophy race, and Powys-Lybbe contested the 1953 edition with 5006, though he failed to finish. This car then passed to VSCC members John Vessey and John Crowther, and became a regular fixture on the vintage racing scene. It and other P3s have been campaigned more or less continuously since. The most successful P3 in recent years has been the late David Black’s second-series car, 50003. This is the Charles Martin car which went to Australia after the war, and was successfully raced there by Lex Davison and others before returning to the UK in 1968. Steady development of this car, primarily in the area of wheels and tyres, made Black almost invincible in VSCC pre-war allcomers races in 1984 and 1985, regularly beating the fastest ERAs. His victories included the prestigious Seaman Trophy at Oulton Park in both years.
His closest P3 challenger was Rodney Felton with a car which DSJ has described in one of his books as “a facsimile”. It takes the number (50009) of a car destroyed in Argentina about 1950, and has made a return to the tracks this season. Felton’s successes to date include firsts in the 1986 Hawthorn Spanish GP Trophy race at Silverstone, the 1987 Seaman Trophy and the same year’s Shuttleworth Trophy at Donington.
Other P3s have been driven in the past year or two by Jeffrey Pattinson and Tony Merrick. Pattinson’s is 50007, the ex-Shuttleworth car, while Merrick has been racing 5002, a first series car rebuilt with Dubonnet front suspension in the 1930s, This is the car which Patrick Lindsay brought back from Australia, where it had raced with 4.3 Alvis, six-cylinder GMC and finally V8 Chevrolet Corvette engines.
Two early cars are on display in museums. A very original example, 5005, is in the Alfa Museum, while the Donington Collection has 5001, which Alain de Cadenet imported some years ago. Two other cars (or their remains) are in the United States, another (50006) in New Zealand and even, it is believed, one in Bangladesh.
The most famous P3, 50005, made its first British appearance in more than 40 years at the Christies Festival at Silverstone in July. This is the Nuvolari/ Nürburgring car which later passed through the hands of Dobson, Evans and Salvadori, before going to New Zealand where Ron Roycroft won virtually everything going in the mid 1950s. Its later keeper in New Zealand left it substantially unspoiled. It has been undergoing restoration in Merrick’s workshops for P3 enthusiast Yoshiyuki Hayashi, who in fact has had no fewer than four examples (including 5002 and 5006). British enthusiasts are indeed fortunate in being able to see so much history in action at VSCC and other race meetings. — KHRC
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