40 years on

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Spectators engrossed in the enthralling Frank Sytner vs Nick Faure battle at the head of the GT field in the Coys’ Silverstone Historic meeting might have been forgiven for overlooking the machine which finished 16th. While the Bamford GTO traded tarmac with Draper’s Aston Martin prototype, Chris Mann brought an unusual red coupe home to a promising result in a field of cars a generation younger.

The bald entry ‘Alfa Romeo 3000CM’ in the programme gave no clue to the history of this remarkable car. Built in 1953, it dates from the days when manufacturers would construct one-off cars, even one-off engines, for certain events; the days when a sportscar could equally run at Le Mans and in the Mille Miglia. Great days, great drivers; and perhaps none greater than J-M Fangio. For this is the car in which he completed one of his (greatest) feats. Not a victory, though it was close; instead a second place on the arduous Mille Miglia, achieved with a handicap which would have stopped most others.

People remember the epic story, but few remember the car, for the 3000CM competed for barely one season, and scored only one victory, when Fangio won the non-championship 1953 Supercortemaggiore GP for sportscars. In a sense, it was running in the shadow of the marques Grand Prix glory, Alfa having withdrawn from the race track at the end of 1951. But amongst sportscars as in Grands Prix, the quadrofoglio verde, lately unchallenged, faced a new and deadly rival in the shape of Ferrari. The Alfetta 159’s dominating success in the first year of the new Grand Prix World Championship came at the end of five years of continuous development; the supercharged 1 1/2-litre engines were so stretched that there was nowhere to go.

It was clear that the 4 1/2-litre unblown option, being actively pursued by Ferrari, would allow as much power or more, with less mechanical stress. A new engine would soak up money and time Alfa Romeo could not afford to provide; it seemed better to quit Grands Prix at the top, and turn to sportscar events, where production cars, or variants of them, could fly the flag. So 1952 saw the roughing out of an all-new car, using parts from the new and promising 1900 saloon in a new tubular frame. It instantly caused headlines because of its extraordinary clam-shell body shape, almost symmetrical above and below its knife-edge waist. It was the Disco Volante, the Flying Saucer, a space-age exposition of the new art of aerodynamics. Three cars were built — a spyder, a coupe, and a conventional spyder — but although slated for Le Mans 1952, the four-cylinder machines were simply not ready.

They never raced in their original form; as development proceeded, the design changed enough to merit a new designation — 6C 3000CM. These cars, the subject of today’s sermon, are certainly part of the Disco Volante family, and were referred to as such by the factory at the time, which has led to much confusion; in fact, with their differing chassis and lacking the dramatic form which inspired the name, it seems fair to label them as distinct models. By the end of 1952, Alfa Corse had refined the layout of the car.

Structurally it was a follow-on from the Disco Volante, using similar architecture, but replacing the fourcylinder 1900 engine with a six, which thanks to a longer stroke jumped to 2995cc. This was in fact a reversion rather than a development: the 1900 engine had itself been derived from a 3-litre six designed in 1949 to power the luxury machines in Alfa’s range. In the end, the four had prospered, while the six, barring one outing in the 1950 Mille Miglia when Sanesi crashed the one-off C50 coupe, had been forgotten. Perhaps this would be its chance to prove itself.

By now the Disco’s styling had been discovered to offer little discernable aerodynamic advantage. For a 2-litre it was certainly fast at 135mph, but instability caused by rear-end lift was cancelling out the gains from the smooth underside, so although the first of the new cars was built with DV-type spyder coachwork, a second spyder had a more conventional body with flat sides. This reflected a revised chassis within: the Disco’s unusual lens-shaped cross-section enclosed a pair of high-level perimeter chassis tubes which ran from the front upper wishbones and swept around outside the cockpit. Two more tubes ran up the spine, low down by the prop-shaft. For the CM cars, these two outer upper tubes were pulled in between the seats to make a backbone chassis, with normal floor-pans and upright sides. The suspension remained as on the Disco, and indeed the 1900: unequal wishbones at the sharp end, and a De Dion axle behind, located sideways by Watts linkage and foreshaft by radius arms which converged towards the centre.

On this frame, Colli built coupe bodies of a functional plainness which almost smacks of panic. Coming between the exotic Disco Volantes and the beautiful, but stillborn, 2000 Sportiva of 1954, the 3000CM is a rare lapse in Portello’s high visual standards: with its stubby wheelbase, hump-backed profile, blind quarters and slab sides, only its mother could say it was a pretty car. It looked shorter than the Disco, though the wheelbase was just over an inch larger; a muscular three-inch hike in track accounted for its bulldog stance. But it was powerful; quickly enlarged to 3495cc by increasing bore and stroke, some 260bhp was found, running on six Weber 48 DOM carbs.

And by the time three cars were readied for 1953’s Mille Miglia, their engines were producing 275bhp. Twin chains drove the two overhead cams which operated valves at 90 deg. There were five ratios in the ‘box, and quad-shoe Al-fin brake drums, inboard at the back. There was also a slightly unusual steering layout: the worm-and-roller box controlled a separate arm to each wheel, instead of having a conventional track-rod linking them. It was an idea which was to have significant consequences. As well as the three six-cylinder cars (still labelled 3000CM despite their 3.5-litre engines) for Sanesi, Kling and Fangio, a fourth was entered for the 1953 Mille Miglia. Driven by Freddie Zehender, it packed a 2-litre four under the bonnet, but was otherwise identical to the coupes.

As the cars headed for Ravenna, Alfa’s star was high: Sanesi was two minutes ahead of the fastest Ferrari with its 4.1-litre V12 engine. By Pescara Sanesi’s average was almost 110mph, but the big six was still not tough enough, and shortly afterwards it broke. Farina also having retired his Ferrari, Kling took over the lead, but he too was forced to pull out when oil began to pour from the rear axle. This left Fangio with a strong lead — until his car suddenly began to behave oddly. The left track rod had broken, and only the right wheel was steering.

Castor angle kept the other running parallel, but without doing any work. In a straight line the car was stable, but cornering became a lottery, and the effect under braking must have been terrifying. Winding on excessive lock for minimal effect, wondering what would go next, the abused right tyre or the other track rod, and knowing all the time that a certain victory was about to be snatched away would daunt most mortal men. But it wasn’t enough to stop the Argentinian ace: tip-toeing around the sinuous bends of the Appenines but letting fly on the final straight dash over the plains, he still averaged over 100mph from Bologna into Brescia. It was an epic of tenacity and skill, but it wasn’t enough: while he was coaxing his stricken machine through the mountain curves, Marzotto’s Berlinetta Ferrari overtook him, stealing the victory the 3000CM needed to claim its place in history. Yet amazingly Marzotto was the only driver to catch Fangio before the level straights allowed him to push back up towards the CM’s 155mph peak. If ever a second place was worth more than first, it was then.

There remained Le Mans, and the Scuderia del Portello entered the same three six-cylinder cars, for Fangio/Marimon, Kling/Riess and Sanesi/Carini. It began well; all three cars kept close up to the Rolt/Hamilton C-type and Villoresi’s Ferrari, and soon Sanesi broke the lap record. But by Sunday morning the Alfa pit was silent; a burnt piston for Fangio the evening before, collapsed rear suspension on Sanesi’s car in the night and clutch failure for Karl Kling before dawn. It was a dismal crew which returned to Milan.

Fangio and Sanesi took one car to Spa for the 24hr race, but Sanesi went off the road early on, claiming that something had broken. With this in mind, a three-car entry for the Nurburgring 1000kms was withdrawn when Kling suffered another steering failure in practice.

The only flicker of optimism was Fangio’s win at Merano, in a spyder fitted with a 3-lire engine ready for the new reduced capacity rules, against fierce competition from not only Ferrari but also Maserati and Lancia with its D23 and D24 sports-racers. This apart, the 3000CM had such poor results to show that the factory abandoned its efforts in major sportscar races at the close of 1953. There was one final bid for success, in the non-championship but high-profile Supercortemaggiore GP at Monza in 1954, for which Alfa built a new shortwheelbase spyder (3000CM PR, for passo ridotto). Its 3-litre short-stroke engine revved to 7000rpm and offered 260bhp and a top speed of 160mph, but when Sanesi crashed in practice, the scuderia withdrew the car.

It was the end of the Disco Volante story, and the end of top-level sportscar racing for Alfa Romeo until 1967 and the 133. When at the end of 1953 it seemed clear that the cars would not race again, certain people were offered the chance to buy. Jo Bonnier bought chassis no 1361.00125 and had it re-bodied by Zagato as a spyder. 00127 became a factory “mule”, and received no less than four show bodies from Pininfarina. Fangio’s MM car, 00126, was rebodied by Boano with an aerodynamic coupe body, reminiscent of the Disco shape but less elegant, and presented to the car-loving President of Argentina, Juan Peron.

After his overthrow, the car passed through several hands before Henry Wessells, the American Alfa historian, bought it in 1970. It was his second such car, after an earlier near-miss. Working for Alfa in Milan in 1953, he had been offered one of the cars for $15,000. He passed that up, but in 1957 bought no 00125 from Jo Bonnier. But it was impractical and hard to start, so he sold it a few years later. (It must have been very impractical — this is a man who later ran a T33 Stradale as an everyday car!) It was not until the late ’70s that Henry re-fettled and repainted the Boano coupe, and began to race it, as a change from his GP Talbot-Lago.

He was racing the car at the Pittsburgh Vintage GP in 1984 when a new chapter opened in its history. It could barely have been more dramatic. The car left the road at high speed and slammed sideways into two trees, one hitting behind the driver, one in front, snapping the chassis tubes behind the engine and shattering the clutch housing. Wessells was unscathed, but the exotic Boano body with its unique glass was a crumpled heap.

Being the enthusiast he is, Henry was soon planning to rebuild the historic wreck. He contemplated resurrecting or copying the heavy Boano body, but with no drawings or forms to work from, this seemed a hit and miss project fora car in a form in which it had no competition history. Better, then, to rebuild it to its original shape, in which it saw its greatest moment with Fangio aboard.

Hall & Fowler in England reworked the engine and rewelded the clutch housing, before the car was sent to Salvatore Diamante’s restoration works outside Turin. A coach-builder of the old school (he worked for Bizzarini in the Sixties), Diamante was well equipped to undertake a body from scratch, and to build it in the continental style, panel-beaten instead of wheelformed. But first came the chassis: most was re-useable, but the torn engine longerons had to be replaced, along with the front shock towers.

Once the frame was straight and the major components re-installed, external templates were erected over the machinery using profiles scaled up from hundreds of photographs. When these looked right, the structure was lifted off and a complete timber 3D male buck created inside. This again was refined by eye, until both Diamante and Wessells were happy. Alloy panels beaten to this shape were then fitted to a fine tube sub-structure welded to the main chassis to complete the new lightweight body. It sounds simple; in fact it has meant years of effort, from 1985 to 1992 when the car ran again. “Had I appreciated the magnitude of the restoration”, says Wessells, “I probably wouldn’t have started it.” But he feels it was worthwhile, especially seeing the quality of Diamante’s work. “Perhaps it’s a bit too nice — but no-one today would make a body as crude as the Collis!”

Henry entered the newly finished car in the 1992 Mille Miglia retro, and it ran very well except for a split fuel tank, which was patched with epoxy. After some more attention from Diamante, Henry and Chris Mann tackled this year’s MM event too, but right from the start the magneto played up, forcing them to retire before Rome. With its wild valve timing the big six does not like queuing at regularity controls, but thanks to a lowish cr at least it is happy to swallow normal Super petrol — Le Mans fuel always posed problems!

With some fiddling of spring rates the chassis has turned out to be pretty good, well balanced and grippy on its 6.50 x 16in tyres; the only complaint is that the steering is rather dead. Henry brought the car over to Britain after the Mille Miglia, and once the magneto had been replaced, Chris Mann gave it its racing baptism at AMOC Silverstone. That was the shake-down for the Coys meeting, where coincidentally the C-type Jaguar which vanquished it at Le Mans was also racing Unromantically, they were in different races, the CM being classed as a GT, which put it up against GTOs and E-types of 10 years later. Yet Alfa’s forgotten 40-year old acquitted itself well, and promises some entertaining racing for Mann and Wessells — and for all those watching to whom the characteristic exhaust r-r-rip of a highly tuned six is better than music. G C

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