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Eight Ball - Driven: Alfa Romeo 2900B

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It was the most advanced sports car of the 1930s, and one of the most elegant. Today it's a star of the concours world - but no trailer queen.

There’s a passage in the book The Immortal 2.9 that describes a drive in this very car back in the mid-1960s. A previous owner, Bill Summers, was on his way to hillclimb the now invaluable machine at Prescott, and running a little late…

‘I drove flat out down the A41 at Gailey – covering the remaining miles to the M50 in a little under 20 minutes, the needle steady at 120 most of the way… The handling was very exciting with a tendency to lose the back end although, if brave, one could startle the populace and put up unbelievable cross-country times.’

Funnily enough the author of The Immortal 2.9, Simon Moore, experienced a passenger ride in the same car only a couple of years later, this time with then-new owner Lord Doune, on the edge of the Scottish Highlands.

‘My lasting memory of the ride was going north on the Stirling to Doune Road, passing car after car at about 100mph. There was no need to sound the horn or flash the lights; the scream from the blowers at that speed could be heard three or four cars ahead.’

What a machine! These 8C 2900s were truly special, and driving them hard was exactly what they were designed for. Of the 40-ish built, many were raced, and 2900s won the Mille Miglia a record four times. It’s unlikely that any 2900 was treated gently; long-time Bristol Cars proprietor Tony Crook once famously claimed that his own 2900 had been timed at 132mph.

This particular 2900, chassis 412022, has had its fair share of action too. But, in the soft light of Pebble Beach this year – in the special 8C class, organised by Simon Moore – it looked serenely beautiful, a study in graceful, swooping lines. In the strangely rarefied atmosphere it would have been all too easy to view this 8C 2900B Spider as simply a particularly fine example of the pre-war coachbuilder’s art.

The famous Monterey fog isn’t even thinking about lifting when we first set eyes on this gorgeous machine, and the grass around it is glistening with early morning dew, while directly behind it the pale grey sea washes in and out, oblivious to the rapidly building excitement on the links. Set in a line of 8Cs, some so startingly red that they seem to glow in the damp air, 412022 looks almost apologetically subtle in its original grey with red leather interior – exactly how it looked when it was one of the stars of the 1938
London Motor Show at Olympia.

Owner William ‘Chip’ Connor is on hand. He’s not just a regular at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Ήlégance but a regular winner, and he’s even been here before with this lovely Alfa Romeo.

‘I’ve owned it for ten years now,’ he explains, ‘and I first entered it here at Pebble Beach in 2002. It won its class back then but I’ve driven it more than 4000 miles since – this car is made for driving.’

For us, the driving will come a few days later, when the hubbub of Pebble Beach has died down. For now, we’re happy just to look; to peer into the spotless interior, to admire every angle of the bodywork, and the chassis below it, and of course to stand in awe of that phenomenal engine.

It is genuinely a grand prix design, a straight-eight monster with twin superchargers, gear-driven double overhead camshafts and a pair of updraught Weber carburettors – the work of fΪted engineer Vittorio Jano, who had been persuaded to move from Fiat to Alfa Romeo by Enzo Ferrari, then a works driver with Alfa.

Jano’s first work for Alfa Romeo was the P2 grand prix car, which won the World Championship in 1925. In 1930, having by then designed the 6C 1500 road car, Jano came up with his now-legendary straight-eight engine, the 8C 2300; more competition success followed and the quest to stay on top of the game saw this straight-eight enlarged for still more power. And so came the 8C 2900, with a power output of around 180bhp, and the capacity for further tuning to take it to 220bhp.

Linked to this was a strong four-speed non-synchromesh transaxle, a combined gearbox and differential unit mounted at the rear for best possible weight distribution; all this in a chassis that, in an era of channel sections and longitudinal leaf springs, is boxed for strength and independently sprung on coils at the front and a transverse leaf spring at the rear, with hydraulic and friction dampers keeping both ends in check.

There was no more technically advanced road car in the era  than the 8C 2900, and those elite few customers who were able to buy one naturally demanded the very best when it came to clothing their new machine.

The majority of 2900s were bodied by Carrozzeria Touring, helped along by its proximity in Milan to the Alfa factory, personal connections – Touring was formed when two lawyers, Felice Bianchi Anderloni and Gaetano Ponzoni, bought into Vittorio Ascari’s existing bodyshop, and Vittorio was the brother of Alfa works driver Alberto Ascari – and the company’s newly developed Superleggera construction, first demonstrated on an Alfa 8C 2300 in 1937, only a year before this 2900 was built.

Having initially licensed the Weymann system of construction, which reduced the usual creaking between the joints associated with wooden body frames, Touring then moved away from wood framing altogether. Instead, it produced a latticework of small-diameter steel tubing that combined to make a strong, lightweight and curiously beautiful support for the aluminium body panels. This was the famed – and patented – Superleggera method.

In fact, Touring ended up bodying 23 of the 8C 2900s in all, 17 of them Spiders. Chassis 412022 was the second Spider built on the long-wheelbase Lungo chassis, and as such it’s subtly different from the cars that followed, most obviously in the shorter gap between the doors and the rear wings.

The long swooping lines of Felice Bianchi Anderloni’s designs at Touring were developed with an eye on the early science of airflow, to the point that felt strips were attached to the bodywork and the car photographed in motion. It’s fair to assume that Anderloni’s neat treatment of the faired-in front grille, the swooping wings, the rear spats and the long tapering tail would have been influenced heavily by thoughts of streamlining.

But it’s in the detailing that this 2900 really shows its quality. Even the bumpers, so often tacked on as afterthoughts, are blended beautifully into the bodywork, and closer inspection shows them to be exquisitely formed panels that cover substantial tubing behind. Their aluminium facings match the aluminium of the long trim strips down the sides of the car, the running board finishers and the filler cap.

 The interior is even better, topped as it is by the beautifully cut screen and side glasses, and decorated by the most wonderfully sculpted Bakelite fittings – though the metal clasps atop the pockets in the doortrims take the honours for elegance.  

Over the years various extra instruments and fittings had found their way into this gorgeous interior, while the bodywork had been painted in the inevitable red, so how refreshing to see it in its original grey with red interior, just as it was delivered to UK dealer Thompson and Taylor Ltd to be displayed on its stand at the Motor Show. As what’s often gauchely referred to as ‘the first supercar’, any 8C 2900 would have made a serious impact at that show, but Britain had bigger things on its mind in late 1938 and 412022 remained unsold.

It was stashed away at Thompson and Taylor’s storage facilities at Brooklands and there it remained until the end of the war, when it was finally sold (for £3000). Over the following decade it passed through several owners, one of whom was Jack Bartlett, who removed rear spats, bumpers and spotlights, probably in a quest for improved performance when he entered 412022 into the Brighton Speed Trials.

Later the car passed to Nigel Mann, who explained to Simon Moore that ‘we chopped up the back to make it look like a short chassis...’ Photographs from the period show the newly stubby tail descending more vertically from at least halfway down the boot, so that the rear number plate sits almost upright and the wings lose the beauty of their teardrop shape. The lack of bumpers accentuates the problem; it’s not a happy look.

All the same, it’s a job that must have been carried out to high quality because right into the 1980s it was assumed that this ‘bobbed’ tail had been the work of Touring, and it was only after the discovery of archive photography and yet more detective work by Simon Moore that it was finally proved that 412022 was the London Motor Show car, and had once looked rather more elegant.

Nigel Mann was actually a dealer in used Alfas, and so 412022 passed on to Lord Ridley, a known Alfa Romeo enthusiast, who kept his cars at Blagdon Hall, near Newcastle. It seems funny now, but Ridley apparently added two huge trumpet horns under the bonnet, which played what subsequent owner Monty Thackeray referred to as ‘a sort of Colonel Bogey fanfare’.

Thackeray had taken over Ridley’s cars when his Lordship’s health declined, and it was probably Thackeray who painted it red (he also painted the area between the twin side trims in black), before he passed it on to Tom Rose, a colleague of Tony Rudd of Ruddspeed. It was used hard, as it was designed to be, sold on again and ended up with Lord Doune, who later created his own museum of exotic Alfas and kept 412022 on display for many years before it was sold to a group of investors known simply as ‘the Greeks’ and laid up in London.

Respite came in the early 1980s when collector and enthusiast Peter Agg bought 412022 and overhauled it in readiness for the 1984 Mille Miglia. The work paid off, and a troublefree Mille Miglia was followed almost immediately by an equally successful rally from the South of France to Paris; 412022 was back in the game.

Peter Agg then sold the car to Californian John Mozart, who used it for his commute to the office during the summer, and entered it into the 1985 Pebble Beach – though once on the lawns he withdrew the entry to allow him to concentrate on his Duesenberg.

But 412022 was soon back on its world tour, this time selling to Jeffrey Pattinson in the UK, before moving on to Yoshiyuki Hayashi in Japan – though Hayashi then shipped the car to Italy to be restored, returning the rear bodywork to roughly the original configuation and repainting the car in red. Remember, at this time it still wasn’t clear that 412022 had been the grey London Motor Show car.

And so finally we come back to Chip Connor’s ownership, and at last we see 412022 return to its original specification, thanks to an exacting restoration by Bob Mosier, of Mosier Restoration Inc.

‘The restoration revealed that, except for the tail end of the car, how remarkably original and “un-hit” 412022 was, probably because it had always been in the hands of enthusiasts and pretty well cared for throughout its life,’ says Chip.

So with the shape of the rear bodywork perfected and the rear spats, bumpers and driving lamps reinstated, the paintwork was finished in the correct grey and the interior trimmed out in contrasting red. The work was rewarded with that Best of Class at Pebble Beach in 2002 and Best of Show at The Quail in 2003.

We meet with Chip near Carmel, a few days after Pebble Beach. Immediately he’s enthusing about the 2900 and clearly keen to get back in the driving seat. The straight-eight fires instantly; above the whine of the twin superchargers Chip explains its appeal.

‘The 8C is arguably the most technically advanced pre-war road car there is. Twin-cam, independent suspension, tube frame, superchargers… there’s certainly no residual horse and buggy engineering in this one.

‘It’s immensely satisfying to drive. It goes like the wind! I don’t have a problem with the centre throttle but the bigger issue is the reverse-H gearshift pattern [first gear is over to the right]. If you’re jumping between cars you have to remind yourself. The car is very light and smooth to drive, and it revs really well. It’s not turbine smooth like a V12, but it’s got a guttural smoothness that’s really satisfying.

‘The transaxle is surprisingly easy to shift, and you get it into fourth and it really settles into a groove; you hear the mechanical noise and it really feels all of a whole. The handling is terrific too.

‘It’s so modern to drive, you don’t feel you have to master the car – you feel like you could do 1000 miles in it! I’ve driven it in Alfa tours all over the world, and I plan to drive it much more during 2011.
It shows well, but it’s a car to be driven.’

We charge off down the road, the exhaust perfectly defining that old ripping calico descriptive clich�, battling with the superchargers to make the most noise. The pull is immense, the thrill of speed intoxicating. We’re just a couple of miles from Pebble Beach, but it feels like we’re a world away.  

Thanks to Chip Connor and to Peter Miles. Simon Moore’s The Immortal 8C is published by Parkside Publications, ISBN 987 0 9820774 0 5. (www.parksidepublications.com).

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