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The Whole Story - Alfa Romeo Aerodinamica Spider

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It could have been Alfa’s answer to Auto Union and Mercedes – instead, it vanished into obscurity.

It looks like the car Batman would have driven in his pre-Hollywood movie days – long, sleek and vaguely sinister. Batman, however, made his first comic-book appearance in May 1939, and this car predates that by several years. The Alfa Romeo Aerodynamica Spider was so advanced, it even surpassed the imagination of 1930s comic-book artists.

The Aerodynamica Spider – colloquially known as the Aerospider – is one of the all-time great ‘might have beens’. It’s one of the earliest mid-engined sports racers, and its body was shaped according to the most advanced aerodynamic thinking of the time. It also pioneered a central driving position, 30 years before Ferrari’s 365P – and well over 50 years before the McLaren F1. If fate hadn’t intervened, it would have had Alfa V12 power, too. But fate did intervene, and the Aerospider’s potential was never realized.

Don’t go thinking this is some unproven concept car, though, which never turned a wheel in anger. It was certainly driven on the road in the late 1930s and may have been used in a few low-profile racing events before it was hidden away during WW2. But, until very recently, no-one knew exactly why, where or by whom the Aerospider was constructed. Now, thanks to painstaking research carried out by the current owner, a German enthusiast, the truth may finally have been revealed.

There are three key players in the Aerospider story. Four, if you include Mussolini; for it was his domineering presence, so the theory goes, that cast a long shadow over the project and was responsible for it being developed not at Alfa Romeo’s own factory but in the dockyards of a provincial town in what is now Croatia.

The central figure in the story is Alfa Romeo’s chief engineer, Vittorio Jano. In 1934 Alfa Romeo, which had dominated the race tracks of Europe for several years, received a nasty shock when Auto Union unveiled its mid-engined Type A ‘silver arrow’. Daimler-Benz also brought out the new Mercedes W25 – still front-engined, but powered by a dohc, supercharged straight-eight.

At a stroke, Alfa was put on the back foot and Italy’s national pride was at stake. Jano was under pressure to come up with a response, and quickly.

Time constraints meant that it wasn’t practical to experiment with an all-new chassis layout like the Auto Union’s. Instead, Jano opted to find more power by developing a V12 for a conventional front-engined single-seater. But he also – and this is where everything gets a bit murky – made a secret deal for a mid-engined Alfa Romeo sports racer to be made, literally, off-shore. And for this he turned to the Jankovits brothers, Gino and Oscar, who were relatively big fish in the small pond that was Fiume, an Italian outpost on the coast of modern Croatia.

Why did Jano take this unusual step? There are several possible reasons. The obvious one is deniability. If everything went pear-shaped, the mid-engined project could be swept under the carpet and no-one would be any the wiser. It would also be conveniently out of the sight-line of rival manufacturers. And, very importantly, Jano had family connections with the Jankovits brothers.

Vittorio Jano is an Italicised version of his original name, Janos Viktor – his parents were Hungarian and were friendly with the Horvath-Jankovits clan, who had a big stake in the car business in Budapest. They also had a toehold in Fiume (now called Rijeka), a remnant of the old Austrian-Hungarian empire that in the 1930s belonged to Italy, where they owned a garage and a wharf.

The set-up was simple. Jano would control the project remotely and supply Gino and Oscar Jankovits with Alfa parts and his own expertise. The car would be built and tested in Fiume. It would initially be powered by a straight-six 6C-2300 engine – but, as is clear from the end result, with room for that promised V12. Now that would be one hell of a sports car.

To get the ball rolling, Jano had a 6C-2300 chassis (no. 700316) shipped to Fiume in 1934. It had been modified so that it could take an engine mounted mid-ships – also a 6C-2300 unit, but fitted with triple Weber 36 D04 carburetors. Jano seems to have been anticipating a future ban on superchargers in Italian racing, so upgunned the 2300 engine with triple carbs, probably the first 2300 to be so equipped.
It’s been suggested in the past that the Jankovits brothers were acting independently and simply making a special in their own backyard, but the fact that they were sent such a unique engine would seem to contradict this.

Moreover, one-off parts for the modified chassis appear to have been made at Alfa’s Portello factory and stamped with instructions – montare sinistra (‘left-hand mounting’) on a wishbone, for example – before being sent out to Fiume.

Remarkably, a number of drawings and photos from the car’s development stage have survived. It seems that the Jankovits – possibly Gino, who had studied as an architect – made sketches and blueprints based on their discussions with Jano; the first proper general arrangement drawing is dated ‘Fiume 1935’. The relationship seems to have been one of students and teacher, with the Jankovits brothers sending their submissions over for approval by the master, Jano.

The prototype evolved considerably over the next three years. The 1935 drawing shows a transaxle with the gearbox hanging off behind the differential, but this was changed for a more straightforward engine-gearbox-differential layout in the prototype, and the Alfa diff was swapped for a Lancia Lambda unit. A contemporary photograph of the bare chassis proves that a more mundane engine than the 2300 was used for testing, and another picture, reproduced below, shows a very Auto Union-style nosecone fitted.

Prototypes tend to be rough and ready machines, and the Aerospider is no exception. Although major components were made at Alfa’s Portello factory, at Fiume they might be attached with coachbolts of the sort used in the Jankovits’ shipyard. And, while elegant, the Aerospider’s coachwork was made not from finely crafted alloy but from sheets of 1.8mm steel, butt-welded together.

Steel may have been chosen to give greater high-speed rigidity, for an alloy body would certainly have been lighter – the finished Aerospider tips the scales at 1150kg, which still compares well with, say, the 1380kg of an alloy-bodied, Mille Miglia-spec 6C-2300 Coupé. The body itself was absolutely unique in its flat-topped ‘ponton’ styling, for every other streamlined roadster of the time still had vestigial wings, however carefully faired in. The ‘batcar’ comparison isn’t entirely facile, either, for the Aerospider’s rear wings are actually slightly concave on their inner faces, prefiguring the much more exaggerated bat-wing styling of the famous 1950s Bertone concept cars.

Not coincidentally, Jano and the Jankovits brothers were both acquainted with leading aerodynamicist Paul Jaray, another Hungarian and one who had worked on Zeppelin design before turning to cars. He had a big influence on many streamlined models of the pre-war years and it seems he shared his experience with the Jankovits.

The result is much more than simply a smooth-looking body shape. A full-length undertray reduces drag but there are louvres underneath to suck out hot air from the engine bay, and two discreet holes in the tail for the same purpose. The door handles are ‘frenched’ so as not to disturb the airflow. Most importantly, the radiator is wide and low, rather than narrow and tall. This at-the-time radical step allowed the car’s nose to have an aerofoil section, rather than the ship’s prow style typical of most 1930s cars.

All this fancy aerodynamic work would have been for nought if the car handled like a bag of spanners, of course, so Jano and the Jankovits brothers spent a lot of time testing and refining the Aerospider’s suspension.

At the front, Jano specified an upgraded version of the independent set-up already used for racing Alfas. Upper wishbones and a transverse leaf spring were combined with the new Silentbloc bushes and lever-arm Houdaille shock absorbers, and the front track was set at a remarkably wide 1560mm – which is 50mm wider than a 1980s Porsche 911 Turbo’s.

Things were a little more complicated at the rear. Jano knew Ferdinand Porsche and may have been influenced in the choice of swing axles, which he combined with radius arms, another transverse leaf spring and torsion bars – the last-named a later addition to improve control over rough roads. Similar rear suspension would be used by Jano again on the 1955 Lancia D50, so it was far from obsolete 20 years after the Aerospider’s construction.

Cleverly, the rear track is narrower than the front’s, in order to create a more progressive rear-wheel breakaway than would otherwise be the case with a mid-engined layout. The owner confirms that it works: ‘At the Schloss Dyck concours they have a small circuit where I did about 15 laps in the Aerospider. Although I didn’t go faster than about 120kph, I did try throwing it into a corner to see how it handled when deliberately unbalanced, and was pleasantly surprised at how benignly it reacted. In fact, the suspension was excellent. Other cars seemed to get caught out slightly by mid-corner bumps but I just didn’t notice them in the Alfa.’

A lot has happened in between the car’s construction and its acquisition by the current owner, of course. Jano himself was fired from Alfa in 1937 but fortunately the car was pretty much finished by then, although any prospect of slotting in the new V12 vanished along with Jano.

The Jankovits brothers retained the Aerospider and registered it for street use – the original Fiume licence plates are still with the car. They added a large and hideously inappropriate windscreen, bumpers and turn signals, which ruined the looks but did at least make it acceptable as a road car. In 1941, however, it was stored away for the duration of the war.

After the war, the Jankovits found themselves under a new Communist regime, their town rechristened Rijeka in the newly formed state of Yugoslavia. Realising that they were about to lose everything, the brothers dug the car out of storage on Christmas Day 1946 and the same night made a dash through the border and into Italy. Caught by surprise, the border guards fired after the speeding Alfa – and the bullets left dents in the bodywork that would be rediscovered 60 years later during its restoration.

The Jankovits were now safe but their only asset was the Aerospider, and it was soon sold to an American serviceman. In 1967 it resurfaced in New York, where it was bought by arch car-finder Colin Crabbe. ‘It must have been cheap!’ recalls an amused Crabbe, who knew as little about the car’s origins as everyone else at the time. He sold it to Northern Irish dealer Malcolm Templeton in 1976, and it then passed via British collector Neil Crabb to Leeds-based Phil Bennett.

At the time, the Aerospider was often confused with the Tipo 163 mid-engined prototype built round about 1941 and scrapped in the 1950s. One person who knew exactly what it was, however, was Alfa historian Luigi Fusi, who had worked with the Jankovits brothers. He tried to buy the Aerospider on behalf of the brothers in 1980, and again in 1985, this time for the Alfa museum, but without success.

In the late 1990s, an Italian collector bought the Aerospider and had it painted a fetching but on-original metallic blue – still wearing the windscreen fitted by the Jankovits brothers for driving around the streets of Fiume. Bizarrely, it also gained Graber coachwork badges, even though there is no record of Graber having been anywhere near the car. Appropriately, the badges themselves later turned out to be modern fakes.

In 2008 the Aerospider finally received the sympathetic restoration it had needed for so long. Traces of dark green paint found under the engine bay covers suggested that its original colour may have been a Lancia Astura shade, while the interior was retrimmed in red after a member of the Royal Hungarian Automobile Club brilliantly pointed out that the Aerospider could well have been finished in the red, green and white colours that make up both the Italian and the Hungarian national flags – green body, red interior, and white steering wheel boss. The tones in pre-war black-and-white photos imply that the interior was either red or green, so the RHAC man could well be right.

The Aerospider story may not yet be complete. A Croatian journalist has promised to see if he can find any long-time residents of Rijeka who remember the car, and the owner is planning to take it there for a tour of its old haunts. Maybe the Aerospider hasn’t quite yet given up all its secrets.

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