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Driving the 1934 Alfa Romeo That Beat the Nazis

Eighty years ago, Europe's greatest driver fought the Nazis and won.​ As the marque he championed returns to America, we meet the cars that bookend the legend.



BY SAM SMITH, MAR 2, 2016

Driving the 1934 Alfa Romeo That Beat the Nazis

(This article appeared in the 2016 March-April issue of Road & Track.)

THE CRAZIEST THING about one of the greatest drivers in history is that he died in bed. Tazio Nuvolari was born in Italy in 1892. He ran 172 recorded races, many in the forerunner to Formula 1, winning 64 times. He placed second 16 times and third only nine, because, as journalist Ken Purdy wrote, his plan was simple: "Win, or break up the automobile." That he didn't die in the process is remarkable only because most people he drove against did.

Nuvolari's most storied win came 80 years ago, in an Alfa Romeo, at a time when Enzo Ferrari had no car company and Alfas were some of the fastest machines on the planet. You have to wonder how the marque fell from such heights. World-conquering grand prix cars. Excellent, affordable street cars after World War II. Then, in the Nineties, microscopic sales and a chicken exit from North America.

Eight decades is a long time in an industry where attention spans are measured in seconds. But the image is intoxicating: battles at Monaco and the Nürburgring, backed by aristocratic wealth and power. Men who raced and bled in genuinely fast machinery when virtually everything that composes modern motorsport was undiscovered land.

Alfa Romeo returned to the United States in 2014. American dealers will now sell you the 4C, a carbon-framed, mid-engine, $55,495 sports car. They'll soon stock the 505-hp Giulia, a sport sedan aimed at the BMW 3-series.

But these are new products, and for most people, they might as well come from a new company. They don't tell you why you should care, and they don't let you bathe in the moment when a handful of Italian engineers helped run the world.

So we did the next best thing. I took a heaping deep breath and climbed behind the wheel.



". . . his hairy arms straight out, and he would sail through the curves in long, flaring slides . . . Sometimes he would throw back his head and scream with exuberance, pounding the side of the car like a manic blacksmith."

THAT'S PURDY AGAIN, on Nuvolari, in 1957. To understand old-world Alfas, you have to understand the kind of men—the man— who drove them.

Most Nuvolari biographies paint in primary colors. He was five-foot-five and compactly built at a time when raw strength helped drivers go faster. He didn't start driving until 1921, at age 28; over the next 29 years, he was pulled from the wreckage of a car or motorcycle 17 times, walking out of the hospital after each crash. He once won a motorcycle race so encased in plaster that he had to be lifted onto his bike by mechanics. ("His doctor walked away," Purdy wrote. " 'You are a dead man if you fall, Nivola,' he said. 'I don't want them even to call me.' ") His face bore the scars of accidents.

And oh, how he got those scars. Most people see prewar machinery as primitive—dangerous, if at least slow. But every grand-prix car represents the peak of an era's knowledge. By the Twenties, the average horsepower of a GP field was into the hundreds and escalating annually, but relatively little was known about brakes or handling. Fuels, often based in methanol, were toxic and experimental. Some believed period motorcycle racing to be safer, and it probably was—you were more likely to be thrown clear of anything that could crush or impale you.

Add to this a Wild West approach to engineering, driven by a single goal. Take Alfa factory driver Giuseppe Campari: When he died, gruesomely, at Monza in 1933, it was in a car without front brakes, for weight reduction.

Repeat: They pulled the front brakes off to make it go faster.



That Nuvolari triumph of 80 years ago says a lot about the era. The man won the 1935 German Grand Prix, on the Nürburgring's 14-mile north loop. (The track then boasted a 4.8-mile south loop, or Südschleife.) The Ring in 1935 looked much as it does today, save a passing interest in not making people dead. Like most early permanent tracks, it was built to replicate the feel of local roads. There was no catch fencing. A low hedge bordered most of the pavement.

To this we bring our man, 42 and an Alfa factory 'shoe in the afternoon of his career. His team, Scuderia Ferrari, is captained by Enzo, already a legend. The stands hold 250,000 spectators, government officials, and an entire regiment of the Nazi army.

German manufacturers were then dominating European motorsport, largely because Adolf Hitler gave them lots of money to try. That funding produced complex machines at the bleeding edge of progress. To the Ring, Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union brought technological behemoths making at least 400 hp each. They were collectively dubbed Silver Arrows. The factory Alfas, a model known as the Tipo B, were built by a small group of—fashion has made the term cringeworthy, but it's the only one that applies—artisan engineers.

The Tipo B had been dominant when new, but by 1935, the design was several years old. The four Auto Unions on the grid were good for 180 mph. The five Mercedes were 5 mph behind. Nuvolari's car was lighter and more nimble but 20 mph slower. The German cars were helmed by giants, men like Bernd Rosemeyer and Achille Varzi.



Nuvolari started second, the order determined by draw. He fell to fifth on the second lap, sixth on the fourth. Six laps later, he was somehow leading, apparently through sheer will. At 11, he pitted for fuel. Mechanics botched the stop. Two minutes and 14 seconds after entering the pits—the Mercedes were refueling in under a minute—the Alfa tore out, now in fifth place. Germans in the crowd were said to have relaxed. Nuvolari was visibly irate.

He used the anger. Over the next four laps, the Alfa sliced past three cars. Nuvolari found himself second, to the Mercedes of Manfred von Brauchitsch. The Mercedes pit gave the signal to press harder. Von Brauchitsch broke the track record. Nuvolari remained glued to his mirrors. The German overrevved his engine trying to stay ahead. Nuvolari railed on the Alfa. On the final lap, von Brauchitsch blew a tire. Nuvolari passed, then won, more than two minutes ahead of the second-place car.

The Germans were stunned. Their win had seemed so assured, the only national anthem on hand was a record of "Deutschland über alles." Legend holds that the song played over the PA was Nuvolari's personal copy of "Marcia Reale." Photographs show him sitting on the deck, grinning. Nazis scowl nearby.

How can you not love a guy who corked off a bunch of Nazis?



EVEN WITHOUT THAT WIN, Nuvolari's car was a tour de force. Tipo Bs were built from 1932 to 1934. Informally known as the P3, the model was the company's third classic-era GP car, after the P1 and P2.

The P1 was a failure, but people remember the P2. A P2 won the first world championship, in 1925, and one killed the great Italian driver Antonio Ascari. A works P2 was also the first car that a young Nuvolari drove at his first Alfa factory test, at Monza, in 1925. (He smirks in photos, brash and confident. The day ended in the hospital.)

The P1 was designed by an Italian named Giuseppe Merosi, for the 1922–1925 seasons. Its 95-hp, 5000-rpm, 2.0-liter straight-six was uncompetitive, but the car was the first GP machine built under Alfa's golden-age benefactor, Nicola Romeo. When Romeo saw the P1 run against 130-hp Fiats at Monza, he said, "The designer is getting old—is finished. To produce a real racing car, we must have the Fiat men."

So they got them. Specifically, a 32-year-old genius named Vittorio Jano. Jano would go on to engineer the P2, but also the postwar Lancia D50 Formula 1 car and Ferrari's Dino V-6, plus a V-8 whose derivations would power the 288 GTO and 360 Modena. In the century-plus history of the automobile, the man is a towering light.

But Jano was Turinese, an outsider. The Alfa men initially regarded him with suspicion. In 1982, Alfa test driver Giovanni Guidotti told journalist Doug Nye about running one of the man's first designs on the dyno:

"We would take maximum power readings by just opening the throttle wide for 30 seconds . . . then alt! Because if not . . . she would break. When Jano came in . . . he said, 'No, no, no,' and he took the throttle and opened it wide and hung a weight on it.

"It was around 5 o'clock in the afternoon, and he said, 'Now I'm going home for a bite to eat. Don't touch the throttle, and call me at home about 8 o'clock to tell me how it's going.' We were flabbergasted. At that time, no engine would last very long at full power. But we quickly learned Jano's engines just weren't like Merosi's or English engines or the French . . . they were perfect, marvelous pieces of design and construction."



For the P3, Jano drew a masterpiece: a twin-cam, twin-supercharged, two-valve, aluminum straight-eight with hemi combustion chambers. It would become one of the most successful racing engines in history, and like every prewar Alfa engine, it defined the car into which it was installed.

Amazingly, this jewel was not new. The P3's eight was essentially a heavy-duty makeover of an Alfa street eight, itself an evolution of a Jano six. It featured monoblock construction—cylinder head and block cast as one piece, with no head gasket. It used two of these blocks, four pistons in each, along with a two-piece crankshaft, literally making the engine two four-cylinders in tandem. A straight-cut gear drive sat between them, sending torque outside the engine and to the left, where it powered two superchargers, one for each block.

This construction helped torsional stiffness, which helped the engine stay in one piece. Because the result was Italian, it was also achingly beautiful. And strong. In early, 2.7-liter form, Jano's eight made a reliable 80 hp per liter. In 1935, chasing the Germans, it was a 6000-rpm 3.2 with 89 hp per liter.

More than 280 hp, in a 1550-pound car the width of a lawn tractor. V-8 Fords of the day made 85.

The rest of the P3 was relatively straightforward. Mechanical brakes, later replaced by hydraulic, at a time when Ettore Bugatti refused to trust fluid for stopping. Leaf springs. Friction dampers and a solid rear axle. A rigid front axle, later changed to independent. And coolest of all, a split rear driveline—a small aluminum-cased differential, the size of a handbag, in the cockpit, under the driver's thighs. Two torque tubes angled out of it, one for each wheel. A ring and pinion sat at each hub.

The idea, Guidotti said, "was to prevent wheelspin . . . to make ratio changing . . . relatively easy, and to drop the driver's seat low down, between the shafts. Ha! But when Jano tell our drivers what he plans, Nuvolari snorts through his nose and says, 'No! I don't want to be down in the basement like that, I wanna be up on top of the job! I want to see where I am going in road racing!' And the original idea was changed, narrowed, and we ended up sitting high on top."

Maybe he was wrong, but you can't argue with the results. Thirteen P3s were built. Until the Silver Arrows showed up, they won almost everything in sight.



"Nuvolari seemed the most awe-inspiring . . . wheels occasionally lifting slightly in the middle of skids!" – Motor Sport, 1932"I didn't have enough strength to horse them around the curves, like the other drivers. So I worked out on my own methods. I let the car go." – Tazio Nuvolari

"If you open up too quickly . . . the tail goes all over the place . . . it'll do about 160 mph with the right gears." – British Driver Brain Lewis, 1934

NUVOLARI DROVE MANY ALFAS. The car he climbed into at the Ring was Tipo B number 50005, a late-run machine updated in period with a widened body and Dubonnet independent front suspension. Its presence at the German Grand Prix is undisputed; shortly after the race, a journalist had the foresight to publish the car's serial number. Nuvolari vouched for it before his death.

Car 50005 is currently owned by collector Jon Shirley. Last July, he met us at the 2.3-mile Pacific Raceways, an old, fast road course near the Seattle suburb of Kent. The track hosted Trans-Am and Formula 5000 cars in the Sixties, and it hasn't changed much since. There are at least two places where an off can put you into a ravine. In summer, the place looks like Northern California, only greener.

Shirley brought 50005, his adult son Erick, and a stack of original Scuderia Ferrari team newspapers several inches thick. Also the car's current caretakers, local specialists Butch Dennison and Vinay Nelson. The newspapers read like high-school yearbooks, just with giant pictures of Nuvolari and full-page, hand-drawn ads for Weber carburetors. Dennison and Nelson wheeled the car out of its small trailer. "The thing that amazes me," Dennison said, hand on a tire, "is how anywhere on this car, just any detail, you can find something beautiful."

Erick Shirley did a few installation laps to warm the engine. Watching him tear by, I was reminded of the week before, when I tried to explain the Tipo B to my wife, over dinner.



"It's a damn Renaissance painting," I said. "It predates the idea that a chassis should be rigid to keep the wheels on the ground. It predates anything you'd call brakes. It pre-dates the idea that racing drivers are ordinary people. And they sold the same basic thing for the street. It matters."

"Sounds really cool," she said. "More pasta?"

I sighed. If only she'd been there to see it. You cannot climb into an Alfa GP car without accepting a kind of filmic ridiculousness: You mount the thing like a horse, a foot on the rear leaf spring, threading a leg over each side of the differential. Seated, your torso is halfway out of the car. Motorcycles do seem less dangerous. You are intimately aware of where you end.

The methanol feed valve below your leg gets turned on. Someone gives the slender chrome knockoffs a final whack with a lead hammer. Their centers are the car in a nutshell: "Alfa Romeo" in filigreed script, needlessly and wonderfully flamboyant. The slender, arm-length chrome shifter snakes up between your legs in a manner that reminds you of dirty jokes. The three-speed dog gearbox was originally a four-speed, but first gear's gate is blocked off; the gear was removed in period to make room when others were enlarged for durability.

Nelson hands me the car's modern lap belt. I stare at it dumbfounded, surprised. I almost leave it unbuckled.

A Tipo B can be hand-cranked or started with a plug-in starter, but Dennison suggests a push-start, popping the clutch, for maximum effect. I don't argue. The car bursts alive, a basso, like a dirt bike the size of the moon. ("Most people who hear it from across the shop," Dennison said later, "ask, 'Whose Chevy you running back there?'")

And then I'm on my own.



The wood-rimmed wheel is unavoidable. Pretend you're holding a newspaper open to read it. Now move your hands an inch closer to your chest, replace the paper with a steering wheel but don't change your arms, and think about drifting. Your gut reaction is to call the position tractorish, but that would simultaneously elevate every tractor ever built and insult one of the most elegant weapons made by human hands.

There are two clockwork tachometers on the dash. Each one is driven off an engine cam, for redundancy; their short cables meet the firewall inches above your knees. In most old cars, a chronometric tach is spastic, a beat behind the engine. The P3's glide like the sweep hand on a Rolex. Your eyes land on them and get stuck.

I would be a tone-deaf heathen if I didn't call the engine astounding. If it had been invented solely to make noise, there would be shrines to it in Rome. The sound is straight-eight incarnate—a six-cylinder's ripping snarl crossed with the crackling blat of a Detroit V-8. You get meaty torque down low, but also a surprising flexibility and eagerness to rev. There is wheelspin in first gear, second, even the top of third if you're sliding, because the tires aren't so much a device for grip as the punch line to a joke about the lack of it.

And above all, more noise. The cockpit serves as an aluminum megaphone, funneling three or four different gear whines and a funk of oil to your face. It combines to help you forget that you just hit 4500 rpm in third (more than 120 mph, based on gearing), that the diff is whirring away near your testicles.

How do you describe a romance? Maybe you start with methanol fumes. I stuck my nose a foot from the pipe when Erick first lit it off, because I knew I might not have another chance. It smelled like bad wine and dying brain cells. Or do you focus on the chassis? Books claim that Nuvolari invented drifting, but the P3 makes a certain technique obvious. Its frame is little more than two steel rails. They're flexible enough to serve as suspension, something I notice leaving the paddock, when the car springs onto the track in an odd little two-phase bop.



Past the pits, flying over a bumpy piece of pavement, I prime to catch a jumping wheel. But nothing happens, just a few skips from the tail. The steering is quick and the wheel close enough that you correct a slide by pulling down and leaning your torso.

The Alfa turns in slow, nose wandy and distant; if modern cars have you thinking about tires, here, you think about the frame. You can feel it twist into a corner, winding up. Once it's set, you don't change much, just accelerate. Which the tires always seem to resent. The brakes don't do a lot, and heat makes them do less. Your foot consumes what feels like feet of distance—it's probably a few inches—before the car slows. Understeer and oversteer are blips, rarely steady-state.

On a smoothish track, it was work. In an open-road race, it must have sapped men to husks.

It is easy to get wrong. Drive ham-fisted, and the frame binds, the car lock-kneed, all compliance gone. The seat buzzes as the inside rear wheel spins. The P3 doesn't have the kind of chassis you can pick apart to analyze, so you just slow down, try again, and keep your foot in it.

Put another way: Think of an old pickup in snow. Now give it bicycle tires and straight pipes and pin the Mona Lisa to the hood. Play deafening opera in the background, with lyrics about top-heavy women of breeding. That equation does not want your modern algebra of pinpoint driving. It only wants your balls.

So you go freehand. This weird, drifty improv between throwing the Alfa like a kart and eggshell-walking into corners, smooth and patient. More pace and forgiveness when the car's up on step. And if you are me, you find yourself merrily yawing up the hill on Pacific Raceways' back straight, purposely ignoring nearby trees, feeling as if you can see deep into the black hearts of those people who say that machines are not emotional things. And you know that they are rank-and-file dipheads without a grain of art in their lives, and you want to take this living red fireball and go penetrate their living rooms at full tilt in top gear and watch them scatter like pigeons and maybe make the family dog leak all over the carpet from abject and unspeakable terror.

Also maybe just use a P3 to get ice cream on weekends, because wouldn't that be a hoot?



No modern car could live up to that. A 2015 Alfa 4C Spider certainly doesn't. We brought one to Kent for symmetry; it felt a lot like the 4C coupe, which is to say, nothing else on the market. Carbon tub, loud everything, unpredictable turbo lag, heavy and distant steering. Lots of sideways, not always when you want. It reminded me of high school: fantasism, with an undercurrent of misery.

But pulling into the pits, I was reminded of every postwar Alfa I've met. Giulia Supers, Spiders and GTVs, Milanos and 164s. Those cars all demanded that you stay ahead of them, but there was a delicacy to their controls, like a good Ferrari. They have little in common with a 4C and a Tipo B save a sense of urgency. Each hints at the notion that fast cars are best when they ask something of you. That machines, like any human creation, are defined by their stories, only so important as what you do with them.

Nuvolari was just 60 when he died. His lungs had given out, poisoned by fumes from the thing he loved. He was still winning races in his final years, though he had grown too weak to climb from a car without help. They buried him in Mantua, his birth village, with a steering wheel in the casket.

But Alfa Romeo remains alive, and with it, a thread of the man. Also a hundred other men, Ferrari and Jano and the rest. The legend they helped build gives warmth to a thing otherwise cold, makes a flawed little carbon-fiber sports car more than the sum of its parts.

A piece of a slower moment. Not necessarily a better one. But perhaps dappled with a little more beauty.
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post #2 of 11 (permalink) Old 03-02-2016, 03:29 PM
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Great article! Thanks for that piece of automotive history.

But an interesting choice of headline since the Italians were also ruled by a fascist dictatorship at the time.

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post #3 of 11 (permalink) Old 03-02-2016, 04:22 PM
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Thanks for posting this, that's a great read.

I've driven a few pre-war cars short distances on the road (although none were Alfa's or had nearly as much power as the P3). After driving some of these you have a whole new level of respect for the guys who raced them. I took a friend for a short ride in one that I had in the shop for some work. His comment was that was the scariest ride he's ever had at 40MPH.

I love this ...

"The Alfa turns in slow, nose wandy and distant; if modern cars have you thinking about tires, here, you think about the frame. You can feel it twist into a corner, winding up. Once it's set, you don't change much, just accelerate. Which the tires always seem to resent. The brakes don't do a lot, and heat makes them do less. Your foot consumes what feels like feet of distance—it's probably a few inches—before the car slows. Understeer and oversteer are blips, rarely steady-state."

And

"Put another way: Think of an old pickup in snow. Now give it bicycle tires and straight pipes and pin the Mona Lisa to the hood. Play deafening opera in the background, with lyrics about top-heavy women of breeding. That equation does not want your modern algebra of pinpoint driving. It only wants your balls."
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post #4 of 11 (permalink) Old 03-02-2016, 04:29 PM
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great read!! The guys in that era, huge cajones! minimal safety gear, awful brakes, no roll cage and riding balls to the wall against a bunch of other similar cars.

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post #5 of 11 (permalink) Old 03-02-2016, 05:43 PM
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That's got to be one of the best automotive articles I've ever read.
Brilliantly researched, lovingly laid out, and ever so well written. Photos are great, too.
What an opportunity. What a responsibility.

Like Alfaguy, I loved:
"Put another way: Think of an old pickup in snow. Now give it bicycle tires and straight pipes and pin the Mona Lisa to the hood. Play deafening opera in the background, with lyrics about top-heavy women of breeding. That equation does not want your modern algebra of pinpoint driving. It only wants your balls."

Should be required reading for any Alfa Romeo owner or wannabe.
Needs to be read and a test for comprehension administered, before anyone is allowed to do a review of an Alfa henceforth.

Thank you, thank you, thank you so much for posting this!

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post #6 of 11 (permalink) Old 03-02-2016, 06:29 PM
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post #7 of 11 (permalink) Old 03-02-2016, 06:47 PM
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And a recap newsreel of the 1935 GP season:


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post #8 of 11 (permalink) Old 03-02-2016, 06:57 PM
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Nuvolari vid

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CYxc2cwd1Ck

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post #9 of 11 (permalink) Old 03-03-2016, 03:01 PM
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Excellent reading. Thanks for posting.
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post #10 of 11 (permalink) Old 03-15-2016, 11:29 AM
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Thinking about this article a lot, and one line keeps turning up in my mind:

Quote:
(Nicola Romeo): "The designer is getting old—is finished. To produce a real racing car, we must have the Fiat men."
Isn't it interesting how things have changed since that? How we now have the Alfa Romeo 4C, the closest thing to an Italian race car that you will find on the street, designed and built with help from Ferrari and Maserati, all of them owned by Fiat.

Not having these two great names in North America for a long time, it is easy to forget the heritage - how we got from there to here.
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