This three-part series looks at Alfa Romeo: it’s history, racing achievements, and most notable or significant cars. From Top Gear to Jalopnik, Car and Driver to Motor Trend, there is much love and adoration for this quirky and innovative brand.
Contents (part one)
- The Birth of a Legend
- First Merosi-Designed Vehicle
- The Alfa 20-30 HP / 40-60 HP
- World War I Halts Production
- The Birth of Alfa Romeo
- Return to Auto Production
- Sivocci’s Four-Leaf Clover
- Vittorio Jano & Alfa Romeo P2
- “Millie Miglia”
- Ferrari and the End Of An Era
- Gobbato Becomes New Director
- Alfa Romeo Evolves
- Scuderia Ferrari
- Alfa Bimotori Scuderia Ferrari
- Tazio Nuvolari –Greatest Racers
- The Alfa Romeo 8C 2900
- The “Little Alfa” – the 158/159
- New Factory and a Fallen Leader
The Birth of a Legend
The origins of the Alfa Romeo automobile manufacturer go back to the beginning of the previous century. Alfa Romeo was originally founded as the Società Anonima Italiana Darracq (SAID) in 1906 by the French automobile firm of Alexandre Darracq. While initially a French company on paper, the company was heavily backed by Italian investors. Moreover, the company was founded to develop automobiles that would be marketed throughout Italy.
By late 1909, it was determined that SAID’s Italian Darracq cars were not selling as expected. Moreover, the Italian investors that helped found Società Anonima Italiana Darracq had since become partners in the company. They believed that the Darracq cars needed to be replaced with something more appealing.
To accomplish this task, the board of investors behind SAID looked to the talents of their home country – Italy – in an effort to find an automotive designer who might better encapsulate the spirit of the automobile they hoped to design. It wasn’t long before they discovered Giuseppe Merosi.
Giuseppi Merosi was an ambitious young man who had started his career selling bicycles. Before long however, Merosi had shifted his talents from bicycles to cars, and it wasn’t long before he was designing cars and motorcycles. Recognizing his talent and appreciation for design, the Societa Anonima Italiana Darracq hired Giuseppe Merosi to begin developing new automotive designs for their company.
Alfa’s First Merosi-Designed Vehicle, the 24HP
On June 24, 1910, in cooperation with SAID, a new company was founded and named A.L.F.A., which stood for Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili (Lombard Automobile Factory, Public Company). Within months of its founding, A.L.F.A. produced its first non-Darracq car, the 1910 24 HP.
The A.L.F.A. 24 HP was a 4.1-litre four-cylinder passenger car. The car featured a single drive shaft design and was capable of a top speed of 62 miles per hour. The model’s name came from its tax horsepower rating, and became a naming convention commonly used to designate different vehicles that were produced in that era.
The car, which was designed by Merosi, was manufactured at A.L.F.A.’s new production line at Portello in Milan, Italy. The 24, quick and nimble for its time, was quickly identified by A.L.F.A. as a potential contender on the motor racing circuit.
In 1911, A.L.F.A. officially ventured into motor racing. They hired drivers Nino Franchini and Ronzoni and competed in the 1911 Targa Florio with two 24-HP automobiles. Unfortunately, neither car completed the three-lap, 277 mile (446 kilometer) race. Both drivers retired after completing two laps and stated that they withdrew from the event due to exhaustion.
The Alfa 20-30 HP / 40-60 HP
Despite its challenges on the race track, the 24 HP remained commercially successful and would continue to be developed for nearly a decade. By 1914, A.L.F.A. had updated the design and transformed the 24 HP in the A.L.F.A. 20-30 HP. The A.L.F.A. 20-30 HP was produced from 1914 to 1915.
The A.L.F.A. 20-30 HP featured an in-block camshaft that used a chain (instead of a gear as on the earlier 24 HP). The engine produced 49 bhp (brake horsepower (37kW) at 2,400 rpm, and was capable of a top speed of 71 mph (115 km/h).
As A.L.F.A. was increasingly anxious to establish a reputation as a competitor in international racing, the company assigned Merosi the task of designing an even more powerful variant of the 20-30 HP. Dubbed the 40-60 HP, the car featured a 6082cc straight-four cylinder engine with overhead valves. A race variant was also produced. Known as the Alfa Grand Prix, it was the first automobile to feature a twin speak ignition. The four cylinder 4.5-liter engine helped the Grand Prix achieve a top speed of 87 mph.
World War I Brings Production to a Halt
With the outbreak of World War One in 1914, the international demand for motor cars declined sharply. Like many other manufacturers, A.L.F.A. was forced to turn its manufacturing prowess to wartime production. Interestingly, A.L.F.A. almost completely discarded the A.L.F.A 20-30 HP, leaving frames and parts for nearly one hundred 20-30 HP cars.
In August, 1915, unable to fund the conversion of its plant from automobile production to military manufacturing, the A.L.F.A. Company was sold to Neapolitan entrepreneur Nicola Romeo. Romeo, a successful electrical engineer from Naples, Italy, purchased A.L.F.A (along with several other companies) and began production of airplane engines and portable compressors.
Despite this dramatic shift in manufacturing, Nicola Romeo was also a crafty businessman and recognized that the A.L.F.A company would return to automotive production at the close of the war, and therefore did not discard or re-purpose the remnant components of the earlier 20-30HP cars.
The Birth of Alfa Romeo
Even as World War I slowly drew to a close in 1918, investors recognized that automotive production would once more become a centerpiece of commerce. In the winter of 1917-1918, it was decided that the A.L.F.A. company would once more return to automotive manufacturing, but this time, they’d grow the business with the aid of public investors.
The new company – which was to be called “Alfa Romeo” – was officially registered on February 3, 1918.
The first vehicle produced under the new corporation was none other than the remaining 20-30 HP automobiles that had sat incomplete in the plant for nearly five years. The vehicle was renamed the Torpedo 20-30 HP, and it was the first car to ever be badged as an Alfa Romeo, with 95 examples assembled that year.
Later that same year, the 20-30 HP was further developed to incorporate a larger displacement engine and a shorter wheelbase. The car became known as the Alfa Romeo 20-30 ES Sport, and it would be introduced and recognized by the company as the first original Alfa Romeo (despite borrowing elements from the Torpedo.) Over the course of the next two years, Alfa Romeo would manufacture 124 examples of the 20-30 ES Sport. Between the earlier A.L.F.A. 24 HP and 20-30HP models, and the Alfa Romeo Torpedo and ES Sport variants, a total of 680 examples were produced, establishing the Alfa Romeo company as a commercial automobile manufacturer.
The Return to Automotive Production
While the Grand Prix design had been sold off during the war, Alfa Romeo was able to re-acquire it. They returned to work on developing it into a racer that could compete on the Italian racing stage. Before long, the car was turning heads in some of the most important Italian races in the early 1920’s, including such venues as the Mugello circuit, the Parma-Berceto and the Brescia circuit.
Their successes at these venues ushered in an entirely new era for Alfa Romeo.
In 1922, Alfa Romeo launched the RL. Once more designed by Giuseppe Merosi, the RL featured a straight-six cylinder engine with an overhead rocker arm and valves. The car also featured brakes on all four wheels, a feature not commonly seen in automobiles from that era. The car quickly became known as Merosi’s masterpiece, and the Alfa Romeo RL achieved tremendous commercial success. Within the year, the car became known across Europe and around the globe for its engineering prowess and its beautiful design. International orders poured in and 2,640 automobiles were manufactured that year.
While Alfa Romeo had achieved a degree of success on the racetrack, 1923 would prove to be a pivotal year for the company’s future successes both on the racetrack and in its sales numbers.
The legendary Alfa Romeo race car driver, Ugo Sivocci, wanted to break his record of second-place finishes at the racetrack. He recognized that the RL had the power and drivability to help him achieve racing victory. While preparing for the legendary Targo Florio race in Sicily, Sivocci painted a white square with a “Quadrifogio” – or four-leaf clover – on the front of his Alfa Romeo RL Targa Florio.
On the day of the race, Ugo Sivocci finished in first place. In addition to that, driver’s Ascari and Masetti finished second and fourth, respectively, in that same race. Both were also driving RLs. This decisive victory at such a difficult, open road, endurance race proved definitively that Alfa Romeo had the “stuff” to compete on the race track.
Sivocci’s Four-Leaf Clover
But what about the four-leaf clover? What significance does it play in Alfa Romeo tradition?
The answer is accompanied by tragedy.
Shortly after Sivocci’s famous victory at the Targa Florio, he began testing a new race car at the Monza circuit. Where he had intentionally painted a four-leaf clover on his Alfa Romeo RL race car, he had not bothered to repeat the “good luck” tradition on this second car – an Alfa Romeo P1. On September 28, 1923, while testing the P1 at Monza, Sivocci crashed the car and was killed in the accident. Alfa Romeo, devastated by the news, issues a press release written by engineer Nicolo Romeo which announced the withdrawl of all other Alfa Romeo cars competing in the Monza event.
Sivocci’s passing also marked the beginning of a tradition – one that exists to this very day. Both in memory of his lost life as well as his success on the racetrack, all future Alfa Romeo race cars would feature a four-leaf clover on a white triangle to remember Sivocci’s great accomplishments during his time with Alfa Romeo. It also symbolizes a car that is race-worthy and, of course, remains a symbol of good luck.
One additional point of note – the P1 that Sivocci was driving was carrying the number 17. Since his passing, no Italian race car has carried the number 17 – another tradition that carries forward to this very day.
Vittorio Jano and the Alfa Romeo P2
Following Sivocci’s death, Giuseppi Merosi resigned as chief engineer of Alfa Romeo. As a result, Alfa Romeo sought out the talents of other designers who could continue the work that Merosi had started and aid in the future development of cars for their racing program. In late 1923/early 1924, Alfa Romeo hired Vittorio Jano, who would eventually be recognized as one of the legends behind the success of the Alfa Romeo racing program.
Prior to joining Alfa Romeo, Jano had worked as an engineer for Fiat. Because of the “buzz” that Alfa Romeo had generated on the race track, Jano began to develop a passing interest in the racing programs that were being developed by Alfa Romeo. Interestingly, Jano was ultimately recruited to join Alfa Romeo by Enzo Ferrari – yes, THAT Enzo Ferrari – who had previously joined the Alfa Romeo racing program in 1920.
Jano’s first contribution to the Alfa Romeo racing program was his design of the dual-carburetor, supercharged, straight-eight cylinder engine racer known officially as the Gran Premio Tipo P2 (or the P2 Grand Prix) race car.
The P2 was introduced by Alfa Romeo at the Circuit of Cremona in northern Italy in 1924. Driver Antonio Ascari drove the car to victory, finishing the race at a speed of 98 mph (158 km/h) before winning the speed trial at 121 mph (195km/h) during that same event.
The 1924 P2 racer consisted of a 121 cubic inch, 8-cylinder, twin overhead cam engine which produced 140 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and was capable of a top speed of 140 mph (225 km/h). As the year end and prospects of racing at the Automobile World Championship began to materialize, the P2 was modified to feature larger brake drums. The engine was also bolstered to produce 155 horsepower by fine-tuning and the introduction of a special blend of fuel which burned hotter. The result was a race car that could now run at 149 mph (240 km/h.)
In 1925, Alfa Romeo entered the inaugural Automobile World Championship, a global racing event that consisted of four endurance style races – the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, the European Grand Prix, the French Grand Prix and the Italian Grand Prix. Driven once more by Antonio Ascari, the P2 took victories in two of the four championship rounds. Tragically, Ascari was killed at the French Grand Prix and was replaced by driver David DePaolo for the fourth and final event in Monza, Italy.
Although 1925 brought drastic changes to the regulations governing racing, the P2 continued to be victorious at races all over Europe and around the world. Even when competing against such contenders as the Bugatti Type 35, the American Duesenburg Type 122, the Fiat 805 and others, the Alfa Romeo was one of the winningest cars of the era.
Between 1924 and 1930, Alfa Romeo won 14 Grand Prix as well as other major racing events including the Targa Florio. The car became an icon amongst the Grand Prix racers of the 1920’s and enabled Alfa Romeo, as world champions of their sport, to incorporate the laurel wreath into their company logo.
Sadly, only two of the six original P2 race cars survive today. One can be seen at the Alfa Romeo Museum in Arese while the other is on display at the Turin Automobile Museum.
“Millie Miglia” and Commercial Production
Considered “the World’s Best Motor Race” of its era, the Millie Miglia was an open-road endurance race that consisted of a thousand-mile figure eight race that loops through the Italian cities of Brescia and Rome.
After their incredible successes in the Automobile World Championship and the company’s status symbol as a world champion in racing, it was decided that Vittorio Jano should develop an automobile that could replace the P2 Grand Prix racer on the race track that would also be commercially viable as a production automobile.
Using the P2 Grand Prix car as his starting point, Jano went to work on the Alfa Romeo 6C 1500. The 6C 1500 was actually introduced in 1925 at the Milan Motor Show though the actual car would not start production until 1927.
Unlike the P2, the Alfa Romeo 6C 1500 did not feature a V8 engine. Instead, a 1.5 liter, six-cylinder engine was introduced. The smaller engine was less expensive to manufacture and more readily available, which meant that Alfa Romeo could genuinely move forward with their production of a commercially available automobile.
At the same time, a 6C Sport was released. This car featured dual overhead camshafts. This variant of the 6C 1500 proved itself on the race track, just as its predecessors had, and became one of the winningest vehicles. The 6C Sport won many races, including the 1928 Mille Miglia.
As the old saying goes, “win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” This proved to be true of the Alfa Romeo 6C 1500. A total of 3000 6C Sport were produced, 200 of which were equipped with a dual-overhead cam engine. Of these, ten units were developed with an early supercharger and became known as the 6C Super Sport variant of the popular sports car.
The P3, Ferrari and the End Of An Era
Throughout the late 1920’s, Enzo Ferrari had become increasingly involved with development of the racing division of Alfa Romeo. He recognized that the company’s successes on the race track could be quite profitable, and so decided to develop the Scuderia Ferrari racing team. The team was founded on November 16, 1929 in Milan, Italy, and would be known for the next decade as the official racing team of Alfa Romeo.
The Scuderia Ferrari racing team hired more than 40 of the finest racing drivers of that era, including Ascari, Campari and Nuvolari. As the company grew in stature as well as reputation, the Ferrari racing team managed all of Alfa Romeo’s racing achievements. The companies became so interlaced with one another that the cars being raced became known as “The Ferrari Racing Team Alfas”.
Given the incredible success of his P2 Grand Prix race car, Vittorio Jano was encouraged by everyone at Alfa Romeo – including Enzo Ferrari – to continue the development of additional race car models. In 1932, Jano produced the sensational Alfa Romeo P3 Monoposto, a single-seater, open-wheel race car.
The P3, also known as the Tipo B, was Alfa Romeo’s first automobile specifically designed for endurance races. It was considered by many as Jano’s finest work ever. The car was slender, fast and high tech. It utilized differential gears and two V-drive shafts to transmit power to the rear wheels.
Driven by Nuvolari, the P3 was introduced in June of that year, halfway thru the 1932 European Grand Prix season. Despite its late entry into the racing season, Nuvoloni won every race that year in the P3, including the Monaco Grand Prix, the Targa Florio, as well as wins at all-three major Grand Prix in Italy, France and Germany.
Ugo Gobbato Becomes the New Director of Alfa Romeo
Despite his vision to develop the company into a successful racing enterprise, Nicola Romeo nearly bankrupted the company in the late 1920’s because of a series of bad investments. The board called for Romeo’s resignation, but the new CEO of the company – Pasquale Gallo – persuaded the board to keep him on as president of the company. Despite this, Nicola Romeo departed the Alfa Romeo company in 1928.
While the board remained in place, the company went without a director for several years. In 1933, the company was purchased by Italy’s “Institute for Industrial Reconstruction (IRI)” and a new director – Ugo Gobbato – was named.
Under Gobbato’s direction, all of Alfa Romeo’s racing responsibilities – including engineering and product development – were transferred to the Scuderia Ferrari team. The four-leaf clover, which had been synonymous with the Alfa Romeo race cars, was replaced by the prancing horse, a symbol that would in turn become synonymous with another famous Italian automotive manufacturer just a few, short years later…the same automotive manufacturer who happened to own and operate Scuderia Ferrari!
Alfa Romeo Evolves
Despite their success the previous year, the 1933 Grand Prix season was a challenging one for Alfa Romeo. Because of the many financial challenges that had been placed upon the company by the overall lack of leadership after Nicola Romeo’s departure, as well as the many bad financial decisions made during Romeo’s tenure as president, the Alfa Romeo company was facing the threat of filing bankruptcy.
Ugo Gobbato, under the direction of the IRI, was faced with the task of re-organizing the Alfa Romeo company to ensure profitability. While the tightening of the purse strings was felt throughout the company, the Scuderia Ferrari division of the company was most impacted by the financial cuts. The Alfa Romeo P3 race cars, which had been celebrated during the 1932 racing season, were now locked away, forcing Ferrari to rely on the older, less effective Alfa Monza models.
Enzo Ferrari protested the decision to suspend the Alfa Romeo racing program, but Alfa Romeo, now under government control, was slow to respond to Ferrari’s requests for reconsideration. Finally, in August, 1933, after missing 25 racing events, and after much wrangling on the part of Enzo Ferrari and his team, the P3’s were turned over to Scuderia Ferrari. They won six of the final eleven racing events that season including the final two major Grand Prix races in Italy and Spain.
By 1935, German automobile manufacturers were dominating the world of racing. Alfa Romeo, for its own part, was moving away from racing, relying instead on the development of “Alfa Romeo” race cars by the Scuderia Ferrari company that bore the Alfa Romeo name.
Alfa Romeo Bimotori Scuderia Ferrari
In an effort to complete with German manufacturers Mercedes Benz and Auto Union, Enzo Ferrari and Luigi Bazzi worked together to develop the Alfa Romeo Bimotori Scuderia Ferrari, a racer with two 3.2 (3.165-litre) engines.
The first of these engines was mounted in the front of the car, and the other was mounted in the rear. Working in unison, these engines produced a total of 540 brake horsepower (403kW).
Needless to say, the drivetrain layout of this car was unusual.
The two engines were each connected to a separate driveshafts which, in turn, were connected to a gearbox that featured two separate input shafts and two separate output shafts. These output shafts were angled in such a way that each rear wheel had its own driveshaft.
The car was incredibly fast, achieving speeds that that exceeded 200 mph (322km/h). Yet, for all its speed, the car could still not achieve victory on the racetrack against the Mercedes W25 B. While the car had the speed advantage, the complexity of the design resulted in excessively long pit times. Moreover, the design was hard on tires and the dual engine platform consumed massive amounts of fuel.
On May 12, 1935, two of the Bimotori’s were entered in the Tripoli Grand Prix. Despite being driven by Nuvolari and Chiron, the cars still only achieved a fourth and fifth place finish.
However, on June 16, 1935, Nuvolari drove a specially prepared Bimotore from Florence to Livorno Italy and managed to set a new speed record of 226mp (364 km/h) while maintaining an average speed record of 226 mph (364 km/h). While the speed capabilities of this car were never translated directly to success on the racetrack, many elements of the Bimotore’s design – including the car’s chassis and independent front suspension – would be integrated into future Alfa Romeo racers.
The Bimotore -of which only two were ever built – was sidelined in July 1935 in factor of the Alfa Romeo Tipo C.
Tazio Nuvolari – The Greatest of All Racers
On July 28, 1935, determined to defeat the German racers of the day, Tazio Nuvolari drove one the older P3 racers at the Nürburgring, the most challenging racing circuit of it day (and still considered one of the most challenging today!) Despite being in a car that many considered to be outclassed by the German racers, Nuvolari was victorious, marking another significant milestone in Alfa Romeo’s racing history. At the race’s completion, representatives of the German government congratulated Nuvolari for his superior driving skills at the German Grand Prix.
A year later, Nuvolari would achieve even greater racing success in America.
Scuderia Ferrari, looking to establish a global racing presence, entered three Alfa Romeos at the Vanderbilt Cup in New York. Despite being injured earlier that same year in a bad crash in Tripoli, Libya, Nuvolari competed as one of the three Alfa Romeo drivers. Driving an Alfa Romeo Premio Tipo C, Nuvolari won the Vanderbilt cup. This victory brought significant positive attention to both Nuvolari and Alfa Romeo across the United States and made the automotive manufacturer a household name amongst American racing and automobile enthusiasts.
The Alfa Romeo 8C 2900
The many international successes of Alfa Romeo on the racetrack enticed consumers to look closely at Alfa Romeo as a serious automotive manufacturer.
To meet the increasing demands for a reliable and beautiful sports car, Alfa Romeo set to work on the 8C 2900, a two-seater sports car that would be equally reliable on the race track or the open road.
Three versions of the car were developed – the 8C 2900A, which featured a straight two-seater chassis specifically designed for motor racing, and the 8C 2900B, which came in a short wheel base known as the Spider Corsa and a long wheelbase known as the Coupe Touring models.
As with most of Alfa Romeo’s automotive designs, the 8C 2900 was developed to be a competitor on the racetrack, with a special emphasis on competition at the Mille Miglia. The car featured a 2.9L inline 8-cylinder engine with two Roots-type superchargers and two Weber carburetors. It utilized a fully independent suspension with coil springs and hydraulic dampers in the fornt and swing axles and transverse leaf springs in the rear.
The 8C 2900A was first introduced to the public at the 1935 London Auto Show and was advertised for sale there. The car boasted 220 horsepower (160Kw), which, while impressive for the day, was still a de-tuned version of the Grand Prix racing version. A total of ten 2900A’s were built – five in 1935 and five in 1936.
Scuderia Ferrari entered three of the 8C 2900A’s in the 1936 Mille Miglia, where they finished in the top three positions. They entered again in 1937 and finished in the top two positions.
In 1938, recognizing the successes that Scuderia Ferrari was having with their vehicles, Alfa Romeo launched its own racing team, and took over the responsibilities (and most of the personnel) of the former racing team. Dubbed Alfa Corse, the new team truly helped secure the 2900’s reputation in racing history with an unprecedented third straight Mille Miglia’s victory in 1938.
By 1937, demand for the 8C 2900 had grown and Alfa Romeo responded by building the 8C 2900B. The 2900B’s were developed with greater comfort and reliability in mind. The engines were de-tuned from the 2900A version, producing an output of 180bhp (130Kw) at 5200 rpm.
Thirty-two 2900B’s were built in regular production – ten in 1937 and twenty-two in 1938. A thirty-third 2900B was assembled from parts in 1941.
These pre-second world war cars were considered some of the most beautiful examples of automotive craftsmanship of that era. Today, given their limited numbers and extreme collectability, they are also considered some of the most valuable collector automobiles in the world. A 1939 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B Lungo Spider recently sold for $19,800,000 at the RM Sotheby’s Auto Auction, ranking it as number 9 of the 10 most expensive cars ever sold at auction.
The “Little Alfa” – the 158/159
As Grand Prix racing was the vogue of the late 1930’s, Alfa Romeo continued to invest resources and money into the development of ever faster, more nimble race cars to compete on the world stage. Under the design direction of Gioacchino Colombo, Alfa Romeo would develop one of the most successful, enduring single-seater racers of all time – the Alfa Romeo 158/159, which was also affectionately known as the Alfetta (the “Little Alfa” in Italian.)
The last of its pre-World War II era racers, the 158/159 would go on to in 47 of the 54 Grand Prix races it entered. The first variant of the car – the voiturette formula (developed in 1937) – featured a 1.5-litre straight-8 supercharged engine. Following World War II, the second iteration of the car was developed to compete in the new Formula One series of racing, which was introduced in 1947. Driven by such famous racers as Nino Farina, Juan-Manuel Fangio and Luigi Fagioli, the car dominated the first two seasons of the World Championship of Drivers.
This small, nimble race car would continue to achieve unprecedented levels of success through the 1940’s and into 1950, when it won its first Formula 1 title. While it seemed incredible that this car, which had originated in 1938, would achieve such unprecedented victory on the race track, most automotive historians agree that is success was due in large part to the fact that few automotive manufacturers had contributed the resources (and the money) to racing as Alfa Romeo had, which enabled Alfa to develop and sustain a reputation as the dominant leader in automotive racing.
A New Factory and a Fallen Leader
In 1938, the Italian Government called for the creation of a new factory to be built in southern Italy. Its primary function would be aimed at enhancing the country’s capacity for aircraft production. The plant was conceived and proposed as a joint venture between Alfa Romeo and the Cantieri Riuniti dell’Adriatico, antoher IRI-owned company that specialized in ship and aircraft construction. While it was agreed that the plant’s primary focus would be aircraft production, Alfa Romeo also included a division that would be focused on producing engine for their increasing line-up of race and production cars.
Ugo Gobbato, who had significant involvement in the project as the director of Alfa Romeo, arranged to have the foundation stone of the new San Martino factory to be laid by none other than Mussolini himself. On April 1, 1939, Mussolini placed the first stone on the new plant, and construction proceeded immediately thereafter.
For its part, Alfa Romeo began engine production at the San Martino plant in late 1940, and set expectations that the first engines would be test-ran in March, 1941. Given the sizable distances that many of the plant’s workers had to travel to work at the plant, the construction of the plant included erecting 500 houses for the workers.
Engine production did indeed began in December 1940, and the first engines produced at the San Martino plant were produced. Before long, the plant started producing 60 units per month, with production ultimately reaching approximately 130 units per month.
With the onset of World War II, the Italian government successfully purchased the contract to build the DB 601 engine (the engine that powered the Messerschmitt 109 fighter plane and the Heinkel 111 bombers) from Daimler Chrsyler. However, as Italy lacked a suitable liquid-cooled aero engine, it was decided that the entire plant would be focused on building air-cooled radial engines for use in military aircraft.
For the next several years, the plant would continue to focus on the production of aircraft engines, which resulted in the Italian Government owing a massive sum of money to the Alfa Romeo corporation.
On May 30th, 1943, the San Martino factory suffered a massive Allied bombing assault that destroyed most of the plant and claimed hundreds of human casualties. Remaining workers and production equipment was subsequently moved to “safer locations” – namely a cave system located in San Rocco. While engine production continued, additional attacks from Allied forces caused the destruction of many of the Alfa Romeo manufacturing plants. Those that survived were later sabotaged by retreating German forces. In short, World War II devastated Alfa Romeo, and left many questions about its future.
Living in a country that was ravaged by the aftershocks of the war, and polarized by opposing political beliefs and national alliances, it was of little surprise to anyone when, on April 28, 1945, it was announced that Ugo Gabbato had been shot and killed by an unknown gunman as he cycled to work.
Gobbato had been wrongly accused of collaborating with the Germans and Italian fascists. Afterall, it had been his plant that produced engines for many of the German aircraft used in the war. Moreover, he had had political affiliations with Mussolini and had been aligned by the IRI to manage the vested interests of the Alfa Romeo company.
With Gobbato’s death, and with most of Ala Romeo’s factories destroyed in the war, the company was in a precarious position.Alfa’s History Continues >