A lap of the Outer Circuit today

The S&G was alerted to this film by its maker last summer so apologies for the tardiness. However, for those who have read the post on finding your way around Brooklands and still can’t make head or tail of it, Andy Lambert has very kindly completed a lap of the old circuit from above, allowing you to find yourself if you get lost.

Watch, enjoy, marvel – and go and have a look for yourselves.

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Sunshine at Brooklands

Make hay while the sun shines, is the saying. But this is not an agricultural blog, so we did the only sensible thing for anyone in the commuter belt and went to Brooklands.

Since the opening of the new Lottery-supported Aircraft Factory and the reopening of more of the Start/Finish straight for clubs and events, the old place has really taken on a new lease of life. For more information go to www.brooklandsmuseum.com to and plan a relaxing few hours filled with all sorts of educational nooks and crannies.

Don’t forget that on school holiday weekdays it’s possible to be driven round the banking on a replica racer for £1, while another £1 will get you a bus ride around Weybridge on a Routemaster, upon which you can pretend to be Cliff Richard and Una Stubbs – or possibly James Bond.

Be joyful that summer’s here and enjoy all the great things with wheels and wings that we used to do so well.

Richthofen’s Last Stand

It is 100 years today since the most famous airman of them all, Rittmeister Freiherr Manfred von Richthofen – or the Red Baron, if you will – was shot down. The debate rolls on over who fired the single bullet which felled him, but it is a measure of the intensity of Richthofen’s war that he should have allowed himself to get caught up in such an improbable melée as that seen over the River Somme on 21 April 1918.

The fear that the Red Baron instilled in his enemies led to his being vilified for building up the single greatest score of the conflict primarily over slow 2-seater reconnaissance and artillery observation machines.

In Britain it was felt that this was somehow unsporting and any sort of a man with decency and fair play in his bones should have stuck to duelling with fighters. Indeed, many pilots in the Royal Flying Corps believed that Richthofen’s insistence on tactical advantage made him a coward.

But it was the 2-seaters which acted as the eyes and ears of the Western Front – photographing enemy emplacements, dropping bombs and directing the fire of artillery – which meant that they were the obvious target to a professional huntsman. In Richthofen’s mind, enemy fighters were simply there to defend the machines that were worth shooting down, rather than being worth shooting at on their own account.

Another myth which gained traction about the Red Baron was that he was not a great airman; not a dogfighter. That really doesn’t hold much water when reading the testimony of his final victim – one of the few men to survive such an encounter.

Second Lieutenant David Lewis was flying his Sopwith Camel in a formation of six when they ran into six Fokker Dr.I triplanes led by an all-scarlet machine. The German leader singled out his English opposite number, Major Richard Raymond-Barker, and dived upon him, setting his Sopwith alight.

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Richthofen’s last mount: Fokker Dr.I serial 425/17

As the Fokkers regrouped from their initial attack, Lewis dived on one, fired without doing any obvious damage and then found that his own aircraft was coming under withering fire. “Then started a merry waltz; round and round, up and down to the staccato of the machine guns of the other fighters,” he recounted. “Only once did I get my sights on his machine, but in a trice the positions were reversed.”

Against a Sopwith Camel, the ‘king of air fighters’ this was no mean feat of airmanship on Richthofen’s part. There can also be no doubt that the onslaught must have been terrifying to the inexperienced 2/Lt Lewis, who recounted:

“His first burst shattered the compass in front of my face, the liquid therefrom fogging my goggles, of which, however, I was relieved when a bullet severed the elastic from the frame, and they went over the side…

“I do not think Richthofen was more than 50 feet away from me all this time, for I could plainly see his begoggled and helmeted face, and his machine guns. Next I heard the sound of flames and the stream of bullets ceased. I turned round to see that my machine was on fire.”

Lewis put his Camel into a vertical dive to try and stop the flames from consuming him. The plan worked but instead blew the fire back towards the Camel’s tail so that when the time came to pull out of his dive its elevators were practically useless.

The stricken Camel was beyond saving but its pilot was thrown clear of the wreckage and survived with only minor injuries. It was one of those miraculous escapes that come every so often when it is simply not one’s day to go.

Sending two Camels down in flames was a good day’s work but the battle only served to show how far from the cool-headed huntsman Richthofen had become. He was brawling on the edge of the abyss; his finely-honed tactics thrown to the wind.

There is no doubt that he should not have been anywhere near the cockpit in the spring of 1918. He had never fully recuperated from being shot in the head the previous summer, was suffering from what we would call combat fatigue in this day and age and he was, by any stretch, physically and mentally exhausted.

It is noticeable that from his return to active duty in early March until his death six weeks later, Richthofen was no longer fixated upon shooting down the valuable reconnaissance and artillery spotting machines. Instead he attacked enemy fighters like the Camels of Lewis and Raymond-Barker, which were of little strategic value.

Perhaps he felt that if he shot down enough of them, he would evade the bullet with his name on. “I am in wretched spirits after every battle,” he wrote. “When I set foot on the ground again at my airfield after a flight, I go to my quarters and do not want to see anyone or hear anything.”

All of the great air aces who were killed during World War 1 died as a result of going to the well once too often. Almost to a man, those who excelled at war in the air died from doing something that they would, in their prime, have reprimanded, grounded or posted a junior officer for attempting.

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Richthofen (right) was just 25 when he died

‘Mick’ Mannock was flying at barely 100 feet when he presented his S.E.5a as the perfect target to enemy machine gun emplacements. Werner Voss was tackling an absurd number of airmen single-handed and refusing to break off from the fight. Jimmy McCudden was showing off. Georges Guynemer dived in to the stream of bullets from a 2-seater.

When one looks at the photos of these men in the days before they died it is noticeable that, although most were only in their mid-twenties, their faces are lined, their eyes pouched and their hands are usually bunched even as they try to look carefree for the camera. They look a good two decades older than their years – and Richthofen was no exception.

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Richthofen (right) with his men

British pilots were generally spared the same level of public acclaim that the French and German propagandists accorded their own ‘aces’. It was felt that the negative effect on public morale when famous pilots were killed in combat was far more profound than the benefits of cheering them on in life.

The propagandists had made a public hero of Albert Ball only to discover that he was in fact mortal – and in the wave of mourning that followed they decided to keep their high-scoring pilots anonymous wherever possible.

Not so the French or Germans, who lionised their most successful ‘aces’. This added a layer of expectation and reciprocal sense of duty that pushed them all onward into the furthest reaches of their endurance.

“One of my superiors advised me to give up flying, saying it will catch up with me one day,” Richthofen wrote.

“But I would become miserable if now, honoured with glory and decorations, I became a pensioner of my dignity in order to preserve my ‘precious’ life for the nation while every poor fellow in the trenches endures his duty as I did mine.”

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Richthofen and his protégé, Kurt Wolff

The day after Second Lieutenant Lewis and Major Raymond-Barker had fallen to Richthofen’s guns, he again led six Fokker triplanes in to battle with a squadron of Sopwith Camels. One was singled out for the same sort of furious attack that Lewis had received but Wilfred ‘Wop’ May proved elusive.

Richthofen’s pursuit took them down to almost ground level with the experienced Arthur Roy Brown’s Camel diving in to May’s rescue and an entire Australian division firing up at the scarlet triplane. One .303 bullet among the thousands aimed at him finally found its mark and the rest is pure conjecture.

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Pick your heroes wisely

They say that you should never meet your heroes for fear that they may leave you disappointed. The S&G’s recommendation is simply to pick your heroes wisely. In writing the Haynes Manual on the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5, the defining day of the whole experience came in Bristol with the opportunity to interview the man who first made this writer want to tell stories of any kind: Derek Robinson.

It’s nearly 50 years since Robinson turned the literary world on its head with Goshawk Squadron – the Booker Prize runner-up of 1971. Until its publication, the image of airmen in World War 1 had been based upon the myth of a ‘cavalry of the clouds’ (as Lloyd George’s spin doctors put it). They were daring, chivalrous knights of the air jousting high above the squalor of the trenches with their silk scarves a-flutter.

Robinson wrote of a war that was no less squalid than that on the ground from the perspective of an S.E.5 squadron commanded by Stanley Woolley; a foul-mouthed working class combat veteran. Woolley presides over a rabble of idealistic young public schoolboys who believe that they are taking part in a gallant contest with the enemy – a delusion that Woolley tries to beat out of them by any means necessary.

The inspiration for his story had come in 1968, when the Sunday Telegraph ran a feature marking the 50th anniversary of the Royal Air Force in which a First World War veteran was interviewed. ‘He said it was much more like meeting a guy down a back alley with a sock full of broken glass and cracking him over the head and running like hell,’ Robinson remembered.

‘He said it was just as bad to be shot at 15,000 feet as it was in the trenches so let’s forget all the chivalry stuff, there was no fair play, there was no duelling in the sky… I was reading this and thought: “Hey! Never thought of that!” So that was it, after that I was off and running and so I read everything that I could lay my hands on.’

There were two things that Derek Robinson knew about – writing good copy and the Royal Air Force. The former came from a career spent in the advertising trade, a fair bit of local journalism and generally being a pen for hire… whilst all the while dreaming of writing the perfect detective novel. When it came to writing about wartime airmen, however, the aspiring novelist was able to draw on a wealth of first-hand knowledge as a trained radar operator and fighter plotter.

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Robinson’s characters owe much to his encounters with WW2 veterans while on National Service

‘I did my national service in the RAF and I knew various pilots – this was at the time of Korea, and the reserves had been recalled from among the pilots of the Second World War,’ said Robinson.

‘I was at Exeter Airport and one of these reserve squadrons arrived in Spitfires and flew there all summer… and of course they were all crackers.

‘The railway line comes out of Exeter and it runs through alongside the River Ex estuary and then it goes down the coast to Cornwall. Because it’s marshland down there the railway line is built up on embankments and these guys in Spits used to hang around – we could watch them from the radar station, we could see it – so when the train was steaming out of Exeter and picking up speed they used to dive down and sweep level with the train driver. A lot of that sort of behaviour went into Goshawk Squadron and all the books.’

The full canon of Robinson’s stories of the air begins with a quartet of tales from the First World War that run chronologically from the Battle of the Somme in 1916 (War Story, 1987), to the battles of Arras and Passchendaele in 1917 (Hornet’s Sting, 1998), to the German Spring Offensive in 1918 (Goshawk Squadron, 1971). The final instalment tells of the deployment of Royal Air Force units to fight for the White Russians against the Bolsheviks in 1919 (A Splendid Little War, 2013).

Then we get to World War 2, in which the series begins with Piece of Cake (1983), the story of an RAF fighter squadron from September 1939 to September 1940. Intertwined with this is a later book, Damned Good Show (2002), which tells the story of the bomber crews in 1939-41 before the arrival of ‘Bomber’ Harris as their commander.

The survivors from Piece of Cake are then found in the vast expanse of the Sahara, fighting Rommel’s Afrika Korps alongside the SAS during 1942 (A Good Clean Fight, 1993). The WW2 quartet ends with Flight Lieutenant Sweet, the central character from Damned Good Show seeing out his war, struggling in civilian life and jumping at the chance to fly a nuclear-armed V-Bomber at the height of the Cold War in Hullo Russia, Goodbye England (2008).

‘I don’t know of anyone who is competing with me: I don’t know anyone who writes this kind of stuff about First and Second World War flyers,’ Robinson said. He has a very good point as well but sells himself rather short because no novelist has ever come as close to explaining the truth of war in living memory.

Certainly in the case of airmen, only the terminally ill First World War pilot Victor Yeates, in his book Winged Victory (1934), really compares in terms of the rawness and the willingness to address uncomfortable truths. Unlike many veterans who have written about their wartime experiences, Yeates wrote without a care for how posterity might view him or his comrades. Even after a century it is a truly shocking read.

In recent times, novels that have been set in either of the World Wars have merely used elements of the conflict as a backdrop to melodrama. If you read Birdsong after reading Goshawk Squadron, then Sebastian Faulks’ efforts are revealed as a genteel middle-class soap opera that pays only lip service to military history.

‘I’m pretty good at what one critic described as “putting people in the cockpit”,’ said Robinson.

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Goshawk Squadron puts the reader here, sat between two machine guns at 15,000 feet

‘So you feel you know what it’s like up there and it’s complicated, it’s difficult, it’s dangerous and yet it’s hugely exciting and you can do things up there that nobody could dream of. I research that very, very closely but I don’t put a lot of process and procedure in the books because people get fed up with it pretty quickly – but it informs the story. Secondly, the jokes are not bad!’

In fact, the rich vein of humour that runs through all of the books is often riotous. In Robinson’s version of events, the pity of war is something that we the readers experience through the author’s voice or characters like the outspoken intelligence officer ‘Skull’ Skelton who appears in every one of his World War 2 books – usually before getting the ‘chop’ and being sent to some backwater or other as penance.

The airmen seldom, if ever, take time for a wistful glance or mournful sigh – they’re too busy living and dying. Gravitas, pity and sorrow are what we bestow upon wars long after the event, like a hushed BBC commentary on Remembrance Sunday.

‘It’s a point I try to make that, for these young men, being given the most amazing machinery of their times and the means to shoot things down and blow things up – it was bloody good fun!’ Robinson chuckled. Over the years some veterans have complained that he has not done their legacy any favours – but on balance many more have found the ebullience of his fighting men to be right on the money.

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Derek Robinson at home with a selection of his handiwork. A thrilling interviewee for a writer.

‘I was talking to a D-Day veteran once, and he was complaining that we make such a fuss about that landing when there were others before it that never get a mention,’ Robinson recalled.

‘He said: “I remember when we were going into Sicily, and we were in the landing craft, and the Lieutenant stood up in front of us and he said that it was going to be rough stuff that we were going into and it may well be that half of the men in that boat would not be coming back.” And this chap said that he looked around at the bloke next to him and he thought: you poor bastard!’

In recent years, Robinson has produced two non-fiction books that tackle big issues in popular military history. First came Invasion, 1940 which looks at whether or not Britain was in fact under imminent threat of German occupation during the Battle of Britain. In Why 1914?, Robinson’s gimlet eye for history was turned upon the circumstances and misadventures that fuelled Europe’s descent into the First World War.

These books, together with his authoritative works on Rugby Union, books about his beloved Bristol, a series of spy stories and even an American novel, all delight the Robinson faithful. But it is the stories of airmen that have come to define his oeuvre – all of which stem from the writing of Goshawk Squadron.

‘We were on our uppers but I guess it’s part of being young and having lots of energy – I had a lot of energy in those days.  And a fair bit of anger at the world in general,’ Robinson said.

‘I wrote it – according to my wife, who remembers it far more vividly than I do, I’m sure –not so much in a fit of rage but in a fit of defiance. I had already wasted four years writing stuff which nobody wanted to publish. So I said to myself – and I think I said to her too – “well, I don’t give a shit. I’ll write it for me and if somebody else wants to publish it then that’s good luck!” …that’s what I should have done in the first place!’

Although now in his eighties, Robinson remains a cheerfully restless author. The shelves of high street bookshops are groaning under the weight of newer and lesser war novels, while the maestro’s most recent works are mostly self-published and sold directly to his followers. Such is the case with his latest novel, Holy $moke, which came out last year and follows a mismatched group of intelligence men into Rome and the chaos that reigned after Mussolini’s fall.

One cannot help but feel that a return to the screen is long overdue. It’s 30 years this year since Piece of Cake was broadcast as a six-hour miniseries by ITV but it remains utterly fresh and vital, thanks in no small part to the source material. Sir Peter Jackson has built an entire air force of 1914-18 machinery – not to mention a hangar full of Lancasters – and has yet to find a suitable vehicle for any of them. He need hardly look further than Bristol for inspiration.

All of Robinson’s books can be ordered directly from the man himself by visiting www.derekrobinson.info and this is to be heartily recommended. As for the S&G, our time of chuntering about old aeroplanes and good books, with accompanying tea and doughnuts, will long be remembered. Because sometimes meeting your heroes is very well worth it.

Alfa’s Story: Part 2

In Part 1 of Alfa Romeo’s story, its factory was built in Milan with British money on a road named after a Roman emperor… but named after a Frenchman’s favourite restaurant. It went bust more than once and was taken over during World War 1 by a Neapolitan with a sense of adventure and a large military contract.

After almost 15 years of high drama, Alfa Romeo had set course for glory when its racing team won the 1920 Circuit of Mugello… but there were still plenty of banana skins underfoot. The next setback came in 1921, when the Banco Italiana di Sconto, Alfa Romeo’s main creditor, was wiped out in a cataclysmic plunge for the Italian economy.

Immediately the assets of all debtor companies were seized by the central Banca Nazionale di Credito – including those of Alfa Romeo. Amid this great political and financial storm, Benito Mussolini emerged from the chaos and marched on Rome demanding power for the Fascists. Rome was powerless to refuse and among the many assets to fall into il Duce’s lap were the Banca Nazionale di Credito and, as a result, Alfa Romeo.

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Mussolini assumed authority in Rome and nationalised the motor industry

When the dust had settled, Alfa Romeo’s chairman Nicola Romeo and his right-hand man Giorgio Rimini decided that Alfa Romeo needed modernising. This was a great buzzword in Fascist circles but it was also true in the sense that chief designer Giuseppe Merosi’s products were close to becoming antiques.

The most forward-looking automotive engineer in Italy at that time was Vittorio Jano, who had brought grand prix racing success to Fiat. Giorgio Rimini dispatched Enzo Ferrari to Turin as emissary to open negotiations with Jano about joining Alfa Romeo.

Ferrari went first to Jano’s wife to sound her out about a possible move to Milan. Having got the lie of the land, and presumably convinced Signora Jano of the attractions in Milan, Ferrari then approached the great designer himself. Jano said that he might consider moving from Fiat but would need to talk ‘to the organ grinder and not the monkey’.

This would not have been an easy pill for Enzo Ferrari to swallow, but he duly made his report. Alfa Romeo’s finance director then followed up with an offer to double whatever Jano was being paid by Fiat… and the deal was swiftly concluded.

The highest priority was given to creating a world-class motor racing programme. Giuseppe Merosi had produced a new, sleek racing car called the P1 but its engine was prehistoric. Into this car Jano slotted a variation on the engine designs that he had created at Fiat: a supercharged twin-cam straight-eight of just under 2 litres in capacity that boasted 140 horsepower and could reach 9,000 rpm.

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Vittorio Jano’s engine  created the dominant Alfa Romeo P2

Thus was created the Alfa Romeo P2. In 1924 it won the Circuit of Cremona in the hands of Antonio Ascari, then Giuseppe Campari won the Grand Prix de l’ACF on the historic Lyon road circuit. The year ended with victory at home in Milan’s royal park at Monza for the Gran Premio d’Italia, taken by Ascari, to prove that the P2 was absolutely the class of the field.

Its rise was timely because the sport’s governing body, the AIACR, declared that there would be a world championship title for Grand Prix cars in 1925.

The four points-scoring races were the Indianapolis 500, which was won by Duesenberg, the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps, the Grand Prix de l’ACF at Montlhéry and the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.

The Belgian Grand Prix at Spa saw three Alfa P2s line up against a quartet of Delages. Two of the Delages were out before the end of the third lap and the other two weren’t all that far behind them. One of the Alfas went down with broken suspension, which left two surviving P2s circulating contentedly.

Quite how much truth there is to the story of Vittorio Jano having a table laid in the pit lane and inviting his drivers to dine with him when they stopped is largely a matter of conjecture. Something must have gone on, although doubtless the story has spent many years getting better with each telling.

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Antonio Ascari and riding mechanic Giulio Ramponi celebrate their win at Spa – the last time that riding mechanics would be seen

Antonio Ascari won in Belgium and was the form man when the circus arrived at the new purpose-built circuit at Montlhéry in France for the Grand Prix de l’ACF.  The venue was intended to maximise crowd safety both within the bowl of the autodrome and on the closed public roads of the rest of the circuit. Pale fencing made of chestnut wood was erected around the course to hold back the more enthusiastic spectators but Ascari was one of several drivers who feared that the fencing could potentially cause a disaster.

Sure enough, as rain started to fall on race day, Ascari ran wide on the flat-out kink halfway down the return straight and his wheel snagged the pale fence. He fought for a few seconds to control the lurid slide before the car tipped, throwing him out and then rolling over his prone body. Alfa’s fastest driver died in the ambulance on his way to hospital.

If there was one positive to be drawn, it was that this was the first Grand Prix to be run without the need for riding mechanics – sparing the life of Ascari’s mechanic, Giulio Ramponi. As it was, the surviving Alfas of Gastone Brilli-Peri and Giuseppe Campari were withdrawn and Delage won the race unopposed – Robert Benoist and Albert Divo sharing the winning car.

A promising young motorcycle racer, Tazio Nuvolari, was brought to Monza for the deciding race to fill in for Ascari, but he crashed in practice and ended up in hospital with broken ribs so American-Sicilian driver Pete de Paolo took the third car instead. In the end Gastone Brilli-Peri claimed victory with Campari finishing second and de Paolo fifth. It was more than enough for Alfa Romeo to claim the first ever World Championship title for Grand Prix racing.

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Vittorio Jano and Tazio Nuvolari would come to define Alfa’s fortunes in the 1930s

The scarlet cars had brought glory to Italy against the best that France and Britain had to offer. This success meant that there were many who wanted to claim a little of that caché for their own ends… as we will see in Part 3.

MH434 in full flight

Believe it or not, it’s 30 years this year since Piece of Cake was televised. It brought us a host of talented young actors who went on to become household names like Neil Dudgeon (Midsomer Murders), Nathaniel Parker (Inspector Lynley), and Jeremy Northam (The Crown).

It was also arguably the finest moment of Spitfire Mk.IX MH434’s long career. She’s pictured above during a display that the S&G savoured at Old Warden in 2016. But better than that, better than her low pass down the main straight at Goodwood or her celebrated buzzing of Alain de Cadanet she went under the largest single-span bridge in Britain.

It’s quite a big bridge but in a Spitfire it’s threading the needle. And then some.

Because before CGI there was Ray Hanna.

Alfa’s Story – Part 1

The return of Alfa Romeo to grand prix racing seems to have passed almost unnoticed in the hubbub around this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix and the start of the 2018 Formula 1 season. Perhaps it is because everyone knows that it’s ultimately just a Ferrari engine deal but the cloverleaf and the prancing horse have happily shared the paddock for nearly 90 years.

Alfa Romeo is a hallowed name in motoring. From the blood red Grand Prix cars driven by Tazio Nuvolari and Achille Varzi through to the most beautiful car ever built and on to the achingly cool hatchbacks of recent years, like TV detective Aurelio Zen’s black 147, the artisans of Italy’s oldest performance car maker have forged and beaten metal into the stuff of dreams. Yet the company was something of an accidental hero that was inadvertently founded by a Frenchman and overcame some towering obstacles before crossing the threshold into motoring myth.

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When the BBC wanted a cool new detective they gave him an Alfa.

Alexandre Darracq entered the booming French car making industry during the 1890s and, like so many others, chose motor racing to advertise his wares. It took him almost a decade to crack race engineering, but in the dying days of the city-to-city events on the public highway, Darracq’s ‘light cars’ became a force to be reckoned with.

Employing the celebrated French cyclist Henri Farman to drive his ‘light cars’, Darracq presided over victory in the voiturette class of the 1901 Pau-Peyrehorade and Nice-Salon-Nice races. This brought considerable interest from a London investor, who also introduced Farman to what would be a long and fruitful relationship with British industry. Farman soon left mother earth to become a celebrated aviator, while Darracq and his backers went in another direction.

They soon realised that slaving away to produce small numbers of bespoke cars and motor cycles would never be as profitable as volume production. Thus Darracq’s light cars grew even lighter as he made them cheaper and their performance became even more polished. It’s worth noting that the 1904 12hp Darracq that was immortalised in the movie Genevieve was the Golf GTI of its day.

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Movie icon ‘Genevieve’ was one of Darracq’s sporty voiturettes

At a shareholders’ meeting in London during 1906, the decision was made to commit to building a new and bigger factory to increase production still further. It was decided that northern Italy was cheap enough, well connected to the rest of Europe and with a well-educated workforce.

Darracq himself chose the location beside Via M.U. Traiano near Milan. The road was named after the Roman emperor Trajan but the factory was rather less grandly named after a nearby trattoria that Darracq had taken a shine to: he called it Portello.

It was unfortunate, then, that in 1907 the bottom fell out of the European car market amid a series of economic tsunamis just the last of Portello’s brick work was being finished off. Darracq decided to cut costs even further and skimped on parts but this only served to make the Italian-built cars fiendishly unreliable. Customers took their trade elsewhere

Darracq very publicly fired the British factory manager at Portello and brought in some local talent to help restore the factory’s reputation. The new man was called Ugo Stella and his solution was a drastic rebranding exercise. He took on a loan of half a million lire from the Banca Agricola Milanese and offered to buy the factory, renaming the company as Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili – or ALFA for short.

Not much was changed in the company structure, however. The British investors were still part of the package and Alexandre Darracq was listed as a director of ALFA. The cars that they began to produce were also to Darracq’s designs… at least until the appointment of new chief designer Giuseppe Merosi in 1909.

The first of Merosi’s cars was the ALFA 12/15, a large but rather sporty model, which debuted in 1910. Throughout 1911 interest in the new car picked up, particularly among enthusiastic drivers and amateur racers. This led the ALFA factory itself to try a few forays into the racing world, which grew all the more serious when Merosi’s new 40/60 model appeared. This car would provide the basis of a full-house Grand Prix challenger in 1914, although it would not compete in anger.

Another designer had also joined ALFA to work alongside Merosi on engine development. This was Antonio Santoni, who wanted to enter the burgeoning aviation market by building the first aeroplane to fly across the Alps. His engine was revolutionary because it featured a supercharger that he himself had patented – one of the first forced induction units ever recorded. Sadly, Santoni was beaten across the Alps by one of Louis Blériot’s monoplanes.

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Giuseppe Merosi’s ALFA 40/60 competed before and after WW1. Here, Merosi sits at the wheel of the 1914 GP car.

Then came World War 1 and Italy was forced into battle alongside the British and the French. With nobody buying cars and without any military contracts to sustain its workforce, ALFA went bust very quickly. The Banco Italiana di Sconto, which had become ALFA’s main source of funding, sent in an administrator to take over the failing factory: his name was Nicola Romeo.

Romeo had come from a relatively humble background in Naples, trained in engineering and had set about making himself a fortune. He had begun to realise his ambitions of wealth by importing cheap American farming equipment in kit form, knocking it together and selling it on at a profit.

Romeo networked and made alliances with banks and officials. And he made a lot of money. When Romeo arrived in Portello, he did so with a contract for the provision of 10,000 artillery shells per day and set about rehabilitating ALFA under a new guise: Alfa Romeo.

This was a process that Romeo forced through despite some misgivings from within Portello. The north/south divide in Italy is sharply drawn and there was a considerable clash of cultures between the mannered metropolitans of Milan and the swashbuckling brigand from Naples. Giuseppe Merosi and a number of other senior ALFA men flat-out refused to work with Romeo, but were eventually convinced to remain at their posts. The company survived the war from within Romeo’s engineering empire.

In 1918 the guns fell silent but Italy was in chaos and there was a surge of popular support among factory workers for a Russian-style revolution. To counter this worrying threat, and funded by allied powers such as Britain, the Fascists under Benito Mussolini would take brutal action to quell any Communist activity.

It was a protection racket on an industrial scale, and in hindsight Italian industry was often at the mercy of both parties. Alfa Romeo’s factory in Portello was brought to a standstill by an uprising… which Mussolini’s men quickly countered.

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Big fires and big sticks were part and parcel of Italian industrial relations in the 1920s

The factory went back to building Giuseppe Merosi’s cars and to promote them it returned to competition. The war had inspired a good number of young men towards adventure and risk taking of the kind that motor racing could offer them, and a nucleus of drivers was built up in 1919-20 including the aspiring opera singer Giuseppe Campari, engineers Antonio Ascari and Ugo Sivocci plus a precocious 22 year-old called Enzo Ferrari.

Together they and their cars were managed under the Alfa Corse banner by Giorgio Rimini – an imposing (many would say terrifying) Neapolitan who had long sat at Romeo’s right hand. In 1920, Giuseppe Campari scored the first victory for Alfa Corse when he took the chequered flag at the Circuit of Mugello, driving one of Merosi’s pre-war 40/60 models. It would lead towards a succession of ever-more important race wins and ever-greater honours for the team.

Of which there will be more in Part 2…

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Nicola Romeo (centre) visits the Alfa Corse pit garage, to the delight of Enzo Ferrari (right)