The Royal Automobile Club has decided to accord the opening round of this year’s FIA World Endurance Championship with the world’s oldest motor racing title. The Tourist Trophy dates back to 1905, and has seen some of the most celebrated cars and drivers in the sport’s history put their name on the roll of honour.
One of the most evocative names etched into the TT legend is that of Tazio Nuvolari, who made his debut on the event at the fearsome Ards circuit on 23 August 1930. This race told a story of of Italian passion and British pride which hinged around Fred Stiles, a British dealer for Alfa Romeo.
Throughout the run-up to the TT there was considerable friction between the Alfa Romeo factory at Portello and the British racing community. This was caused by the relentless hounding of the Italians by wealthy British drivers, including Malcolm Campbell, Edgar Fronteras, and Lord Howe, who believed that they should be given the chance to add a TT victory to Alfa’s many racing achievements.
By all accounts their persistence brought about considerable frostiness in Anglo-Italian relations, which in turn was damaging to Stiles’ business. He was ultimately forced to speak out in the international language of cold, hard cash – going to Alfa Corse and purchasing three of its 6C 1750 GS models with the latest race-prepared and strengthened chassis and fitted with the very latest 102 brake-horsepower Testa Fissa engines previously only available to the works team.
The cars arrived complete except for bodywork, because the Gran Sport was only made in two-seater form, and the TT regulations stipulated that four-seater bodies with full touring equipment were required. One of the cars received a body fashioned in duralumin alloy by Hoyal – a body which had previously contested the Brooklands Double Twelve – while the other two were fitted with less exotic coachwork by by James Young.
Having invested so heavily in his cars – and doubtless to the further annoyance of Campbell, Howe and company – Stiles also secured the services of Alfa’s ‘crack’ squad of works drivers Tazio Nuvolari, Achille Varzi, and Giuseppe Campari. The duralumin-bodied car was given to Nuvolari and it quickly proved to be one of the fastest on the entry list – only Birkin’s 4½-litre ‘blower’ Bentley and Howe’s supercharged seven-litre Mercedes-Benz were able to lap faster.
The race turned out to be very wet, and this helped to level the playing field for the Alfas against their high-powered British and German competitors. The big Mercedes was particularly afflicted by the wet weather, while the main challenge to the Alfa team disappeared when Birkin’s Bentley crashed at Ballystockart.
This left the three Stiles Alfas to romp away from the field, entertaining the crowds with a mesmerising show of skill from these three heroes of the Grand Prix world. The lead changed several times during the race between the trio but it was almost inevitable that Nuvolari, the ‘Flying Mantuan’ would prevail with an average speed of 70.88 mph, slightly faster than Campari’s average of 70.82 mph, followed by Varzi at 70.31 mph.
Following the race, the eight bearing Testa Fissa engine was retained by the factory and a standard detachable head five bearing engine replaced it with matching numbers to the chassis. In order to sell the car, a very attractive two-seater James Young drophead coupé body was fitted, which reused original front end parts of the original racing body. GK 3481 was exhibited at the October 1930 London Motor Show and the first private owner was H.H. Prince Aly Khan, followed a year later by racing driver Whitney Straight.
After World War 2 the car passed through owners in Devon, Notting Hill, Kent and Dorset – where it remained until 1996. It was then sent to Italy for restoration, where the drophead body was replaced with a replica of the Hoyal duralumin racing body with which Nuvolari had won the TT. The car was sold by RM Auctions at its 2012 London sale for £784,000 ($1.2m) – quite a bargain, really.