It’s that time of year when classic car magazines come up with lists of the most beautiful/desirable/important/valuable cars on the face of the earth, and a pound to a penny says that two cars will feature well up the order in every one: the Jaguar D-Type and Jaguar E-Type.
Both cars deserve their iconic status, of course. The former for its brilliant run of three consecutive wins at Le Mans and the latter for being one of the most enduring designs and fabulous investments known to man. Seriously: gold has dropped 45% of its worth in the past four years and oil has plunged to a third of its price per barrel while an E-Type is worth as much as 300% more than it was over the same amount of time.
So after due consideration, the S&G humbly puts forward the ultimate classic, the thing of such beauty and such finely-honed engineering that it inspired Jaguar’s celebrated designer, Malcolm Sayer, to reach such peaks of achievement. The car that beats all does not come in British Racing Green, however, and it hails from Milan rather than Coventry. It is the fabulous 1952 Alfa Romeo Disco Volante.
To give it its proper name, the Alfa Romeo C52 was in fact a concept car designed to put a spring in the step of Alfa Romeo at a time of great uncertainty and change. Even while its Alfettas had dominated Formula 1 racing, including winning both of the first two World Championship titles in 1950-51, the company had been struggling to maintain its prestige position in the marketplace.
It was short of funds and had elected to start building more cars at a lower price such as the 1900 Berlina in order to survive the years of austerity that were dragging on after World War 2. This was all well and good, but Alfa Romeo was special, and it needed to remind itself of that as much as the outside world.
The staff at Alfa Corse, having tearfully packed away the Alfettas, got hold of a 1900 Berlina engine and chassis and thought of something to do with it that might act as a hero car for the new generation of Alfas.
The engine that resulted was ostensibly the same design, an inline four cylinder with double chain-driven overhead camshafts, but it was forged in aluminium rather than iron, with sleeves in its bored-out cylinders. It was a high compression engine running on the methanol fuel mix of its all-conquering Grand Prix predecessors through a pair of twin choke sidedraught carburettors to produce 158 bhp.
The standard chassis proportions were retained but the tinware was thrown away in favour of a delicate, lightweight tubular spaceframe. This confection was then sent to Carrozzeria Touring, where an extensive wind tunnel programme was launched to try and encourage the slipperiest shape for the little Alfa engine to push along.
The result was astounding. It was formed of a series of convex curves, each flowing into one another to produce a bewitchingly sensuous and utterly unique shape. Those feminine curves positively dripped over the wheels, half enclosing them at the front, and soon the new car had earned an enduring nickname at the factory – Disco Volante: the Flying Saucer.
The C52 had a 0.25 drag coefficient – a figure few cars can claim to this day – and proved to be extremely stable even in crosswinds while it reached speeds of up to 140 mph. The three completed cars caused an absolute sensation when they first appeared but then the momentum began to flag somewhat.
In 1953, Alfa Corse followed up on the original work by modifying two of the three cars: one into a coupe and the other into a more traditional-looking sports racer known as the fianchi stretti (Italian for “narrow hips”). None turned a wheel in anger, the remaining competition programme was given over to the more conventional 6C 3000 CM, with which Juan Manuel Fangio finished second on the Mille Miglia. Two more Disco Volante spyders were built in 1953 and fitted with the 6C’s 3,495 cc, cast iron block, double overhead camshaft straight-six engine, adding another 10 mph but still no competition career was forthcoming.
In the end, the Alfa Romeo C52 remains one of the great ‘might have beens’ of motor sport legend. Of the five cars built, the original 1.9-litre fianchi stretti, coupé and spyder all still exist, as does one of the 6C engine spyders. Their legacy, however, is much greater than the sum of their parts – it is to be found in the classic Jaguars that they inspired and the achievements won thanks to Carrozzeria Touring’s experimental curved coachwork.