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