Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B Touring Berlinetta 1939
The 8C2900 Alfa Romeo was the fastest production car that you could buy before the war. Less than 50 were made and only five of the iconic Carrozzeria Touring berlinettas. This is an incredible opportunity to acquire one of these cars, the second one built, which has been in one family ownership for over 40 years being used on the road and shown occasionally but has never had a "ground up" restoration. Of the other four, one is on display at the Alfa Romeo museum in Italy whilst three others have been restored this century in North America, two of which have gained the "Best of Show" top prize at Pebble Beach.
Background to the 8C2900 model
The year 1934 saw the entry into Grand Prix racing of both Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Union (the "silver arrows") and it quickly became clear that suspension by rigid axles on semi- or quarter-elliptic springs was outdated. Alfa Romeo realised that the design philosophy behind the 8C2300 sports car as well as the Grand Prix Tipo B needed a complete revision. Rather than start from scratch, the management of Alfa Romeo contracted with the Porsche design office (who had been responsible for the design of the Auto Union) to design new all independent suspension systems for the 6C2300B (Project number 63) and the 8C2900 (Project number 69). Meanwhile the technical department at Alfa Romeo back in Milan designed a new very rigid frame - a complete change from the rather flexible ones used up to that time.
The 6C2300 model had been introduced in 1934 to replace the earlier six cylinder models but featured chain driven overhead camshafts rather than gear driven ones; it was still on semi-elliptic springs. For 1935, the engine and gearbox were retained but mounted in a new all independent chassis based on double trailing arms with enclosed spring/damper units at the front and torsion bars at the rear. This car was called the 6C2300B.
For the replacement of the very successful 8C2300 model, Alfa Romeo used similar but not identical front suspension on the 8C2900 as on the 6C2300B but a completely different rear set-up. This featured a gearbox in unit with the back axle, swing axles, radius arms and a transverse leaf spring supported in the middle; to prevent the worst swing axle effects, Alfa designed a system which effectively shortened the spring length independently on each side. There was a pair of shock absorbers on each side, one hydraulic, the other an adjustable friction type; the adjustment was by cable on the early cars, hydraulic on the later ones.
A similar design was featured on the new Tipo C Grand Prix cars that first raced in the Italian Grand Prix in September 1935. However, the first of these, as well as the first 8C2900 sports car, were fitted with horizontal spring/damper units at the front which was changed to vertical by 1936.
The engine of the 8C2900 was really a development of the Grand Prix Tipo B power unit rather than the 8C2300. It featured fixed head and block units (testa fissa in Italian), twin superchargers drawing through twin updraft Weber carburettors and magneto ignition.
The 8C2900A appears
The first car was shown at the 1935 Paris Salon between 3rd and 13th October. The open spider body was built "in house" by Carrozzeria Alfa and was painted in two different colours, separated by a curved line along the side. Unusually for that era, there were no louvres in the bonnet at all but there were a series of small openable vents down each side of the bonnet. A second similar car appeared at the Milan show later in the year.
Alfa Romeo were extremely busy supporting the Italian war effort in Africa in 1936 with trucks, aero engines and other military equipment and made almost no cars at all! They did however supply four cars to Scuderia Ferrari with skimpy bodies not unlike a Tipo C Grand Prix car but with cycle wings and lights added called botticellas (the Italian for casks or bottles). In this form they won the Mille Miglia (finishing 1-2-3) and the Spa 24 hours.
At the end of the season, the factory showed a Carrozzeria Alfa spider at the Paris Salon with a similar paint design as the 1935 Milan show car. The same car was on the stand at the 1936 Milan show stand but was alternated with another spider with white central bodywork and red wings. Another spider was painted all over a single dark colour and was shown at the Berlin and Geneva shows in the first part of 1937.
Scuderia Ferrari again raced botticellas finishing first and second in the 1937 Mille Miglia. Their final appearance was also the last event run by Scuderia Ferrari as the works racing team when Pietro Ghersi won the Pontedecimo-Giovi Hillclimb in October that year.
These 8C2900A cars had a 2.75 metre wheelbase and only one car was sold with the Mille Miglia style body - to Argentina. The other cars had Carrozzeria Alfa bodywork and two original examples survive today, both with firewall plates identifying them as 8C2900B, presumably to make the buyer think that they were buying a new car not a second hand race car!
The 8C2900B appears
As described above some 8C2900A models were sold as 8C2900Bs but retained the 2.75 metre wheelbase. There was even some early literature describing a new unsupercharged model "8C2900B" but that was never built. The standard 8C2900B was supercharged and had a slightly longer wheelbase (2.80 meters) for the corto (short chassis) and a stretched 3.00 metre wheelbase for the lungo. The standard specification was for a detuned version of the 8C2900A engine with more aluminium castings compared to the magnesium ones on the race cars.
It was at this stage that Carrozzeria Touring enter the story with two new designs with drawing numbers 977 for a coupe on a long chassis and 979 for a spider on a short chassis, the latter specifically built for an American client MacLure Halley. In fact, it is believed that the first spider on a short chassis was built on chassis number 412011 and shown at the London Motor show (14th to 23rd October 1937) whilst the first coupe or berlinetta (chassis number 412020) was shown at the Paris Salon (7th to 17th October). Both cars caused a sensation since they moved so far away from "conventional" sports cars without separate wings and lacking running boards.
The Maclure Halley car appeared along with the first Berlinetta at the Milan show (28 October to 8 November) and was numbered 412014. It seems that Alfa Romeo started to number the berlinettas at 412020 rather than sequentially and therefore mixed in with the short chassis cars and Carrozzeria Touring also started numbering the berlinettas in a sequence starting with number 2029. 412011 and 412020 were both exhibited at the Berlin show in early 1938 and sold to German customers.
With the move of Alfa Romeo racing from Scuderia Ferrari in Modena to the new Alfa Corse facility at Portello in Milan, five new spiders were built with stunning coachwork by Carrozzeria Touring to be ready for the 1938 Mille Miglia in which they finished 1-2. Many people think that these spiders were the most fabulous looking sports racing cars built before the war. Not only that but they were incredibly quick! On the run from Brescia to Bologna on the first leg of the Mille Miglia Carlo Pintacuda averaged 178.7 Kph on ordinary roads, through towns and villages, over level crossings etc for a distance of almost 250 kms. From Firenze to the coast North of Livorno there was a new piece of autostrada and the route went that way, with Pintacuda averaging 211.4 Kph over a distance of 86.8 Kms. Please remember that this was 1938 when VERY few cars on the road could attain 150 Kph flat out and many of the small family cars were lucky to reach 100 Kph.
Of course, other sections were twistier bringing the overall average down but even so Biondetti beat Pintacuda but a fraction over 2 minutes averaging 135.39 Kph for the thousand miles. The winning car had an engine more like the 3 litre Tipo 308 Grand Prix car than a standard 8C2900B but even so this was a spectacular performance. You can see why the 8C2900 Alfa is reckoned to be the fastest road car made before the war and the ultimate 1930s supercar. The works cars also won the Spa 24 hour race in Belgium as well as several hillclimbs.
A one-off racing Berlinetta was built for the 1938 24 hour race at Le Mans which was running away with the event but eventually retired after suffering a blown front tyre which exploded with such force that the tread cut through the bodywork.
Touring went on to build four more short chassis spiders after the first two (412011 and 412014). They then switched to building spiders on the long chassis platform which were generally actually heavier than the berlinettas because they used steel in the bodywork whereas the berlinettas were all aluminium.
Production of these long chassis spiders continued into 1939 with chassis number 412042 being sold in August 1939. Two further cars were completed during the early war years, one a Carrozzeria Touring saloon for the King of Romania and one an experimental streamlined spider built by Alfa Romeo themselves.
The five Carrozzeria Touring berlinettas
As described above, the first of these stunning designs was ready for the major motor shows at the end of 1937 and early 1938 in Paris, Milan and Berlin. Four more were built with consecutive Touring body numbers on chassis numbers 412024, 412029, 412035 and 412036 - the gap between the third and the fourth being the works sports-racing cars of 1938.
412020 was sold in Germany before the war, exported to the USA in the 1950s, was fitted for a while with an unsupercharged 6C2500 engine, restored in the UK by Tony Merrick with the correct engine and recently was re-restored by RX in Vancouver for new owner David Sydorick, winning the first prize "Best in Show" at the 2018 Pebble Beach concours.
Unfortunately we do not know the identity of the first owner of 412024 but that is discussed below. The first owner of 412029 was an Italian gentleman who registered the car in August 1938. That car was exported to Switzerland after the war where its correct engine was removed being replaced by a Studebaker unit. It was rescued in the early 1960s by the late Cav Luigi Fusi from a used car lot and is now on display at the Alfa Romeo museum at Arese outside Milan.
412035 was first registered to a company in Milan in July 1938 and was, like 412029, exported to Switzerland just after the war. However it moved quickly to the USA where Frank Griswold used it to win the first ever race round the streets of Watkins Glen in 1947. In the early 1980s it passed to long time owner David Cohen and then twenty years later to Jon Shirley of Seattle. He had the car restored by Butch Dennison's company in the Seattle area and the car and won overall first prize "Best of Show" at the 2008 Pebble Beach concours. The car subsequently also won top prizes at Chantilly, Windsor Castle and Villa d'Este.
The last of the berlinettas was shown at the 1938 Paris Salon between the 6th and 16th October. After its return to Italy it was sold to a gentleman in Milan in November. After seven months he sold it on to someone in the Brescia area and, in 1947, it ended up with Emilio Romano, the local Alfa Romeo agent. He entered that year's Mille Miglia but had to remove the superchargers and run un-supercharged due to the regulations. He recruited 1938 winner Clemente Biondetti as his co-driver and they won the race. Subsequently the car went to Argentina with both unblown and supercharger set ups, then to the USA, Japan and the UK before being acquired by Miles Collier for his collection in Naples, Florida. The car was fully restored by RX in Vancouver and was shown at Pebble Beach in 2006 where it won multiple awards although missing out on "Best of Show".
The differences between the cars
There are subtle differences between the cars as described in the table here. In addition, the first car, 412020 had a steeper rake to the angle of the radiator grille than the other cars.
The next car, 412024, has a smaller windscreen than the other cars - there is clearly more metal between the top of the screen and the roofline than on all the others.
We have no photographs of 412029 before the war but at some point in its life, it gained a fabric sliding roof.
412035 has slightly longer running boards than 412024, extending right back to the leading edge of the rear wing and very distinctive louvres on the side that extend into the scuttle behind the bonnet.
The last Berlinetta 412036 had similar running boards to 412035; none of the period photographs show a Touring badge but it is probable that it did have one originally.
The history of 412024
Unfortunately we have no knowledge of the first owner of this car. Since 412029 was registered in August 1938 and 412035 in July of that year, it is fair to assume that it was completed in the first half of 1938. With so few 8C2900s built, it would surely have found an owner immediately, despite the high price! We do know that the car had a large chrome "I" on the driver's side rear wing when it was in England so it seems certain that it had an Italian owner from new. Since it was imported into the UK in February 1939, it also seems probable that it was this car that was weighed at Alfa Romeo in early January as per a sheet of comparative weights of cars retained by Alfa Romeo. Intriguingly, what seems to have been a different car was weighed the next day (showing a heavier car than the Berlinetta so probably a long chassis spider) and that was owned by Countess Ciano, the wife of the Italian foreign minister and Mussolini's daughter. He was always said to have given a spider to a senior official in Germany (chassis number 412021) but could easily have owned 412024 ahead of the car being exported to England soon after the weighing took place.
Registration records for Milan, Modena and Como have been investigated comprehensively so 412024 was not registered in any of those three cities. Count Ciano was born in Livorno (and gave his name to a series of races there) but was surely residing in Rome as Foreign Minister - so any car he or his wife owned would not have been registered in any of those three locations. It should also be noted that senior government officials rarely used the normal system of registration number plates in Rome at that time.
After 412024 arrived in the UK, it was registered FLR 108 on 16 March 1939, painted blue. It was immediately advertised for sale by Alfa dealer, Jack Bartlett in London in the April 1939 issue of Speed when the car had apparently done only 5,000 miles. I am not sure if the car was sold at that point nor where it spent the war years. A replacement or continuation buff-coloured log-book has as its first entry the name of Jack Bartlett with a date of 10 June 1947, although it was apparently not licensed for the road again until 3 June 1948. It seems unlikely, although possible, that the car had been traded enough to justify having a continuation log book after eight owners; it would make more sense that the original was lost or damaged and Bartlett was registering the car in his name either because he still owned it (having failed to sell it) or a previous owner had lost it. Around this time the log book records a change of colour to silver.
Bartlett won one of the ten prizes at the concours at the RAC summer party at Woodcote Park in July 1947. He then participated in the RAC Jubilee celebrations at the same location outside London on 6 September 1947. In the concours held in London's Regents Park on the same day as part of those celebrations, Bartlett won the class for closed cars built between 1931 and 1940 with a taxable HP of over 16.
The car was then pictured in Motor for 14 July 1948 after Bartlett had won a first in class at the Eastbourne concours (for cars registered between 1934 and 1940 and over 16 taxable HP). He advertised it for sale again on 27 July 1949 in the weekly press when he described it as having only a small mileage.
In Motor for 3 August 1949 Bunny Tubbs wrote some road impressions of three Alfas, namely an 8C2300 coupe (2211053), a post war 6C2500 coupe and 412024. The photos taken that day are shown here and the story from Motor reproduced as an Appendix.
After the Motor story appeared, the car was sold on 28 October 1949 to Dennis de Ferranti. In a letter of 12 November 1971 he recalled that the car was silver with "fawn suede" upholstery. He had the car for a year before he bought a Touring spider (412026); he kept the coupe for another year and licensed it for the road all the time before he sold it back to Jack Bartlett on 28 November 1951. He in turn sold it on to Lord Ridley on 28 December 1951. All visitors recall that the car was silver during Lord Ridley's ownership. Surviving documentation from Lord Ridley indicates that the car had done just under 29,000 Kms when he got it. He then fitted a different speedometer which showed another 16,000 miles or so in his ownership.
On Lord Ridley's death in the mid 1960s, the car was sold to Nigel Mann who was living in the South of France; the car was last registered in the UK in 1964. I am not sure exactly when but the log book also records a further change of colour to red, presumably in Nigel Mann's ownership.
Mann advertised the car for sale in the summer of 1970 in the French magazine L'Anthologie de l'Automobile; his reply to an enquiry included the following:- "I am getting offers here around £3,750 (in France) but am waiting for £4,000. The problem is space in my museum". It seems that the car went unsold at that time but was finally sold to Jan Martens in Holland in 1976.
The current owner recalls that purchase "When I collected the car from his little chateau (near Chartres, I believe), I picked up an English friend from Paris, Dick Sommerin, who did some work for the museum at Beaulieu. My problem was, he turned up at the rendez-vous point, but only at 1.30 AM. We had a blowout on the single-axle trailer in the middle of the night near Liege and only by stepping full on the throttle of the Jag, I managed not to lose the total combination. After that, it turned out I didn't carry a spare for the trailer and had to leave the trailer with the Alfa still on it, by the wayside. We managed to find a new spare tyre early morning in Liege and were very afraid someone had nicked the Alfa in the meantime, but luckily nothing had happened! Quite an eventful trip that was!"
Over the years, some work has been done to the car including a 1980s engine rebuild by Tony Merrick but it has been maintained as a good runner and never subjected to a "ground up" restoration. Since 1976, the car has covered around 12,500 Kms including rallying, some racing and track days at Zandvoort.
Source: Art Curial / Simon Moore
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