All the cars in this top ten are postwar offerings that can be bought today. If not, this list would be super silly, omitting such cars as the Mercedes which is now building small family jobs and no competition stuff. The Italian Maserrati, one of the world’s greatest (Indianapolis two-time winner) in the prewar days is, we understand, just being organized again by the Maserrati brothers. The famed BMW (Bavarian Motor Works) and many other European champions of the past have not gotten back into the sports car picture yet, if ever. It is even rumored as this goes to press that the late Ettore Bugatti’s son is about to bring the great Bugs back again.
The Auto Unions are now utility trucks and the present Porsche and Volkswagen are the only passenger cars being made in Germany that are the true descendants of the once almost invincible Auto Union race cars. The cars I have selected are listed in alphabetical order.
Alfa Romeo is on the sequence an the others can be found at:
- The Allard
- The Aston Martin
- The Cisitalia
- The Crosley Super Sports
- The Cunningham
- The Ferrari
- The Nash Healey
- The MG
- The Jaguar XK 120
The Alfa Romeo
No sports car ever built can boast a longer or more successful record than the great Alfa Romeos. Their record of major Grand Prix wins goes back to the days when Hitler wasn’t even a good house painter and Alfas’ supremacy on the European circuit was only interrupted when Hitler quit house painting for blood letting and took over the mastery of the Grand Prix courses with his government subsidized Mercedes and Auto Unions.
Today, Alfas are still reaping their share of glory on the European raceways but, for the most part, with rebuilt prewar models that were designed back in ·1938 by Tulio Colombo, the man who is now making the Ferraris such a success. The supercharged 1.5-litre engines have been reworked and the prewar 300 plus horsepower boosted to a full 400. These cars are still among the greatest ever built.
The Alfa belongs to a quartet that has made sweet harmony in scoring a large number of wins in every type of European racing event. The other three are, of course, Bugatti, Mercedes and Bentley.
The decade that witnessed the popularity of hip flasks, racoon coats and F. Scott Fitzgerald was the time, automotively speaking, of the Alfa Romeo. Those were the years the Alfa really began moving ahead, on the track as well as in popularity.
A 1,500-cc open roadster with six cylinders and a double-overhead camshaft gave practically everything else in its class a button shoes, old hat, look.
From the open rig another 1,750-cc car evolved, available with or without the Roots-type supercharger. The Seventeen-Fifty, as it was tagged by the period’s car lovers, packed an impressive wallop both in speed and in pickup. Steering, gear-shifting (four-speed, close ratio crash-type gearbox) and brakes were all superb. This machine is still a looked-for collector’s item.
Even more glamor was attached to the 2.3-litre model that followed. This was an unusual straight-eight with the twin overhead camshafts operated by vertical bevel drive from the middle of the cylinder block.
The Roots-type blower gave it terrific performance with an acceleration that would match a souped-up motorcycle.
In racing form, this car fought numerous battles with Bugatti all over Europe, the biggest chills and thrills one being in the Monaco Grand Prix, aptly named “the race of a thousand corners.”
Probably the most successful of the racing Alfas was the 2.6-litre, Type P3 (Monza), which had the 2.3 cylinder block bored out for greater torque to .2,650 cc.
Designed in 1930 by Engineer Jano, it featured two superchargers and twin driveshafts in V -shape carrying power to the rear axle. Suspension was by outboard, underslung semi-elliptic springs of exceptional width. The tubular front axle was set well forward of the radiator in a fashion characteristic of the period. Again a fourspeed gearbox with straight-cut teeth was used. The car had a stark, purposeful single-seat body installed. Between June, 1932, and September, 1933, this newcomer put Bugatti noses out of joint by getting the checkered flag in no less than seven Grand Prix races. It was a machine favored by ace driver Tazio Nuvolari who used it to score some of his greatest victories.
The German answer to the Alfa (the Type 163 Mercedes and Auto Union, both subsidized by the State) caused the gradual eclipse of the Italian racing star from 1934 onward, though nothing of comparable size could touch the Type 158C Alfette on its few appearances. Even now this remarkable machine remains virtually unbeatable when competing in its class.
The Monza was followed in 1933 by the Type B, a 2.9-litre job also with twin drivshafts, and then by a completely new model (production and racing) styled the Type Photo Is of the individual wheel suspension and brake case on the Alfa Romeo Super Sports model 308. This, too, used a 2.9-litre, twin-blown engine but featured independent front suspension by coil springs and transverse rear suspension. In 1935 two more racing Alfas were introduced: the 3.2 and 3.8-litre models, both with straight-eight double-overhead-camshaft engines.
The former had Dubonnet independent front suspension while the 3.8 was the second largest Alfa ever built. Largest was a 4-litre, 12-cylinder job that appeared at Roosevelt raceway in 1939, driven by Nuvolari. Neither had enough to beat the German cars. The Alfa, like the British Bentley, was the only car to win the Le Mans 24-hour race four years in succession -from 1931 to 1934. Winning the French Grand Prix in 1924 was the company’s first important claim to fame. By 1925, Alfa Romeo had a racing reputation that was testified to by an action of Mussolini’s Fascist Italy. They dissolved the original corporation and put it under the Italian Ministry of Finance as a member of the Corporate State Industry. This was considered good propaganda ammunition, having the government produce such excellent cars!
This shifty business by the rock-jawed dictator, with the stress on the propaganda value of having Italy produce bigger and better everything, may have been one reason for the subsequent successes in the car’s racing career. Winning a race became somehow mixed up with proving the superiority of an idealogy, and it was not like Musso to tolerate a loss of prestige. The chances are good, of course, that even without the external pressure to produce a winner, the Alfa Romeo would have had little trouble copping cups.
The entire outfit, to further delve into the nationalistic details, was originally French, but that was back in 1906. In those days there were no better cars than the French, and the French automotive manufacturers were looking to spread their interests to foreign lands.
A. Darracq & Company, which also had a finger in English interests (STD) , began its operations in Italy in Naples. By 1907, the French company was suffering the after-effects of the depression which hit the United States. They found it expedient to sell out to a Milan banking firm, which formed the “Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobile.” Breaking it down by initials gives us ALFA, which explains a spelling that has probably confused a number of Greek scholars and fraternity men.
By the time this firm was on its feet and producing 350 cars a year, the Germans loused up the detail (and the world) by launching World War I. This appeared to be the end of an interrupted career for the car company, but again the firm was saved, this time by the money and foresight of one Nicolo Romeo, a Milan industrialist.
Alfa Romeo, the present day name for the car, was derived from this combination of events. The historical background of the car also explains the unusual emblem used, which includes the cross of the city of Milan and the crowned serpent of the House of Sforza.
Romeo, a type who evidently never stood still if he had a chance to move, wasted no time after buying the company out. He began immediately to produce aircraft engines, and by 1917 was delivering a new in-line overhead camshaft airplane engine, used extensively by the Italians.
This production accounts, in part, for the excellence of the automobile engines manufactured by Alfa Romeo. To toss in a home-country slant, it was the United States that furnished the high-precision tools with which Alfa made his engines for the First War effort and which later on gave an assist in producing the engineering gems of the Twenties and Thirties.
The second World War put the company out of production in a violent way. The United States Air Force used high explosives to do the job. After the war and after having weathered a number of depressions and World War I, plus the usual business hazards, Alfa Romeo again began to produce.
They lost no time in producing cars which have amazed the world for performance, beauty and construction. What they drove off the finishing ramp set the Detroit manufacturers to copying their style in a subtle and not too subtle way.
The new Alfa Romeos are magnificent convertibles and hard tops, capable of speeds of around 110 mph which they get from a 2.5-litre unblown engine developing 115 horsepower at about 4,800 rpm.
This engine is a six-cylinder job with double overhead cams, multiple carburetion and 7.5 to 1 compression ratio.