Celebrating the Spirit of Competition

1938 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B MM Spyder

Chassis Number : 412031             Horsepower : 180           Displacement : 8-cylinder, 2.9 L           Wheelbase : 104.3"

These Cars

The 1938 racing season was transformational both for Alfa Romeo’s racing participation, and for the development of the cars themselves. Alfa had already owned 80 percent of Scuderia Ferrari which was then disbanded and the new organization, Alfa Corse, under the direction of Enzo Ferrari was organized. An exciting new Alfa Romeo racing spider on the 8C2900B chassis was designed and the task of making an appropriate body was turned over to Carozzeria Touring. Five of these gorgeous cars were prepared for the 1938 Mille Miglia yet only four participated. These cars all had the remarkable combination of features also seen on the 8C2900A cars, that is double overhead valves, double overhead cams, twin superchargers, independent four wheel suspension, a trans axle, and suspension dampers which were adjustable from the seat!

We are fortunate enough to have in our library the unique original factory typewritten detailed racing records of the 1938 season which provides fascinating reading, far to detailed for this work. It includes point-by-point course statistics, and details such as carburetor jets sizes, tire pressures, and all the neat things that we obsessive motorheads relish. One car driven by Biondetti and Stefani had the larger type 308 grand prix engine and it uniquely sported larger brakes.

Early on in the Mille Miglia Pintacuda was the leader with incredible average speeds through the streets of the many towns, some wide, some narrow, some paved and some dirt. Biondetti followed closely. Through the mountain passes Pintacuda continued to lead with Dreyfus behind him in a Delahaye. But on a section between Florence and Livorno, Biondetti narrowly beat Pintacuda who still had the overall lead by the time he reached Rome. The curse of the leader at Rome (who is thereby destined never to be the winner) actually came true because Pintacuda developed brake problems and Biondetti, who was two minutes behind, ultimately won by 2 minutes and 2 second completing a 12 hour marathon at the wheel. The Alfa racing records give exciting details of this remarkable event. The subsequent racing records of these four cars are outlined in Simon Moore’s The Immortal 2.9, which is required reading for any Alfa fan.

The ultimate fate of four of the cars which raced is well known, two being highly modified, sans body work, in the Schlumpf museum. Chassis number 412030 resides magnificently restored in the Ralph Lauren collection, and ours, 412031 graces the place of honor on a turntable in our Winner’s Circle.

So much has been written about the early history of these cars, the development of the great 2900 engine, Vittorio Jano’s mechanical masterpiece, as well as the sheer beauty and elegance of the cars themselves. To many of the cognoscenti who follow great sports racing cars, these represent the high-water mark. To those who have not thought about it before, simply viewing the object inevitably leads to that conclusion.

Our Car

It is a bit unusual that I managed to acquire the favorite so early in the collecting interest. It was always, to me, the highlight of automotive sports car design, bridging the gap between the Edwardian, the twenties doldrums, and the great ‘50s and beyond.

It was clear to me that this was certainly a car to have and before purchasing I carefully reviewed its provenance, a detail which only a fool will avoid. In fact, in my opinion, it is the fault of the buyer who purchases an historic car without ferreting out all the provenancial details required to justify his interest.

I knew that Simon Moore indicated that through the records of Luigi Fusi this was the 1938 Mille Miglia winner. The car had the large 308 engine and the larger brakes which were appropriate for the winning car according to the factory racing records we later reviewed. It bears a “TIPO C” serial plate which indicates that it is the large engined version; a serial plate on the car throughout its existence, confirming the factory records.

It turns out that the car was sent to the London Motor Show in 1938 where it was presented as the Mille Miglia winning car, as was related to me by Hugh Hunter. Hunter was a wealthy Englishman and a keen racer who was active at Brooklands and was obviously looking for the best possible car to be competitive. I have some of his interesting personal videos and indeed he really enjoyed himself. Besides having a variety of sports racing cars with which he competed regularly, he had a speed boat and the brief photographic history of his life indicates that it was one of consummate pleasure seeking.

Dennis May recounts when the car arrived as the Mille Miglia winner to the London Motor Show, the manufacturer gave a, “Not for sale” designation in four languages. Hugh Hunter, according to May, did not put his checkbook down until he had purchased the car from Alfa Romeo. May reported the excitement which was subsequently written up in detail when the British automotive press suggested a competition for, “the fastest road car.” Hunter and this Alfa competed admirably against the most potent sports cars and almost won. As a consolation, in describing this acquisition, writer John Dugdale in the January 27, 1939 issues of The Autocar said, “This car of Huge Hunter’s was the actual machine in which Biondetti won the Italian 1000 miles race last April and as such must be one of the fastest road cars in existence.” Nevertheless, the race was won by Arthur Dobson’s 3.5 liter Delahaye (although Hunter did win the first 3.5 lap race he succumbed to Dobson in the later five lap mountain circuit race, his gearbox selector gone awry.).

In a later analysis in the August 18, 1944 The Autocar of this race was, May writes “As a spectator my own conclusions were one that Arthur Dobson on Walker’s 3.5 liter Delahaye was the overall winner – you could hardly dodge that conclusion since official decision was unanimously behind it, he having run second to Hunter on the road course and won the mountain event. It is true that Hunter’s Alfa whose gear selector mechanism inopportunely chose to sit this one out at the fall of the start flag on the mountain was indubitably the fastest road car in that noble company.” To which, May, attempting to redefine the winner added, “I would back the Alfa in its Mille Miglia form against any of them – meaning all claimants to the fastest road car title.”

Late in 1945 Tony Crook bought the car and he writes an extensive analysis in Moore’s book. He was fond of it in every way and he regretted selling it at a loss to E.J. Thompson in Peeblesshire, Scotland. Thompson removed the wings and went over the engine, noticing that the valves were of the large 308 diameter type. He apparently enjoyed the car along with some other interesting machinery but in 1970 an auction was held at his estate and the car was described as, “Chassis Number 412031, Engine Number 422025. Records – 1938, won the Mille Miglia driven by Biondetti (misspelled), average speed of 84.45 miles per hour for the 1000 miles run. This record was held for 15 years.”

It then continued to tell the story of the fastest sports car race and previous ownership by Crook. The proceeds of the auction were to go to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. The auction, held at the Gleneagles Hotel on August 27, 1970 showed the car, now with its fenders removed and replaced by the cycle type variety. It is interesting to note that although the car was seen in wingless in various photographs in the late-1940s, in pictures taken in the 1950’s, the original fenders were refitted. The rest of the body over the gas tank was never changed. I’ve always wondered what happened to these fenders which apparently could come off and on at will but an attempt to discover them by a fellow car collector’s visit to the Thompson estate was fruitless.

In the photographs with the wings off it is interesting to note that there were two additional slots in the body over the exhaust which apparently were hidden by the front half of the rear wings at least when it was in Hugh Hunter’s hands. The presence of these two additional slots has caused me to understand that relying on the pattern of slots on that side of the body is somewhat misleading and, in my mind, does not negate the wealth of information, contemporarily obtained from Fusi, the Alfa factory, Mr. Hunter, and others, that this was indeed the Biondetti car, amplified, of course, by the Tipo C 308 serial plate, engine and the larger brakes. There was great interest in this auction and it was purchased for 7,950 ? by Bill Serri who drove it to the docks and subsequently set about having it restored in America. Bill had some difficulty finding the right person to do the job.

In 1975 Brooks Stevens allowed his car, serial number 412030, to go to the restoration shop of Phil Hill in Santa Monica so that a copy of the fenders could be made for this car. At that time the body on 412030 did have appropriate wings, but the center section had been replaced as had the section below the bonnet, where there are cooling louvers and attachments for the bonnet catches. Nevertheless, it would seem that this was the appropriate, if not the only model for which to make new fenders. The car stayed in Santa Monica for several years, apparently because Serri was unable to pay for the bodywork. Ultimately he sold the car to us but by then Hill had stopped working on the car. He did, however, a complete restoration of the engine at a fine local engine rebuilding shop, whose manager assured me that it was renewed to proper tolerances and that he was able to preserve the block, heads, crankshaft, and superchargers.

When Serri got it running one of the aluminum crank plugs came loose and produced a small hole in the side of the crankcase which was invisibly welded over. At this point in time, however, the numerous delays caused great concerns. By then we had extensive photographs of our car and we noticed differences between it and the Brooks Stevens car. We were never sure about the condition of 412030’s body, but it certainly looked original in the photographs taken when it was stripped and we had every reason to believe that the fenders were correct, although the front were asymmetrical. However, it is known that all of these cars were handmade. So rather than entirely copy that body, we elected to follow the numerous photographs we had of our car to reconstruct the front and rear fenders which were very close, but which showed that the rear fenders did not taper as much on our car as they did on the other.

This job was turned over to Alan Kirk, who took it to his shop in Pittsburgh and did and absolutely magnificent job of matching the contemporary photographs, data taken from 412030 car, and the factory drawings. The ultimate result were the fenders were exact duplicates of the photographs. At this point I must mention the outstanding work that Alan Kirk did on this entire job. His eye, particularly, was capable of thinking 3-dimensionally, and his hands are capable of effecting the concept. His perfectionism in the creation of beautiful fender bucks which, in themselves, are works of art, proves that a masterpiece can be created in a panel beater’s shop as well as in the artist’s studio.

My only regret was that at the time, very busy with neurosurgery and other commitments, I never fully appreciated the quality of the work that Alan did. I feel guilty to this day that although he was paid on time and thanked for his work, I never appropriately appreciated or understood the mastery of what this man could do in his own humble and self-effacing fashion. Later I attempted to contact Alan but he had left Pittsburgh and I couldn’t find him. I knew that there was a fire in his shop near his home, but beyond this he seemed to have disappeared. Alan, wherever you are, you must know that I now understand your skills and appreciate your artistic integrity, sadly much more than I did when we were actually communicating regularly.

We planned to enter the 1986 Mille Miglia and had a deadline to meet. I took her to the only one I thought capable of putting the whole thing together, dear friend and now internationally recognized vintage sports car guru, David George. I knew that David could mate the engine and body to the wonderful chassis which he had restored, into a complete working whole. David’s greatest skill is the ability to get things done and working in such a way that they will stay intact. He labored feverishly putting everything together and making sure that we had a perfect operating car.

Taking time out from his Villanova teaching activities, Dick Hopeman upholstered the car and we all kind of crowded together trying to meet the May 1986 deadline. At that time my neurosurgical schedule was intense, and I could only come on Sunday’s to experience the roads in the farmlands where David kept his shop. I must say it was a beautiful thing to drive and I was delighted when Simon Moore asked me to give an account of my experiences at the Mille Miglia which are reported in his book.

Finally it all fell together with the paint hardly dry as we took it to the airport for shipping to Malpensa Airport in Milan. The Alitalia officials asked if I wanted it insured and, of course, I said I did. The insurance was for the trip up and trip back while in the plane. The premium was based on the appraised value. When I told them what I thought it was worth, they quoted a fee which produced violent sticker shock. This was an horrendous number considering it would only be on the plane a few hours. They explained to me, however, that the figure, logically, was based on the replacement value of the car. At that point I asked them specifically how it is transported to Italy and they indicated that it was put in the belly of a regular Alitalia passenger plane. “That’s easy,” I said, “just put me on the same plane.” This was done and we had no trouble during our trips with these cars to the Mille Miglia.

The excitement we had in the Mille Miglia is indescribable. Of course, it’s just as much about the crowd as it is about the cars. What impressed me the most, however, was when a youngster came up to me with his autograph book crying, “Bravi, Bravi, Biondetti, Bravi!” I signed the book, “Clemente Biondetti,” shook his hand and drove off.

At the time we restored the car I was not aware of the difference among these five cars, in the slots in the body of the car over the exhaust, and I believe Simon Moore will admit he was not as well. When Alan Kirk put her back together, it naturally fell that the arrangement of nine straight and eight half-moon slots fell into place. He implied it had to or the way he reassembled it, based on door line and side exhaust cover length. In other words, when Alan looked at the relationship of the slots to where the body for the door ended, one set of slots which was probably previously covered had to be exposed.

Of course, when we got it there were no rear fenders but there was clearly evidence of two additional sets of slots and this, to me, explains why there was a difference after the cars were repaired following their racing season, the repair, presumably, fixing the front end of the body where the brake cooling vents had been removed on virtually all of the cars, and perhaps covering up what was there in the process. On 412030 this repair was made on the front of each rear fender with a separate slotted metal plate. How this repair is made, different on each car, determines the cooling slot pattern.

It is clear from looking at all the identification information that utilizing other criteria such as the presence of a badge and lettering is of little value since at least one car carried no badge and lettering early on in its career, but by 1940 had acquired the badge.