This page is dedicated to the memory of Pat Braden who died on August 25, 2002.

backchapter 10

Chapter 11

Pre-War Passenger Cars

With the 8C2900 we reached the pinnacle of Alfadom. Simon Moore has made the wise observation that the 8C2900B sport car was the progenitor of the post-war Grand Touring coupe, a form refined post-war most notably by Ferrari. At the beginning of the second world war, Alfa had reached a level of achievement which was virtually unmatched by any other marque, excepting Bugatti. While the Type 55 and 57 Bugattis were fabulous sport cars, Bugatti was a private company hard hit by the depression. It virtually ended its existence as an auto producer with the war. Alfa, on the other hand, was a bureau within the Italian government and a favorite ride for Mussolini, so its future was rather more assured. Consider the other sporty continental manufacturers of the pre-war era. In Italy, Lancia was dedicated to passenger cars and Maserati to grand prix cars. A few Fiat Balillas received bodies from Zagato, but offered puny performance by comparison. OM offered some sport cars but was generally undistinguished. Outside Italy, the Mercedes-Benz SS sport cars were huge compared to Alfa, yet hardly faster. And the Mercedes and Horsch sedans of the late 1930s were all, as one journalist has coined the term, "peasant-crushers." The fastback coupe form was not limited to Italy. There was a 540K Mercedes Autobahn Tourer which had the same general configuration as the 8C2900B coupe, and in France, the Type 57 Bugattis were also similar. England was filled with sporty cars but few offered performance which approached Alfa and certainly none the reliability. Triumph constructed a knock-off of the 8C2300, incidentally, but I think none of those survive. Also, a sporty car in pre-war England was most likely open, not closed. Of all these sporty cars, the BMW 328 Rennsport came closest, perhaps, to the sporting level achieved by the 6C1750 Alfas, but it was completely outclassed by the 8-cylinder cars.

So, in 1929, if you were wealthy and wanted a sporty car, the proper marque was Alfa Romeo. The 6C1750 is still ( arguably) one of the most desirable sports car in the world, and it was followed by even more exotic 8-cylinder cars, the 8C2300 and 8C2900B. These Alfas were more than just fabulous: they were also fabulously expensive. Exactly how expensive is hard to say: though we know how much the chassis cost, the relative value of the money is hard to establish. What exactly was a dollar worth in 1930? When I owned my 1750, I was told that it sold new for about $3500: my parents paid exactly that much for a house in Michigan about four years later. As a rough guide, then, you could choose between buying a 1750 Alfa at 59,500 lire or a middle-class house. The 8C2300 was significantly more, at 91,000 lire. In gross terms, I'd estimate that in today's terms, a 6C1750 would probably have cost about $150,000, and an 8C2300 about $200,000. At 115,000 lire, the 8C2900B would be well over a quarter-million of today's dollars. What we have not talked about so far are the "bread and butter" Alfa sedans of the 1930s. It is clear that Alfa knew it would need a cheaper car to stay in business through the depression. Fusi gives us the details of a unit-bodied 1935 4-cylinder 1.5 liter car which would have anticipated the Giulietta by 30 years, but the car never entered production. For 1933, Alfa extended the life of the 6C 1750 sedan by offering a bored-out, aluminum-alloy headed version called the 6C1900. But then it was time to introduce a new car.

In 1934, Alfa introduced an entirely new six cylinder engine, made to much less ambitious specifications than the 6C1750: the 6C2300. It was a 76-horsepower six offering the displacement of the 8-cylinder sport car, but with cost-saving innovations as a single-plate clutch, partial chain drive for the camshafts and the deletion of a supercharger option. Don't misunderstand: these cars were still expensive, with the 6C2300 sedans coming in at 44,500 lire compared to 58,000 lire for the 6C1900. Continuing the guestimating, the 6C2300 was still over $100,000, but that price also got you a body with your chassis. A comparison of sales over three years shows how successful the cheaper model was:
Year 1932 1932 1933 1933 1934 1934
Model 6C1750
(all models)
8C2300 6C1750
(all models)
8C2300 8C2300 6C2300
(all models)
Number Produced 514 68 319 89 7 692.

Success, however, was short-lived:
Year 1936 1936
Model 6C2300B
Number Produced 5
especially considering the fact that the 8C2900As were factory racers. That is, in 1936, Alfa Romeo sold only five automobiles to the general public.
While the sporting Alfas offered dramatic styling, the sedans' lines were much less venturesome. In fact, there was very little more than a longer hood line to distinguish an Alfa sedan from other cars of the era -- until, that is, you either raised the hood or lowered the accelerator. In contrast, the sporting version of the 6C2300, with dual carbs and 95 hp, had much more modern styling, with fully-rounded, aerodynamic fenders. These cars swept the first three places at the 24 hours of Pescara and thus were immediately dubbed Pescara models.
Though the new 6-cylinder cars were intentionally cheapened, Alfa couldn't keep from adding technical innovations. In 1935, the 6C2300B models appeared with fully-independent suspensions, the same year that Alfa introduced Dubonnet independent front suspension to the Tipo B. In the same year, the Tipo C received a virtually identical front suspension to the 6C2300B. This suspension featured short trailing arms with large shock absorber unit enclosing the front coil spring and working on an upper transverse link. At the rear of the passenger cars, there were longitudinal torsion bars, telescopic shocks and a swing axle with trailing links.
This is the time that I need to say some things about independent front suspension (IFS). The first car with IFS was the sliding-pillar 1922 Lancia Lambda, a milestone vehicle which also introduced the unit body.
In the 1920s and '30s, with the use of supercharged engines, manufacturers were able to generate much more power than either the chassis or tires could handle. The Tipo B came very close to having an independent rear suspension (IRS), but is settled instead for a very light rear drive design which still minimized wheel hop and the tendency for one of the rear wheels to lift under acceleration. Keeping the wheels on the ground is the main goal of any suspension, and by 1930, speeds had risen to the point that maintaining traction had become a significant challenge. The solution, of course, was to allow each wheel to move independently over the ground, unaffected by the undulations of the other wheels.
Independent suspension virtually reversed the characters of the frame and suspension. The idea of the original "ox-cart" frame was a stiff suspension and supple frame. Independent suspension required just the opposite: a supple suspension and rigid frame. In the solid-axle era, a flexible frame was relied on to provide acceptable ride quality. A lot of research went into frame tuning to avoid resonances, and some designs even included weights at the ends of the frame rails to help manage vibrations. The compromises achieved with supple frames and rigid suspensions produced quite a comfortable ride and offered the advantage of a very robust suspension. That was the reason why manufacturers didn't flock to IFS in 1923: the traditional system was working quite well. Furthermore, it was less likely to break at high speeds over rough roads. I remember when the TD MG introduced independent front suspension in 1952: there was a lot of discussion if it would be as strong as the TC's solid front axle.
The advantages of IFS were not exploited until the Germans introduced it on the W25 grand prix car of 1934. While the Auto Union cars also used fully-independent suspension, their handling problems were so great as to obscure any advantages of independent suspensions. The Mercedes move was both tentative and secretive, for the W25 suspension travel was only 1.75 in. and so covered by bodywork that its actual workings were well hidden. The W25 proved unreliable, but its huge power reserve and innovative suspension quickly made it a model after which other manufacturers patterned their race cars. The W25 was to suspensions what the 1912 GP Peugeot was to engines. After 1934, fully independent suspensions were a requirement of successful race cars, and a desirable feature on the most exotic passenger cars such as the 6C2300B. The W25 and 6C2300B both used a swing axle, which means that there is one joint near the ring and pinion around which the axles pivot. The disadvantage of this design, as VW and Porsche owners can attest, is that it causes a significant camber change. The W125 Mercedes of 1937 corrected many problems with the introduction of a double A-arm front and deDion rear suspensions.
The 6C2300B picked up the modern styling cues of the Pescara, and it is with this model that Alfa really entered the modern era. In fact, if there is a story to be told about the 6C2300 series, it is about bodywork. Certainly there were also considerable advances with clutches, transmissions and suspensions in the era, but the foundations of what we find beautiful in modern, aerodynamic bodies was laid in the late 1930s. Alfa was clearly one of the leaders in styling, and a real appreciation of this era can only be gained by looking at photographs -- or the cars themselves as they are lined up at Arese.
Though "cheaper" Alfas, just think what the 6C2300B sedan offered for 1935: twin-overhead-cam engine with aluminum-alloy head, freewheeling 4-speed transmission, fully-independent suspension with telescopic shock absorbers, hydraulic brakes, and a top speed of 70 mph. With its semi-fast-back styling, the 4-place Berlinetta bodied by Touring can fairly be called the first 2+2 GT Alfa. In 1938, a new gearbox was introduced which featured fully-meshed (that is, non-sliding) silent helical gears with synchronized third and fourth speeds.
In 1937, a true fastback body by Touring appeared on the 6C2300B and two horizontal carburetors were fitted -- so far as I can tell, this is the first instance of twin side-draft (though single-throat) carbs being fitted to a naturally-aspirated Alfa. With a compression ratio of 7.75:1, the engine developed 105 hp at 4800 rpm.
For 1939, Alfa enlarged the engine to 2443 cc as the 6C2500 and offered a "Super Sport" model with three downdraft carburetors, giving an engine output of 125 hp. This would be the production model which would see Alfa through the rigors of the post-war reconstruction.

chapter 12

KTUD Alfa Romeo main page!

KTUD complete index

Copyright March, 1996

Paul Negyesi
Budapest, Hungary.
This document or its parts can not be reproduced, quoted in any means. You can create a link freely, but please let me know about it.