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Chapter 12

Death and Rebirth

I remember the Michigan winter of 1941 as being unseasonably warm. My parents, I realize now, did not know how to tell me: walking to school on a clear December morning, I learned from a classmate that the United States had just gone to war. My reaction was that it would be over in a few days. Such was the innocence of youth, for Europe had been at war since the invasion of Poland in 1939. I spent early grade school wearing Army patches, studying aircraft silhouettes and hunkering down in bed when the air-raid sirens were practicing. Our 1937 Pontiac wore a black-and-white A-ration sticker and was limited to 35 mph to save tires and fuel. I learned that some distant madman named Hitler was the ultimate incarnation of evil. Mussolini was dismissed as a bully and a buffoon.
I learned a strikingly different Italian view while living in Naples in the mid-'60s. One of my closest friends confided in me that Italy would really benefit from another dictator like Mussolini, who had unified Italy with a national pride it had not enjoyed since the Caesars. As she recited Mussolini's virtues, another friend's eyes were wide with the same innocence I enjoyed during the war years. Mussolini cared for his troops so much that he sent them Italian prostitutes so they would not have to soil themselves with black Ethiopians. Both friends' naiveté was astounding, for I knew they had grown up through a terrible destruction that I had only seen on the MovieTone News. Yet the carnage of the second world war seemed no more real to them than it did to me. War demonstrates how resolutely we cling to the routine in the face of the exceptional. Most people got through the war trying to act as if nothing special were happening. That trivialization of reality made it possible to treat gold stars as dispassionate statistics or, if you lived in Europe, to continue to report for work at a bombed-out building, even to plan confidently for the future. Thus, in the midst of relocation and destruction, Alfa was planning new, post-war vehicles.
The same trivialization also lends credibility to post-war disavowals: Seaman and Nuvolari just wanted winning rides, Neubauer didn't really get along with the Nazis, Porsche never paid attention to anything but cars and Piero Dusio's CIS company made him wealthy producing Italian "Sporting Arms." Those like Carracciola who truly chose sides (and Einstein, et. al.) stood out distinctly. Those who collaborated were left to invent their excuses.
Alfa's wartime leaders, President Ugo Gobatto and chief engineer Wifredo Ricart, were committed to fascism beyond apology. There is some evidence that both were approved by Mussolini himself. Il Duce's personal admiration for Alfa Romeo (he called the company a "national jewel") kept the company alive during the immediate pre-war years. In 1933, the Agnellis had recommended that Alfa Romeo either be shut down completely or turned over to Fiat. Instead, Alfa became part of IRI (a rough equivalent of our WPA) and Gobatto was made its president. He was fluent in German and collaborated closely with the Nazis. For his enthusiasm, he was assassinated by partisans on April 28, 1945. Ricart's conservatism in pre-war Spain made him politically acceptable as Alfa's chief engineer and he returned to Franco's Spain in 1945 at the end of his contract with Alfa.
Production at Portello shifted to aero engines, and the entire Alfa design team moved to a rural area near Lake Orta. The grand prix cars were put in hiding nearby at a wealthy patron's villa. The Portello factory was first bombed by the allies on October 24, 1942. On the following Valentine's day, the factory was targeted again, then was completely leveled by a heavy bombing on October 20, 1944. Workers were incensed by the final destruction, feeling that the factory had already been appropriately chastised almost a year and a half earlier.
At Orta, work was frequently interrupted by German, fascist and partisan raids, none of the raiders being quite sure what was going on in the offices. In spite of the confusion, forward planning proceeded and several models for the mid-1940s were under development.
In Ricart's racing department, there was a lot of mix-and-match activity in preparation for events which were never held. The chassis of the 8C2900A received an unsupercharged 4.5-liter V12 engine to become the Type 412 sport car. I believe this car ended up in the hands of Argentinean Clemar Bucci after the war. The Type 163 sport car prototype was an aerodynamic, mid-engined two-place coupe with a Ricart-designed, normally aspirated 3-liter, 135-degree V-16 engine. This prototype was broken up for parts. Its engine went into the prototype supercharged Type 162 grand prix car while the chassis became the basis of the 1.5-liter flat-12 mid-engined 512, also designed by Ricart.
Alfa passenger cars were the domain of Bruno Trevisan, and he planned two new series of passenger cars for 1941 introduction, by which time, one presumes, they believed the axis would have proved victorious. Both cars would have returned Alfa to the prestige of the 8C2300 and 8C2900B. The S11 had a 2.2 liter SOHC V-8 engine and the S-10 was equipped with a 60-degree 3.5 liter SOHC V12. Both featured fully-independent suspensions with aerodynamic bodywork, the S-11 being the more aerodynamic of the two. Two of each prototype were constructed but did not survive. Super Sport versions of both models were planned with dual overhead camshafts: three S10 SS cars were planned for the 1941 Mille Miglia but never built.
The most provocative of all these stillborn works, the 6C2000 prototype, was developed under Trevisan at Arimeno, near Orta, and then, after that facility was overrun by partisans, back in the rubble of the Portello factory in Milan. The Gazelle, as it was called, had a 2-liter 6-cylinder aluminum engine with twin overhead camshafts. The rear-mounted 4-speed transmission was shifted hydraulically, with the gear change lever mounted on the steering column. Fully-independent suspension used torsion bars and hydraulic shock absorbers.
The Gazelle was clearly a revolutionary concept, and a vision far beyond the grasp of a defeated Italy. Those who drove the prototype felt it was a truly engaging vehicle that would have sold very well. But because of the need for additional development work and the shortage of machine tools immediately after the war, the 6C2000 was abandoned for a face-lifted 6C2500. The Gazelle might possibly be one of those unrestored cars in the museum collection.
All these prototype cars, and the incredible struggle which produced them, came to virtually nothing. Had Italy emerged victorious, the prototypes give us a glimpse of what might have been: top-of-the-line fascists of the late-1940s would have been driven around in Alfa Romeo V-8 and V-12 luxury cars of great sophistication, with a technically-brilliant Gazelle the car of choice for the less affluent functionaries. Yet, the seeds for Alfa's future were indeed nurtured during the war years. Wifredo Ricart was responsible for hiring the aeronautical engineer, Orazio Satta Puglia, from the Politecnico di Torino, then assigning Giuseppe Busso as his assistant. The pair would create both the 1900 and Giulietta, but that is getting ahead of the story.

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Copyright March, 1996

Paul Negyesi
Budapest, Hungary.
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