This page is dedicated to the memory of Pat Braden who died on August 25, 2002.
Reconstruction and Realignment
Hard on the heels of the allied victory, Europe returned to auto racing
with almost incredible speed. Haystacks erupted grand prix cars and
barns ceased to be the havens for the most exciting sport cars pre-war
engineers could devise.
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It is clear that not everything at Alfa had been melted down to make machine tools or airplane engines: during the period 1941-1945, some 189 6C2500 passenger cars were assembled, and another 150 "Colonial" military jeeps came into being. Presumably, 1945's production of six 6C2500 Turismo and three 6C2500 Sport models proceeded among the rubble of a flattened Portello plant. Enough spare parts survived the war for Alfa to assemble 165 6C2500 chassis for 1946, and 1947 production rose to 486. This is all the more incredible when one considers that the most appropriate transportation at this time was the Vespa scooter and the Isetta, which was also built under license by BMW. Fuel was not the only thing in short supply in post-war Europe. The fact that Alfa also produced domestic gas stoves suggests the most pressing civilian needs.
The earliest post-war race was held on the Bois de Boulogne, Paris on September 9, 1945. The French were especially anxious to return to grand prix racing and post-war formula regulations were announced by the new FIA (a replacement for the pre-war AIACR) in February, 1946. Maserati dominated the earliest races, but only because Alfa Romeo had not yet geared up for competition. That happened for the July, 1946 "Grand Prix of Nations" at Geneva, when the Alfas of Farina and Wimille took the first two places.
Post-war competition by a German team was prohibited by general public intolerance. British and European fans were not about to flock to a course to see the "Silver Arrows" sweep the field, as they no doubt could have done given adequate support. The Mercedes 1.5 liter Tripoli cars had hid under haystacks until it became clear that Germany would lose. The cars were then smuggled to Caracciola in Switzerland where they were bought at auction by the Mercedes concessionaire and eventually returned to the factory museum. Two of the 3-liter Grand Prix cars were found on a Berlin used car lot and exchanged for a new 170V sedan by Neubauer. Thus reconstituted, the German team did make an outing to Argentina in 1950, engaging a local named Fangio to drive for the team (he came in third), but a planned factory appearance at Indy for 1951 was canceled, in part because it was clear that a great deal of relearning would be necessary to tune the cars to winning form. The Mercedes team, under Neubauer, pressed on with competition plans and in 1952, 300SLs appeared at but failed to win the Mille Miglia and LeMans events, and the Monte Carlo rally was won by a 220 sedan.
With the Germans effectively barred from competition, the winners' lists began to resemble those of 1930-35, with Alfa Romeo dominant, and Maserati and Talbot the only other teams able to field competitive cars. It was an era long on enthusiasm but short on vehicles and resources. Bugatti tried to restart auto production with the Type 101 but failed, and Ferrari was just starting up, as was Cisitalia and, shortly later, Porsche and BRM. The early post-war grids were filled with a varied assortment of marques, including Veritas, ERA, Delage and Alta, but the winners were usually driving Alfa Romeos.
The second world war spurred the development of many technologies which would eventually change the nature of automobile production. The use of plastics in place of natural materials, the increased sophistication and miniaturization of electronics and developments in metallurgy, fuels and aerodynamics all had eventual impact on automobile design and production. It took some time for these technologies to work their way into industry: the growing use of plastic is my most memorable feature of domestic cars in the 1950s. In America, octane ratings of gasoline increased to allow higher and higher compression ratios and tires gained significant durability. In Europe, high-quality gasoline was not available and engine development concentrated on getting high efficiency from smaller-displacement engines. Disc brakes were adapted from aircraft practice, but the airplane's turbine engine proved too difficult to adapt to the automobile (after brave attempts by manufacturers, most notably Chrysler and Rover).
I need to emphasize the dramatic difference in performance between American and European cars in the 1950s and '60s. These were my teen-age years and, as you may guess, I was on the side of the European car. In comparison to the MG, Triumph and Jag, which were the most frequently-seen cars of the era, American cars handled with incredible imprecision. The large, slow-turning V8 engines gave superior straight-line performance, but as soon as a corner was encountered, the American car was seriously outclassed. The 6C2500 specification of a lightweight twin-cam engine with fully independent suspension would not be matched by American passenger cars for some 30 years. In the present age of technological parity, the contrast between European and American cars in the 1950s should not be forgotten.
In America, the post-war boom increased the production of automobiles and many veterans, trained in auto mechanics, made cars a vocational interest. The hot-rod was a genuine American phenomenon spurred by products from Edelbrock, Offenhauser and many smaller companies. Enthusiasts were not content with fast cars; they also wanted unique ones, and for this they turned either to importing the European cars they had used during the war or to "customizing" American iron. The veterans who brought back MGs and Jaguars sowed a seed which would eventually revolutionize the American car market.
American manufacturers were resistant to change, so while they busied themselves building bigger-is-better cars and hanging increasing ornamentation on their works, enthusiasts were just as busy trying to improve overall performance and taking the gewgaws off, "shaving" their cars and "Frenching" the headlamps into smooth, integrated units with the fenders. For benchmarks of style, handling and performance, enthusiasts looked to Europe, where the Alfa Romeo 6C2500, bodied by Touring or Pinin Farina, was one of the trend setters. The clean lines of those cars were the inspiration for several generations of American car enthusiasts. While these two body builders were concerned with elegance and clean lines, Ghia was much more innovative, and was frequently retained by American manufacturers to help them recapture some styling initiative. While it can be argued that there never was an ugly Touring or Pininfarina car, Ghia missed almost as many times as it hit. Zagato, in the immediate post-war years, was busy building bodies for the Fiat Topolino, while Castagna had become Alfa's in-house carrozeria.
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Copyright March, 1996
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