This page is dedicated to the memory of Pat Braden who died on August 25, 2002.
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Alfa's product line immediately after the war was simply a continuation
of the pre-war models. It included the 4 liter 20-30 hp model, a
continuation of the original 24 hp car, the 15-20 hp, a continuation of the
original 12 hp car and the 40-60, a 6-0 liter car first introduced in 1913.
In 1921, the 20-30 was updated as the 20-30 ES Sport, with 4.25 liters
and 67 hp.
I want to try to give some sense of what it meant to own one of these early cars. In the first place, they were an absolutely luxury if not outright toy. Before beginning to start the car, it needed to be checked over and its critical lubrication points attended to. Numerous chassis parts and even some engine parts required regular manual lubrication. These cars demanded a lot from the driver. Frequently, to start the car, some priming fuel had to be poured into each cylinder: to accomodate this, priming cups (funnels with a rotating valve) were fitted to the top of each cylinder. Spark advance was completely manual, and care had to be taken that the spark was properly retarded before operating the starter. Once the engine was started and warmed up, the driver next confronted the demands of the clutch and gearbox. Gears were shifted by sliding them into mesh, so the speeds of the gears had to be matched by the driver. To do this, double-clutching was mandatory. The clutch had little capacity for slipping, and was more like an on/off toggle switch which was weak enough that it usually went unused during a race, the gears being shifted without clutching. The gearbox had to be sturdy for all this, so there was a good deal of inertia in the gears. Troubleshome shifts and a slow-to-respond engine meant the driver had to develop real skills to manipulate his car. Inadequate brakes, heavy steering and poor susupension made driving one of these early cars an heroic undertaking. What was missing in Alfa's immediate post-war lineup was some dramatic innovation borne of wartime experiences or, at least, a twin-cam sportster based on the 1914 GP car. No such thing. It is fair to say that Alfa was undistinguished when Niccola Romeo bought into the company and renamed it Alfa Romeo in 1920. Much of this backwardness, no doubt, was due to Merosi's disinterest in adapting racing practice to passenger cars: the 1914 Grand Prix Alfa made no mark on the passenger car lineup.
Quite the opposite was true of the automotive darling of the 1920's, the products of Ettore Bugatti. He was an expatriate Italian working in France. If there were ever a rival to Alfa's emerging sporting image, it was Bugatti. The Bugatti car bore more consistently the mark of a single man, including many of his eccentricities. If I can capsualize the difference between Bugatti and Alfa, it is that Bugatti was a master machinist while Alfa was unmatched at casting. A Bugatti engine is formed of flat, superbly-finished surfaces while an Alfa engine has an organic, flowing character. A comparison between Bugatti's cars and Alfa's help illuminate the post-war era.
Ettore Bugatti served as a designer to deDietrich, Hermes and Deutz before opening his own factory at Molshiem, France in 1910. The company survived to re-enter production after the second world war, but the post-WWII Bugattis are insignificant. As a gross generalization, Bugatti's most popular products were SOHC and DOHC grand prix cars and passenger cars based on those racers. The great Bugatti SOHC race car was the Type 35 and its derivatives. The Type 35 was introduced in 1924 to compete in the new 2-liter formula against the Alfa P2. The P2, of course, had some influence on the subsequent 6C1750 and 8C Alfas, but the link between a passenger Alfa and the grand prix car was not nearly so direct as the link between Bugatti's racing and passenger cars. Much more than Alfas, road-going Bugattis were the "thinly-disguised grand prix car" of legend.
The SOHC Bugattis typically had non-removable heads with two intake valves and one exhaust valve per cylinder while the twin-cam cars had the more usual detachable head with two valves per cylinder. Several versions of the Type 35 were produced, most notably the supercharged Type 35B and the Type 37, which featured poured metal rod bearings instead of the Type 35's roller bearings. The DOHC Type 51 Bugatti bodywork looked almost identical to the Type 35/37 series. The Type 51 was Bugatti's answer to the Alfa 8C2300 Monza, matching it in displacement, but developing 187 hp at 5200 rpm. Chassis practice was roughly equivalent between Alfa and Bugatti, though Bugatti eccentricities included the preference for reversed quarter elliptic springs at the rear, cable-operated 4-wheel brakes and a front semi-elliptic spring which passed through the front axle.
Both Bugatti and Carlo Abarth made their marque by overwhelming the competition with sheer numbers. The Type 35 and its descendants were relatively inexpensive and very competitive so long as they went against other private entries. Indeed, there was even an "el cheapo" Type 35 with a passenger-car engine for those who just wanted the voluptuous Bugatti grand prix body without the performance of the full-blooded car. Bugattis flooded European racetracks for almost two decades, winning more races than any other marque. But in those instances when Bugatti went head-to-head with Alfa, Bugatti usually lost.
Returning now to Alfa in 1921, both the 20-30 and 15-20 models went out of production and Alfa introduced the G1, an attempt to move into the luxury passenger car field with the likes of Packard, Pierce Arrow and Deusenberg. The G1 was a roomy car with a wheelbase of 3.40 meters and an engine which displaced 6.3 liters (bore and stroke of 98 x 140 mm). Some 50 examples of the G1 were built in 1921-22, and 100 examples of a G2 were constructed in 1923, but the car failed because it was too costly for the Italian economy. The last of the Edwardian Alfas, a single example of the G1 survives in Australia. It is the one significant model not represented in Alfa's museum at Arese.
The several post-war years of carry-over models did not mean that Alfa nor Merosi were idle. In 1920, a 3-liter formula was established and Merosi set about designing a car to that formula. Again, nothing from the 1914 grand prix car could be discerned in the new pushrod straight six. The new car was introduced in 1922, the same year that the 3-liter formula was superseded by a new 2-liter formula. Even in its earliest years, Alfa had trouble getting its models off to a fast start!
Copyright March, 1996 Paul Negyesi Budapest, Hungary.
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