This page is dedicated to the memory of Pat Braden who died on August 25, 2002.
Some seeds, planted deep, take a long time to sprout. The settlement
imposed by the allies on the Germans at the end of the first world war
virtually guaranteed the second. While the winners were reveling in the
roaring '20s, the losers were groping to pull themselves out of a
political, social and economic depression.
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Italy was still operating as a collection of city states when Mussolini began organizing the fascist party at war's end. By 1922, his party was strong enough to march against King Victor Emmanuel III and demand that Il Duce be made prime minister. Thereafter, by sheer hooliganism, Mussolini was able to consolidate his power as the undisputed ruler of Italy. A year after Mussolini marched on his King, Hitler attempted to seize the Bavarian government but failed and was jailed, just long enough, it seems, to write Mein Kampf. The worldwide depression of 1929 was enough to catapult him to the chancellorship in 1933 and absolute control of the country by 1934, when President Hindenburg died. In 1933, Alfa Romeo, foundering in the depression, was nationalized under the Institute for Industrial Reconstruction (IRI). Mussolini and Hitler both used a sense of national second-classness to rally their constituencies, and both were committed to dispelling it by racing automobiles. While Germany and Italy were equally committed to fielding world-championship teams, Germany had first to rebuild its industry, then supply Hitler's war machine. As a result, the racing SS-series Mercedes of the early 1930s were old designs and nothing new was attempted until the last half of the decade. In contrast, Fiat's success in the grands prix in the early 1920s and Alfa's succession to championship in 1925 left the Italians with a clear automotive superiority going into the 1930s. Though Hitler never considered the car to be anything more than a propaganda medium, it seems that Mussolini was something of an enthusiast, switching his allegiance from Lancia to Alfa Romeo as that marque continued to pile up victories.
Luigi Fusi has always disparaged Merosi for not being able to translate race-car into passenger-car practice. We've already mentioned Merosi's inability to use design details of the 1914 GP car in the RL series, and his fumbling attempt to update the design in the ill-fated GPR. The observation clearly favors Fusi's mentor, Vittorio Jano who, we can well imagine, was under great pressure from Mussolini to create a "road-going P2." Indeed, it's comfortable to consider the wonderful series of 6-cylinder cars which Jano designed after the P2 to be little more than streetable versions of that great racer. In some gross details, they were: the engines of both offered twin overhead camshafts and hemispherical combustion chambers and they ran with virtually identical chassis. Indeed, the most sporting of the 6-cylinder cars was even supercharged. While Bugatti was making great success selling "road-going grand prix cars," Alfa certainly aspired to more comfort and reliability for its passengers and it provided it in unmatched form with the 6C1500 series introduced in 1925 at the Milan auto show.
The first Jano passenger-car engine displaced 1.5 liters. A cast-iron detachable head and a cast-iron block sat on an aluminum alloy crankcase. A deep aluminum sump carried a cross shaft, driven by a gear at the rear of the crankshaft, for the generator, water and oil pumps. The engine was designed to accommodate several stages of tune, represented by a single-overhead camshaft unit developing 44 hp, while a twin-cam head with hemispheric combustion chambers for the 6C1500 Sport gave 54 hp. The supercharged 6C1500 Super Sport also had twin cams and developed 76 hp. A high-compression engine, essentially the Super Sport without supercharger, developed 60 hp. All engines shared a bore/stroke of 62/82 mm and had compression ratios between 5.5 and 6.75 to 1. These high-speed engines (4200-4500 rpm) were mated to a 4-speed non-synchromesh gearbox. An enclosed driveshaft featured a single flexible joint at the end of the gearbox and springing was by semi-elliptics front and rear. Large-diameter mechanical brakes were finned radially to promote cooling and 18 in. wire wheels were standard. These cars were notable for the diminutive size of their engines yet offered remarkable output and high average speeds. They carried everything from sedan bodies to 2-seat roadsters, the former most frequently from Castagna and the latter from Zagato. While the heaviest of sedans was hardly capable of much over 60 mph, the light supercharged spiders could exceed 90 and offered superb roadholding. They were an immediate success and have proved remarkably durable cars over the years.
In 1928, Jano offered a slightly modified 6C1500 Super Sport intended for competition use. The engine of this car followed the lead of the P2 in that its head was cast in unit with the cylinder block. These 6C cars are referred to as testa fissa, or fixed-head models. Though compression was only 5.25:1, the engines developed 84 hp at 5000 rpm, an astonishing speed only 500 rpm lower than the P2.
In 1929, the 6C line was enlarged from 1487 to 1752 cc and power went up to 46 for the single-cam engine, 55 for the twin cam and 85 for the supercharged model. Again, a non-supercharged high-compression version was offered at 64 hp and a fixed-head racing version fetched 95 hp, enough to safely exceed 100 mph with a light Zagato body. It is no understatement to say that these 6-cylinder cars from Jano rank very near the top of any list of the world's greatest automobiles. They offered a combination of style and performance which was unmatched for their day. The casting work on these engines, especially the finned intake manifold, has to be seen to be believed. In spite of their jewel-like appearance, the engines were wonderfully reliable. They also proved to be the ideal mount for Mussolini's nationalistic posturing. Compared to the heavy Sindelfingen bodywork of Hitler's 540K and 770K Mercedes carriages, they were grace incarnate.
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Copyright March, 1996
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