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

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Chapter 8

Hard Times and Great Eights

From an Italian point of view, the depression was an inconvenience on Italy's way to greatness, and that euphoria may in part explain why Alfa did not respond to the hard times immediately by producing a down-scale car. I need to underline just how popular Mussolini was to the Italians: in addition to making the trains run on time he gave Italy a sense of honor and national destiny. That the honor was purchased quite cheaply -- if not pitifully, in Ethiopia -- completely escaped the appreciation of the average Italian. Mussolini did, in fact, unify Italy and the Italians.
For some reason that I cannot quite understand, the hardest times seem to produce the greatest cars. Consider the choices offered to the few affluent purchasers of the '30s: Bugatti, Talbot, Mercedes and Alfa in Europe, and Deusenberg, Cord, Packard and Cadillac in the US. One wonders if, 30 years from now, enthusiasts will recall wistfully the Hondas and Mitsubishis as we now recall the Alfas?
By the 1930s, engineers had refined the technique of designing the motorcar so it was a reliable, if not quite essential, member of the family. European high-performance cars were, by and large, supercharged. Even some American cars, such as Graham and Cord, were similarly enhanced. Bodybuilders had played with enough variations to settle on a design which was considered universally attractive. Generally, Alfa bodybuilders, from Castagna to Zagato, helped define what was beautiful in coachwork. Metallurgy had progressed, but the real advances in this era were the increasing quality of petrochemical products and tires. The advances in making reliable tires helped make the automobile reasonable transportation. Tire changing had become progressively more rare on a journey.
In such heady company as Mercedes and Bugatti, Alfa was a clear standout. Alfas were beautiful, powerful and reliable, and offered a sporting character which was only approached by Bugatti. So, for 1931, Jano designed a car certain to maintain Alfa's superiority: an 8-cylinder supercharged sportster which borrowed much from the 6C series including the bore and stroke, the chassis and even -- occasionally -- the body work.
With the inline eight, however, Jano had to confront increased problems of a significantly longer engine. To fit under the same hood as the six, the new eight carried its supercharger on the side rather than the front and it was given a dry sump to improve lubrication. Then, to reduce flexing of the long crankshaft, an accessory drive gearset was fitted to the middle of the bolted-up unit, giving each half of the crankshaft the strength of a 4-cylinder unit. The actual firing order of the engine, however, was not the same as if two 4-cylinder engines had been bolted together. To help distribute forces evenly along the crank, the new 8C2300 engine was built so one of the fours was in the middle of the block, with each of two cylinders of the other four flanking it front and back.
The firing order of the Jano cars, incidentally, was always given as a straight sequence beginning with 1 and ending with the highest-number cylinder: that is, the firing order of the 6C1750 was 1-2-3-4-5-6! The cylinders were numbered according to the firing order so that, while cylinder #1 was front most, the one immediately behind it was #5, followed by cylinder #3, etc. (In point of fact, not having a 6C crank in front of me, I can't remember exactly the order in which the cylinders were numbered, but you get the idea.)
The new 2.3 liter engine produced 142 hp, compared to the approximately 100 hp of its 6-cylinder forebear. In spite of this, the 8C2300 is not a significantly faster car than the six. Greater weight is one reason. The 8C2300 weighed in at 1000 kg, compared to 840 kilos for a similarly-bodied 6C1750, in spite of the fact that the new engine was cast entirely of aluminum, compared to the iron head and block of the 6C.
Since it used almost the same chassis as the six but with larger brakes, the front of the 8C chassis had a tendency to flex when its brakes were fully applied. You will note a traction bar on the front axle of the 8C cars, an attempt to minimize the flexing which, because of the mechanical brakes, created a significant problem. When you applied the brakes, the chassis wrapped around the front axle, effectively shortening itself just enough to release the front brakes. In this released state, the chassis straightened and the front brakes were once again fully applied, only to cause another cycle of chassis wrap-up. This antique equivalent of ABS was not only disconcerting but dangerous because it spoiled the delicate handling which characterized most Alfas.
Bodybuilders flocked to the new 8C2300 and adorned its chassis with some of the most beautiful bodies ever placed on four wheels. Like the 6C, short- and long-chassis versions were available. Unlike the 6C chassis, however, the 8C was never fitted with sedan or limousine body work, so the car retained its sporting character in all configurations The long-wheelbase 8C2300 Castagna-bodied convertible is certainly one of the most beautiful cars of any era, and the short Zagatos continued to be aesthetic knock-outs. There were some stutters, too: Figoni and Graber built some less-than-beautiful samples, and a few excessively-heavy bodies helped keep performance lower than expected.
I must not denigrate the 8C2300, however. I owned an 8C which, with its heavy body, proved to be an outstanding freeway tourer. I drove my car from Connecticut to Detroit with a single flat tire to relieve the pleasure. My car was quite capable of 70 mph all day long, though I never tested its top speed because of a fear of a blowout. I will say, however, that the car was used to crash the Hungarian border because its owner knew there wasn't another passenger car in the whole Eastern bloc which could catch it. My 8C was a long-chassis model and the supple chassis gave a very comfortable ride. I never got into trouble with the brakes because I knew to use them carefully.
I've driven an 8C Zagato and found it only slightly more ponderous than the 6C1750 Zagato I owned. Though the 8C is a much more dramatic car, I prefer the 6C for its agility.
There were three series of the 8C cars, identified by the second digit of the serial number. The differences between series are hardly worthwhile repeating now, but they had to do with such things as where the oil tank was located. Then, in conjunction with Scuderia Ferrari, a hotted-up version, called the Monza, was created. This car carried a magneto ignition on the exhaust side of the engine instead of a coil/distributor setup with the distributor sitting atop the engine. Other mods included hotter cams and higher 6.5:1 compression compared to the stock 5.75:1. The Monza had very light 2-place body work and a partially shrouded grille which became popular to fit on other 8C2300 body styles. In addition to the Monza, Ferrari, and then Alfa itself, enlarged the engine from 2.3 to 2.6 liters. But the search for speed never ends, and it was only a short time before Jano would create his masterwork, a 2.9-liter 8-cylinder engine which would power the all-conquering Tipo B.

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Copyright March, 1996

Paul Negyesi
Budapest, Hungary.
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