Alfa Romeo Alfetta 158: the 159.109, a "Milanese" in Turin

Today, establishing how many Alfettas were made is a hard task, but we can reasonably state that five original cars got as far as us. Among these, one in particular stands out, kept at the MAUTO - Museo dell'Automobile of Turin. Still with the signs of battle of yesteryear, this car is the one that spent most time on the racing tracks. SpeedHolics “met” the car to tell its story and remember the extraordinary adventures of what was to become the “Biscione’s” first Formula 1 car.

Photography by Paolo Carlini (IG: @paolo.carlini.photographer)

Archive courtesy of Sanesi Family, Alfa Blue Team, Fabio Morlacchi Archives

Enzo Ferrari could be described as nothing more than the inspiration behind the project for the “little GP car”, and as stated in the specialised press, seeing what was done at Maserati it would have needed a 4- or 6- cylinder engine. At Alfa Romeo, the suggestion for the new racing car was taken on board, but was based on a more sophisticated straight 8-cylinder solution for the engine and the whole layout of the car was defined, refined yet orthodox compared to what had been designed and built in the racing sector up until that time by Vittorio Jano at Portello, managed by Ferrari.

A new design race began straight afterwards with the design by the Spanish engineer Wifredo Ricart at Al, more advanced yet perhaps too pointlessly complex. So, its inspiration and paternity are sure, as is the project management.

The names, in order, are: Enzo Ferrari, Gioachino Colombo, the Portello engineer, and Alfa Romeo. Ferrari only played a small part, the physical place where the design was developed and the construction of the first units began.

As in all complete car designs, whether for mass production or racing, the various mechanical parts were developed by a team of engineers and draughtsmen, who worked on the instructions of the designer and the manufacturer. The main data for the arrangement required by Portello were taken to Modena by the engineer Gioachino Colombo in early May 1937. Exactly one month later, Colombo and the engineer Angelo Nasi completed the design of the engine and the chassis.

On 1 January 1938, the first engine began to be assembled and Colombo returned to Milan on 17 June. On 1 January 1938 the new racing department was opened in Portello, called Alfa Corse, physically located in the new sheds on the corner of Via Traiano and Viale Renato Serra. The construction of the new department began in autumn 1937. The masonry works were completed between December 1937 and January 1938. The building and shed next to Via Traiano were finished between April and May.

So, when Colombo was sent to Modena, it had already been planned for all the material to return to Milan shortly afterwards. The 1924 G.P. car Tipo P2 won its first race, and in 1925 the first ever Grand Prix Championships. Tipo B, better known as the P3, also won its first race. The 158 carried on this tradition, also winning its first race, the Coppa Ciano in Livorno on 7 August 1938, with Emilio Villoresi 1st and Clemente Biondetti 2nd.

LEFT: 1939, Wifredo Ricart in the Alfa Romeo 316, a G.P. car with 158 type twin engines. RIGHT: Photo of a 158 autographed by Gioachino Colombo.
Milan G.P. 1938, Parco Sempione circuit, one of the first 158s with narrow front and low exhaust. Emilio Villoresi won the race.

In late 1939, the Spanish engineer Wifredo Pelago Ricart, who joined Alfa as an industrial engine consultant in September 1936, became technical director and was also in charge of the racing sector. In 1939 he designed a new car, which was intended to replace the 158. This was the Tipo 512, which rode the waves of success of the large and winning Auto Unions, with central-rear engine. The flat 12 engine, with 1500 cm3 displacement, was positioned just behind the driver. The 512 was tested from the summer of 1940 until 1942, but the testers were not happy with the driver's seat being so far forward. These included Consalvo Sanesi: sitting practically between the front wheels, the driver couldn’t immediately feel the significant oversteer caused by the rear axle slippage, and before he realised the car would be almost sideways.

During the conflict, the sportscar material that would be interesting after the war was sent to Milan to save it from any foreseeable enemy bombings.

The material included nine of the twelve 158s produced, following the destruction of one during the tests with Marinoni in June 1940 and two which were destroyed in 1939, during practice drives by Emilio Villoresi and Giordano Aldrighetti, who like Marinoni both lost their lives following the accidents.

LEFT: June 1940, Autostrada dei Laghi, in the centre what remained of the 158 D driven by Attilio Marinoni after the accident with the truck on the left. RIGHT: The 8C 2900 B Sperimentale and the 512 being tested on the Autostrada dei Laghi, 1941. The very forward position of the driver’s seat in this G.P. car can clearly be seen.

Along with the two 512s complete with all the mechanics, plus the engines and spare parts, they were taken firstly to the Mechanics Hall at the Milan Exhibition Centre, and then hidden in the pits at the Monza race track. Subsequently, almost all the material was bricked up into a large room, with just an inspection door, at the ex-Gavazzi textiles mill in Melzo, 15 kilometres to the east of Milan, where part of the decentralised production of crankshafts was located. As an elderly Alfa employee, in charge of overseeing the decentralisation of the racing material, told me years later, only the two almost complete 512s plus several spare 158 engines were taken provisionally to a farmhouse in the Abbiate area owned by the family of the driver Achille Castoldi, and were then transferred to an unlikely textiles factory in the centre of Abbiategrasso, around 18 kilometres to the south-west of Milan. According to Giuseppe Busso and what we find in the surviving documents, the two 512s were later transferred near Orta, where the engineers and a complete aviation department were located in a factory in Armeno, in the province of Novara. Particularly the bombings of October 1944 destroyed much of the Alfa departments, and only the delocalisation of the engineering staff and the material, along with the strong will of the workers, allowed the works to resume at the end of the war.

Racing activities resumed timidly in 1946, when the 158s were dusted off and returned to Milan.

Unaware of the 512's driving issues, the specialised press began to wonder which car Alfa Romeo would have continued to race with: the 158 or the 512? The 158, designed in the summer of 1937 and born in the spring of the following year, behaved well and had significant potential for development. Furthermore, all the cars, plus the spare engines, had been saved from destruction during the war.

Gioachino Colombo, born in Legnano, joined Alfa Romeo on 7 January 1924 as a draughtsman, and went on to manage the design department. He left Alfa for the first time on 31 August 1947, to join Ferrari. He returned to Alfa on 1 February 1951, to the annoyance of Orazio Satta’s engineering team, as Director of the Car Design Department and Vice-Director of the Alfa Corse Design Team. He finally left Alfa on 31 August 1952. Colombo worked only on the first developments of the 158 in 1946 and partly in 1947. So, from the autumn of 1947 to early 1951, the 158 was developed by Orazio Satta and Giuseppe Busso’s team, assisted by engineer Gian Paolo Garcea and other Alfa technicians with aeronautical training.

Today it is not easy to establish precisely how many 158s and 159s were produced. We have to base our estimates on the bills of materials delocalised during the war, the few data on the materials lists in the Alfa Museum in the 1960s, and the data provided in the meticulous race reports drafted between 1946 and 1951.

It is reasonable to suppose that, between late 1937 and 1938 a first batch of four tipo 158s were built, three of which, as we have seen, were destroyed during practice session accidents between 1939 and 1940. Of these, one 158 survives in the Alfa Romeo Museum in Arese, with chassis number 158.005. The next batch of eight cars was produced between 1939 and 1940, with a different numbering, from 158.107 to 158.114. Then things began to get complicated, as in the winter of 1950-1951, several 158s were updated to 159s, reinforcing the chassis and increasing the fuel tank capacity in order to adopt more powerful, guzzling engines. In these cases, the chassis number had the prefix 159.

During 1951, on the other hand, four new tipo 159s were built, with further changes to the chassis compared to the tipo 158 developed into the 159, with a De Dion rear axle. In the Alfa Romeo documents these were known as both “Fianchi Larghi” (“large hips”), and tipo 160, with the bodywork probably built by Zagato. Therefore, in the 1951 Championships there were a few 159s, which were in fact the developed 158s, still with the old rear pendulum axle and the 159 with the De Dion.

The two 159s in the Museum in Arese, the 159.111 and the 159.112, are two ex-158 updated to 159s, presumably the 158.111 and 158.112, fitted with De Dion axles during the winter of 1951-52, so after the end of the 1951 Championships, just before the Alfa meeting of 15 February 1952, when the decision was taken to not race in the 1952 Championship or any others in future. On the other hand, the demonstration chassis at Arese, with no bodywork, was rebuilt with various parts found in stock with rather improbable numbering.

Of the five 158-159s remaining today, excluding the chassis complete with mechanics, the most frequently raced was the 159.109, today on display in the MAUTO - Museo dell'Automobile of Turin.

Following the recent renovation of the museum, the car was placed in the room where the racing cars are on show, following years of exposure to direct sunlight. The current setting is very attractive, hiding the many “wrinkles” that our Alfetta would in fact be very proud to show off.

She has been in Turin for a long time, even she can’t remember for how long. But if you know how to listen to her, she has a lot to say. She remembers the practice sessions for the Grand Prix in Tripoli in 1940.

.109 - “It was May, I still had my original engine, I was used as a reserve car for tests and practice runs. Nino Farina pushed the engine, a 225 HP with single-stage compressor, to 7500 rpm! I had Pirelli tyres with smooth tread, I used Ricinavio airplane engine oil, from the plane engines produced at Portello, where I was born. Farina beat one of my sisters!”

Then came the war, and Italy joined less than a month after the race. A couple of races in 1946, and a few more in 1947.

.109 - “I can’t remember, they were hectic times! They took us back to Milan, and after servicing it was test after test. I remember those on the runway at Malpensa military airport, with those huge uneven concrete slabs that ate up all our tyres!

The Monza track was still unusable, occupied by allied military vehicles for sale and with the asphalt ruined by the air raids. Coquettishly, the Alfetta .109 continues her story...

Malpensa Airport, a 158-47 being tested. From the left: Garcea, Busso, Guidotti, Sanesi, Trossi, Varzi, Zanardi, Gaboardi.
Italian G.P. 1947, the .109 registration form with Sanesi and the poster showing the circuit on the city roads around the Trade Fair in Milan; The starting line of the Italian G.P., 7 September 1947. From the left, the .109 no. 24 with Sanesi, the .111 no. 30 with Trossi and the Villoresi’s Maserati 4 CLT.

.109 - “I remember well the 1947 Milan Grand Prix, definitely! If I remember correctly, it was 7 September. Even though during the practice session just before the race I was driven by Count Trossi (Carlo Felice), I was intended for Sanesi (Consalvo), with race number 24.

The others and I reached the starting line in Piazza Arduino from Portello in Via Traiano, driven by an Alfa test driver. No more than 500 metres. We really were racing just outside the front door! On the starting line, Consalvo and I had my sister .111 to our left, with Count Trossi. Next to her, in the front row, was the Ambrosiana Maserati 4 CLT driven by Gigi Villoresi. I was quite worried about this Maserati. We had 275 HP 158/46B engines with dual-stage compressor, but she must have had at least 300 HP! Four cylinders rather than our 8, but with 4 valves per cylinder! At one point I saw Count Trossi put his pipe in his pocket and put his gloves on. Here we go! But Castagneto still didn’t start the race, it was minutes and minutes of anxiety...