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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.

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...

Sorry, am I going on too much? No? Just as well! Finally we were told to switch the engines on. Consalvo turned the switch on my dashboard. I got a bit of a shock, what you humans would call adrenaline! The electric starter turned my engine, then I thought about the rest The chequered flag was lowered...

The Maserati burned rubber as it set off, followed by my sister .111. Consalvo didn't hit the floor, I could feel the accelerator still had something to give! The Maserati with Villoresi was in front, followed by the .111 with Count Trossi, then us (the .109 with Sanesi) and the .110 with Achille Varzi, which set off behind us. In a flash we reached the slight left-hand bend leading into Ciale Scarampo, second gear as we braked, then first gear for the right-hand 90° bend leading into Via Colleoni, the accelerator flat out and rapid gear changes, then back on the brakes as we hit the large roundabout at Piazza Damiano Chiesa on the wrong side of the road, passing in front of the Alfa Romeo Branch on the corner of Via Emanuele Filiberto.

A left turn into Viale Alcuino and back again towards the Trade Fair wall, a left bend and along the Monza stands, set up right there outside. The Vigorelli racing track ran along the left, then quite a wide right-hand bend into Viale Boezio, full acceleration with progressive gear changes and passing in front of the Palazzetto dello Sport in Piazza 6 Febbraio, where the Motor Show was held before the war. An energic brake, dropping down into first gear, a 90° right-hand bend and flat out on the accelerator along the straight in front of the Trade Fair entrance in Piazza Giulio Cesare, along Via Senofonte and Via Spinola, another quick brake, back down into first gear, another right-hand bend and into the final straight. As we passed in front of the Palazzetto dello Sport on the straight we had the .111 (Trossi) in front, which overtook Gigi Villoresi’s Maserati quite easily.

The Maserati’s exhaust was in front of my nose. Was the engine already popping? Behind me was Raimond Sommer’s Maserati, then the .110 with Varzi... From the pits, which in my day were called “stalls”, they were signalling the 5th lap of the planned 100. By this time, the Maserati and Gigi were just a few metres ahead. The engine wasn’t the problem of the 4-cylinders, it was always ahead of the braking. The Maserati’s problem was the brakes! Consalvo, shall we take over while braking? Even Varzi had reached and overtaken Gigi Villoresi. Now there were Alfettas in the first three places. I was between Trossi and Varzi, behind was Berto Ascari’s Maserati, also racing just a few hundred yards from its home. Consalvo knew that he couldn’t insist, and then Varzi in the .110 was always Varzi, it was hard to stand up to the guy from Galliate driving one of my sisters. And then, the company orders must never be questioned! At Alfa Corse, before the race, the chairman of Alfa Romeo, Pasquale Gallo, talking to the drivers, gave clear orders, in his calm and courteous manner with a vague Naples accent, with Guidotti (Giovanni Battista), the company director, on his right listening and approving with nods of the head, hands on hips and shirt sleeves rolled up.

LEFT: Sanesi’s .109 in the pits at the Milan Circuit, Italian G.P., September 1947. RIGHT: Sanesi’s .109 at the Italian G.P. in Piazza Damiano Chiesa, the Alfa Romeo branch in the background.

On the eleventh lap, we had Varzi’s .110 right up to the exhaust. Turning into Viale Berengario, Consalvo changed into second gear, a few engine revs first, 7,200 rather than 7,400, not many people noticed. Varzi and the .110 came out from behind us and overtook. Count Trossi with the .111 had crossed the finishing line a few seconds earlier, then Varzi and Ascari’s Maserati. Berto insisted hard, for 14 laps he swapped third place with me and Consalvo. In front, Varzi and Trossi with my sisters continued to overtake each other, they were pushing hard, the fight was between two Piemontesi and two Milanesi! We could see them duelling in the distance. It seemed like they were enjoying it! From a few metres distance they looked at each other, sometimes side by side, the Alfettas were having fun! The drivers weren’t smiling, their serious faces hidden by glasses, but they were laughing inside, I knew them all too well! In the end, the two champions ahead overtook each other 16 times!

Ascari’s Maserati however had some problems. Parts of the bodywork tended to come off, the tank leaked and the 4-cylinder engine coughed sometimes, forcing them to stop in the pits frequently. And so we reached the finishing line, Trossi’s .111, Varzi’s .110, me and Sanesi, and Gaboardi’s .119! Nobody noticed, but we four Alfettas were very happy! A victory parade, here, just a stone’s throw from home! Fantastic! What a race! Thanks Consalvo, sometimes I can feel you near in this dark room in the museum in Turin, I like it. Really. They told me that the Alfa race report referred to a “boring race due to the clear superiority of our cars”... noblesse!

.109 – At the Berne Grand Prix on 4 July 1948 we raced with death in our engines. During the first practice sessions on 1 July, Achille Varzi took one of my sisters off the road, I can't remember which one. I won the race, driven by Count Trossi, behind me was one of my sisters with Jean Pierre Wimille, a Maserati and Sanesi with another of my sisters.

The official Alfa Corse report explains the dynamics of the accident: “The accident, which occurred immediately after the Eicholz descent, was not due to sudden technical problems, Sanesi having previously completed three laps of the circuit, but to the unlucky track conditions. After the rain, and due to the rain itself (which was particularly heavy at that moment) the driver did not have a perfect view of the road (sic). After the driver lost control, the car crossed a stretch of the track and the rear collided with the side embankment. Straightening up suddenly, the car ran up the opposite back and rolled over, landing straight back in a normal position on the track; it is thought that Varzi received the mortal blow to the head as the car overturned on the bank.” The Alfetta was the .114, which was later repaired.

Varzi’s .114 after the fatal accident, photographed at Portello. In the background, the front of the .109 that seems to be looking at her unlucky sister.

Reims 18 July: the .109 was driven by Sanesi, race number 28, and came second behind the sister driven by Wimille, having overtaken Alberto Ascari’s Alfetta on the last straight and winning by just a few metres. The Italian Grand Prix, Turin, the Valentino circuit, 5 September, the .109 was driven by Sanesi, but who withdrew from the race on the 51st of the race’s 75 laps. Wimille’s Alfetta come first. Monza Grand Prix, 17 September, four Alfettas in the first 4 places, Wimille, the .109 with Trossi, then Sanesi and Taruffi.

.109 – May I? I have a couple of interesting stories to tell: in the race we drink between 60 and 100 litres every 100 kilometres. And I mean fuel, not simple petrol! Listen to what we had to digest! Methyl alcohol 94°-98°, 83.5%, acetone 6%, petroleum ether 30°-60°, 7.5%, castor oil 1.5%. To avoid corroding the compressors, this mixture had around 1.5% of a special, top-secret ingredient, discovered by chance during repeated tests.

Today I can tell you, but at the time the name was shrouded in secrecy. What was it? Well, Portello tap water, from the Milan mains water supply... Up until that year (1948) we used Ricinavio, an oil made with castor oil, the same used for our radial aviation engine brothers manufactured at Portello. Then, they used Castrol R, and after also Shell Super Heavy. Modern mineral stuff, and at last less dirt and incrustations formed in the engine. A bit like when you have bronchitis and tons of catarrh, just to make it clear.

Luigi Fagioli, Juan Manuel Fangio and Nino Farina, Alfa Romeo’s famous "3 Effe"s.
LEFT: Silverstone G.P., May 1950, from the left sinistra Zanardi, Guidotti sitting on the .109, Satta, Nicolis, Busso. RIGHT: Silverstone, European G.P., May 1950, the 158 no. 3 and Fagioli’s .109.
1950, the 158 .109 with Fangio at the Nations G.P. in Geneva, winning with an impeccable race.

13 May 1950, European Grand Prix at Silverstone, UK, the .109, with race number 3, was driven by the not-so-young Luigi Fagioli, one of the famous “3 Fs” with Farina and Fangio. It came second, behind Farina’s .110, ahead of the .114 driven by Reg Parnell, who ran over a poor hare, damaging the front of the 158.

.109 – Do you want to know what was written in the race report? “A race governed brilliantly by our drivers, and won with ease due to the inferiority of the competing cars”...

In Monaco a few days later, on 21 May, the Silverstone cars, including the .109, were used as reserve cars for the practice, the engines still efficient. French Grand Prix, Reims, 2 July. The .109 was used as a reserve car. Grand Prix des Nations, Geneva, the .109, race number 2, was driven by Fangio, who led her to victory, followed by the .114 with De Graffenried and the .112 with Taruffi. Alfa Romeo and Ferrari were the main rivals in the race, according to the specialised press, and all the others had to put up with following at a distance. Fangio and the .109 had an impeccable race, in terms of speed and regularity.

.109 – Thank you, dear.

The 158s needed refuelling, the Ferraris didn't. However, Alberto Ascari’s Ferrari was forced to withdraw, and Gigi Villoresi had an accident with the other Ferrari. International Daily Express Trophy, Silverstone, 26 August. The .109 was driven by Fangio, race number 2, and came in second place behind her sister .111 with Farina. The next year, 1951, the 158s received their new numbering, with the prefix 159 for the chassis and engines. The chassis were similar to those used the previous year, still with a “Porsche” type rear pendulum axle but with even more aggressive engines, delivering 385 to 403 HP at 8100-8900 rpm depending on the gear ratio, with the possibility to reach 9200 rpm. Not bad for long racing engines designed 14 years earlier! The side fuel tanks were larger, the back widened to fit a larger tank there too.

Trophy Race, 5 May 1951, the .109 was driven by Felice Bonetto, race number 3. A race with 2 heats and a final, which however was stopped at the 6th out of 35 laps due to heavy rain and hail. The .109 was tenth at the early stop, while Sanesi’s Alfetta stopped when the electrical system went up the creek due to the downpour. Berne Grand Prix, 25 May, the De Dion rear axle was used in the practice sessions for the first time, the .117 had the De Dion rear axle but still with the 158 small tail. The .117 was also in the race, with Sanesi at the wheel, and came in fourth place. First and third place, other Alfettas with the rear pendulum axle, second place a Ferrari 4500 aspirated engine. Belgian Grand Prix in Spa, 17 June, the .109 was driven by Sanesi, race number 6, again with the 158 small tail and small tanks, which it still has today. In 5th place, it was forced to withdraw from the race. UK Grand Prix in Silverstone, 17 July, the .109 was driven by Felice Bonetto, race number 4, and came in fourth. The .115 with Fangio, again with the pendulum axle, came in second, the .116 with Sanesi in 6th place, the .117, the only one with the De Dion axle, driven by Farina came in eighth.

.109 – It was my last race. After that they retired me.

The “wide hips” 159, or the 160, bodywork by Zagato, in the courtyard at Portello. The sides hide large 75 litre fuel tanks.

The German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring on 29 July saw the participation of four Alfettas, three with the De Dion axle, two of which with “wide hips”. From then onwards, the last races of the season were run by “pure” 159s, with a widened, reinforced chassis, De Dion axle, large tanks. So the 159 “wide hips”, or also the tipo 160.

.109 - I raced for 12 years, less two years testing at the start of the war and three years resting during the delocalisation and 1949, when we didn’t race. If I’m correct, I’m not very good at maths, I spent 6, SIX, years racing! My sisters and I always won a whole load of races! And the first two World F1 Championships! But here in the museum, I’ve heard people stand in front of me and say that our adversaries were not up to our level! I felt like running them over! We had plenty of worthy adversaries! One driver who I remember in particular behind my wheel? Well, I’ll give you a name: Juan Manuel Fangio. Is that enough? OK, he pushed us to the limit, but never went beyond that, with his cool calm that reassured us. But sorry, my favourite was Consalvo Sanesi. He was always very respectful of us and the orders from above, but he was very fast. Nino Farina pulled us about a bit, as did poor old Achille Varzi. Count Carlo Felice Trossi was respectful, but he pushed down hard, and so did the Frenchman Jean Pierre Wimille. They retired me in late 1951, then brought me here to Turin. In fact, I was actually tired of racing.

Come and visit me here in the museum, I enjoy it. Stop by my side, ask me questions, if you know how to listen, I’ll be pleased to answer you...

Goodbye everyone, see you soon...

P.S.: I went to MAUTO in Turin a few years ago, with Mr Stefano Agazzi from Alfa Romeo Automobilismo Storico. Welcomed in the semi-dark room where the racing cars are on display, we asked the 159.109 if she felt homesick. She told us, yes, she got a bit melancholy every now and again, but luckily she could talk to the Alfa C.52 Disco Volante 3000:

“...can you see her, down there!”

And in the dark, we thought we saw a slight flash of headlights.


Thanks to MAUTO – Museo dell'Automobile of Turin, for having made available to SpeedHolics the Alfetta "159.109" kept in its prestigious collection.


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