1932 Alfa Romeo 8C-2300 Long Chassis Touring Spider
Lot 206
The Ex-Works Le Mans 24-Hour race, Sir Henry 'Tim' Birkin/Earl Howe, Italo Balbo, Johnny Wakefield,1932 Alfa Romeo 8C-2300 Spyder Lungo Chassis no. 2211065 Engine no. 2211065
Sold for £2,689,500 (US$ 4,469,623) inc. premium
Lot Details
The Ex-Works Le Mans 24-Hour race, Sir Henry 'Tim' Birkin/Earl Howe, Italo Balbo, Johnny Wakefield
1932 Alfa Romeo 8C-2300 Spyder Lungo
Coachwork by in the style of Carrozzeria Touring

Registration no. BXV 506
Chassis no. 2211065
Engine no. 2211065

Footnotes

  • Just picture that scene in the gathering dusk of a balmy Italian evening. Reflections of the setting sun rippling towards you over that shapely, pent-roofed bonnet, the warm, slightly oil-scented air wafting up from the pedal box and gearbox housing down in the driver's footwell...and all the time that characteristic, unforgettable, head-turning bark, and strum, and thunder – of the supercharged straight-8 cylinder Alfa Romeo engine...molto fortissimo personified.

    Few great classic sports cars can match the intense sensory overload provided by the supreme Alfa Romeo 8C-2300 in raucous action. Add the historic importance and cachet of the Le Mans 24-Hours race, of Sir Henry 'Tim' Birkin and of Francis, Earl Howe – and then of Marshal Italo Balbo – and as the cherry on the cake add the connoisseurial ownership of the late George Daniels and it becomes patently obvious that '065' offered here is a thoroughbred sports car of great stature.

    The history of this magnificent Alfa Romeo 8C-2300 has been exhaustively researched by respected marque authority Simon Moore, and is as described in his wonderful three-volume bible, 'The Legendary 2.3' (Parkside Publications, Seattle, 2000).

    This particular car was first registered by the Alfa Romeo company on June 3, 1932, bearing the Milan plate 'MI 40780'. Sixteen days later it became the third of Alfa Romeo's 1932 works-entered Le Mans 24-Hour cars, being co-driven in the French endurance classic by the intensely competitive and capable British aristocrats – Sir Henry Birkin, and Earl Howe, carrying the race number 9.

    Amongst those three 1932 factory 8Cs for Le Mans it was fitted with regulation racing bodywork by Carrozzeria Touring of Milan, but featured a different windscreen and more robust front wing stays compared to its sister cars. Amongst the 25 starters in that Depression-era 24-Hour race, Birkin and Howe in '065' now offered here led for a period before being forced to retire. Reason for retirement was given at the time – and repeated in 'Tim' Birkin's autobiography 'Full Throttle' (G.T. Foulis, London, 1932) - as a blown head gasket, but there was also a contemporary story that it had split its fuel tank. In fact, the contemporary Birkin equipe mechanic Lofty England assured Alfa specialist Simon Moore that the engine had thrown a rod "comprehensively"... Today, the engine retains much period originality, with many components stamped '65', although we understand the head is a Jim Stokes replacement.

    Spare-time TT racing motorcyclist 'Lofty' had of course been a youthful mechanic with Birkin & Couper Ltd's 'Blower' Bentley programme 1930-31and had remained with Birkin for the new season of 1932 after the 'Blower' sports car programme had been consigned to history, and only the Brooklands Single-Seater – also offered today from the Daniels Collection – remained an active Dorothy Paget entry for Sir Henry.

    But after Bentley's endurance racing withdrawal in 1931, he and Earl Howe had joined forces to drive Alfa Romeo 8Cs in competition. Sharing Howe's 8C-2300 the pair had achieved their dearly-held joint ambition of winning the Le Mans 24-Hour race. In his own 8C-2300 Birkin then won that same season's 3rd Irish Grand Prix, in Phoenix Park, Dublin, but crashed in the RAC Tourist Trophy at Ards, in Ulster, and failed to finish in the Brooklands 500-Mile race.

    Now '065' as the damaged Birkin/Howe 1932 Le Mans car was taken straight to England for repair, the work being carried out in the old 'Blower' Bentley works at Welwyn, funded for Birkin by the Hon. Dorothy Paget. The car was then run in that year's RAC Tourist Trophy at Ards, Ulster, on August 20, being driven by Earl Howe as race number '2'. The TT still required riding mechanics and Howe's was the faithful 'Tommy' Thomas, his longtime personal mechanic.

    This Alfa Romeo went particularly well and Earl Howe was actually the fastest finisher, completing his assigned 30-lap distance, 659.7kms, 410 miles, in 5 hours 9 minutes 56 seconds. He was actually the fastest finisher in the entire race, but on the RAC handicap system was placed 4th overall. Just behind him, in fifth place overall, came 'Tim' Birkin in his sister 8C-2300, chassis '063'.

    After what might be interpreted, then, as this 'moral victory' in the 1932 Ards TT, this ex-Birkin/ Howe car was then returned to Alfa Romeo in Italy, and no doubt its British Custom bond was then retrieved. On September 27, 1932, it was then sold to Giuseppe Campari for 90,000 Lire. Simon Moore believes that it formed part of his remuneration deal as an Alfa Romeo works-backed driver and Italian celebrity.

    It appears that Campari consigned the car to the Farina coachbuilding company of Turin to be rebodied from its Carrozzeria Touring-made racing-regulation style, to become a road-useable Drophead Coupe.

    At this point Marshal Italo Balbo enters '065's story. Born in Ferrara on June 6, 1896, this imposing figure had risen to national Italian prominence as a youthful leader of the Camicie Nere, or CCNN, 'Black Shirt' Fascist movement. He had been politically active at only 14 years of age when he participated in Ricciotto Garibaldi's revolt in Albania, Ricciotti being the son of Giuseppe Garibaldi, co-founder of the unified Italian nation.
    Balbo protested against initial Italian neutrality in World War 1, and once, in 1915, Italy had entered the conflict as an ally of Great Britain and France he served in the Army Alpini (Mountain) 'Val Fella' Battalion before volunteering for flying training on October 16, 1917. Within days Austro-Hungarian and German forces broke through the Italian Caporetto front and Balbo was re-assigned to the Alpini, leading an assault platoon of the 'Pieve di Cadore' battalion. Capitano Balbo ended the War with two silver medals and one bronze for courage under fire.
    He then completed degrees in Law and Social Sciences in Florence and pursued his political ambitions, joining the new Partito Nazionale Fascista, or PNF, in 1921 and becoming the Ferrara region's most prominent Fascisto. Aged only 26 he then became the youngest of the quadrumvirs, the four principal thinkers behind the March on Rome that catapulted Fascist leader Benito Mussolini to power in 1922.
    On 6 November 1926, though only peripherally experienced in aviation, Balbo was appointed Italy's Secretary of State for Air. After rushed flying instruction he set about rebuilding the Regia Aeronautica Italiana – Royal Italian Air Force – as a major arm. On August 19, 1928, he was made General of the Air Force and on September 12, 1929, Minister of the Air Force.
    Italian interest in aviation had never been higher. Balbo set out to enhance national prestige globally by projecting Italian air power through spectacular long-distance flights with mass formations.
    He personally led two trans-Atlantic flights, the first in December-January 1930-31 with twelve Savoia-Marchetti S55 flying boats from Orbetello, Italy, to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – and the second in July-August 1933 commanding an air armada of twenty-four flying boats on a round-trip flight from Rome to the Century of Progress exhibition in Chicago, Illinois, USA. They landed on Lake Michigan near Burnham Park, and Chicago renamed Seventh Street 'Balbo Drive' and staged a parade in his honour.
    The stylish, Van Dyke-bearded Balbo – who always courted personal publicity and promotion – assumed A-grade celebrity status in the United States, President Roosevelt presented him with the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Sioux Indian nation adopted him under the honorary title of 'Chief Flying Eagle'. To an ecstatic largely Italian-American crowd in New York's Madison Square Gardens he declared "Be proud you are Italians. Mussolini has ended the era of humiliations." Home in Italy, he was promoted to the newly-created rank of Maresciallo dell'Aria - Marshal of the Air Force.
    He assumed such national popularity – yet proved so independently minded, always having his own agenda – that Mussolini and those closest to him came to regard Balbo as a political threat. In 1933, amongst great fanfare, he was created Governor-General of the Italian colony of Tripolitania – modern Libya – which he then ran as virtually his personal fiefdom until his death in 1940. His political rivals in Rome deemed him too prominent to eliminate, but best sidelined on the other side of the Mediterranean. There he presided over every aspect of colonial life, including the reconstruction of Tripoli's Mellaha motor racing circuit into one of the world's most modern, and over the superfast Tripoli Grand Prix races run there from 1933-1940 – just before Italy entered World War 2 as part of the Fascist Axis with Nazi Germany.

    Italo Balbo had also launched road construction projects like the Via Balbia to attract Italian immigrants to Africa Settentrionale Italiana (ASI), and attempted to convert Muslims to Fascism. In 1938, he became the only member of Italy's Fascist regime to express robust opposition to new anti-Jewish racial laws, and in 1939 he visited Rome to express his displeasure at Mussolini's support for Hitler. Again he was the only prominent Fascist to express such public criticism, arguing instead that Italy should side with Great Britain. When rebuffed, Balbo exploded: "You will all wind up shining the Germans' shoes!".

    Mussolini's Italy declared war on Great Britain and France on June 10, 1940, and Balbo as military Commander-in-Chief North Africa became responsible for planning the invasion of Egypt. Just 18 days later, on June 28, 1940, Balbo
    was flying in one of a pair of trimotor Savoia-Marchetti SM79 transport/bombers to Tobruk's T2 aerodrome on a morale-raising mission to inspect troops. His aircraft apparently approached from seaward shortly after a raid on T2 by RAF Bristol Blenheim twin-engined bombers. That raid had destroyed a Fiat CR42 fighter on the ground, damaged several others - plus several CR32s and Ro37s, killed six airmen and wounded three pilots. The garrison's blood was up - and when the Governor-General's SM79 appeared, kiting in over Tobruk harbor to land, it was greeted by a hail of anti-aircraft fire from both land batteries and the guns of the Italian Navy cruiser San Giorgio. It was shot down, and all on board killed.

    RAF Air Chief Marshal Longmore later wrote: "...as a mark of respect I had a suitably worded note dropped over the frontier by an aircraft on reconnaissance. In due course a reply was dropped by an Italian machine from my Italian opposite number expressing 'Deep thanks for your message of sympathy'. Perhaps it was just as well this colourful personality did not live to see the humiliation of his country in defeat...".

    Italo Balbo's remains were buried outside Tripoli on July 4, 1940, and in 1970 were repatriated to Italy and buried Orbetello, from where he had departed on his startling successful trans-Atlantic flights in the 1930s.
    When this remarkable figure had bought Alfa Romeo 8C '065 '- now offered here – on January 12, 1933 , his second trans-Atlantic Raid had been in the planning, and he was about to achieve the height of his influence and fame as not only an Italian but international celebrity.
    The rebodied Alfa Romeo was evidently sold to him as new (!) although its price was a concessionary 70,000 Lire. His functionaries had the car Rome-registered for him as 'ROMA 33975' – and he kept it for two years. It is unclear whether the car was kept in Italy for Balbo's return visits there or whether it accompanied him to Tripolitania, but we understand that it was used after the successful conclusion of the 24-aircraft trans-Atlantic flight in August 1933, touring Italian towns and villages as a propaganda exercise. It was chauffeur driven while Balbo and two other prominent officers from his flight would sit in the back on its furled hood, greeting the adoring crowds.

    Eventually, on February 12, 1935, it was sold to broker Marcello Venturi of Rome, who passed it on that same day to Domenico Ferlengo of Milan for 24,000 Lire. On February 16 it was re-registered for him with the Milanese serial 'MI 9126'.

    By June 1, 1935, the car had arrived in the UK, being registered on that day as 'BXV 506'. Simon Moore's comprehensive researches identify it as being most probably being the Alfa Romeo 8C-2300 bought by Johnny Wakefield, the enthusiastic private owner-driver who had gone to Italy to buy himself a racing Maserati 4CM Vetturetta. While there he was also offered an 'ex-Balbo Drophead Coupe' which he thought was cheap, thanks partly to the Pound being very strong against the Lire. So he bought it, and brought it back with him to England.

    Johnny Wakefield found that the car in its quite floridly rebodied form had too much weight on the back, and too low a final-drive ratio, which would have been entirely consistent with it having been set-up for low-speed processional work as already described. He consequently soon sold the car to dealer Guy Griffiths with whom he shared a paddock shed at the Brooklands Motor Course.

    At some stage the car was repainted silver and black but precisely where it spent the next few years, and the Second World War, remains unclear. A new logbook was then issued for it in June 1947, in the name of contemporary owner Dr Thomas Cricklow of Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire.

    In 1951 it was sold on to Kenneth Speakman of Ramsgate, Kent, and he re-sold it via dealers Johnson and Brown to a Dr Philip Robertson of Birkenhead, Cheshire, who then ran it from June 1954 to March 1956.

    The ageing Alfa Romeo was then taken off the road. It passed to Jack Frazer of Cullybackey, County Antrim, in Ulster, and eventually - in October 1968 - it was bought by Michael Johnson, who together with his father Dermot rebuilt it into 1972. Ownership was transferred to Ann Johnson - Michael Johnson's wife - on January 22, 1969. The car was not re-licensed for road use until August 1974...and the Johnsons retained it for many years until it was auctioned under Malcolm Barber's gavel at Sotheby's in December 1985. The successful bidder was then Pierre Chillet from near Lyon, France.

    In early 1991 the car was advertised in Hemmings by a dealer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA, but Simon Moore characterises the offer as a hoax. Late in 1995 this ex-Le Mans, ex-Birkin, ex-Howe, ex-Balbo, ex-Wakefield Alfa Romeo was acquired by well-known Alfa Romeo enthusiast Keith Duly, and it was then advertised for sale in 1996 by London dealer Gregor Fisken.

    It was at this time when George Daniels intended to retire - he was beginning to feel tired of an evening but otherwise felt in good health - and spend more time motoring. So it was all the more surprising that a heart condition necessitated a double by-pass operation – on his 70th birthday.

    Having sold his ex-Birkin team 'Blower' Bentley, George Daniels was, as he recalled: "... looking for something a bit lighter as the Le Mans Bentley was a bit of a handful on tight corners and I saw Fisken was selling Birkin's 1932 Alfa Romeo. I wanted that Birkin car, we reached an agreement, and I have since found it a wonderful car for racing, lightweight, very fast, 130mph and it fulfills all my needs for a sports racing car...".

    Upon acquisition Daniels commissioned noted specialists Rod Jolley Coachbuilding Limited of Hampshire, UK, to rebody from Drophead Coupe form back into the Birkin Le Mans and TT racing body style in which it is presented for sale today. At the same time, the rest of the car was totally stripped down and rebuilt, with the engine entrusted to Jim Stokes. The car was completed in time for the 1998 Manx Classic and managed two firsts and a second in class.

    This splendidly presented Alfa Romeo 8C-2300 is offered together with a comprehensive file and having recently emerged from fettling by noted Alfa Romeo specialists Jim Stokes Workshop. It should also be noted that the original Pinin Farina body is offered with the car.

    Slide in behind that thin-rimmed steering wheel, sight down the long arrow-straight bonnet – and engage the starter. The supreme motoring experience beckons...
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