In the hands of a series of charismatic drivers including Tazio Nuvolari, the Alfa Romeo 8C-35 became a legend of the golden age
of motor racing. Richard Williams tells its story
Any machine associated with Tazio Nuvolari is touched by a special magic. This is especially true when it is as handsome as the muscular Alfa Romeo 8C-35 which is credited as the car with which the great Italian ace took on the might of the German Grand Prix teams that were crushing opposition in the years before the Second World War. The car, to be offered by Bonhams at this year's Goodwood Revival, is a survivor of the half-dozen built for the Scuderia Ferrari to race on behalf of the Alfa factory in 1935, with Nuvolari – Enzo Ferrari's favorite driver -- as their leader on the track.
There is even more to this story, however, than an association with the most charismatic of all Grand Prix aces, for the car bearing the chassis and engine number 50013 enjoyed a remarkable history after it had left the Scuderia's hands. In the remaining pre-war years it was raced by a wealthy Swiss amateur driver who wrote a classic motor-racing novel and later became an animal-rights activist; by the most glamorous of Britain's 1930s racing drivers; and by a amateur who was also a jazz musician. After the war it became the pride and joy of a leading industrialist who won many races in it before locking it away for 30 years.
But it is Nuvolari's name that sings out, evoking an era of reckless courage and an instinctive readiness to ignore the odds in a fight against the big battalions. Built like a jockey, the little Mantuan dressed for racing in a uniform of red leather helmet, blue trousers, a sleeveless leather jerkin and a yellow jersey carrying his monogram together with his personal emblem, the tortoise, bestowed upon him by the poet Gabriele D'Annunzio, one of his greatest admirers. In 1935, already 42 years old, he achieved his most celebrated victory, humbling the Mercedes and Auto Union teams at the Nürburgring, their stronghold. The victory was made all the greater by being at the wheel of an obsolete Alfa. For future battles he was given the 8C-35 that had the sort of technology deployed by the Germans, as well as a proud upright oval radiator grille and rows of curved louvers like a shark's gills on its flanks and tail.
Conceived in Alfa's Portello factory, the 8C-35 was propelled by a supercharged straight-eight 3.8-liter engine producing 330 brake horsepower, its chassis featuring all-independent suspension and hydraulic brakes. Six were built for the team set up in Modena by Enzo Ferrari, whose cars bore the yellow shield with the black prancing horse.
Nuvolari was the Scuderia's number one pilot, conforming in every particular to Enzo Ferrari's own idea of what a racing driver should be. "Unlike just about all drivers, of whatever era," Ferrari wrote in his memoirs, "Nuvolari was never discouraged if he was given a car of inferior performance. He never left the starting line already beaten, and whatever position he was in, even if he was seventh or tenth, he always fought like a lion. That passion of his, that indomitable pride, was perceived by the fans and made him their hero."
Their devotion was evident when the new 8Cs made their debut in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza that September. A piston broke in Nuvolari's engine, and the crowd's response was immediate. As his team mate René Dreyfus roared passed the grandstands, a chant went up: Nuvolari la macchina! Nuvolari la macchina! Put Nuvolari in the car! When Enzo Ferrari advanced the suggestion during a pit stop, Dreyfus readily complied. "Tazio was the team captain," the chivalrous Frenchman explained. "I was a big fan of his, and I was proud he was my friend." With worn-out brakes and an engine firing on only seven cylinders, Nuvolari fought to bring the car home in second place.
A week later he gave the new model its first victory, around the streets of Modena, Ferrari's home town, with no German opposition. But a defeat at the hands of Bernd Rosemeyer's Auto Union at Brno in Czechoslovakia a fortnight later indicated that the 8C might not, after all, have the power to rival the Germans, and Alfa's engineers set to work on the design of a new 12-cylinder engine.
Since the work was not finished in time for the opening race of the 1936 season, Nuvolari started the Monaco Grand Prix in an 8C, and in torrential rain on the tight street circuit, he looked like winning until problems with his brakes dropped him down to fourth, behind a trio of German cars. A few weeks later he got his revenge in Budapest by beating the Auto Unions of Rosemeyer and his personal rival, Achille Varzi.
By the next race, however, the 12-cylinder engine was ready. Several of the 8Cs were modified to take the new powerplant, thus becoming 12Cs, one of which Nuvolari drove in the Coppa Ciano at Livorno in August. But when his differential broke, it was the 8C of Carlo Pintacuda that he chose to take over, attacking the Auto Unions until they broke and giving the eight-cylinder car a magnificent final victory in Ferrari's colors.
At that stage, having been withdrawn from the front line, 50013 – the car offered at Goodwood Revival – began the fun part of its career. In 1936 Ferrari sold the car to Hans Ruesch, the son of a Swiss mill owner. Ruesch took the car to Donington Park, the forerunner of the British Grand Prix. Needing a co-driver, he remembered the fine performance of Dick Seaman, the young English ace, at the Coppa Acerbo in Pescara the year before, where Seaman had finished first and Ruesch third. The invitation was accepted, and the pair romped to victory.
Ruesch finished second in the car to Raymond Mays's ERA in the Brooklands Mountain Championship race, and finished a creditable eighth at both the 1937 German and Monaco Grands Prix, before returning to Britain for races. He then loaned the car to R.E.L. 'Buddy' Featherstonhaugh, an amateur racer who had distinguished himself in 1934 by winning the Albi Grand Prix in a Maserati. Featherstonhaugh earned his living as a highly respected jazz saxophonist: he recorded with Spike Hughes, Benny Carter and Valaida Snow, and had been a member of the British band accompanying Louis Armstrong during the great trumpeter's first visit to Britain in 1932. Unfortunately, Featherstonhaugh rolled the car during practice for the British Empire Trophy at Donington, necessitating expensive repairs in Milan.
Ruesch sold the car to Robert Arbuthnot, another British driver, before spending the war in New York, where he became a successful journalist and author. Two of his books were turned into Hollywood films; one of them, The Racer, starring Kirk Douglas, was adapted from Ruesch's excellent novel – originally titled Il Numero Uno – first published in 1937, which was based on direct observation of the great figures of the pre-war European Grand Prix scene. A switch of interest to the anti-vivisection movement led him to write the influential book Slaughter of the Innocent in 1975. He died in 2007, aged 94.
By that time the other great names associated with 50013 were also dead. Seaman was killed in a Mercedes while leading the 1939 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa. Nuvolari returned to the circuits in 1946, sometimes with a handkerchief tied across his face to conceal the blood he was spitting from his ruined lungs. He died in 1953, aged 60, after a series of strokes. Featherstonhaugh became a car salesman after the war, making occasional reappearances on the jazz scene, and died in 1976, aged 66.
During the war 50013 was acquired by Dennis Poore, a British industrialist and amateur driver who used it to win the feature race at the first post-war meeting on the British mainland, at the Gransden Lodge aerodrome in Cambridgeshire. He appeared with it at the inaugural Goodwood meeting in 1948, and exploited its power and roadholding to capture the British hill-climb championship. At Poore's behest, its original Alfa red bodywork was covered with a new coat of dark green paint. From 1955 until his death in 1987 it was kept in storage, before being sold by today's Bonhams team at Monaco for £1.5m, then a record for a Grand Prix car and the prelude to a long and successful second career in historic racing.
Hans Ruesch's motor racing novel featured a character called Dell'Oro, based – as the author later admitted -- very precisely on Nuvolari: "'Well done!' Dell'Oro said, his famed toothy grin breaking the darkness of his long, bony face. His high, thin, almost soundless voice was as incongruous as his small hands. But he had a nervous intensity of speech and manner that accurately reflected his style of driving and his explosive energy." Today the man who exploited that energy so brilliantly lies in a marble tomb in Mantua, its lintel bearing the inscription 'Correrai ancor piu veloce nel cielo': you will race even faster in the heavens. The cars he drove, so few of which survive, form another kind of memorial to his immortal genius.
Richard Williams writes about sport in a weekly column for The Guardian.