Lifestyle

The First Italian Supercar


The extremely rare 1932 Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Spyder Corto was one of the defining pre-war performance cars

The chassis serial associated with this 8C 2300 is 2211051. This serial was the earliest number applied to the second-series of 8C 2300s, the brainchild of Alfa Romeo's fabled chief engineer, Vittorio Jano.

Alfa Romeo 8C 2300s appeared in 1931 in a variety of forms, achieving four consecutive wins in the Le Mans 24-hour race (plus a close second in 1935), two wins in the Spa 24 hours, three consecutive victories in the Targa Florio, and three more in the Mille Miglia.

The 8C 2300 design also spawned the short-wheelbase Monza Grand Prix car, followed by the single-seat-open-wheeled Tipo B Monoposto, one of the landmarks of motor racing history at its highest level.

This car was restored in the 1980s by the late British Alfista David Black and maintained by his family since his death in 1990. Much of 2211051's provenance is recorded and key details are incontrovertible. It was a Scuderia Ferrari entry in the 1933 Mille Miglia and, driven by Mario Borzacchini, actually led the race for a while. It then passed through various Italian owners -- even spending time in Africa -- before being sold to the U.S. in the early 1960s.

By 1975, it was in pieces, with a later 6-cylinder engine, incorrect independent front suspension, and little body work. At this point, David Black bought the remains for a bargain £600 and set about building up a replacement 8-cylinder engine, correct axle, and bodywork, largely with pre-WWII parts. A recent restoration from 1999 to 2002 cost $160,000.

The SCM Analysis

This car sold for $2,819,000 at the Bonhams Chichester auction at the Goodwood Festival of Speed on June 22, 2007.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of Alfa Romeo's 8C 2300 series of cars in the history of the performance automobile. Despite the relatively small production (188 cars) it was the dominant European racing car of the early '30s and arguably the first Italian "Supercar."

It defined the careers of many of the great drivers of the era, particularly Nuvolari, Caracciola, and Chinetti. It set Enzo Ferrari firmly on the path to automotive greatness, and it established the standards of quality, technological excellence, and beauty that have defined the Italian automobile to the present day. As such, it has been one of the holy grails of performance car collecting for as long as that passion has been around.

ALFA (which stands for Lombardy Motorcar Manufacturing Company, roughly translated) was formed in 1910 around the remains of a collapsed Darracq taxicab factory and immediately showed its Italian racing passion by entering two cars in the 1911 Targa Florio, where one led briefly. Through the teens, and particularly after industrialist Nicola Romeo took over after WWI, competition (both in racing and with their Torinese rival FIAT) was at the core of Alfa Romeo's self-concept.

Vittorio Jano upgraded Alfa

A group of talented young racing drivers coalesced around the factory in the early 1920s, including one named Enzo Ferrari. Legend has it that in 1923, Ferrari himself persuaded Fiat's top racing designer, Vittorio Jano, to move to Milan and join Alfa Romeo, but this may be more a good story than reality. Once established in Milan, Jano quickly moved to upgrade Alfa's automotive offerings, dumping the pushrod RL series in favor of a new series of overhead-cam engines with far greater performance. The 6C 1500 and its development, the 6C 1750, were extremely successful through the late '20s, both in competition and as road cars.

It's important to remember that Alfa Romeo was not a small specialist manufacturer like Maserati. The Romeo industrial empire was one of Europe's greatest, and Alfa manufactured road cars, buses, trucks, and aircraft engines while the other Romeo companies built industrial, mining, and railway equipment, munitions, etc. With just 533 cars built in 1928, the automotive side of Alfa was more a high-profile jewel in the crown than a core industry. This allowed Jano the freedom to pursue engineering and artistic excellence, and to position Alfa Romeo as an exclusive performance car manufacturer, effectively the Ferrari of its time. The decision to build a supercharged 8-cylinder car to top the product line was made in early 1929, and design work started immediately, but the first cars weren't produced until 1931.

Students of history will recall that an awful lot changed between early 1929 and 1931, so the new Alfa 8C 2300 supercar arrived on the market at an inauspicious time. At 80,000-125,000 Lira ($52,000-$82,000 in 2007 dollars), these were very expensive cars, particularly in the depths of a worldwide depression. So their market was limited to those few with both the money to spend and the passion for performance and beauty. I've said in past columns that the first rule of antiques and collectibles is, "what was special then is special now," and the 8C 2300 is a poster child for that truism. With the possible exception of the 8C 2900 that succeeded it, there is no more desirable pre-war Italian car.

The design was an engineering and aesthetic tour de force, innovative with concepts like driving the cams, supercharger, and accessories off the middle of the engine, and displaying light alloy casting quality and detail that is still stunning 75 years later. Bugatti engines of the era were minimalist blocks and Mercedes and Bentley units were huge cast lumps, while Alfa's were voluptuous sculptures, all curves and fins. The chassis were likewise light and quick, the cars very easy to drive.

Drive an Alfa with your wrists

There is a wonderful aphorism that states, "You drive a Bentley with your shoulders, a Bugatti with your forearms, and an Alfa Romeo with your wrists." I have spent some time in an 8C 2300 Monza and plenty of time in Bentleys, and I can attest that this is an accurate statement. The Alfa is so light, quick, and easy to drive that you almost forget that it's a pre-war car. Imagine a tall Lotus 7 with skinny 19-inch tires (and a lot more horsepower) and you get the feeling.

My experience has been with a Monza, the pure-race variant, and as such the lightest and quickest of the lot. I can only guess that the road versions drove as well. Though the car was originally produced in both long and short chassis versions with everything from pur sang racing bodywork to full four-door Berlina sedans, most of the pedestrian versions have either not survived or been converted to sporting recreations. There are very few original-bodied road-going 8C 2300s left.

Like most highly collectible cars from the pre-war period, there is a huge variation in the quality, history, and resulting market values for various examples. There appears to be a period in virtually any car's life, generally between eight and 20 years after it was built, when it's just a difficult, unreliable used-up old car. For the 8C 2300, this period happened to coincide with WWII, with the result that many were broken up for scrap drives, either completely or partially.

When they became collectible again in the '50s and later, many cars got reassembled from what parts were available. Known history, originality, and matching numbers are thus of huge consequence in the way the market values these cars. The bottom of the pile are "bitsas" (bits of this car, bits of that car) with tenuous claims to chassis numbers and history, if any. In today's market these are worth something in the range of $1.25 million. At the top would be a factory competition car with famous driver history, all original parts, and a known provenance. A few of these exist, but they are emphatically not for sale. If one were, the number would start with at least a five, probably more.

The subject car fits comfortably in the middle of this range. It is a known chassis with good history and an established provenance, but the original engine was lost and a replacement built from parts. Most of the body is new, as is the front suspension. It's a good and very acceptable but not great car, and at $2.8 million, I think was correctly valued for what it is. I'd say honestly and fairly bought.

Years Produced: 1931-34

Number Produced: 188

Original List Price: 80,000-125,000 Lira ($4,100-$6,400)

SCM Valuation: $1.5m-$5m or more (at time of print)

Chassis #: 2211051

Chassis # Location: Right rear frame rail above wheel

Engine # Location: Left rear engine mount

Club Info: Alfa Romeo Owners Club

Web Site: http://www.aroc-usa.org

Alternatives: 1931-35 Bugatti Type 51, 1934-39 ERA, 1930-34 Maserati 26M

Investment Grade: A


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