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Concours Italians show industrial design at its best

Posted in Classic by Terry Parkhurst | November 17th, 2008 | Leave a Reply |

Alfa the dog resists the urge to mark the silver cup for Best of Show, won by his owners' 1938 Alfa-Romeo 8C 2900B touring coupe. (Photo by Terry Parkhurst)
Alfa the dog resists the urge to mark the silver cup for Best of Show, won by his owners’ 1938 Alfa-Romeo 8C 2900B touring coupe. (Photo by Terry Parkhurst)

Way back in 1910, when the Darracq automobile company of France, decided to sell their Italian factory to the Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili (ALFA), few probably thought the company would be producing a car the likes of the 1938-’39 Alfa-Romeo 8C 2900 Berlinetta. An example of one that not only survived, but won Best of Show at both the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in California, as well as the Kirkland Concours d’Elegance a few weeks later in Washington State.

This 1956 Alfa-Romeo 1900 SS touring coupe, owned by Charles Morse, on display at the Kirkland Concours, epitomizes the beauty of an Italian hardtop. (Photo by Terry Parkhurst)
This 1956 Alfa-Romeo 1900 SS touring coupe, owned by Charles Morse, on display at the Kirkland Concours, epitomizes the beauty of an Italian hardtop. (Photo by Terry Parkhurst)
 
Jon Shirley, a former executive with Microsoft, who has made a specialty of collecting and restoring significant Italian cars, owns the car that won at both concours. The story of the 8C 2900 Berlinetta, such as the touring car Shirley owns, explains why Italian cars continue to fascinate us.

The 8C 2900 Berlinetta was introduced in late 1937. It was primarily a special order model that enticed 30 customers directly to the factory, during the following two years. They came as the result of the car’s custom bodywork, which was displayed in the very first concours organized before World War II.

It came with two wheelbases available, a long wheelbase of 118.1 inches and a shorter wheelbase of 110.2 inches; however, as is the nature with specially built cars, it has been found the wheelbases vary even from those numbers, on surviving, individual cars.

The track was 53.1 inches, front and rear, on all models. The shorter chassis was the most popular and most all of the surviving 8C 2900 Berlinetta coupes that made their way to the States, are of this model.

A welded, light gauge box-section frame kept the chassis weight to about 1,600 pounds on the short wheelbase model. It was 1,700 pounds on the longer wheelbase cars.

The construction of the engine was as unique as the swooping curves of its body. It consisted of two blocks of four cylinders, with central gear drive to a supercharger and twin overhead cams. Light alloy was used for the cylinder blocks, crankcase and valve covers, with steel liners in the bores; however, the cylinder head was not detachable. Maintenance was then, as now, not something that was factored into Italian cars by their engineers.

The 8C 2900 Berlinetta’s engine – 2905 cc – had a compression ratio of just 5.75:1. Bronze valve inserts were used instead of direct seating into the cylinder head. There were two superchargers, each with its own Weber carburetor, serving a block of four cylinders. The output given for the engine was 180 horsepower at 5,400 rpm, with an engine speed of 5,700 rpm within reach without danger of blowing the engine.

Backing up that engine was a multiple dry-plate clutch and four-speed gearbox using straight-toothed gears; they were located, along with the final drive, in an alloy case at the rear of the car. Swing axles, located by radius arms, telescopic shock absorbers and a transverse leaf spring, helped put power to the road.

The wire wheels were 19-inches in diameter and had knock-offs to make changing them out easier. Discs did not accomplish braking, back then; however, those big wheels allowed for 17 inch, 2.5-inch wide, hydraulic drum brakes. Pirelli Corsa tires were standard fare.

The design was so solid, that even after WWII, people who raced them won races. One won the 1947 Mille Miglia. The late Phil Hill, the only native born American to win a F1 championship, campaigned a convertible version; back when there was racing through the woods around Pebble Beach.

Of the thirty-three 2900Bs built by Alfa-Romeo, at least 22 are believed to exist, showing the degree to which collectors appreciate the car.

With a wheelbase of about 110 inches, Jon Shirley's concours-winning Alfa-Romeo 8C 2900B coupe is one stylish ride. (Photo by Terry Parkhurst)
With a wheelbase of about 110 inches, Jon Shirley’s concours-winning Alfa-Romeo 8C 2900B coupe is one stylish ride. (Photo by Terry Parkhurst)

Shirley’s Alfa-Romeo wasn’t the only unique Italian car at the Kirkland Concours. A 1953 Fiat V8 Ghia Supersonic, owned by David and Ginny Sydorick looked so futuristic, it was hard to believe it was designed over 50 years ago.

The 1953 Fiat Ghia Supersonic was one far-out looking design.  Setting next to a Ferrari at the Kirkland Concours, it more than holds its own. (Photo by Terry Parkhurst)
The 1953 Fiat Ghia Supersonic was one far-out looking design. Setting next to a Ferrari at the Kirkland Concours, it more than holds its own. (Photo by Terry Parkhurst)

Fiat’s then in-house designer, Dante Giacosa, knew that a two-liter V8 engine demanded a more sturdy construction than Fiat had been using. His solution was to design the frame from welded sheet metal and have the coachwork paneling welded to that structure.

As things were done in Italy, back then, chassis fabrication was farmed out to specialist maker Siata and Fabio Luigi Rapi was hired to actually design the bodywork; he gave it a special look with two large headlights in the grille and two smaller lights in the fenders. The second series body had four headlights in the fenders to comply with GT regulations in Europe.

The V8 engine in the Supersonic was designed from two cylinder blocks, mounted on a common crankcase. To keep the engine low in height, and thus allow for aerodynamic bodylines, the angel between the cylinder banks was set at 70 degrees. A centrally mounted camshaft operated the valves by pushrods. Two Weber carburetors, meant 105 horsepower; and with triple Webers, output was 115 horsepower.

The contractor and design house of Ghia built twelve Supersonic bodies; 8 of them on an V8 chassis, three on a Jaguar chassis and one on an Aston Martin chassis.

The car owned by the Sydoricks is the only one made with a functional hood scoop.

With Italian cars such as these, still around, it is no wonder Alfa-Romeo plans to call its upcoming, limited edition – 84 planned – 444 horsepower V8 coupe, the 8C Competizione, in memory of a heritage that is priceless.

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