While everyone was running from press conference to press conference trying to get photos of all the new vehicles and concepts coming to showrooms soon, one small area behind the FCA stand caught our attention, and we had to stop for a moment to remember the past before returning to the future. What we’re talking about are the two priceless Alfa Romeo race cars that graced the Fiat stand at Cobo during the 2015 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
The 1932 Alfa Romeo Tipo B P3 and 1951 Alfa Romeo 159 Alfetta racers, with their worn leather seats and tarnished metal, were as beautiful as any of the shiny new iron (aluminum?) at any other display in the hall. Much like the Velveteen Rabbit, these Alfas had been loved so much, and updating anything on them would diminish their importance not only to auto racing, but to the industry as well.
Looking at these early racers gives you an appreciation for the strong desire drivers had to compete, and at the pure guts it took to climb into one of these vehicles that today would be considered accidents waiting to happen. The 1932 Alfa P3, for example, featured a monoposto design, or single-seat position, which today is normal in most race cars. What isn’t normal today is how the driver is sitting: in this Alfa, you can see that the driver (Nuvolari, in this case) sat straddling the driveshaft. It was a brilliant design by Alfa’s engineer Vittorio Jano, at the time, as it put the differential in the middle of the car, which reduced unsprung weight on the rear axle and improved handling. This open vee design also meant that the driver’s seat could sit lower in the body between the angled shafts, providing a more balanced center of gravity.
While this was great for racing performance, put yourself in the driver’s place: running for hours at full speed, no Nomex® fire suit, with the heat from this machinery positioned between your legs, just waiting for the chance to burn you if you moved the wrong way. Rudimentary controls, a giant wood steering wheel, no seatbelts, and a leather cap really make you admire and respect what these drivers did and accomplished, compared to the safety-encapsulated race car professionals today.
Under the hood, the engine was a standout at the time: an eight cylinder made up of two four cylinders, each one with a small, single blower that shared a common drive, but its own downdraft carburetor. With a 100mm stroke and a 34mm valve size, the engine made a peak 215 brake horsepower. That may not seem like a lot by today’s standards, but this little Alfa dominated in Grand Prix racing and set several speed records. This vehicle was a legend then, and it continues to be a legend now.
There were only six 1932 P3s made. This one normally lives in the Alfa Romeo museum in Milan, Italy, and is worth millions of dollars. It was a genuine treat to see a vehicle of this caliber with this storied history at the auto show, and kudos to Fiat for bringing them both many miles so we can step back in time and pay tribute to those who raced, continually searching for ways to improve the modern automobile so we can truly appreciate the performance, safety, and capability of our rides decades later.
Photography © BJ Killeen/Team Killeen and courtesy FCA.