Romeo Alfetta 158
Alfa" That Grew Too Big.
and photos by Rod
forty years after the Alfa Romeo 158 of Giuseppe Farina took the chequers
on May 13 1950 at Silverstone, that same car reappeared at Adelaide
in 1990, driving again in the company of Fangio, as part of a truly
memorable historic parade.
that ten car demonstration highlighted the evolution of the F1 car over
500 races and 40 years. Today's cars exude a super-technological appearance,
under which lies human handywork that is the absolute pinnacle of performance
research. Such was the case in 1950 when, four years after the Alfa
Corse had emerged from their wartime hideout in the sleepy village of
Melzo in Northern Italy, Formula One racing as we know today, begun.
Their equipment, cars and technology intact, the Alfetta 158 was reborn
to become the totally dominate F1 car of the time. Such was their might
that is wasn't until 27 Grand Prix had been run before the Alfa stranglehold
could be broken.
fourteen year lifespan of the 158/159 began through desperation in 1937.
The Mercedes and Auto Union teams, with massive Nazi assistance, were
sweeping all before them in the 3 litre GP formula. Gioachino Colombo,
fresh from experience with Vittorio Jano, was asked by his Alfa chief,
Orazio Satta, to design and build a car for the then sub-contracted
Enzo Ferrari's team to race in the 1938 1.5 litre "voiturette" formula.
Something akin to the Formula 2 of later years. The "little Alfa" stormed
to a 1-2 victory at the hands of Villoresi and Biondetti in its debut
outing at Livorno. The date; August 7 1938.
this early trim, the 158 produced nearly 200 bhp at 7,000rpm by virtue
of a single-stage Roots supercharger operating at 17.6psi. The engine
itself was a straight eight employing twin overhead camshafts. The block,
with head integral, were a pair of Elektron (magnesium) castings, bolted,
with dry steel liners, to a sump and crankcase of identical metal. Earlier
Alfa 8s had split blocks, 4 cylinders either end of the timing mechanism.
The new 1.5 litre placed its timing gear at the front of a bank of eight,
thus enabling a shorter and lighter 2-4-2 crankshaft, which by the way,
weighed in at only 24 lb after having been machined down from a 176
lb forged billet of chrome nickel steel. Together with valves (3 oz),
pistons (9.9 oz), conrods (11.3 oz) and flywheel (6.6 lb), the whole
shebang tipped the scales at just 363 lb. Compare this with 396 lb for
the Alfa 1.5 twin turbo of the 1980s.
some teething troubles evident in the few remaining events before war
set in. At Tripoli in 1939, Lang and Caracciola gave the overheating
Alfas a hiding in the sole excursion of the 1.5 litre W-165 Benz, however
in 1940 Farina won there, beating Lang's previous record.
racing dragged itself from the rubble of Europe, primarily through the
enthusiasm of the Italians, to hold a rag-tag season in 1946. The first
races were a pathetic "Formula Libre", where anything that still looked
like a car could race. The Alfas of Farina and Wimille failed in Paris,
but Wimille's became immortal by featuring on the cover of Vol.1 No.1
Road & Track. None-the-less, Farina, Trossi and Varzi all claimed
victories before the end of the year in cars that were now upgraded
to produce around 254 bhp (158/46B).
the Type 158 became a Grand Prix car and had no trouble disposing of
the opposition, so much so that the new, 300+bhp 158/47 trim was postponed
until 1948. Its debut in practice at the Swiss GP was tragic. Varzi,
eager to impress, lost the car on a slippery downhill section and was
killed. The earlier 158s continued to do well before the 158/47 was
raced at the re-opening of the Monza circuit. Wimille, Trossi and Sanesi
finished in a staged 1-2-3. Before the end of the year Wimille would
be dead in a South American practice accident, Trossi too, of cancer.
This led, at least in part, to Alfa abstaining from racing in 1949.
the intermission the Alfetta was improved to produce 350 bhp at 8600
rpm. For some time already, cracks had been evident in the four original
crankcases, but patched and redesigned by Colombo, they would be kept
in service through the life of the 158.
was out that Alfa would be back to contest the 1950 season which incorporated
the first FIA World Championship. Farina was back after an earlier political
row, Fagioli the veteran anchorman was included plus a not thoroughly
popular Fangio. He did something to improve his public standing however,
with an impressive win in a lone 158/47 at San Remo against several
of Colombo's new Ferraris. In their first venture from the mainland
since Tripoli in 1940, Alfa Romeo made an appearance with four entries
at the first ever World Championship event at Silverstone.
as much as any, was a demonstration of Alfa'a shear invincibility. As
Sanesi was injured, the fourth Alfa was piloted by Reg Parnell as a
concession to the English and, in a race-day attendance record that
stands to this day, 150,000 of his countrymen turned out to witness
the spectacle. George VI had the field of 21 runners presented to him
and the Alfa boys had staged a publicity stunt by driving several miles
to the circuit from Banbury.
race, Fangio created a bit of a ruckus by pushing Farina a little too
hard. Fangio backed off, but in doing so spun into some bales and concrete
at Stowes. Farina finished the 202 miles in 2 hr 13 mins, Fagioli in
formation at his rear, Parnell a further minute in arrears.
aside, the three Fs won every one of the FIA events plus the five non-championship
races as well, but 1950 was the last year they had it all their own
way. 1951 saw the 158 undergo substantial changes and be re-christened
the 159. The long-serving swing axle rear suspension was swapped for
a de Dion assembly to compensate for the dramatic increase in loading
due to speeds of nearly 200 mph and increased fuel loads. The two-stage
supercharged engine was now producing 420 bhp at 9600 - from the same
1937 designed block!
seven Grand Prix (again excluding INDY) that year and Fangio started
well by winning the opener at Bremgarten in May. He conceded at Spa
to Farina through retirement, but won again at Reims. At Silverstone
on July 14, Gonzalez broke through to win by 51", thereby ending their
unbeaten 27 race record.
then turned the whole circus on its ear when Ascari won from pole position
at the 14 mile Nurburgring. Monza rocked with another Ferrari victory,
Farina was left to chase the prancing horses, handicapped by poor pitwork
and a split fuel tank. The championship would go to the wire at Barcelona,
the final round.
Rhin circuit was rough but fast, stressing cars to the limit. Alfa introduced
the 159M (Maggiorata/increased) with reinforced frame tubes and added
cantilevers above both frame rails. This, coupled with Ferrari's poor
race plan of trying to go without refuelling and ill-chosen rear wheels,
confirmed Fangio's first World Championship.
who had been back at Alfa since leaving Ferrari at the end of 1950, determined
that the heroic 158/159 was well and truly past the point of diminishing
returns. He completely redesigned the car, reducing power by over 25%,
weight by 500lb, and fuel capacity by nearly half, but when the plan (and
figures) were submitted to the government, who had doled out the lires
before, they baulked at the price. The marvellous 158 was to be but a
museum piece from that time on.
unrivalled success had been a canny mixture of excellent design, great
drivers, good management and no chances with durability. Despite a high
turnover of moving components, the original nine blocks were still in
use to the very end.
published in Amatori Alfa. A savagely edited version also appeared
in Sports & Classic Cars.
stories by Roderick Eime
material, unless otherwise noted, is copyright to the author and
may not be used, reproduced or mirrored without express consent
in writing. Permission is not specifically sought for linking, although
the author does appreciate notification.