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Alfa Romeo Alfetta 158

The "Little Alfa" That Grew Too Big.

Article and photos by Rod Eime

Alfetta 158

Just over 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. 

Visually, 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. 

The amazing 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. 

In 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. 

There were 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. 

Grand Prix 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). 

In 1947, 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. 

During 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. 

Photo by Alan R. SmithWord 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. 

This race, 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. 

In the 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. 

Indianapolis 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! 

There were 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. 

Ferrari 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. 

The Pena 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. 

Colombo, 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. 

The Alfetta's 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. 


Originally published in Amatori Alfa. A savagely edited version also appeared in Sports & Classic Cars.

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