The most remarkable engine of the 1930s, the Alfa Romeo 8C – with eight cylindres, dual overhead cams and twin superchargers – propelled pre-war Alfa Romeo automobiles to dominate across all racing disciplines as well as to seduce the rich and famous with one of the most prestigious pre-war supercars.
The Vittorio Jano designed power plant won every European race in every discipline. Introduced in 1931 (and based on Jano’s original straight eight-cylindres design from 1924), the 8C first ran at the Mille Miglia that year. With a single crankcase, two four-cylindre alloy blocks with incorporated cylindre heads (like Albert Lory’s design for the fabulous 1927 Delage 15 S 8 engine), a centrally placed gear tower driving the camshafts and the two separate superchargers’ drive trains, a bore and stroke of 65 mm and 88 mm respectively, gave a total displacement of 2,336 cc producing 175 horsepower at 5,200 rpm. This original 8C model was produced in 188 examples from 1931 through 1934. Alfa sent these cars to Touring, Zagato and Castagna for the bodywork – with the exception of one chassis bodied by Figoni in Paris: the famous and fantastically all original chassis no. 2211079 of 1932 that belonged to the de Beaumont d’Autichans family for nearly 80 years and was presented at the Chantilly Concours d’Elegance in 2016.
The 8C gave Alfa Romeo victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans four years in a row from 1931 through 1934 (includingTazio Nuvolari with Raymond Sommer in 1933), ending Bentley’s domination there. Nuvolari also won the 1931 and 1932 Targa Florio in a 8C 2300 Spider. In a short chassis 8C 2300, Nuvolari’s victory at Monza in 1931 earned the model the ‘Monza’ name that has stuck ever since. Originally only two Monza two-seaters with special aluminium alloy engines were built for racing by Alfa Romeo. Eventually an additional 20 were built thanks to the encouragement and persuasion of Enzo Ferrari for the sports racing efforts of his eponymous racing team (see below).
The Le Mans cars and the Mille Miglia cars were all built as twin-seaters because of the rules for road racing at that time. With the advent of Grand Prix championship racing and the development of single seater cars, Alfa developed, for the sole purpose of entering the World Championship in 1932, the Tipo B ‘Monoposto’ or single seater. The first and perhaps the most legendary single seater of all time, the ‘P3’ (as it came to be known in the Italian press as the hier to the previous ‘P2’ model) dominated immediately from its very first race. On June 5, 1932, Nuvolari took victory in the Grand Prix of Italy at Monza for Alfa Romeo in the very first race for the Tipo B/P3. The P3 won all three of the championship races that year: Italy, France and Germany. At the Mille Miglia, Alfa Romeo 8C won every year from 1932 to 1938, including Nuvolari’s victory in 1933. Nuvolari was the most successful of all Alfa Romeo drivers in the pre-war period.
Two series of Tipo B were produced: 6 in 1932 and 9 in 1934 (one of which perhaps on a recycled chassis from the first series). The first Tipo B had a slightly enlarged displacement at 2,654 cc. By 1934 the Tipo B ran with a 2,905 cc engine, a version of which later served in Alfa Romeo’s fantastic luxury 2900B models. Today 12 Tipo B/P3 are believed to exist. Enzo Ferrari, once a test driver for Alfa Romeo negotiated the exclusive use of the 8C and became the de-facto racing department of Alfa Romeo from 1932 to 1937. With Nuvolari as its primary driver, the Scuderia Ferrari, founded in 1929 as an Alfa Romeo racing team, made the Alfa Romeo P3 one of the most iconic Grand Prix automobiles of all time. With Nuvolari and the Alfa P3, the Scuderia dominated Grand Prix racing in 1932 and 1933.
Driven nearly to bankruptcy because of the world economic depression, the Italian government took control of Alfa Romeo in 1933. Ferrari was able to convince Alfa to allow him to continue to race the prized P3s after a short moratorium in the early part of that year where Alfa was stymied by the cost of racing and the perception that the gains that victory brought to the Turin based manufacturer were not financially significant. But once back on the track in the later part of 1933, the P3 won 6 championship races, with Chiron and Fagioli dominating the end of the season earning 3 victories each.
Competition began to intensify in 1934 from the Nazi-sponsored German teams, Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz. To combat the challenge, Alfa introduced the Tipo C in mid-1935 as the next generation of its Grand Prix cars, with independent suspension, a more streamlined body and the 8C engine now displacing a whopping 3.8 litres producing 330 horsepower. Six cars were built and prepared by Alfa Romeo for the Scuderia Ferrari’s 1935 racing season. Under powered compared to the German competition, Alfa decide to push immediately the development of an all new V shaped 12 cylindre racing engine for the 1936 season. It is believed that three new chassis were constructed initially for the 12C engine while three more were converted from the original six 8C chassis as the 1936 season progressed and the bugs in the V12 were worked out. The 12C-36 and later 12C/37 cars were never a match for the Germans although the 8C-35 did win a number of races in 1935 & 1936.
A total of only nine Tipo C chassis were produced by Alfa Romeo with only seven surviving today. Although many replicas exist, only two Alfa Romeo 8C-35 Tipo C, chassis 50013 & 50014, still exist in their original configuration. Of the other five, three are in the form of the Alfa 308 that raced during the 1938 and 1939 seasons with a 3 litre restriction on recycled Tipo C chassis, while the two others have received 12C engines: one is on display at the Alfa Romeo Storico Museo and the other at the Enzo Ferrari Museum.
For racing purposes only
Alfa originally had no plans to sell versions of the 8C competition cars to the public. Demand however for high performance, bespoke vehicles, grew in the 1930s despite the great economic depression. Perhaps the Italian government influenced the factory’s decision to begin to market a supercar for the elite to rival their German counterparts. Alfa began to accept to sell rolling chassis, i.e. naked chassis automobiles equipped with all the mechanical parts for their well endowed customers who confided these cars almost exclusively to either Touring or Pininfarina to construct the bodywork. As Alfa increased the performance of their engines for the racing world, customers demanded to be served with the same improved performance specifications that were found in Alfa’s best race cars.
The Alfa 2900B was the ultimate of such automobiles. Like its rival supercar the Bugatti Type 55, introduced at the Paris Auto Show in October 1931 at the same time as the first Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 spider, the Alfa 2900B was born out of racing technology. Based on the 8C 2900A engine, developed and produced for racing, the 2900B was the de-tuned version meant for public consumption. Introduced in 1937, two chassis types, ‘corto’, or short, and ‘lungo’, or long, were available. The eight cylindre 2,905cc twin supercharged engine produced 188 horsepower. Some 42 chassis were produced in 1937 and 22 in 1938, plus one final chassis in 1941.
The Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B occupies the pinnacle of classic automobile collecting. In the very exclusive club of Pebble Beach winners (1988, 2008 & 2018), Best of the Best winners (2019) and classic automobiles achieving auction prices near or above the $20 million threshold (2016 & 2019), these Alfa Romeo 2900B, in either spider or berlinetta form, with perhaps only the Bugatti Type 41 Royales, are amongst the few automobiles that can rival the Ferrari GTOs and 250 TRs for a place in the world’s most refined, exclusive and expensive collections.
Daniel is a contributor for Forbes France writing texts in French language for their daily newsletter and trimestrial print editions. His articles cover the classic automobile market as well as luxury and lifestyle of classic automobile collectors.