Alfa's Golden Goose: The 158/159 Grand Prix Car
In the post war years, Alfa Romeo were the undisputed rulers of the Grand Prix stage. However their winning streak couldn't last.
The year is 1938, and Alfa Romeo’s fortune in the world of Grand Prix racing had taken a slight dive. Against the might of the Nazi back onslaught of Auto Union and Mercedes Benz, their newest Tipo C Grand Prix car, though quick, was completely outclassed by the Silver Arrows. Plus, Auto Union had managed to entice Alfa’s top driver, the great Tazio Nuvolari, away to lead their all-conquering team.
Off the track, Alfa management decided something drastic had to be done, so they decided to take a gamble by completely shaking up the racing department, which greatly irritated their team manager, a man by the name Enzo Ferrari.
Ferrari had been running the Alfa Romeo racing team under the banner of Scuderia Ferrari since 1929, and during this partnership, Ferrari badged Alfa’s won many Grand Prix, the 1000 mile Mille Miglia road race, and set international speed records with the bonkers twin-engine Bimotore.
However, despite all this success, Alfa decided to bring the race team back in-house and demote Mr Ferrari. Enzo decided to leave Alfa completely in 1939, with a huge chip on his shoulder, and build his own car. It was a decision Alfa would later very much come to regret.
Juan Manuel Fangio on maximum attack
With the departure of Enzo, work had already begun on the first Grand Prix car built under the new Alfa Corse team. Called the 158, it was originally developed for the Voiturette class, the step below Grand Prix at the time. In this class, the 158 won its debut race in the 1938 Coppa Ciano Junior with Emilio Villoresi at the wheel.
The 158 got its name from the engine set up. One and Five meant 1.5litres and eight for eight cylinders. With addition of a Roots Supercharger and Twin Overhead Camshafts, the 158 produced 150kW of grunt at 7,000 revs. The engine was designed by famed Italian designer Giacchino Colombo, who would go on to create the first ever Ferrari V12.
A cutaway of the Alfetta 158
In 1939, in the hands of Torino born debonair racer Giuseppe Farina, the 158 finally turned a wheel in anger on the Grand Prix stage by winning the Coppa Acerbo and the Grand Prix at Tripoli. Farina also became Italian Champion for the third consecutive time, which meant his future at Alfa Romeo was secure.
Further bragging rights for Alfa were quickly dashed once war clouds began to form over Europe. Once Mussolini decided to hurl Italy into the conflict on the side of Hitler, motor racing across the continent came to a shuddering halt. Alfa wisely decided to hide all their race cars, especially the 158. Some 158’s oddly ended up in a cheese factory!
After the war ended and Grand Prix racing resumed in 1946, Alfa were confident they had a car to sweep all before it. They had already boosted the 158’s power to 189kW, but now to make doubly sure, the Alfa was boosted again to produce 220kW. Alfa’s baby was all grown up! The 158 started a winning streak that was almost unchallenged for years to come. Nearly every single race it entered from 1946 to 1949, there was an Alfa driver atop the podium.
Giuseppe Farina won his first and only F1 World Championship with Alfa in 1950
The fifties saw the dawn of the first ever Grand Prix World Championship, or what you and I know today as Formula One. From the opening European Grand Prix at Silverstone, under the watchful gaze of King George VI, to the finale at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, Alfettas (the 158’s nickname meaning , little Alfa),won every single race. In fact in one race, Alfa were so far in the lead, they ordered the leading Alfetta into the pits to be cleaned, so it would look good for the cameras when they won. Imagine trying to do that today!
The season also saw Giuseppe Farina being crowned the first ever Formula One World Champion. However it was his team mate, a 38 year-old former bus driver named Juan Manuel Fangio from Argentina who really stole the show. People at the time didn’t know that Fangio was on the verge of becoming, in this writers opinion, one of the most successful and awe inspiring racing drivers ever.
Alfetta Two Pair
For 1951, the 158 was tweaked again and became the 159. With a new De-Dion rear axle, the car was more lively round the rear and power went up yet again, this time to whopping 313kW (430BHP) at an screaming 9600 revs. However, creating this kind of grunt was the result of a much larger supercharger, meaning the 159 was not exactly economical. In fact, at racing speed, the 159 was doing less the two miles per gallon, or 170-litres/100km!
More wins came early in the season for Farina and Fangio, until the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. Alfa were beaten by Fangio’s fellow Argentinean, Froilan Gonzalez at the wheel of a Ferrari 375. Yes, Enzo Ferrari had got his revenge.
To understand how this happened, we need to go back to school. During the period of 1950 to 51, the FIA, Formula One’s governing body, permitted that cars of either 1.5-litre supercharged engine configuration, or 4.5-litre naturally aspirated layout would be allowed to enter a Grand Prix. Gonzalez’s Ferrari 375 contained the latter, meaning while the Alfas were in the pits two or three times during the race to refuel, his far less thirstier Ferrari, despite the bigger V12 engine, seldom needed to stop, unless for tyres.
Fangio won the first of his five Formula One World Titles in 1951 with Alfa Romeo, but the team itself was devastated. A change in formula for the following season, mean the Alfetta was now obsolete. Alfa kept on racing but their Formula One Career has never returned to glory days of the late forties and fifties. On the contrary, it was Enzo who prevailed that decade, with Ferrari drivers winning four World Championships, one of whom was Fangio in 1956.
Fangio reunited with his Alfetta at Monza 1970
Today, an Alfetta 158/159 is almost priceless, with many surviving examples being lovingly kept and cared for. In 1970, at demonstration run at Monza, Fangio was reunited with an Alfetta and the sight and sound of the ‘maestro’ helming the old champ around the famous circuit is a sight to behold.