Meet the McLaren Speedtail of the 1930s. Exclusive, expensive, sumptuously appointed, immensely powerful and sleekly aerodynamic with racecar knowhow oozing out of every lightweight pore. And also very long, for one very good reason: speed.

The ultimate McLaren road car’s spiritual antecedent from 79 years ago goes by the name of Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B Lungo Touring Berlinetta. The name is a mouthful but it’s enough to think of it as a high-tech and lightweight automotive sculpture, the closest you could get to a luxury competition car for the road. Not so different from the McLaren then.

As such the Alfa was a hit with motoring cognoscenti in the 1930s and is an even bigger hit with collectors today. This rare machine (only five berlinettas like this ever made) represents the gold standard of car collecting, charished by people in Beverly Hills with mantelpieces groaning under the weight of Pebble Beach Best of Show concours trophies.

If you fancy the beauty shown here the good new is you can have it. The less good news is that Artcurial, which will be auctioning the car at its Retromobile sale in Paris on 8 February 2019, has put a presale estimate of €18-22million (£15.7-19.2m) on it. To people who know about Alfa 8Cs that’s no surprise. It has long been the most valuable Alfa, in berlinetta or spider forms, and it was until recently the most expensive prewar car ever sold at auction.

That mouthful 8C 2900B Lungo Touring Berlinetta name isn’t as difficult as you may think, with each element accurately describing the car.

8C is the eight-cylinder engine; a twin-supercharged straight-eight, overhead-cam racing engine, designed by Vittorio Jano. This was the engine that from 1932 powered the world's first single-seat Grand Prix racing car, the Alfa P3. Scuderia Ferrari raced Alfas powered by this engine. 8Cs won at Le Mans and in the Mille Miglia and at the Nurburgring an 8C beat the mighty Silver Arrows of Mercedes and Auto Union.

Back to that name: 2900 is the cubic capacity of this 1939 ‘B’ model (there were also 2300 and 2600 variants). For the road cars the race engine was detuned to 220bhp for the ‘A’ versions and 180bhp for the B model as shown here. One-eighty was a lot of power then, and in a superleggera lightweight car weighing just 1,310kg it was enough for supercar performance at that time (the racers would do 135mph).

Lungo, or long, refers to the wheelbase of this racer turned luxury road car, and indeed it is long while still allowing plenty of rear overhang – almost as much as the McLaren Speedtail’s. Touring, of Milan, is the coachbuilder which clothed most of the 32 8C 2900B chassis made in 1937-8. Most were Spider convertibles while only five Berlinetta saloons like this one were made.

Which makes it all the more special of course, not that it lacks specialness – the design sees to that.

As you might imagine for one so rare and highly regarded, every detail of its pampered life over 79 years has been meticulously recorded by its few owners. It was delivered new in Italy but then brought to the UK later in ’39 where it has had just four owners since, the current keeper being the son of the man who bought it in 1976.

In its time it has won concours d’elegance at Pebble Beach and at Villa d’Este in Italy and no doubt in the hands of a new owner will go on to do so again. For auction house Artcurial the car is “part of the automobile aristocracy, a masterpiece on a par with a Leonardo de Vinci painting.”

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Will they be saying that about the Alfa’s 2019 predecessor from McLaren we wonder?

Alfa 8C 2900B versus McLaren Speedtail

Alfa McLaren

Length 5,000mm 5,137mm

Wheelbase 3,000mm 2,720mm

Engine 2.9-litre straight-eight 4.0-litre V8/electric motor

Aspiration Twin superchargers Twin turbochargers

Power 180bhp 1036bhp

Transmission 4-speed manual 7-speed dual clutch

Weight 1,310kg 1,430kg

Topspeed 135mph* 250mph

Price new £1,150 £2.1m

*8C race car

Words by Bob Murray, photography courtesy of Artcurial.

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