Wednesday October 11, 2017
The original 158 Alfetta (‘Little Alfa’) dates from 1938 with Gioacchino Colombo devising a lightweight eight-cylinder 1,479cc DOHC engine that was fitted with a Roots supercharger.
The 158 was capable of almost 200bhp at 7,000rpm and its first victory was in August 1938 at the Coppa Cinano race.
By 1939, the power output had been raised to 225bhp but the outbreak of the Second World War meant that the Alfettas were hidden from the Germans in a cheese factory in a mountain village.
By 1946, the 158s were once again competing in motor racing and in that same year the FIA defined the rules for their Formula One class of racers.
An Alfa Romeo won the first post-war Grand Prix at Bremgarten in 1947 and the factory modified its engine to increase power, the Alfetta now being known as the Tipo 158/47.
Three years later the inaugural Drivers’ World Championship was dominated by the works’ 158s; 1950 saw eleven wins from eleven starts from the company’s legendary "three Fs" squadron of drivers – Giuseppe "Nino" Farina, Juan Manuel Fangio and Luigi Fagioli.
The inaugural race was staged at Silverstone on May 13th 1950 and this newsreel captures the sheer visceral excitement of the event, and the sheer beauty of the team of four Alfa Romeos on the starting grid.
Note how the announcer does his level best to sound stirringly patriotic but the fact remained that although Fangio’s Alfetta had to retire its sister models took first, second and third places, with a victory for Dr. Farina.
Meanwhile, the Alfa Romeos’ nearest opponent was two laps behind.
What was noted by many motoring enthusiasts was that by the beginning of the 1950s, the design of the Alfa Romeos was approaching thirteen years old but this was no impediment to Farina and Fangio each scoring three Grand Prix victories.
On the 3rd September at Monza, Farina drove to third-place and became the first ever World Drivers' Champion, with Fangio in first place ahead of Alberto Ascari’s Ferrari.
For the 1951 season, the Alfetta was extensively modified as the 159 with a 420bhp power plant, extra tanks (to cope with fuel consumption in the region of 1.7 mpg) and, for three of the chassis, De Dion rear suspension. On 16th September 1951, Fangio won the Italian Grand Prix in the final incarnation of the 158 – the 159M, gaining the World Championship.
Alas, Alfa Romeo, which had been state owned since 1932, was unsuccessful in obtaining assistance from the government in the further development of their F1 programme as their pre-war design had now reached its limits.
The company announced its retirement from racing at the end of the 1951 season, leaving some indelible memories.
My own principle images of the Alfa 158 are derived from this priceless colour footage of that spring day some 67 years ago
This was a time when an F1 car could be instantly recognised by its colour scheme – blue for France, green for Britain and of course, ‘Rosso Corsa’ red for Italy and it really does appear to be another world.
Tweed-jacketed types smoke near the cars, white-coated ladies prepare ham sandwiches in the refreshment tent, ladies sport some truly amazing hats - and a 158 is wheeled into position by its proud mechanics. ‘On the evidence of past form, the eight-cylinder Alfas are the fastest cars of post-war racing’ observes the commentator and to see the Fangio Alfetta cross the line is one of the iconic moments of motor sport.
As for #TeamAnt’s tribute to one of the greatest Alfa Romeos of all time – well, the Lancaster Insurance Classic Motor Show, with Discovery, is only a month away…