What do man-eating snakes, Enzo Ferrari, and four-leaf clovers all have in common? The answer, Italian premium car manufacturer Alfa Romeo, and here’s why.
In 1910, Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili (ALFA) opened its doors to the public. The first car to roll off its Milan production line was the ALFA 24HP, a 4.1-liter four-cylinder grand touring saloon. The car featured a retractable canvas roof and a huge wheelbase.
A press advertisement at the time gives us an idea of this beast’s actual dimensions. In the ad, you can see seven people sitting back in total comfort. What’s more, there’s room on the left side running board for four-cabin trunks and the car rolled on 32-ins wooden wheels!
In those days, the car makers famous logo read ALFA-MILANO. The badge showed a red cross on the left, the symbol of Milan. And on the right, the man-eating snake, the heraldic symbol of the Visconti family, rulers of Milan.
Alfa Milano was popular for almost five years until 1914 when the Great War started. The factory was then needed for producing military hardware and didn’t go back into production until 1920. By then, Neapolitan businessman Nicola Romeo was on board and in the same year, the Torpedo 20-30HP became the first vehicle to wear the Alfa Romeo badge.
The Four-Leaf Clover Racers get Lucky
Three years later saw Alfa Romeo hacking their racetrack opposition to pieces. After a string of second-place finishes, factory driver Ugo Sivocci hoped to get lucky in Sicily’s Targa Florio race. So he painted a four-leaf clover on his car.
Ugo placed first. And after winning three consecutive races, all factory race cars featured the four-leaf clover. A tradition that lives on today.
In 1929, Enzo Ferrari, a young amateur driver, founded the Scuderia Ferrari race team. He recruited a squad of talented drivers whose weapon of choice was the Alfa Romeo 8C. In their capable hands, this fire engine red, open-top racer achieved amazing success.
Two Heads are Better than One
After winning the Le Mans and Spa 24-hour endurance races, Enzo and his Alfa Romeo 8C’s became the ‘man’ and the ‘car’ to beat.
Pleased with the results, the factory handed their latest rocket ship, the single-seat Type B racer, over to Ferrari. Along with the help of Italian designer engineer Luigi Bazzi, a few tweaks were made.
As a result, the Alfa Romeo Bimotore boasted two supercharged eight-cylinder engines. One engine under the hood and the other mounted behind the driver.
Proud of the 6.3ltr, 540hp twin-engine monster, Enzo added the prancing stallion logo and Ferrari name to its bodywork. So it’s fair to say that the first Ferrari was, in fact, an Alfa Romeo.
While things at the factory and track started to come up roses, once again, war halted production. Assembly lines were taken over to build fighter planes for the Italian Air Force and aircraft engines for Daimler-Benz.
Bombed during the war, the Alfa factory struggled to get back in the saddle. Italy was in a financial tailspin, so Alfa sidelined hand-built luxury cars and instead started building smaller, mass-produced saloons.
Meanwhile, on the racetrack, Alfa Romeo took up where they left off. With Giuseppe Farina at the wheel, Alfa Romeo won the first Formula One World Championship.
The following year, Manuel Fangio made it two F1 championship wins in a row. Later, he described driving his 159 Alfetta as “a breathtaking experience with the goddess of love, whose incredible power would stay forever in my gut and mind.”
As flowery as it may be, it’s far more impressive than:” When you’re driving, the helmet squashes your hair, so you don’t really have a hairstyle.’’ a quote from current F1 champion, Lewis Hamilton!
Back in the Red
The 1960s and ’70s produced more racing successes in Europe and America. But, in Italy, state-owned Alfa Romeo was running into trouble.
To reduce unemployment, the government ordered that a second production facility be built in the southern part of the country. But, the move made things worse. Workers in the industrialized north staged strike after strike. Meanwhile, the southern factory struggled to find engineers from the agri-based local workforce.
The rest of the ’70s and ’80s saw the factory limp along in the red. Joint ventures with Nissan and Fiat looked hopeful, but when Ford showed an interest in buying Alfa, Fiat pulled out.
Wanting to keep Ford out of Italy, Fiat got sweet-talked back into negotiations. In 1986, although Alfa’s President Ettore Massacesi said a Fiat engine wouldn’t ever live under an Alfa Romeo’s hood, Fiat signed the deal.
In 1994, as a result of a company restructure, Alfa pulled out of the US market. It made its triumphant return in 2008 with the stunning limited edition 8C Competizione sports car.
Celebrating their Centenary in 2010, Alfa Romeo continues to find success in the US with the Stelvio. This top of the range 505bhp luxury SUV bears the same four-leaf clover that Ugo Sivocci painted on his race-winning Alfa back in 1923. Now that’s what I call racing heritage.