Even against the might of the emerging German marques such as Mercedes and Auto Union, Nuvolari managed some mighty feats with the Tipo B, none better than his win in the 1935 German Grand Prix.
Alfa took full control of its racing programme again in 1938, but the war intervened. Put off by the German dominance of grand prix racing in the late 1930s, Gioacchino Columbo designed an Alfa Romeo Tipo 158 for the smaller voiturette class in 1939.
Legend has it that three Alfettas spent the war hidden in a cheese factory in northern Italy while the Germans occupied Italy, but were subsequently brought out in 1946 and under the new, pragmatic postwar regulations it automatically became a grand prix car and dominated the scene for the remainder of the 1940s. Alfa Romeo enjoyed a string of 26 unbroken wins.
By 1951, some 13 years after it was designed, the supercharged car, now in 159 guise, took Juan Manuel Fangio to his first world title in the final race of the season, the Spanish Grand Prix, in a shoot-out against the Ferraris of Alberto Ascari, Froilan Gonzalez and Piero Taruffi. It was the car's last race and Alfa Romeo then turned its attention to sports car racing.
The moment the flag fell to mark the beginning of the first ever F1 World Championship race on May 13th 1950 at Silverstone there was little doubt what car would cross the finish line first. Four Alfa Romeo 158s lined up ahead of all others thus continuing their 3 year long domination. One Alfetta (which means ‘Little Alfa’ in Italian because of its compact dimensions) retired during the race but the others finished 1-2-3 and left their nearest opponent 2 laps behind.
What is most incredible is that this car was already a 13-year-old design. When the new German Nazi government decided to go motor racing it did so with remarkable funds, technology and people. Other nations’ manufacturers couldn’t keep up with these newly set standards. Italy, keen to stay at the forefront of at least one aspect of motor racing turned its back to Grand prix cars and decided to build cars for the Voiturette class. ‘Voiturette’ or, in Italian, ‘Veturetta’ was considered a ‘step-down’ class similar to Formula 2 or Formula 3000 of today. Gioacchino Colombo designed a new Alfa Romeo 158 (‘15’ for 1,500cc and ‘8’ for 8 cylinders) on behalf of Alfa Romeo and its chief Orazio Satta.
Its straight-eight supercharged engine produced nearly 200bhp at 7,000rpm. It had a single-stage Roots supercharger with 17.6psi boost and twin overhead camshafts. The engine block was cast in Elektron (magnesium) and what was unusual for that time, it consisted of two separate castings integrated with a common head. The sump and crankcase were cast with identical material. The crankshaft was chrome nickel steel and the whole engine weighed only 363lb
1951 saw the Alfa Romeo’s first major defeat since 1939 when Froilan Gonzalez drove a Ferrari 375 to victory in British GP at Silverstone. The 27-race-long winning streak had ended. Ferrari’s won 2 more races that year but Alfa Romeo’s Fangio managed to claim the World Championship at last race of the season. There Alfa brought the 159M (Maggiorata = increased) cars with reinforced frame tubes and cantilevers above both frame rails.
By then, Alfa’s fuel consumption, thanks to ever-increasing supercharger pressure and rpms, had fallen to 1.7mpg (170liters/100km)! The cars needed 2 or 3 refueling stops to complete a race distance while the 4.5-liter unsupercharged competition could run virtually non-stop. The engines were thermally stressed to such a degree that a so called ‘fifth stroke’ was needed. This required that some amount of unburned fuel was needed to be run through the cylinders just to cool them down a bit.
The cars had reached the limit of their development and with not enough funds to build a completely new car Alfa Romeo was forced to withdraw from racing and thus the incredible story of these cars came to an end.
In late December 1942, after the bombing of Italian cities had started but had not yet targeted the Alfa factory, the removal of strategic documents and departments commenced. The Air Force spent 10 million, later extended to 30, to move the offices and workshops. The Design and Experimental Department was the first moved to a safe place, joined by the technical archives. They were installed at Orta, on a lake of the same name, located west of the Major Lake.
A few kilometres away, in a hilly north-eastern location called Armeno, were transferred the experimental workshops, where the parts for the AR 1101 28 cylinder were built. Ing. Gatti, transferred from Naples to Armeno with his staff, as there was no space left in Orta; he recalls they were housed in a knife factory called Inuggi.
They first worked on aeroplanes projects, then switched to the famous stoves and other postwar transition products. The transfer to and supply of the new locations was very difficult for both the material and the workers. The nuts and bolts production was moved to Vanzago (west of Milan, not far from Arese) and the auxiliary production together with metallurgic and chemical laboratories to Melzo, east of Milan, not far from Gorgonzola.
Right in Melzo, in a cheese factory owned by an Alfa enthusiast, the 6 158 racers were hidden until the end of war, after their first hiding place in Monza was rated unsafe.
The SS entered the Portello factory on a Sunday, Sep 12th 1943. Another plague then hit Alfa, the forced requisition of material and vehicles, rarely paid for. From then on, Gobbato and the staff tried their best to stop material as well as workers from being carried away, but the fascist activists became even more ferocious, and unknown men used to get into the factory and take away workers suspected of antifascist activities, most of them never to be seen again.
While Gobbato’s influence usually managed to prevent the worse decisions of the occupant to be achieved, he had to face the seizing the entire metal, steel and alloy stock for shipment to Germany. This would have meant the complete dismantling of the factory and deportation of most of the workforce. He entrusted Bonini, a test driver, to drive a 6C2500, with all the equipment he needed, to Berlin, travelling at night to avoid bombings, and to bring a letter to Albert Speer, with whom Gobbato had good relationship. Fortunately, at the cost of a three days without food, Bonini managed to meet Speer, came back unscathed and the reply letter from the Minister avoided the seizure.