The svelte shape and “face” of this year’s Pebble Beach Best of Show winner belongs to Alfa Romeo 8C2900 chassis 412020.
Along with an in-period victory at Le Mans or the Mille Miglia, “Best of Show at Pebble” are likely the five most important words in the collector car world. No other phrase so succinctly sums up elegance, exceptional craftsmanship, rarity, beauty, history, very high-level competition and literally, the Best of the Best.
A perfect example is Pebble’s 2018 Best of Show winner, 1937 Alfa Romeo 8C2900 chassis 412020. For those unfamiliar with these most remarkable machines, the 8C2900 is a Bugatti Veyron, McLaren F1 or Senna and LaFerrari rolled into one. Yet none could touch the 8C2900 for elegance, and influential styling and design.
Out of the five Touring Berlinetta 8C2900s, only chassis 412020 has this swept back grille. The other four are more upright, and thus not as svelte in appearance.
The landmark Alfa model first appeared in October 1935 at the Paris Auto Show. That car’s elegant spider body was designed in-house, and set the stage for the custom coachwork specials that would follow. But even more impressive than its appearance were the mechanicals lurking underneath the well-proportioned body. The car’s 2905cc straight-8 engine was derived from Alfa’s formidable P3 grand prix racer and had double overhead cams, twin Weber carburetors, and not one but two superchargers (one per engine bank). The four-speed gearbox had a twin dry plate clutch, and the gearbox was in unit with the rear axle. The suspension was independent front and rear, and also had grand prix origins.
Approximately 50 chassis were made over the next three years, and once 8C2900s started rolling off the production line, prewar speed, style and beauty had a new standard bearer. At the time the world’s most grueling race was likely Italy’s famed 1000-mile dash throughout the countryside on public roads, and the 2.9 won the Mille Miglia four times. It also won Spa twice and competed a Le Mans twice. While it never won the French classic, in 1938 the lone 2.9 led the race for 18 hours and was ahead of 1937’s victorious Bugatti by 14 laps when a blown tire prevented the Alfa from finishing.
Some Track History…
Along with all those racing victories, the 2.9 astounded auto show patrons and the general public with an amazing array of influential coachwork. Alfa’s own designs graced a good number of the earlier cars, and both Pinin Farina (run by Battista “Pinin” Farina) and Stablimenti Farina (founded by Pinin’s older brother Giovanni) created lovely one-off spiders. Most of the later cars had sensational spider and berlinetta (fastback) bodies done by Italy’s most influential coachbuilder of the time, Carrozzeria Touring.
Alfa’s 2.9 was the McLaren F1 or Bugatti Veyron of its day, the fastest road car around. At a time when most car were simple two-box designs composed of right angles, the Touring-bodied 8C2900s looked sensational from any angle.
The firm was founded in March 1926 when attorney friends Felice Bianchi Anderloni and Gaetano Ponzoni acquired Carrozzeria Falco, figuring it was better to purchase an existing concern than starting one from scratch. While Felice Anderloni may have had a law degree, he was a true gearhead who never practiced law. He was drawn to the auto industry at a young age, and his career began at Isotta Fraschini. A perceptive individual who was a keen driver and had impeccable taste, he worked his way up through the ranks and ended up as the chief of the famed Italian luxury marque’s experimental and testing departments.
When he left Isotta in 1925 to become a coachbuilder, “companies were typically given the name of the family that owned them,” Felice’s son Carlo Anderloni told me. “But my father felt it was better to have a name that was short and easy to pronounce. He was also cognizant of the world market, and wanted a word that would be the same everywhere so it could be easily used internationally.”
“Weight is the Enemy”
A fabulous silhouette, where the slope of the windscreen basically mimics the slant of the grille, all capped off by the marvelous symmetry between the front and rear fenders.
With Falco now named Carrozzeria Touring, Ponzoni managed the business while Anderloni began focusing on lightening a car’s body, since the techniques used at the time were so heavy. Touring first used the Weymann system under license, and then began developing its own techniques that truly progressed in the 1930s when the company’s craftsmen started producing airplane parts for the Italian military. By the middle of the decade they were quite adept with aluminum, and Touring became synonymous with the slogan, “weight is the enemy, air resistance the obstacle.”
This led to the Touring’s patented Superleggera (“super light”) system that was used on many of the world’s most famous marques’ coachwork over the next three decades. The innovative lightweight frame had small diameter steel tubes supporting the aluminum coachwork, and the first automobile with the patented system was this year’s Best of Show winner.
Prewar interiors didn’t come any better than that found in the 8C2900. It was the perfect place to blast across the Continent at a rapid pace.
A True Crowd Pleaser
According to “The Immortal 2.9” by Simon Moore, the bible on the model, the landmark Alfa debuted at 1937’s Paris Auto Show where it was a sensation. It then appeared at the Milan Auto Show in late October, and also wowed crowds at the Berlin Auto Show in the first quarter of 1938.
As Touring’s prototype 8C2900 berlinetta, there are some differences between it and the other berlinettas. While all have the same basic fastback shape, the most eye-pleasing divergence is a swept back grille that gives chassis 412020 a very aerodynamic appearance (the other Touring berlinettas have a more upright grille). Interestingly, on the car’s flank, directly below the Touring badge and near the rearward end of the front fender, is a small plaque that reads “Brevettata,” or “patented” in Italian. This doesn’t appear on any of the other Touring cars.
The instruments have a fabulous art deco appearance. The tachometer on the left turns in counter-clockwise fashion.
The 8C2900’s smooth form is beautifully proportioned and, outside the headlights, you can definitely sense Touring’s “air resistance (is) the obstacle” mantra coming into play. The large disc wheel covers have a lovely circular pattern, and the teardrop-shaped fenders are very pleasing to look at. There is also Touring’s minimal but effective use of brightwork, as seen in the spear-shaped trim that starts up near the front of the hood and sweeps along the side of the body and ends near the tail, and along the top of the headlights. In their centers are thin, hand-painted black lines that are a very subtle design touch.
While that elegant and understated exterior certainly captures one’s gaze, the interior and engine compartment also have their share of visual appeal. The instruments are art deco marvels to behold, the lustrous wood accents on the dash and their finish rival any antique furniture or Rolls Royce, and a polished supercharger or two in the engine compartment certainly doesn’t hurt. And when did you ever see engine lubrication instructions so artfully done (below, second photo)?
The Best of the Best
From the moment collector David Sydorick quietly bought the car three years ago, I knew he had a potential Best of Show at Pebble on his hands. The proprietary shoot seen here was done immediately after its Pebble win, and next week in Part II of this entry we will take a look at the Pebble Beach Tour and the “Big Dance” on the 18th Green that got this historic Alfa to this position.
The cleanliness and elegant simplicity of Touring’s wind-cheating coachwork is easily discerned from the rear. There’s not a bad angle on the car…