It is unthinkable to write about Alfa Romeo today without revisiting its history in order to gain a thorough understanding of what the marque stands for. Even though it is uncertain whether the quotation that has been attributed to Henry Ford should read, ‘Every time I see an Alfa Romeo pass by, I raise my hat’, or its variant ‘When I see …’, it is clear that Alfa Romeo had made an impact on the legendary Mr Ford.
The origins of Alfa Romeo go back to 1906 when Alexandre Darracq, the founder of car companies in both France and England, announced that there was a demand for reasonably priced motor cars in Italy and that, following an approach by a group of Italian capitalists, he intended building a factory near Naples for the construction of Darracq motor cars. Unfortunately, the first three years were disastrous and significant financial losses were incurred. During this period the decision was taken to relocate and a large parcel of land was acquired for a new factory in a district north of Milan known as Il Portello. As the financial position worsened, Alexandre Darracq sold his shares to the Banca Italiana di Sconto, which liquidated the original company and established the Società Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili (A.L.F.A.). The then managing director, Ugo Stella, knew that things had to change and in 1910 he recruited Giuseppe Merosi, from the Italian car and motorcycle manufacturer Bianchi, as Technical Director.
Giuseppe Merosi was born in 1872 in Piacenza, which is about 65km south of Milan. He qualified as a surveyor and was initially employed as a highway surveyor before collaborating with a friend on setting up a firm that manufactured bicycles. After about two years he then left to work as a demonstrator and tester for O&M, which made sewing machines and motorcycles. Then in 1906, following a short time with Fiat, he joined the Bianchi company as head of the automotive engineering department, where he was responsible for most of the designs produced by Bianchi, including their first shaft-drive car.
At A.L.F.A. Merosi rapidly produced two new designs that were radically different from the previous Darracq models. Whereas these had small single- and twin-cylinder engines, the first A.L.F.A. model was the 24 HP, which was fitted with a 4-litre engine capable of reaching 110km/h (68mph) and proved to be very successful; by 1913 some 200 had been produced. Very soon afterwards a smaller car, the 15 HP, was introduced and similarly sold well, with more than 300 being produced before the First World War. Examples of both the 24 HP and the 15 HP can be seen in the Alfa Romeo museum at Arese.
Just before the outbreak of war in 1914 (Italy did not enter the war until 1915) a powerful new model, the 40-60 HP, was introduced. Among the purchasers of this model, of which twenty-five were built, was Count Marco Ricotti from Milan, who requested a special aerodynamic body for his car. Carrozzeria Castagna, one of Italy’s oldest and most prestigious body builders, was commissioned to design an appropriate body for the chassis. The result was an amazing design inspired by a drop of water and made of aluminium, which increased the top speed of the original design from 125km/h (78mph) to 139kmh (86mph). The doors were flush with the bodywork, the windows were effectively round portholes and there was a broad wraparound windscreen. A year after its construction the roof was removed, thus turning it into an open car at the expense of the previous aerodynamic benefits. The original was lost many years ago, but a replica was constructed from the original drawings as a tribute to Castagna’s ingenious design and is now on display at the Alfa Romeo Museum at Arese.
An example of the first A.L.F.A. 24 HP, 1910, at Arese.
A.L.F.A. 15 HP, 1911, at Arese.
The replica A.L.F.A. 40-60 HP Aerodinamica, 1913, at Arese.
24 HP engine as used in the Santoni Franchini biplane, 1910.
In 1910 another milestone in the history of Alfa Romeo took place when Giuseppe Merosi allowed two technicians, Antonio Santoni and Nino Franchini, to use part of the Portello workshops to construct an aeroplane. Naturally the plane was powered by an A.L.F.A. engine, one of the first 24 HP engines. The plane, piloted by Franchini, flew well and was used for training purposes until it was destroyed when a hangar collapsed onto it. Thus began the relationship between A.L.F.A., and eventually Alfa Romeo, with the aero engine industry.
Does the Alfa Romeo badge really show a human figure being eaten by a dragon? The story starts in 1910 with the birth of A.L.F.A.; in designing the insignia, Merosi decided on a combination of the coat of arms of Milan and that of the Visconti family. It is claimed that the badge was suggested to Merosi by one of his staff who saw the insignia of the Visconti family above an entrance to the Castello Sforzesco in Milan when waiting for a tram. The castle had been home to the Visconti family for nearly a century from 1358. The most fanciful story for the symbol’s origin claims that the legendary founder of the dynasty, Uberto Visconti of Angera,
killed a biscione
(serpent) named Tarantasio that was terrorizing the region around Lake Gerundo in Lombardy. The white shield with a red cross is the flag of Milan. Sometimes known by the Milanese as the ‘cross of St Ambrose’, after the city’s patron, it is said to have been used since the tenth century. The badge as designed enclosed the emblems of Milan (on the left) and the Visconti family within a blue circle. At the top of the blue ring was the word ‘ALFA’ and at the bottom ‘MILANO’, separated on either side by a pair of figure-of-eight knots, heraldic attributes of the Italian royal house of Savoy.
Development of the Alfa Romeo badge.
ALFA ROMEO ARCHIVES
A revised badge was adopted following the acquisition of A.L.F.A. by Nicola Romeo in 1915 and the cessation of hostilities three years later. The basic design was retained but the word ‘A.L.F.A.’ was replaced with ‘Alfa-Romeo’. The next change came in 1925 when, following the racing victories that made Alfa Romeo the Grand Prix Champions of the World in 1924 (the first such championship), a laurel wreath celebrating the achievement encircled the whole badge. The next change came in 1946 when, in recognition of the new Italian Republic, the Savoyard knots were replaced by two wavy lines. Then in 1971 the badge was simplified by deleting
the laurel wreath, the word ‘Milan’ and the hyphen between the words ‘Alfa’ and ‘Romeo’, which resulted in a much simpler design.
While the usual Alfa Romeo badge adorns all their cars, there is another symbol that only appears on specially sporting models. This is the green four-leaf clover (Quadrifoglio Verde) on a white diamond background, which came about after Ugo Sivocci won the 1923 Targa Florio in an Alfa Romeo RL decorated with his lucky symbol. Tragically, less than five months later he died while testing a new P1 car that did not have such a symbol painted on it. Since then the ‘Qaudrifoglio’ has appeared on racing and sporting Alfa Romeos as a symbol of good luck. Sivocci’s triumph in the Targa Florio was the first win for Alfa Romeo in a large international event, thus guaranteeing his and his car’s place in the annals of motor racing.
A badge that is not generally associated with Alfa Romeo is the ‘Prancing Horse’ of Ferrari, but its origins, too, are closely related to Alfa Romeo. In 1923 Enzo Ferrari drove an Alfa Romeo RL to victory in the 1923 Circuit of Savio race in Ravenna, having driven a perfect race against stiff opposition. His victory so impressed the spectators that they carried him off on their shoulders. Among the spectators at the finish were the parents of Count Francesco Baracca, Italy’s most outstanding air ace in the First World War, who had been credited with thirty four aerial victories before his death in June 1918. The Count and Countess were so impressed with Ferrari’s performance that they presented him with their son’s personal emblem as a mark of their respect. Francesco had used his family emblem on his aeroplane to distinguish it from those of his colleagues. The emblem, which today is well known as it can be seen on every Ferrari, is a black prancing horse mounted on a yellow shield. In the years up to the Second World War, and before Ferrari started constructing his own cars, the emblem represented Scuderia Ferrari and appeared on all Alfa Romeo cars raced by that team.
The ‘Quadrifoglio’ badge as shown on a Disco Volante at Arese.
Ferrari badge on 8C 2300 Monza.
FIRST WORLD WAR AND THE 1920S
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