Alfa Romeo 8C-2300: the story of the ‘Wrigley Special’

| 19 Mar 2024
Classic & Sports Car – Alfa Romeo 8C-2300: the story of the ‘Wrigley Special’

It’s hard to imagine that a Le Mans winner could be hidden away in England – the country that invented vintage racing – for more than 58 years, and only just restored to its former glory.

But such is the remarkable case of the very Alfa Romeo 8C-2300 that was driven to victory by the experienced Gallic/Italian pairing of Philippe Étancelin with future Ferrari legend and triple Le Mans winner Luigi Chinetti.

Since the ’50s, its reclusive owner kept promising that he’d finish the rebuild but it never happened.

Only a change of ownership to an American collector – and its superb restoration by a respected British specialist – finally brought this great Alfa back into the limelight in the early 2010s, with concours appearances and an epic road trip across the Rockies.

Classic & Sports Car – Alfa Romeo 8C-2300: the story of the ‘Wrigley Special’

This Alfa Romeo 8C-2300 was built with a short chassis and an extended four-seater body for Le Mans regulations

Had this distinctive short-chassis 8C boasted a more fashionable Monza or Zagato body, its story might have been different.

Completed in 1934, chassis 2311249 was one of the last of 188 8Cs built.

It’s not clear if the car was ordered new by French Alfa agent Chinetti, but its special four-seater body – by Brianza – was clearly intended for competition.

With his extensive experience at Le Mans, Chinetti specified particular features including a high scuttle sweep, toolboxes mounted on the chassis sides and twin fillers on the extended tail.

The finance for the car came from Grand Prix ace ‘Phi-Phi’ Étancelin, who instructed that the one-off coachwork be painted French racing blue.

Two months after the car was registered in Italy, the Milanese thoroughbred finally arrived at La Sarthe.

The four 8Cs entered were the clear favourites in the record 44-car field but the Alfa arrived only hours before the weigh-in closed, which frustrated Étancelin because it left him little time to test the car for his Le Mans debut.

Just before the event, Chinetti was approached by a French company that wanted to film his team throughout the enduro for a production titled 300km an Hour.

Wary about distractions from the race, Chinetti reluctantly agreed – possibly encouraged by the FFr30,000 fee.

Classic & Sports Car – Alfa Romeo 8C-2300: the story of the ‘Wrigley Special’

The Le Mans-winning Alfa Romeo 8C-2300 has a basic but comfy cockpit

The crew set up a military-style tent behind the pits and extra lights were erected around number nine’s pit area, which proved a real bonus for Chinetti when working on the 8C during the race.

Both drivers certainly looked dapper, wearing ties for the entire contest.

When the flag dropped in sweltering heat for the traditional driver sprint, Raymond Sommer’s 8C pulled clear of the packed field, averaging 86mph.

But, at 5:30pm, flames dramatically appeared from under the leading car’s bonnet as he accelerated out of Arnage.

Although Sommer managed to suppress the fire, the damage was terminal and, much to the disappointment of local fans, he dropped out leaving Brit Tim Rose-Richards ahead with Chinetti 10 secs behind.

After a four-hour stint, Rose-Richards handed over to teammate Lord Howe – gifting the lead to Chinetti, but disaster struck when a split fuel tank was discovered during his stop.

It isn’t recorded who came up with the idea of plugging the leak with chewing gum, yet it saved the race.

The team and film crew were instructed to keep chewing between pitstops, to build up enough gum to fill the crack, which lasted 24 laps!

Classic & Sports Car – Alfa Romeo 8C-2300: the story of the ‘Wrigley Special’

This Alfa Romeo uses Vittorio Jano’s glorious supercharged straight-eight engine

‘It was illegal to get outside help in the pits, but the gum was not for an automobile,’ recalled Chinetti in Prancing Horse magazine.

‘But it was the only thing that mixed well with gasoline. And with the movie company’s big lights at night, it was like noontime for the repairs.’

With leaking fuel and several of the film crew smoking cigarettes – plus the hot illumination – it’s amazing that the whole pit didn’t go up.

As well as the sight of everyone chewing furiously, further comic relief was provided by an actor dressed as a senior police officer.

A real gendarme instructed the player to keep the spectators clear of the pits, but, knowing that he was in costume, they ignored the orders.

As Chinetti put it: ‘The genuine gendarme became more and more red-faced. I began to laugh, too, which made it impossible to chew the gum to fix the car.’

After Étancelin took the wheel, he disregarded Chinetti’s advice to conserve the Alfa and set a fastest lap of 5 mins 41 secs (at 88.5mph).

The flat-out stint caused a headache for his co-driver because the lamps and dampers started to work loose.

Classic & Sports Car – Alfa Romeo 8C-2300: the story of the ‘Wrigley Special’

The Alfa Romeo’s unusual Brianza body was altered in the past, but this classic car has since returned to its 1934 Le Mans specification

Up front, Lord Howe’s luck ran out when his 8C’s lights failed at night on Les Hunaudières.

The British team lost more than an hour for repairs, which dropped them to 11th, but the clutch eventually failed and forced retirement.

The other opposition in the big-capacity class also hit trouble in the dark with both Bugattis going out, the luckless Type 50 of Roger Labric and Pierre Veyron having another accident.

By sunrise, the Chinetti/Étancelin car was well clear with little opposition as a dramatic contest played out behind for second between junior British Riley and MG teams.

During the final hours, Chinetti became very conscious of ever-increasing fuel consumption and advised that the Alfa be driven at a touring pace.

The average of 74.74mph was considerably lower than Tazio Nuvolari and Sommer’s speed the year before (81.4mph), yet the lucky victory in the by-then outdated 8C matched Bentley’s record but concluded Alfa’s domination at Le Mans.

The leaders had a close call on the final laps when owner Étancelin changed his mind and instructed Chinetti to stay out and enjoy the plaudits of the crowd.

The car proved impossible to restart after the finish, which would have lost the team the laurels had the switch been made for Étancelin to take the run to the chequer.

The blue Alfa was refuelled after the prize-giving, and Étancelin roared the 210km back to his hometown Rouen for a much-deserved victory party.

Later the winning 8C was displayed in a prestigious Champs-Élysées store window.

Classic & Sports Car – Alfa Romeo 8C-2300: the story of the ‘Wrigley Special’

Gauze protectors prevent damage to the Alfa Romeo 8C-2300’s headlights

Étancelin soon sold the well-used Alfa and, after a few years in Italy, it was exported to the UK in ’37.

Registered DYO 308, its distinctive Brianza body had been slightly changed with the addition of a Monza-style radiator cowl, and the louvred chassis valances removed.

New owner Norman Lewis, a photographer, regularly competed at race and sprint events including Brooklands, Crystal Palace and Poole Speed Trials but, with the outbreak of WW2 in ’39, it was back on the market for £575.

One of his many memorable road runs with the Le Mans winner was a chance meeting with a Mercedes 500K driven by a Chinese Cambridge undergraduate.

After sampling the Alfa’s stunning performance, the student immediately wanted to trade cars with the offer of extra money.

The 8C changed hands several times after the war and, by 1948, was offered at Hersham and Walton Motors for £1250.

Bill Little paid the hefty price but never regretted it. “I had the Alfa for about 2½ years and, without doubt, it was the best motor car that I have ever owned,” he told 8C guru Simon Moore.

Little also had a Bugatti Type 35B at the same time, so he clearly had an appreciation of fine machinery: “On one wonderful trip to London from Bristol, when I was able to get some benzene to add to the ‘pool’ petrol we had to use, I got a speedo reading of 115mph, which pleased me no end.

“I sold it in August 1950 to Guy Griffiths, because my wife had a small daughter and it was not quite the car to transport a baby and all its necessary spares.

“Also, 10-12mpg was a little too much for even my enthusiasm during the days of petrol rationing.”

Classic & Sports Car – Alfa Romeo 8C-2300: the story of the ‘Wrigley Special’

The Alfa Romeo’s distinctive six-catch bootlid identifies this car as the Le Mans winner

Griffiths later demonstrated the performance – between roundabouts on the Western Avenue – to a customer who demanded proof of 100mph.

“It was easily done and showed 110 on a slight downhill section,” Griffiths told Moore.

Acquired by Peter Spiral in 1954, the ‘Wrigley Special’ Alfa was rarely seen until the Windsor Concours in 2012.

For some reason, the repair work begun by Spiral in the ’50s was never completed – and the long-overdue restoration began in earnest at Blakeney Motorsport in 2011.

“The previous owners had tinkered about but the car looked soulless. It was an exciting challenge for us,” recalls Patrick Blakeney-Edwards.

“When I started out I worked opposite Paul Grist’s place, so I was very aware of Alfa 8Cs.

“Now was a chance to see why they had such a reputation. It was also a great opportunity to prove ourselves.”

The Buntingford-based team included Tudor Summers, whose father Bill had owned several 8Cs – one a fabulous Tipo B.

The body was remarkably original but the stance looked awkward for various reasons, including wrongly fitted wings and an excessively high windscreen.

It wasn’t helped by an unflattering Royal Air Force shade of blue paint.

Historian Moore – one of the few to have seen the Alfa in recent years – was enlisted to research the project.

Classic & Sports Car – Alfa Romeo 8C-2300: the story of the ‘Wrigley Special’

‘If you’re sensible, you can drive with the rear and do what you want in corners’

Oddly, there are few shots of the winner from 1934 but the talented crew went to great lengths to re-mount the distinctive helmet-style wings, shorten the ’screen and increase its rake, and reinstate lost details such as the chassis valance.

“The new owner, Craig McCaw, was fanatical about authenticity – right down to the original petrol tank,” says Blakeney-Edwards.

“There was plenty of solder where the spare-wheel mount had broken and pushed down on the tank, which all confirmed the chewing-gum story.

“We’ve found a Juicy Fruit keyfob, but would love a ’34 Wrigley design.”

The mechanical refurbishment was straightforward once the car was down to a rolling chassis, but deciding on the correct shade of blue was a challenge.

The repaint was entrusted to Mark Millett at Vintage Paintworks, and he eventually found the original colour under the scuttle while stripping the body.

Twenty samples with various mixes of matting agent and tone were sent to Seattle for McCaw to judge before the final finish was applied.

Conscious that the restoration shouldn’t look too bright and fresh – this was a racing car foremost – the team enlisted top trimmer John Foy to find a suitable seat hide while the new tan tonneau cover was left to the elements for months to speed its ageing.

“Once we’d sorted the alignment of the wings, the car really started to look special,” enthuses Blakeney-Edwards.

Prior to its post-restoration debut at Windsor, the final detailing was completed – with a period-correct Le Mans bootlid light, protective headlamp bowls, spotlights, horns and hand-painted number nine, just as it ran at La Circuit de la Sarthe.

Classic & Sports Car – Alfa Romeo 8C-2300: the story of the ‘Wrigley Special’

The Alfa Romeo 8C-2300’s Brianza badge below the hand-painted number nine

The Alfa was back on the road for last-minute fettling that summer, and Blakeney-Edwards finally got to assess the fabled 8C: “Being a Nash man, I’ve always liked changing gears, but you only really need third and fourth with the Alfa.

“The steering is better than anything else at the time, particularly for such a heavy car.

“The lazy power when not really working makes it relaxing so it’ll eat up the miles.

“It’s a fantastic long-distance tourer and perfect for Le Mans.

“The handling feels progressive, but you’re cautious of leaning on such a valuable car.

“It’s stiff but predictable and not unsettled by undulation.

“If you’re sensible, you can drive with the back end and do what you want at roundabouts.

“It’s easy to see why they’re so revered, although I’d love one to take the kids to school in.”

All of his observations ring true during my drive.

The flared scuttle and raked aeroscreen offer good protection from the buffeting as you sit behind the broad four-spoke steering wheel in the stark cockpit.

The elegant gearlever moves in a clearly defined quadrant and the conventional H-gate is a joy to work once you’ve mastered the tricky timing.

Conveniently, the action from third to top and back seems much quicker than other changes but, with such a responsive throttle, the shift is fantastically rewarding if you double declutch.

Classic & Sports Car – Alfa Romeo 8C-2300: the story of the ‘Wrigley Special’

The Alfa Romeo 8C-2300 boasts easy brake-drum adjustment

Although heavy at low speeds, the steering is inspiringly accurate and beautifully precise once up to pace.

The drum brakes are impressively powerful as they start to bite, but it’s the harsh ride that most dates the 8C and you are really jolted about over the worst bumps.

The positive payback from this firmness is brilliant traction and grip.

But the greatest feature is that glorious supercharged straight-eight.

Mighty low-down punch – accompanied by a deep, dramatic bellow with a marvellous underscore of thrashing geartrain and blower whoop – makes accelerating out of corners a heady, addictive thrill.

The 8C is still a quick car, with effortless overtaking ability, but that immediate acceleration and 120mph potential must have been mesmerising in its heyday.

My only regret is that I didn’t get a chance to stretch the drive into twilight.

The exhilarating pleasures from the sound, performance and aroma of this magnificent machine would double in the dark and vividly conjure that victorious summer night in 1934.

Wrigley chewing gum now evokes a whole new image.

Images: Tony Baker

This was first in our December 2013 magazine; all information was correct at the date of original publication

Luigi Chinetti

Classic & Sports Car – Alfa Romeo 8C-2300: the story of the ‘Wrigley Special’

Philippe Étancelin and Luigi Chinetti drove this Alfa Romeo 8C-2300 to victory at Le Mans in 1934

Few were so closely linked to developing high-performance sports cars than Milan-born Luigi Chinetti.

Best known for his association with Ferrari, as the ’49 Le Mans winner and establishing the famous privateer North American Racing Team, Chinetti’s links with Alfa Romeo are equally significant.

Having learnt an appreciation of engineering from his father’s gunsmiths, a 17-year-old Chinetti joined the great Milanese car-maker where he struck up a friendship with a young Enzo Ferrari that would last all their lives.

Chinetti’s career as a racer stepped up when he was teamed with Raymond Sommer in a long-chassis 8C.

They beat the works on Chinetti’s debut at Le Mans, but an illness restricted him to three hours at the wheel.

He came second with Philippe Varent in his own 8C in 1932, then triumphed in the Spa 24 Hours with Monégasque Louis Chiron.

A trip to manage René Dreyfus’ 1940 Indy 500 attempt resulted in both relocating to the US during WW2, where Chinetti was initially employed by a Manhattan Rolls-Royce agent.

From 1949, Chinetti was instrumental in launching Ferrari with victories at La Sarthe: he drove 23 hours to Lord Selsdon’s single stint and won again two weeks later at Spa.

After Chinetti retired from racing, NART’s Ferraris added more Le Mans laurels when its 250LM won in ’65.

Frustratingly, the modest team boss never wrote an autobiography. He died in August 1994, aged 93.

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