Alfa Romeo 8C: driving a rare ‘Long Chassis’

| 28 Jun 2019
Classic & Sports Car – Alfa Romeo 8C: Driving a rare ‘Long Chassis’

As a young lad in the 1960s, I was taken as an annual treat to the Montagu Motor Museum at Beaulieu, where one car – a long, light-blue pre-war Alfa Romeo with red wheels and grille – captivated me more than any other.

The stories and pictures of its dramatic history – nearly winning Le Mans in 1935, and later ownership by dashing World Champion Mike Hawthorn – enhanced the appeal long before I appreciated its engineering pedigree and famed supercharged performance.

Later, that great Alfa inspired a Scalextric slot-racer to recreate Le Mans battles with a ‘Blower’ Bentley, and was also modelled by Airfix – not to mention multiple box-art designs for biscuit and chocolate tins. 

Ever since, these handsome Touring-bodied Long Chassis 8Cs have enthralled me, but frustratingly they are rarely seen today because the fashion is for the more glamorous Spiders and Monzas.

But talk to connoisseurs and the open Long Chassis is often the 8C of choice. The great Beaulieu car, chassis 2311204, has long since been sold to California, while the other four are in museums or private German collections. Only the great Dutch enthusiast Evert Louwman regularly drives his ’33 Le Mans car. 

Classic & Sports Car – Alfa Romeo 8C: Driving a rare ‘Long Chassis’

Neat fin sits atop the spare-wheel cover; glorious Alfa Romeo handles long sweepers with aplomb

Since those childhood trips, I’ve wanted to discover what is so special about the Long Chassis compared to its shorter, more fashionable and faster 8C relations. The major differences, after all, were only the 10in longer wheelbase and the torque-tube propshaft, while the rest is the same thoroughbred core designed by the brilliant Torinese ingegnere Vittorio Jano. 

Now, on a frosty April morning, I’m heading across Cambridgeshire for a rendezvous with this dream car. The area has distant connections with pre-war Alfas 8Cs, several having been entered at a Gransden Lodge race meeting in 1947, while the estate of Richard Shuttleworth – who raced a Tipo B monoposto – was just a few miles away.

With the sun barely risen and mist hanging across the rolling fields like a Pissarro painting, I spot the blue beauty out on a run, its trusted custodian attempting to get some warmth into the engine before our test drive.

With coat collar high and tweed cap pulled down tight, it could be Lord Howe out for a blast on these deserted roads. The car looks and sounds magnificent as I follow it back to the garage, the chance meeting on the road only raising my expectations for the drive. 

Classic & Sports Car – Alfa Romeo 8C: Driving a rare ‘Long Chassis’

Start of ’32 Le Mans, with Tim Birkin leading Nando Minoia, both in Touring 8Cs

Back at the Latin thoroughbred’s temporary base and with the supercharged straight-eight switched off, the proportions and details again mesmerise me.

The Long Chassis cars first put Jano’s masterpiece on the map, breaking Bentley’s winning run at La Sarthe with victories in 1931 (Zagato body) and 1932 (Touring), before two further triumphs with thinly disguised short-chassis 8C-2300s in 1933 and ’34.

In the early 1930s, little could touch them in road races and Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin lapped Brooklands in one at 122mph for the 500 Mile Race.

For me, the Touring design has a more noble presence than other 8Cs, its proportions accentuating the bonnet length. Carlo Felice Bianchi Anderloni’s talented Touring team produced some of the most beautiful coachwork ever, and the Long Chassis Le Mans 8C displays much of that élan.

Distinctive features include the flared front mudguards, the toolbox moulded into the rear wings and the finned spine down the spare-wheel cover. With the radiator shell in body colour, deeply upholstered seats and the cockpit trim finished off with Touring’s signature stitching, the design is striking – the ultimate vintage style before the influence of streamlining.

Finished in dark blue with black wire wheels and an earthy brown leather interior, it has the purposeful beauty of a well-groomed stallion.

Classic & Sports Car – Alfa Romeo 8C: Driving a rare ‘Long Chassis’

Neat details include aeroscreens that double as wind deflectors

Although the body has doors, it’s more fun to use the step on the toolbox – as if you were starting a race – and drop into the wonderfully comfy seat. With a modified seatback, the driving position offers both support, space and a relaxed position. Ensconced behind the broad, four-spoke steering wheel there are plenty of clever details to admire, including the twin aeroscreens that double as effective side deflectors, while under the dash a Siata knob will adjust the rear shock absorbers for track or touring. 

Push in the clockwork-toy-style key, thumb the starter and the already warm motor starts instantly. With a centre gear tower to drive the four short camshafts and supercharger, this magnificent design is an orchestra of engineering, even when just idling. Recently rebuilt by Jim Stokes and Twyman Racing, the engine has clocked 208bhp on the dyno.

Manoeuvring around the tight yard, the steering is weighty with an impressive lock, but out on the road the controls soon lighten and sharpen. The combination of an uprated dog gearbox and the throttle now positioned conventionally to the right means that this great Alfa is easy to drive.

First is just for starting, and with closely stacked ratios and brawny torque, you’re soon up to fourth and roaring along at a relaxed 60mph. On open roads, third and top are all you really need, but the acceleration out of corners is spectacular.

Charge along, with the wind rush mixing with that awesome mechanical score and exhaust bellow, the experience is addictively heady. Through twisty sections, the Long Chassis feels superbly balanced, flowing through clear bends with no roll, instant traction and impressive grip, even on narrow 19in rubber. 

Classic & Sports Car – Alfa Romeo 8C: Driving a rare ‘Long Chassis’

Sweet ride is in marked contrast to Short Chassis cars

Unlike the shorter-chassis 8C, however, the ride is marvellous, the leaf springs, friction dampers and beam axles absorbing even rough sections despite the vintage design.

It’s easy to appreciate why the Long Chassis was so dominant at Le Mans: the combination of smooth power, progressive handling and refined ride made it the ultimate machine for long-distance races, keeping the driver fresh throughout. Given the chance, I could have driven or just ridden in this magnificent 8C all day and night, never tiring of its charms. Little wonder Lord Howe owned three in the early 1930s.  

Completed in 1934 in the last batch of Long Chassis models, this car – 2311222 – wasn’t sold until the following year. Italian registration records list it as a coachbuilt cabriolet but, as with several outdated 8Cs, its body style was changed just before WW2 to a more streamlined design made by Stabilimenti Farina, influenced by American automotive trends.

The flamboyant lines uncomfortably melded a traditional drophead body with a ‘sharknose’ front, reminiscent of the 1939 Graham-Paige ‘Spirit of Motion’ with its one-piece crocodile bonnet. Other dress-up features included chrome wheel trims and headlamps moulded into the wings. 

After the war, the remodelled 8C found its way to Belgium and was discovered complete by two students in a scrapyard near Antwerp. The Alfa Romeo was eventually saved and rebuilt before its sale in the late ’50s to Italian-car fan Jim MacAllister in New York, where it shared garage space with a Maserati A6GCS. 

Classic & Sports Car – Alfa Romeo 8C: Driving a rare ‘Long Chassis’

Fitted with a Roots-type supercharger, the howling all-alloy 2336cc straight-eight is now producing in excess of 200bhp

The car returned to Europe in the late 1970s when it was acquired by Swiss photographer Jost Wildbolz, an enthusiast with great style who also raced ERAs R4A and R9B.

Inspired by his English friend Rodney Felton, Wildbolz had always wanted an Alfa 8C Spider, but his lofty build was never comfortable in the cockpit of a Short Chassis model. The Farina body was removed and Wildbolz set about designing his own long-wheelbase Spider, which resulted in a spectacular body with elegant flowing wings, a long bonnet and a low ’screen that evoked the great Mille Miglia team cars. The chassis and body took six years to complete but, unlike many 8C conversions, the chassis wasn’t shortened. 

In 1984, once the car was completed, Wildbolz entered the Mille Miglia retrospective and drove the newly finished – and much-admired – 8C from Switzerland over the Alps to the Brescia start. After a trouble-free run to Rome and back, the diff failed just 300m after the finish.  

Following five years of rewarding ownership, Wildbolz gave in to the persistence of Al Guggisberg of Oldtimer Garage, another tall enthusiast, who appreciated the comfort of 2311222, and kept the dream 8C for several years, regularly using it for his commute around Bern. “It was the best, fastest and easiest-to-drive 8C I ever owned,” recalls Guggisberg. 

The car remained in Switzerland and was a regular on the Klausenrennen, the supercharged Long Chassis in its element storming the 21km mountain course. Later owners included Nick Harley and Peter Agg, who took it on a motoring adventure through Morocco where ingested sand resulted in engine problems.

Classic & Sports Car – Alfa Romeo 8C: Driving a rare ‘Long Chassis’

F1 World Champion Mike Hawthorn with two Long Chassis Le Mans cars outside his dealership

In 2001 the car crossed the Atlantic again when acquired by Texan John Ridings Lee, joining an impressive collection including a straight-eight Triumph Dolomite. The desire to give 2311222 a more authentic style was fulfilled in 2004, when Ridings Lee learned that a superb Touring-style body had been removed from chassis 2311203 after Arturo Keller decided to refit the streamlined Viotti coupé coachwork to the 8C that came third at Le Mans in 1933.

The match was perfect. The recreated body was made by Rod Jolley’s talented team in the New Forest, with Jolley allowed access to the ex-National Motor Museum Long Chassis that was previously Hawthorn’s pride and joy.

With reference from the highly original team car that some maintain should have won Le Mans in 1935, the proportions and details were perfect. Fitting was done by Bob Smith Coachworks in Gainesville, Texas, yet by 2007 chassis 2311222 was heading back to the UK after being acquired to join a Ferrari 250GTO in the stable of a well-known Scottish historic racer and collector.

The dark-blue Long Chassis was sent to Martin Greaves at Classic Performance Engineering where its engine, steering and handling were transformed, including fitting the front spring shackles the correct way round!

For winter motoring, the sorted Latin great was shipped to South Africa where it proved perfectly suited to local roads. Even Formula One design supremo Adrian Newey enjoyed a chance to drive the fabled 8C, and rated it the best pre-war car he had driven. 

Having previously had a Monza, the owner preferred the Long Chassis as a road car and continued to drive it extensively, including shipping it to California for a private Alfa 8C tour organised by Tom Price.

Classic & Sports Car – Alfa Romeo 8C: Driving a rare ‘Long Chassis’
Classic & Sports Car – Alfa Romeo 8C: Driving a rare ‘Long Chassis’

(l-r) ‘Dog’ gearbox and conventional throttle make it easier to drive; chassis plate

The car’s continued sorting and refinement was carried out by specialist Neil Twyman, who has probably worked on more 8Cs than anyone. As well as making it easier to live with, adding the dog gearbox, moving the central accelerator to the right and improving the seating position, Twyman’s team focused on the car’s detailing.

More authentic features included period Bosch lights, with a stylish spot mounted on the windscreen; correct tonneau-cover clips; and painted registration numbers to look more Italian. 

Riding on Blockley triple-stud tyres with narrower 5in covers at the front to further lighten the steering, the car looks as if it’s ready for Le Mans in the early ’30s.

“I’m a big fan of the Long Chassis,” says Twyman. “You get all the magic a Monza delivers, but with better handling and ride. I’ve never known anyone spin one. It’s a shame people don’t drive them more.

“I’ll never forget running a team of three Long Chassis cars at the Silverstone Historic Festival in 1992 with Peter Hannan and Klaus Werner. No Bentley or Mercedes could touch them.” 

In 2011 the blue beauty raced at the Donington Historic Festival in the ‘Mad Jack’ 50-minute event, where co-driver Julian Bronson got down to 1 min 39 sec laps and relished every moment.

“What a car,” enthuses Bronson today. “The handling is so progressive and the ride is fantastic. In comparison, a Monza is edgy and hard work – you definitely need a body belt – but not with the Long Chassis. You can understand why Birkin and Howe did so well. One of the best cars I’ve ever driven and top of my dream list.”

Classic & Sports Car – Alfa Romeo 8C: Driving a rare ‘Long Chassis’

The Alfa is going to auction with Bonhams on 5 July 2019

For the past 12 years this great Alfa has been looked after by Phil Stainton, who regularly gets to exercise the collection.

A VSCC man and former restorer, Stainton started out with Austin Sevens and over the years he’s driven some great cars, but the 8C Long Chassis remains a favourite: “For usability and comfort, it would be the Long Chassis every time. Even with the heavier body it still feels very quick.

“There’s something about the 8C that always rewards, and you never get tired of it. To work on they are also a delight: even adjusting the valves is a pleasure. They’re nothing like the fussy nature of a Bugatti.” 

Stainton has driven the 8C on some dream roads, and a test route in the south of France is particularly memorable: “There’s a twisty 12km climb up to La Garde-Freinet where you can really work the car hard. The 8C loves this road, and I always stop for a coffee at the top.”

Classic & Sports Car – Alfa Romeo 8C: Driving a rare ‘Long Chassis’

Walsh finally gets his long-awaited drive

None will miss the Long Chassis more than Stainton when it goes to auction with Bonhams at the Goodwood Festival of Speed on 5 July. Like him, I wish I had the millions to own it, but my 30 miles around Cambridgeshire back-roads will never be forgotten.

At the end of the day I ask if I can take photographer Williams out for one final blast. “I can’t imagine how that must have felt in the early 1930s – what a fantastic car,” he enthuses as I reluctantly switch off after a spirited run.

With more time we’d have driven the 8C to the local pub for lunch – in how many supercars could you take three chums for a pint? For this and so many other reasons, the Long Chassis has ultimate appeal for me.

Images: Will Williams. Thanks to Phil Stainton, Neil Twyman and Bonhams


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