Alfa Romeo’s answer to the Gullwing focused on four-pots for ’50s racing, but the rapid Sportiva never got the chance to prove its pace. Mick Walsh samples the Bertone beauty
After the heady glory days of its Grand Prix domination with the Alfetta, Alfa Romeo struggled to find its competitive spirit in the early 1950s.
Sports cars became the priority to promote the new direction for Milan, but both the Gioacchino Colombo-designed Disco Volante and later the 6C-3000 coupés under Giuseppe Busso failed to deliver despite impressive specifications and bold ideas.
As Italy rebuilt after the war and the illustrious company moved away from bespoke machinery to a mass-produced line, the 1900 introduced in 1950 became the mainstay of the car division.
The unitary platform of the production saloon evolved into handmade, short-wheelbase coupés from Italy’s finest coachbuilders, a succession of one-off show cars – and even a military jeep.
When the firm later concentrated on a twin-cam Giulietta to launch a new era at Portello, a 1900 swansong development was created under the direction of Busso.
Maybe the success of Mercdes-Benz’s sensational 300SL encouraged Alfa’s director Orazio Satta Puliga to give the go-ahead for a new lightweight spider and coupé based around the mechanics of the older 1900.
The plan was to put the fixed-head into limited manufacture, aimed at wealthy privateer racers.
The four-cylinder motor – with its iron block and light-alloy head – was bored out to give 1997.4cc and with twin Weber 50DCO3 carburettors, hotter cams, 9:1 compression and dry sump, it punched out 138bhp at 6500rpm.
Unlike the Disco Volante’s engine, the ignition switched from magneto to coil with a camshaft-driven distributor.
The unit had proved its reliability with the 1900 TI in endurance events, but powering the Sportiva’s lightweight square-tube spaceframe with beefy longerons through the sills and clothed in Superleggera alloy bodywork, this 915kg machine had a 140mph potential.
The frame was extensively drilled and, other than the windscreen, all the windows were Perspex, which underlines the drive for further lightness with competition in mind.
The front end followed 1900 practice with unequal-length wishbones, coil springs and dampers, but the rear was a beautifully engineered de Dion set-up with Watt linkage and finned inboard drum brakes.
The talented Austrian engineer Rudolf Hruska, who had managed the 1900 project, was also closely involved with the new 2000 prototypes, and enlisted Nuccio Bertone to make the bodies with the brilliant Franco Scaglione as the stylist.
Like many of Alfa Romeo’s top engineers, Scaglione had an aviation background with a specialist interest in aerodynamics, as his BAT show cars dramatically demonstrated.
How many Sportivas were built remains a mystery that has challenged Alfa historians for decades, but it is generally believed that there were four cars – two spiders and two coupés – with chassis numbers from 1366.00001 to 1366.00004.
Of the two open Sportivas, only one survives: 00002 in the factory collection. The fate of the other is unrecorded, prompting the theory that only one was built with the body changing through aerodynamic testing.
To further confuse matters, a third coupé – with deeply cut away front wings and exposed exhaust exiting ahead of the rear wheel – appears in period photographs.
The first prototypes took to the road in August ’54, the compact-looking roadster evolving progressively from finned BAT-style tail to a more rounded version.
A scoop photo in the February 1955 issue of Auto Italiana reveals a spider on track at Monza adorned with threads of wool to study airflow, which was filmed with a cine camera from a chase car. ‘The fins were soon removed as they proved useless,’ Busso recalled in his memoirs.
The spider competed just once, in the Vermicino-Rocca di Papa hillclimb, where it won the sports-car class and came second overall to Salvatore Casella’s Mercedes 300SL.
As Alfa focused on developing the Giulietta, the Sportiva was pushed into the background. The two coupés were completed, with more cohesive styling and a better finish.
The silver car was used extensively for evaluation, as its higher mileage confirms. At one point, possibly for testing tyres and 2600 disc brakes, it was fitted with Dunlop-style disc wheels but was later put back on Borranis.
The two Sportivas were kept under wraps – to avoid distracting attention from the Giulietta launch – but finally the red coupé was unveiled on the Alfa stand at the ’56 Turin Salon. It shared space with a 1900 Pininfarina Coupé and the new Giulietta, while across the aisle the Turin coachbuilder displayed the wild Superflow.
The two fixed-heads are subtly different, with contrasting front air vents under the bumper (the silver car ‘00003’ has neater vertical louvres), sidelight positions and bootlid design, although both are clearly fully resolved designs.
The plan to build 100 was abandoned because Alfa Romeo’s management concluded that the car was too expensive to produce. So all three were initially confined to the Portello vault until plans began to build a new factory museum in 1965 under the direction of historian Luigi Fusi.
Few knew about the second red Sportiva until Fusi instigated a fascinating swap with an Australian.
While sorting cars for a comprehensive historical display, Fusi was keen to plug gaps. When he learned from Roy Slater, an English-born Alfisti who lived in Italy, that the only surviving 1920 20/30 was in Australia, contact was made with owner Lionel Jones.
The ordinary-looking vintage four-cylinder tourer might have seemed an unlikely exchange for the sexy prototype, but the 20/30 was the oldest remaining car to feature the Alfa Romeo badge, so was very significant for the museum collection.
Jones had discovered the tourer in 1967 after a customer to his Sydney engine-rebuilding workshop had mentioned an old Alfa stored on an outback farm.
Various marque histories had stated that none of the 300 20/30s built were left, so Jones was happy to prove the experts wrong and painstakingly restore the rare model.
When Fusi heard about the find from Slater, he made contact with Jones with offers to purchase the 20/30, but the Australian wasn’t interested. Refusing to give up, Fusi sent a list of historic Alfa Romeos to tempt him for a swap – with a new Sud thrown in to sweeten the deal.
At heart, Jones believed that the 20/30 should return to the factory and decided that the rarely seen Sportiva ‘00004’ would make the perfect exchange.
The particulars of the deal took months to sort, but the 20/30 was crated up in Sydney’s docks in 1971 and shipped to Italy.
Tickets later arrived for him and his wife Pauline to fly as special guests to the unveiling of the important machine. The opening of the crate was delayed for a special reception at Portello and, for most of the evening, Jones chauffeured Alfa management around the factory in his old car.
Back in Australia, Jones had to wait several months before the Sportiva arrived because Fusi claimed that the factory wanted to make sure that it was in top condition before shipping. The big day when the Sportiva was finally rolled out of its shipping container created quite a commotion on Sydney docks, with the local paper headlining the story as ‘The rarest car in the World’.
Unsurprisingly, the Sportiva was the pride of New South Wales Alfa enthusiasts, and was the star of the show wherever it appeared.
Although the mileage remained low (it had clocked just 400km when it arrived), Jones enjoyed driving the Sportiva and covered more than 6000km during his 18-year ownership, but much of that was before a disastrous track day in ’76.
While exploring the car’s impressive performance, Jones overcooked it through a turn and clipped the kerb, which tripped up the red coupé. After the roll, possibly caused by the limited grip of the original Stelvio tyres, the Sportiva landed on its roof with amazingly little damage – other than breaking the windscreen. Jones came off far worse and suffered a broken neck.
Once he’d recovered, hobbies including radio-controlled model aircraft took priority, but the meticulous rebuild was eventually finished. Replacing the glass proved a challenge and, after writing to Alfa and Bertone, he was informed that only two had been made in 1954.
The return letter bluntly stated that: ‘Mr Bertone would never build a car around a standard windscreen.’ An Australian specialist made a replacement in the end, and the Sportiva was back on the road.
In 1987, Jones decided to sell the Sportiva to fund the purchase of an aeroplane. The Alfa went under the hammer with Sotheby’s, where it made AU$380,000. Few in Europe were aware of the sale, but Dutch dealer Rudy Pas of Classic Car Associates sealed its brief return visit.
The Sportiva quickly sold to Japan where it went on to share space with another Bertone-built Alfa masterpiece, the Giorgetto Giugiaro-styled ’64 Canguro, as well as the Pininfarina TZ ‘750114’.
Unseen for the next two decades, the Sportiva returned to Europe after being acquired by a Swiss collector.
While the Alfa museum’s silver sister car was regularly seen on the Mille Miglia and other prestigious events, the red Sportiva appeared only occasionally. On a rare public outing at Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este in 2002, it appropriately won the Trofeo Bertone.
When I visited Pas in The Netherlands to view the car in 1987, after its trip from the Antipodes, I hadn’t seen the red Sportiva for 30 years. Then last autumn I received a surprise email from French chum Christophe Pund of La Galerie des Damiers with a teasing photo of the unmistakable coupé snugly parked inside his house.
Early one November morning, photographer Mann and I head for the Channel Tunnel for a much-anticipated trip to Cassel in northern France. Pund is well known for his biennial car picnic (C&SC, Aug ’08), which always attracts a fine array of vehicles from cyclecars to Le Mans racers. He even arranges a road closure for an informal hillclimb.
Few French enthusiasts are more fanatical than Pund, as confirmed by his projects including the rebuild of a 1927 GP Delage, chassis 3, and a treasured Lotus Eleven.
As we turn into his drive, I instantly spot the Sportiva’s distinctive rear through the glass front of Pund’s library office. Well, if you were looking after such a rare Latin beauty, wouldn’t you keep a close eye on it indoors if you had the space?
We’re immediately seduced by its sleek lines once it’s out into the open. From the aggressive sharp nose and cowled headlamps to the Giulietta-style rear window and short boot, the Sportiva has an exotic aura, and only the deep sills detract from its beauty.
Time for that eagerly awaited drive on Pund’s favourite local roads. Push the door button and the handle finger pops out.
After stepping over the high sill, you slide under the low, broad steering wheel and drop into the two-tone seat, which stylishly combines red cloth with a black vinyl weave.
The side spokes of the Nardi wheel angle distinctively downwards to allow a better view of the neat instrument binnacle, with bold rev counter redlined at 6500rpm and speedo marked to 240kph. The smaller gauges monitor oil and water temperature together, plus fuel level.
It’s a cramped affair two up, but the view framed by the slim pillars is panoramic. As the gruff ‘four’ warms, its strident exhaust – fed via the passenger-side sill – fills the cabin as it heats up. You’d cook on a summer day in Italy, with only the sliding Perspex windows for cool air.
As we motor out of town over stretches of pavé, the Sportiva – with its long, baulky gearchange gate and slightly offset pedals – feels basic, light and noisy, but a transformation takes place once you’re onto clear roads. The cammy engine feels rough and reluctant below 4000rpm, but the power really punches with turbine smoothness and eagerness to rev and rev once it clears its throats.
The five-speed gearbox matches the motor, with slicker action through the short stubby lever, and soon the Sportiva is in a groove attacking the sweeping hills around Cassel, its rorty bark singing out across the fields.
The Alfa rolls more than expected through corners on the tall tyres, but the short chassis feels neutral and balanced. The slow steering dates the design, but its weighting improves at speed, with sharper turn-in, while the drum brakes have a dead, heavy feel – but that could well be down to lack of use and old rubber.
Overall, the Sportiva feels like a racer that needs to be taken by the scruff of the neck and driven hard to get the best out of it – the perfect machine for a morning blast around the route of the Coppa d’Oro delle Dolomiti, attacking Passo Tre Croci en route to an espresso in Cortina.
Maybe some day we’ll see a proper tribute to the great Franco Scaglione, with a full set of his breathtaking designs.
One of the most inspired automotive exhibitions in recent times was L’Idea Ferrari, staged in the Forte di Belvedere in 1990, where landmark designs were presented in glass cases around the beautiful Boboli hills overlooking Florence.
Just imagine the Sportiva arranged with the amazing BAT Alfa trio, Porsche Carrera Abarth, ATS 2500GT, Arnolt Aston Martin and Bristol, Alfa Giulietta Sprint Speciale, plus the breathtaking Tipo 33 Stradale.
Scaglione’s styling legacy is worthy of any fine art display, but his birth city would be the perfect place for such a remarkable gathering. Now that would rival Michelangelo’s David in the Accademia Gallery.
Images: James Mann
Thanks to Christophe Pund and Ben Hendricks