Dream drive in a mighty Alfa Romeo Monza

| 23 Feb 2021
Classic & Sports Car – Dream drive in a mighty Alfa Romeo Monza

Few drivers competed from the vintage era through to the early years of Formula One.

The charismatic Norman privateer Philippe Étancelin raced a wider range of machines than most, against all the greats from Nuvolari to Fangio, and must have been a great dinner party guest.

But the closest contact now is through the surviving cars he raced, such as this, his second Monza.

‘Phi-Phi’ drove the Gauloises-blue Alfa Romeo 8C extensively for the 1933 season, the swansong for two-seater Grand Prix machines.

When current owner Peter Neumark phoned out of the blue to invite me to demonstrate this great car at Goodwood for a charity day, I was almost lost for words.

Better still, the event didn’t require crash helmets and allowed passengers. I’ve written a book, collected photographs, made models and ridden in several Monzas but, after five decades’ fascination, I’ve never properly experienced the fastest of the 8C family.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drive in a mighty Alfa Romeo Monza

The Monza’s supremely functional style has mesmerised me since I was a child.

Compared to a Bugatti it might lack elegant componentry, but the way the brass radiator and steel petrol tank mould into the body has a supremely purposeful aura.

With signature front cowl and long outside exhaust, it’s the ultimate Grand Prix car for use on both road and track.

Add the 8C’s pedigree of sports car glory and it’s easy to appreciate the reverence for Vittorio Jano’s stop-gap racer before the monoposto Tipo B arrived.

Just starting up, that deep-chested supercharged roar always gets me; I’m amazed its exhaust bellow doesn’t set off Goodwood’s noise sensors.

Within the confines of the pit lane, the glorious sounds of Jano’s masterpiece under the long tapering blue bonnet are dramatically amplified. The mechanical orchestra of bearings, gears and supercharger whoop is one of the greatest engine scores.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drive in a mighty Alfa Romeo Monza

It fires up first time all day, despite the wet conditions. Accelerating out of the pits the marvellous torque delivers from low revs with smooth, lusty punch right through to its 5500rpm redline, marked on the saucer-sized remote rev counter mounted on the steering column.

Around the paddock the steering is direct and weighty, but speeding through the double apex of Madgwick the feel is immediately transformed.

Sharp and super-responsive, with excellent feedback, the steering inspires in the wet.

Monzas by reputation are superbly balanced and like to drift, as Patrick Blakeney-Edwards proved in grim conditions at the 2018 Goodwood Members’ Meeting when he dominated the Caracciola Sportwagenrennen race. Power sliding through the sleet, he was a joy to watch.

Alfa 8Cs reveal a touch of understeer with a trailing throttle on turn-in, but that soon balances out mid-corner followed by progressive oversteer as you accelerate out.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drive in a mighty Alfa Romeo Monza

Alain de Cadenet used to power out of the old Woodcote at Silverstone with an armful of opposite lock, and maintained that on smooth modern tracks the Monzawas very chuckable.

In a private 8C group test, German ace Frank Stippler claimed the Monza felt better balanced, sharper and more responsive than a Spider, which suffered from a pendulum effect due to the extra weight of twin rear-mounted spares.

For a design that’s close to 90 years old, the performance is still remarkable. Weighing about 900kg, and with 200bhp from a motor remade by Jim Stokes, it delivers astonishing acceleration with 0-60mph in less than 8 secs and a top speed in excess of 120mph.

That feels very, very quick in a live-axle, leaf-sprung and vintage-style chassis; on bumpy roads you definitely need a body belt because of the firm ride and its shorter springs.

There’s little support in the stark cockpit without a passenger, and through tighter turns you’re gripping the broad four-spoke wheel to steady yourself over the bumps.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drive in a mighty Alfa Romeo Monza
Classic & Sports Car – Dream drive in a mighty Alfa Romeo Monza

Its tall drum brakes with rod/lever operation are powerful when they start to bite, but set-up balance is critical because there’s no compensation at the back, unlike in the more advanced Alfa Romeo 6C-1750.

Too many 8Cs have been converted to a modern throttle location, but the authentic centre button-style pedal here feels perfect for heel-and-toeing when downchanging into turns.

The long, elegant gearlever sweeps up from a clearly defined H-gate on the quadrant tower, with a cover clip to prevent an expensive slot into reverse.

The timing of changes through the crash ’box is tricky and shouldn’t be rushed if you want to avoid grating gears.

As this dream day progresses, the relentless rain floods the corners and requires some strange lines to avoid the deep water – and provides a cold shower from the tall rooster tails of spray from the cars in front.

Soaked, I continue happily to the end before the track is judged too dangerous.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drive in a mighty Alfa Romeo Monza

Pushing the Monza back into Jim Stokes’ trailer, I can’t help thinking about Étancelin’s first race with this very car in similarly murky conditions, but without the luxury of mudguards, at Pau in 1933.

The season had started early on a new street circuit around the old royal city.

The previous Grand Prix had been staged back in 1930 on a fast triangular road course featuring the Route Nationale 117, and Étancelin’s victorious Bugatti Type 35C was chased home by a heroic Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin in a stripped ‘Blower’ Bentley.

Three years later the race was relocated to the city, with a new 1.6-mile street circuit to rival Monaco.

The date was 19 February, but due to Pau’s south-westerly location the organisers were confident of fine early spring weather. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drive in a mighty Alfa Romeo Monza

The early Grand Prix fixture attracted an impressive entry of 18 cars, the majority Bugattis driven by rising Gallic stars keen for the season’s start.

Molsheim’s fastest included Marcel Lehoux, Guy Moll and René Dreyfus, all in Type 51s, together with a young Louis Trintignant, older brother of Maurice, in his Type 35C.

To challenge the Bugatti army were four Latin exotics: Jean de Maleplane’s elderly Maserati 26M, matched against three new Alfa 8C Monzas driven by Pierre Félix, Jean-Pierre Wimille and Étancelin.

‘Phi-Phi’ had indulged in his second Monza and chassis 2211097 was delivered direct from Milan to Pau.

The 37-year-old, with signature tweed cap turned back to front, was a popular figure on the European scene and could afford the best machinery.

The Grand Prix was the star of a full week of motoring-themed events with practice on Friday, but only 10 drivers ventured out in the dry conditions to learn the new course. With the backdrop of the Pyrenees and free entry for spectators, the atmosphere was electric.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drive in a mighty Alfa Romeo Monza

Top of the timing charts, with matching laps of 1 min 56 secs, were the wealthy Algerian Lehoux in the works Type 51 and Étancelin’s light-blue Monza – regulations demanded that teams paint their cars in the driver’s national racing colours.

No other entrant could break the two-minute mark, but conditions changed dramatically as the weekend progressed.

Heavy spring snow started to fall on Saturday evening and by dawn the town and park were covered in a white blanket, but that didn’t stop a huge crowd turning out.

Snow continued and the organisers considered the possibility of cancelling the race. But, with a packed calendar, there was no chance to postpone the event and eventually they decided the drivers were experienced enough to cope with the slippery track.

All morning up to the 2pm start the track was swept and salted to reduce the ice risk.

As was the norm in the early1930s, the grid was decided by lottery and Moll’s Type 51 and Félix’s Monza were chosen on the front row. Étancelin had more luck than Lehoux with a third-row slot, while the Bugatti ace was right at the back alongside Trintigant’s Type 35C.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drive in a mighty Alfa Romeo Monza

The 16-car grid gathered outside the casino for the start, but the Monza of Wimille failed to start because of engine problems and snow continued to fall as Charles Faroux, the famous French journalist and race organiser, stepped up to the podium to wave the cars off.

Moll’s T51 headed the nervous pack, as drivers tested the grim conditions, while a queue formed behind the struggling Félix.

Étancelin was soon up to fourth, despite the challenging visibility. After a few laps the once-white course turned into a treacherous mess of melted snow, salt, dirt and gravel, the open wheels churning the slush that covered aeroscreens and drivers’ goggles.

Stanisław Czaykowski and Étancelin found away past Félix but had by then dropped back from the leading Moll, who with a clear road had started to lap at 2 mins 10 secs.

Lehoux was cutting his way through the field, his position helped by the frequent pitstops of other drivers.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drive in a mighty Alfa Romeo Monza

Dreyfus had problems with his eyes, while on lap 11 Étancelin pitted from third with a misfire.

On opening the bonnet, his mechanic discovered that the plug holes between the cam boxes were full of snow – the delay cost Étancelin two laps and dropped him right down to 13th place.

Lehoux, meanwhile, was now setting fastest laps of the race and running fourth.

Finally, after one hour and 25 laps, the snow stopped but the track conditions remained as tricky as ever.

Étancelin continued his comeback, Lehoux kept his cool and by lap 30 was up to second place behind compatriot Moll.

The lead became his on lap 31 when young Moll pitted, who then struggled to repass the second-placed Czaykowski and his mentor extended his growing margin out front by a minute.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drive in a mighty Alfa Romeo Monza

Étancelin took over as the fastest man on track, and was into the top 10 by lap 40.

With Dreyfus close behind, the muddy Monza continued its pace with a fastest lap of 2 mins 1 sec.

Fourth by lap 60, and third whenGuy Bouriat pitted unable to see, Phi-Phi was cheered on by the frozen wet spectators who sensed his impressive charge to catch Moll.

After nearly three hours’ racing and 80 laps, the chequered flag came down for an Algerian one-two, Lehoux one minute clear of Moll, on one of the foulest race days ever. Étancelin claimed third.

No doubt the Monza required some serious cleaning back in his Rouen garage before it was shipped across the Mediterranean for the Tunis Grand Prix on 29 March.

Étancelin would go on to take two victories during 1933 with the blue Monza, first at Reims in the Grand Prix de la Marne after a dramatic last-lap battle with Wimille’s Monza, the two aces drawing alongside at the Thillois hairpin.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drive in a mighty Alfa Romeo Monza

His winning streak continued the following weekend at La Baraque Hillclimb, but his most impressive performances were at Monaco and Montlhéry.

Around the Principality he chased the epic lead battle between Tazio Nuvolari’s Monza and Achille Varzi’s Type 51 before retiring with a broken differential, possibly caused by hitting the sandbags after a spin.

Later in the summer the blue Monza came close to winning the French Grand Prix following a tense battle with Giuseppe Campari’s works Maserati 8C-3000.

The popular Italian champion was faster but harder on tyres around the rough Paris bowl and Étancelin remained sufficiently in contention to lead with five laps to go.

Campari was catching fast but the bulky opera-lover made a very late stop for fresh tyres, and the hot Maserati proved difficult to restart.

In the late drama, three mechanics pushed him off rather than the permitted two. But for a very lenient official Campari would have been disqualified and he was allowed to chase on.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drive in a mighty Alfa Romeo Monza

Étancelin was having his own problems with clutch failure but the blue Monza led on to the final lap by 24 secs.

He virtually had to stop at the tighter turns when it would stick in neutral, and the Maserati stormed around Montlhéry and jubilantly passed the slowing Monza to win.

The partisan crowd sensed Phi-Phi’s frustration and cheered him home to second.

Étancelin was always fast but not the most mechanically sympathetic of drivers in his early years, often over-driving in the heat of the chase and pushing his machinery too hard.

By the end of the season the new monoposto Alfas were unbeatable and Étancelin, realising that the two-seater Monza was now outclassed, ordered a new Maserati 8CM for 1934.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drive in a mighty Alfa Romeo Monza

The Monza was sold to Julio Villars in Switzerland and later to Henri Simoret, who eventually repainted it in Swiss racing colours of a white bonnet over red bodywork.

The car kept Étancelin’s distinctive leather wind protector under the aeroscreen and ran at various races and hillclimbs through the 1930s, including one of the last outings of a Monza in a major European Grand Prix when it kept out of the way of the Silver Arrows at Bremgarten in ’37.

At some point in the late ’30s the Monza was rebodied with a more streamlined style, featuring an Alfetta-type nose cowl and rear wings moulded into the tail.

Not even Alfa 8C guru Simon Moore could discover who built this distinctive body. The dramatic-looking 8C survived WW2 hidden away in Switzerland and by the early 1960s had been sold to America.

The restyled 2211097 changed hands several times among East Coast Alfisti until the late Peter Giddings acquired it and immediately removed the Swiss shell.

With a more authentic Monza rebody and a rebuilt motor, Giddings returned it to the track and competed in early historic racing events in America.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drive in a mighty Alfa Romeo Monza

Japanese collector Yoshiyuki Hayashi purchased the car in 1981 and had the then-red Monza sent directly to Macau, where he won a historic support race at the Grand Prix, the straight-eight roar sounding fantastic through the narrow streets.

In 1985 Hayashi shipped both his Monza and Tipo B to Laguna Seca for the Alfa-themed weekend, and showed 2211097 at Pebble Beach on the Sunday.

The Monza eventually returned to Europe in the late 1980s, first to Germany with Hein Gericke and eventually to Peter Neumark in England.

Road-registered, the famous Monza has been very active for the past 24 years competing at Monaco, Spa-Francorchamps, the Nürburgring and in VSCC events.

“It’s a fantastic car and a joy to drive,” beams Neumark.

“We did the Mille Miglia but broke down at night with electrical problems. A local garage enthusiastically sorted it the following morning and we cut across to Siena to rejoin. We ended up having a fantastic lunch with ’bikers Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman before a great run home to Brescia.”

Neumark also made the inspired decision to put the car back to French Blue, as raced by first owner Étancelin with such distinction. What better way to celebrate 2211097’s rich and colourful history?

Images: Will Williams

Thanks to Peter Neumark (see v-management.com for details of the charity day at Goodwood); Jim Stokes; Simon Moore


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