The road car choices of race aces make a fascinating study.
Most champions went for something discreet, refined and relaxing to drive after the drama of the track.
For a works driver the choice was often limited to the company they competed for, but the fabulously wealthy Italian Count Carlo Felice ‘Didi’ Trossi had the resources to pick anything that tempted him, or to commission a bespoke build.
Most famous of his road cars was a custom-bodied Mercedes-Benz SSK, the spectacular black beauty that looked like a Deco-era Batmobile and is now one of the stars of Ralph Lauren’s collection.
Trossi’s father was killed in a car crash, but it didn’t quash his interest in fast machines.
As well as a pair of SSKs, the garages at the family castle during his short but dramatic life housed a diverse range of vehicles, ranging from luxurious Packards to compact Fiats and prototype Vespas.
During the final years before he died of a brain tumour in a Milan clinic aged just 41, this Latin aristocrat preferred a more discreet coupé, the stylish grey Alfa Romeo 6C-2500 Sport pictured here.
Delivered during WW2 in 1942, this was one of the most exclusive Italian road cars of the 1940s, produced a decade before Trossi’s old associate Enzo Ferrari had even thought about building GTs to help fund his racing.
Developed as a quality car to supplant the 6C-2300B and the exotic 8Cs, the 6C-2500 was introduced in 1939 and featured independent suspension all round.
The chain-driven twin-cam engine powered a wide range of models, from a limousine version to the range-topping, triple-Weber 110bhp Super Sport.
The last Alfa sold with a separate chassis, the 6C-2500 was bodied by a variety of Italian coachbuilders but the Milan-based Carrozzeria Touring created its most distinguished form.
These handsome, handmade beauties created in the bustling workshops on Via Ludovico di Breme illustrate the evolution of streamlining with their side mouldings becoming ever less pronounced.
The final incarnation was the ultra-stylish Villa d’Este Super Sport, which Touring’s newly promoted director Carlo Felice Bianchi ‘Cici’ Anderloni regarded as one of his proudest achievements. Its twin-headlight 6C-2500 style had its origins in Trossi’s coupé.
During WW2, the Count was still closely involved with Alfa Romeo’s racing department despite his commitments to flying duties with the Italian Air Force.
Looking at this gorgeous grey coupé, it’s easy to conjure images of Trossi landing his Macchi C.205 Veltro fighter at a Milan airfield during the war, climbing out and lighting his distinctive pipe before driving back to his castle home near Biella.
On arrival at the historic fortress, Trossi would sound the Alfa’s horn to alert his staff to drop the electrically operated drawbridge for his entry.
When peace returned, the nobleman was enlisted alongside Achille Varzi, Giuseppe Farina and Frenchman Jean-Pierre Wimille to drive the fabulous Alfetta Tipo 158s, starting with the ’46 Grand Prix des Nations in Geneva.
No doubt Trossi’s grey 6C-2500 Sport was his transport for the journey to Switzerland. He finished second behind Farina, and on the way back to Biella the discussions in the Alfa’s snug cockpit must have centred around the baulking antics of his old adversary Tazio Nuvolari, who had been black-flagged.
Trossi won with the Alfetta in the 1947 Italian and Swiss Grands Prix, proving that he’d lost none of his edge on street circuits.
The 6C-2500 remained his regular transport, presumably given a special parking space in the paddock among the Alfettas and transporters during his final seasons.
With his relaxed, aristocratic aura and hawkish features, the lofty Trossi always had a distinctive style marked out by his slicked-back hair, favourite raincoats, cool Persol Ratti sunglasses and a Patek Philippe chronograph that was worn outside his cuff.
This detail adopted from fellow pilots continued even when racing, with the watch worn over his specially tailored overalls, a trend later copied by Gianni Agnelli
“[He was] a great driver but not hungry enough,” said Enzo Ferrari. “He was a man from whom drama bounced back as from rubber.”
As well as campaigning the fastest Italian racing and sports cars as president of Scuderia Ferrari, including both Alfa 8C Monza and Tipo B, Trossi later switched to Maserati voiturettes after disagreements over the management of Enzo’s race team.
His early success included an impressive second on debut in the 1932 Mille Miglia when teamed with fellow Biella nobleman Antonio Brivio.
Trossi also famously imported a vintage Duesenberg with Clemons 4½-litre straight-eight, which was developed by Scuderia Ferrari. Although rapid at Monza, it proved to be unreliable.
Another super-wealthy racer, Anglo American Whitney Straight, later heroically powered it around Brooklands at 138mph.
Within the impressive basement workshop at his castle at Gaglianico, Trossi and Ingegnere Augusto Monaco developed an aircraft-inspired monoposto prototype with a supercharged, two-stroke radial 16-cylinder engine and an innovative spaceframe chassis.
Despite hitting 155mph while testing at Monza it never raced, and was later gifted to the Biscaretti museum in Turin by Trossi’s widow, Contessa Lisetta.
As well as the family fortune – made in textiles and the banking business – Trossi also had agricultural interests, plus properties on the riviera in Portofino.
Born in 1908, he came to England in the 1920s first to board in Southsea, and later to study textile engineering in Leeds. Trossi remained a lifelong Anglophile and, like compatriot Count Giovanni ‘Johnny’ Lurani, he became friends with many English racers, including Dick Seaman.
Sitting in the 6C-2500 today, the aroma of his favourite tobacco and his neat storage box of racing gear have long gone, but you can’t help thinking about how tough his later life was and imagining the thoughts that crossed his mind while driving to and from business meetings and races.
He reputedly suffered acute pains behind his left eye, which forced him to rest. During his final years teammates recalled that Trossi was more professional, but maybe the knowledge of his terminal condition made him more focused.
Be it competition cars, aircraft, prototypes, or speedboats, Trossi was interested in the engineering as much as the performance.
Too easily dismissed as a rich dilettante, the Count was generous and courageous – as his activities with the Italian Resistance proved during the war. Perhaps the 6C-2500 once secretly carried leaflets, underground newspapers and radios.
Current owner Raoul San Giorgi has long wanted to take the Touring-bodied 6C back to Biella to visit the Trossi family, view the archives and recreate the poignant shot taken in 1945 of the Alfa parked on the castle bridge.
“Didi’s nephew invited us and the plan was to visit last year but, like so many things, we’ve had to postpone the trip,” says Giorgi.
“We’ll take her back next time I drive to Italy. The Alfa is one of my favourite cars and is definitely not for sale.
“It was my first restoration project and my family is very attached to it, particularly my daughter Chiara. That became very clear when she was 12 years old.
“We were all sitting at lunch when dealer Rudy Pas called. I came back to the table and said, ‘I’ve just had a fantastic offer for the Alfa.’ Chiara looked at me sternly and said, ‘If you sell it, I am no longer your daughter.’ Her feelings today remain just as strong.”
As a man who believes great cars should be driven to fully experience them, Giorgi has made several memorable trips in the Trossi coupé.
“We’ve done about 22,000km since the rebuild and it’s always been super-reliable,” he explains. “It’s not a sports car, but it’s perfect for touring and it really starts to wake up as the oil gets warm after around 25 miles.
“The worm-and-wheel steering is very direct, and the early-type floor gearchange is the best specification.”
Over the past 40 years Giorgi has managed many significant restorations, and with seven projects presently at a Rome-based specialist, including a 6C-2500 Pinin Farina drophead, he has no plans to retire yet.
Highlights have been the recreation of the Mercedes-Benz 540K Streamliner for the factory museum, and most recently the re-restoration of the Alfa Romeo 8C-2900 ‘Whale’ with its original bodywork for the Louwman Museum.
Other projects have included 1910 Prince Henry Trial Benz machines, and a spectacular Alfa 6C-2500 Competizione team car.
“I bought it from the Michel Dovaz collection of ‘Sleeping Beauties’,” says Giorgi.
“It was a major rebuild. The car was fast, very hot and super-light at around 900kg, but I never felt safe driving it, with its ‘Two-Nine’ rear suspension. Alfas have always been close to my heart: they put me on the map.”
Giorgi’s passion for the unsung 6C-2500 began three decades ago.
“During a visit to London, I went for a stroll around the Kensington mews to look in the showrooms. Inside Gregor Fisken’s garage was a beautiful 6C-2500 Touring coupé and I immediately fell for its style and quality.
“I’d been a British-car fan up to that point, concentrating on Jaguars and Healeys, but on first seeing the 6C I knew it was for me; over the years I’ve had 17
“They are perfect long-distance cars, and although not particularly fast, due to their weight, they have lots of torque and very forgiving handling.
“The engineering is superb with quality details.”
When Giorgi discovered the Trossi coupé he had no idea of its history.
“I’d become good friends with Alfa specialist Fabio Calligaris, and when he set up on his own in 1989 I agreed to buy a client’s unfinished 6C-2500 project on the condition he’d restore it.
“It was complete but needed a full rebuild. The car had matching numbers but the roof had been cut off to convert it into a cabriolet.
“Initially the owner insisted that he wouldn’t sell to anyone outside Italy, so Fabio secretly bought it for me.”
Only during the restoration did Giorgi discover the 6C’s connection to the famous Count.
“With the help of Tito Anselmi, we checked the chassis number, 915 510, with the Automobile Club d’Italia records, which listed Carlo Felice Trossi as the first owner.
“His registration was VC 14726 and the colour was listed as grigio. We then contacted the family, who confirmed this and supplied photos that provided key details for the restoration.”
While the rebuild progressed in Calligaris’ Milan workshop, Giorgi contacted Anderloni at Touring, who recalled the special order.
“In 1942 he’d had just taken over the carrozzeria from his father, and this was his first project. He remembered the unique features that Trossi requested including the extra headlights. He wanted brighter Carello lights for night driving, and special paintwork.
“Carlo found his original build notes, which stated ‘no polished finish’. Italy was having a tough time economically and Trossi didn’t want to be seen as a show-off, driving around in a flashy new car. Although he was managing Alfa Corse at the time, the 6C-2500 was purchased outright.”
Finished in November 1942, the 6C features a chassis built pre-war with the desirable floor shift.
“Materials were in short supply, so Alfa was forbidden to build new frames and used up old stock for the first 6C series,” says Giorgi.
During the rebuild, Calligaris found areas of the original grey paint as a reference for the repaint. Just as Trossi requested, the bodywork wasn’t polished.
Photographs from the family archives reveal that the 6C was originally fitted with two club badges, BRDC and BARC, both mounted on the top bumper. Trossi was hugely proud of the two crests.
“When I took the car to the Pebble Beach Concours in 2005, one of the judges was critical of the badges and said they spoilt the car,” says Giorgi. “I took great delight in presenting to him a historic photograph of the car at Trossi’s castle with the badges clearly fitted. He was very embarrassed.”
Despite its authentic flat grey paint, the stylish 6C has been a regular winner at concours events including a best in class at Pebble Beach.
But Giorgi, himself a respected judge, prefers driving his cars. One of many highlights was a solo trip back from Italy to his home in Belgium.
“I’d been to the 6C-2500 Register rally, and as I left Milan it started raining cats and dogs. When the driver’s-side wiper failed, the vision was hopeless – I had to lean across to the passenger side to get a clear view.
“It was hellish and I started asking Trossi to help me make it home. The storm continued all the way to the Gotthard Tunnel but, amazingly, when I exited in Switzerland on the other side the weather had changed to beautiful sunshine. After a night in a hotel, I did the run back to Brussels in one go.
“As I parked in my home garage, the engine suddenly cut out on its own and wouldn’t restart. A spring in the points had broken, which could have happened anywhere across Europe. The Trossi 6C has always been lucky for me.”
Images: James Mann
Thanks to Salon Privé, which takes place this year from 1-5 September