Alfa Tale

The public had yet to catch a glimpse of Speed, Style, and Beauty, the exhibit that ran from March through early July at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, before the controversy began. The MFA’s management had expected people to talk, but some critics took issue with the subject matter’s even appearing in the museum. After all, people came to art museums to see paintings, sculpture, antiquities; nobody came to see cars, even if—especially if, some said—the cars in question were classics from the multimillion-dollar collection assembled by fashion mogul Ralph Lauren. According to the Boston Globe, the museum’s decision to host the show was a “shameless exhibit of exhibitionism” representing nothing less than the classic American dilemma, “the tug of war between virtue and materialism.” Time magazine asked how the museum could keep the show from becoming another branding opportunity for the designer; heaven forbid the show should prompt someone to go out and buy a Polo blazer. Even the supposedly car-friendly Detroit News questioned the show’s deeper meaning.

Bosh and piffle—or at least words to that effect—said Lauren, who dismissed allegations of ulterior motives for allowing the public to ogle his cars. “The business doesn’t need it, and I have enough status that I don’t need expensive cars to prove anything,” he reminded naysayers in a Detroit News interview. He had accepted the museum’s invitation to show his cars, he said, simply because he wanted to share their beauty.

Lauren had a point. Whatever his reasons for the show, the one thing nobody denied was that the cars were magnificent. Here, presented in one space, were 16 of the most eye-catching vehicles ever built, each a marvel of its time. Moving through Gund Gallery, you could see the gallery-goers’ customary poses of sophistication melt away in the presence of such legendary machines as the 1929 Blower Bentley, a descendant of the cars that dominated Le Mans in the 1920s; the muscular 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing, the coupe that launched the carmaker back to its prewar stature in motorsports; and the 1938 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic Coupe, Best of Show at the prestigious Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 1990 and the car that a panel of authors, designers, and historians named “the most beautiful car in the world” in 1997.


Yet even here, with sundry Bugattis, Ferraris, Jaguars, and Porsches, a McLaren, and a Morgan sparkling all around like jewels, one car drew special attention. Reverently, the cognoscenti approached its teardrop fenders, tapered tail, and louvered hood, all seemingly ablaze in the car’s brilliant orange-red color scheme. Here was the car of myth, the prewar supercar, one of only four Alfa Romeo 8C 2900 Mille Miglias ever made.

Now in its first appearance since restoration, the Alfa—more specifically, Alfa Romeo chassis number 412030, the first of the Mille Miglias to be built—was about to begin the next stage of its career, this time as a show car. Its next appearance will be at Pebble Beach for the 2005 Concours d’Elegance (August 21), where it will be one of the most eagerly anticipated cars since . . . well, since the Bugatti Atlantic. It was too soon to say what successes lay ahead for the sleek racecar, but for the crowds that gathered around it in the museum, that was immaterial; they were captivated by its past. With scenes from bygone races flashing on a video screen overhead and the car’s raspy exhaust note crackling from speakers, suddenly it was Italy in the 1930s—the golden age of style—and cars were the highest art form of all.

“This was the heyday of the concorsi d’eleganza,” says Mark Reinwald, curator of the Ralph Lauren Collection. “They fused and celebrated the Italian fashion and automobile industries.” The concorsi took place three to four times a year at such stylish resorts as Villa d’Este on Lake Como, with panels of VIPs deciding the most beautiful car and couturiers vying to adorn the most exciting vehicles with models in their latest finery. More than prizes were at stake, however. “It was different from the United States, where cars were built on assembly lines and everybody had one. In Italy, only the rich had cars, and they bought the chassis and body separately,” says Reinwald. “The concorsi were where the coachbuilders showed their wares. Everything was handbuilt, and the cars were pure artistry.”

Consequently, restoring these cars to their former glory requires no less artistry. “It’s a little like translating an epic poem by Homer or Ovid,” says Paul Russell, widely considered the master of this métier and whose namesake firm has been restoring Lauren’s cars since 1981. “You don’t do it word by word. You have to know the times, the place, the people. And then you connect the dots.” Therefore, says Russell, he does not begin by focusing on the cars; instead, he concentrates on the men who built them and the techniques they used. Although Vittorio Jano and Felice Anderloni have expired, Russell is on intimate terms with the men behind Alfa number 412030.

Jano Joined Alfa romeo in 1923 as chief engineer, and his talent for producing winning racing machines soon became evident, as did his disdain for anything less than victory. Two years after his arrival at the firm, his lightweight, 8-cylinder P2 Grand Prix cars were turning the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa into an Alfa parade. When the Belgian fans hooted and whistled derisively, Jano ordered his cars to pit—not only to be refueled but to be cleaned and buffed. During this stop, he had a table placed in full view of the spectators and proceeded to dine, ignoring the outrage from the grandstands. When he was finished, the table was removed, and the Alfas rejoined the race, which they won with ease.

Jano’s efforts were abetted—aesthetically and technically—by coachbuilder Anderloni. A gentleman racer who competed in bow tie and elegantly tailored suits, Anderloni was the creative genius who presided over Carrozzeria Touring. He was a talented designer and an innovator who patented a concept called superleggera (superlight), which used a frame of small-diameter steel tubes to support a car’s aluminum body. This design enabled him to create shapes that were rounder and more aerodynamic than those of other coachbuilders. To test their wind resistance, his cars were covered with felt strips and taken out on the road. A cameraman followed in a second car, recording the strips’ flow through the air. Most other carmakers would adopt this technique, but not until the 1950s.

The zenith of the collaboration between Jano and Anderloni was the 1938 Alfa 8C 2900 Mille Miglia. By this time Alfa was dominating road racing, winning Le Mans from 1931 through 1934, the Targa Florio from 1931 through 1935, and the Mille Miglia from 1931 through 1934 and then again in 1936 and 1937. The 1938 model, like those that preceded it, was a racecar thinly disguised as a sports car. Its undercarriage incorporated a Dubonnet independent suspension in front and a swing axle in the rear, affording it unsurpassed road-handling. Unlike most other sports cars of that era, it was designed to be driven with the wrists, not the elbows, and its handling became more precise as speed increased. With its double overhead camshaft, 2.9-liter engine producing as much as 255 horsepower—depending on the state of tuning—number 412030 and its siblings were reputed to be the fastest sports cars in the world. Its exhaust note, too, was unlike any other. It began as a ripping, uneven snarl that rose in pitch to become, above 3,000 rpm, an earsplitting crackle. At the car’s approach, it has been said, dogs would bark, young men would straighten their ties, and ladies would grow weak in the knees.

As its sobriquet confidently proclaimed, number 412030 was bred for one purpose: to win the Mille Miglia. And as the race showed, the car’s only meaningful competition came from its siblings. With Alfa team driver Carlo Pintacuda at the wheel, chassis number 412030 led for most of the 1938 race until a problem with the brakes forced it to take a 40-minute stop for repairs. Pintacuda then began a frantic drive to recapture the lead but ultimately placed second by two minutes to another Alfa 8C. A third 8C completed the Alfa sweep.

This Mille Miglia would be the only one for number 412030, as Italy soon mobilized for war and the car spent most of the 1940s hidden away in a cheese factory. (Between that race and the start of World War II, the car did enter and win three hill climbs.) When the car resurfaced, it was to a world vastly different from the one that had produced it. The concorsi were pale echoes of the lavish events of the 1930s. Artisans were being replaced by the assembly line, and standardization was becoming de rigueur. Nevertheless, in 1951, when an aspiring racecar driver named Phil Hill chalked up an early win against the newest Jaguars and Cadillac-Allards at the Del Monte Handicap in Monterey, Calif., the car he was driving was none other than Alfa Romeo number 412030.

Fifty years later, that same chassis was sitting in a corner of Paul Russell’s shop in the coastal town of Essex, Mass. “It had been owned by Bill Serri, who was a terrific collector and a great caretaker for the car,” says Russell. When, in 2001, Serri died, his widow asked Russell to consolidate and sell the collection. The auto restorer agreed to do so, and he had one particular collector in mind for the Alfa number 412030: Ralph Lauren.

Today, with the cost of restoration having been underwritten by Lauren, the Alfa appears the way its designers intended it to for the first time in almost 70 years. Yet it required more than ample financing to restore the car to its current condition, and the task was not without its philosophical dilemmas. “There was a time in this country when restoring a car meant improving it, making it a more polished piece than it was when it was new,” says Russell. “Ralph and I didn’t want to do that. We wanted to return it to its authentic state.”

Their commitment to authenticity was tested, however, when they examined the Alfa’s rear wings. “You don’t have to look at them too closely to see that they aren’t symmetrical,” says Russell. “That’s because they weren’t done by machine. They were done by a pair of panel beaters working by eye. We could have rectified this. On the other hand, it’s the imperfections on a car like this that give it its character. So they remained the way they were.”

Less charming, says Russell, was what had happened to the car’s tail. “We could tell there was something about the tail that didn’t look right. The lines didn’t flow. They were clumsy,” he says. “They weren’t what you’d expect from Anderloni.” After examining dozens of photographs from the late 1930s, Russell determined that the original tail had been replaced with a far less graceful piece. His shop’s own panel beaters addressed the issue, and the piece is now as elegant as when it left the Carrozzeria Touring workshop. A more obvious problem involved the windshield. Somewhere along the line, number 412030 had been fitted with a pair of “Brooklyn screens,” which made it appear as if the car had bifocals perched on its long, handsome nose. Russell replaced these with the subtly curved, wraparound windshield the Alfa was intended to carry.

The most striking aspect of any vehicle, of course, is its color, and in this regard, it appeared that Russell had hit a roadblock. He and Lauren agreed that, like its fittings, a car’s paint should reflect the most significant chapter in its career, but this left Russell with the task of determining just exactly what that paint looked like. To demonstrate the challenge this posed, Russell shows a photograph of a worker, circa 1970, holding a high-pressure hose next to number 412030. “This man is about to remove the last remaining bit of original paint from the Alfa,” he says. After this heresy the car would be painted brown and cream. Later, with Phil Hill as its owner, it was repainted Italian racing red, but Russell knew that was not the original color, because Jano had ordered that yellow be blended with the red to distinguish his Alfas from other Italian racecars. Fortunately for all concerned, Russell found a patch of the original paint. “It was underneath the gas filler cap,” he says.

For fans of vintage Alfas, a final surprise might be the wheels that number 412030 now rides on. Although they were painted bright red later in its career, this was not the original Alfa style. “This is the first time since 1938 it appeared with the original aluminum wheels,” says Russell. He and his colleagues also discovered on the hood little Mille Miglia markings with the colors of the Italian flag. “Nobody realized they were there before,” says Russell, with gratification.

Despite all of the skill and passion involved in first creating and then in re-creating the Alfa and its fellow showpieces, the question remains: Is it art? Darcy Kuronen, the Boston museum’s curator for the exhibit, says it is. “These cars, like all great art, relate to people on some universal, profound level. You see dads in here with their kids; they want to get close to the cars. Nobody cares, nobody knows if it’s an 8-cylinder or a 6-cylinder car,” says Kuronen. “You can just enjoy them. A lot of older women, who comprise the preponderance of the MFA audience, have told me after coming through the exhibit, ‘After this, I want a better car.’ ”

On another level, says the curator, obvious parallels exist between the pieces in the Speed, Style, and Beauty exhibit and nonvisual art forms. “If you heard a piece by Mozart, you’d relate it to an intricately crafted, very fragile old coach,” says Kuronen. “If it were Wagner, you’d think of a high-powered Mercedes.” Also, he adds, like other works of art, these cars radiate certain cues. “The person who gravitates to the Blower Bentley is different from those who like the McLaren,” he says. “Just as some people like Renaissance art, others prefer minimalism.”

As one connoisseur of fine automobiles explains, the Alfa Romeo 8C 2900 Mille Miglia meets another criterion of fine art: its monetary appreciation. “I loved it as a racecar,” Phil Hill told Road & Track, “but I didn’t have the means to develop it further. I think I paid $1,500 for the car that Ralph now owns and sold it for $4,500. Today it’s worth millions.”

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