The 1930s were a period of experiments, and pursuit of records for carmakers. Both for the track and for the road, engineers made their maddest dreams become a reality. That is how the Formula Libre was born: a competition with no, or few, regulations. The competition was between carmakers, but on a larger scale between States.

France was represented by Bugatti and its Type 51 (successor of the glorious Type 35), Italy by the Alfa Romeo P3 Tipo B, who performed very well with Tazio Nuvolari winning the European Drivers Championship in 1932, with Baconin Borzacchini and Rudolph Caracciola also on P3s, taking 2nd and 3rd places.

The P3 was an excellent car, developed by genius Vittorio Jano. It featured a supercharged 2.9 liters straight eight, and won a staggering 46 races during its career. But the financing of Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz by the Third Reich, together with the Formula Libre “regulations” (or lack of regulations) allowed them to develop two cars that outdated every competitor: The Auto Union Type C and the Mercedes-Benz W25. Lacking precious founds, Alfa Romeo couldn’t compete, and asked a man to respond on behalf of the Biscione: Enzo Ferrari.

The 1933/1934 seasons:

In 1933, Alfa Romeo, having financial difficulties, decided to subcontract its racing activities. Former team manager Enzo Ferrari already had his team, the Scuderia Ferrari, and chose to represent Alfa Romeo on the track.

However, it is not until August 1933 that the Scuderia Ferrari took delivery of its P3s, racing the 28 first races (!) with outdated Alfa 8C 2300 and 2900. At the time the season was composed of 36 races, including 4 major one: The Grand Prix of Monaco, Monthléry, Spa-Francorchamps, Monza and Spain. The 8C 2300/2900 secured 14 wins during the first races, but none in the major events. On August, 13th, the Scuderia finally entered a P3, at the Pescara Grand Prix in Italy, winning the race. The remain of the season saw the P3 win almost every race it entered.

 

An Alfa Romeo P3 Tipo B seen by our own Mickael at the 2020 Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance

We cannot talk about the 1933 season without mentioning the Domenica Nera di Monza: on September 10th, during the Monza Grand Prix, Giuseppe Campari, the great Alfa driver (and opera baritone), was killed driving his P3, with teammate Borzacchini failing to avoid him and being killed as well. A few hours later, Stanisław Czaykowski was also killed in the crash of his Bugatti Type 51.

Giuseppe Campari’s (upside down), and Borzacchini’s P3s after their fatal crash during the 1933 Monza Grand Prix

The 1933 and 1934 seasons didn’t feature a Drivers Championship, but the Alfas were the most successful cars, winning 19 of the 36 races in 1933, and 18 on 35 in 1934! But already in 1934, German competitors were there: at the 1933 Berlin Motor Show, Adolf Hitler announced a 500 000 Reichsmarks financing for the German carmaker who could come up with a car that could beat the Alfas (the main target was probably Italy itself and its dictator Benito Mussolini, Hitler using the same propaganda for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin).

Deciding that both Auto Union and Mercedes Benz projects were competitive, he financed both brands, with 250 000 Reichsmarks for each, and finally each year, not only in one payment. The result was the Mercedes-Benz W25, featuring a supercharged, 3.3L, 300hp 8 cylinders, and the Auto Union Type C, featuring a massive rear-mounted 4.36L, 295hp V16, and conceived by Ferdinand Porsche.

Mercedes-Benz won two major races in 1934 (Spain and Monza), Auto Union only one (the German Grand Prix, held at the Nürburgring).

1935: the pinnacle of Automotive Engineering

The tensions in Europe at the time were also visible on the track, and it showed in the preparation of the 1935 season: States still supported their own manufacturers, but now also asked them to hire national drivers. Mercedes lead driver was Rudolph Caracciola, hired from the Scuderia Ferrari, Auto Union’s was Bernd Rosemeyer.

Tazio Nuvolari had left the Scuderia Ferrari at the end of the 1933 season, and was now driving either on a private Bugatti Type 51 or for Maserati. Conscient of the potential of the Auto Union, he wanted to drive for them during the 1935 season, but Achille Varzi (his former teammate from the Scuderia who had already signed a contract with the German team) convinced the managers not to hire the Mantavano Volante. Nuvolari came back to Enzo Ferrari, who didn’t like the idea of hiring a driver who had left him a year earlier. Benito Mussolini and his government, having the same “propaganda by sports” strategy as the Third Reich, asked the Scuderia Ferrari to hire him back.

But most importantly, the Scuderia was asked to conceive a car that would beat the Germans: the P3 Tipo B had had a great 1934 season, but it was now clear that it would not keep up with the improved W25 and Type C, now developing around 400hp.

It was unusual to ask the Scuderia, and not Alfa Romeo, to conceive the car, but Enzo Ferrari and his technical director, Luigi Bazzi, had an idea. In January they told the 30 people working for the Scuderia they had only four months to develop a twin-engine car, in order to race it at the Tunis Grand Prix, on May 5th.

The basis was the outdated Alfa Romeo P3. The team lengthened the chassis, moved the fuel tanks to the side of the car, and put, in addition of the front mounted supercharged 2.9L straight eight… another supercharged 2.9L straight eight, but at the back! The engines were connected to a single gearbox through two driveshafts. The wheels were connected to the gearbox through two angled driveshafts. Yes, you read well, the car had a fantastically complicated 4 driveshafts system!

They couldn’t have come up with a more complicated system, but that’s what makes this car so special

The first 16C Bimotore was tested on April 10th 1935 on the Brescia-Bergamo Autostrada, and the team noticed a big problem: 540hp were difficult to handle with narrow tires such as the Engleberts used by the Scuderia. With only one month to go they tried, without success, to get Dunlop tires, and then finished the car, enlarging the engines to 3.165 liters, for a total of 6.3 liters. The first race of the Bimotore was initially intended to be the Tunis Grand Prix, on May 5th 1935. But during test sessions, the Scuderia Ferrari still had difficulties managing the tires, and chose to give Nuvolari a P3 for the race.

The finished car was supposed to compete at the 1935 Tunis Grand Prix

On May 12th, two Bimotore, driven by Nuvolari and Chiron, were at the start of the Tripoli Grand Prix. Despite the difficult management of the tires and fuel consumption, the Scuderia Ferrari was now confident: Tripoli was considered a fast track, 13km long with few corners.

The reality was tougher: two Mercedes took the lead at the start. Nuvolari was able to keep their pace in the straight line, but lost time in the corners. Worse: after only two laps (26km) he had to pit and change the rear tires, loosing precious time.  This set of tires lasted 4 laps, but that was the maximum Nuvolari could do. After 30 laps, he finished four, behind Caracciola’s Mercedes, Varzi’s Auto Union, and Fagioli’s Mercedes.

The Bimotore in front of a Mercedes W25 at the 1935 Tripoli Grand Prix. This picture was important for the Fascist Regime: Tripoli being part of the Italian Libya, an Alfa in front of a German Mercedes was a perfect propaganda tool.

Two weeks later, Nuvolari and Chiron were at the Avusrennen, for the 1935 Berlin Grand Prix. The race was divided in two 5 laps qualifying runs, and a final 10 laps race. Like Tripoli, the Avusrennen was a fast track, and during the test sessions Bernd Rosemeyer was clocked at 325km/h in his streamline Auto Union Type C.

The start of the Berlin Grand Prix, on the Avusrennen. The second Auto Union, Bernd Rosemeyer’s, had an experimental streamline body.

Nuvolari had to make two pit stops to change tires during the first qualifying session, which cost him the race: arriving 6th, he wasn’t qualified for the last two races.

Fagioli and his W25 won the final race, and Louis Chiron, being careful with his tires, finished 2nd, the best result the Bimotore would have. After these two disappointments, and knowing that the following races of the season were to be on even more difficult tracks, the Scuderia decided to withdraw the Bimotore, in favor of the P3, easier to drive, and more at ease on curvy tracks.

Cornering was the most difficult thing to do with the Bimotore

But the Bimotore wasn’t of no use for the team: the car couldn’t compete with the Auto Unions and Mercedes on the track, but it it could beat their top speed on a straight line. On June 16th 1935, Tazio Nuvolari drove the car on the Firenze-Livorno Autostrada, setting a new record for the kilometer: and average of 324km/h, and a top speed of 365km/h (Remember that at the time pilots wore leather helmets, didn’t have fireproof clothes, and the car had a tiny windscreen protecting nothing!).

Tazio Nuvolari ready to set a new record in June 1935.
Two engines means twice as much work!

After this record, the experience gained with the Bimotore helped the Scuderia Ferrari to develop their new race car: the 8C-35, unveiled on September 8th at Monza.

The Scuderia Ferrari with their masterpiece. Tazio Nuvolari behinf the wheel, Enzo Ferrari behind the car.

Later the Bimotore also helped (especially thanks to its sophisticated suspensions) to develop the Alfa Romeo 158 “Alfetta”. Conceived for the 1938 season, it was so advanced that its career lasted until 1950, when Juan Manuel Fangio won the first Formula One Championship with it!

The “British Bimotore”, the most original of the two.

Today, two Alfa Romeo 16C Bimotore are still in existence: one belongs to the Alfa Romeo Museum in Arese, rebuilt from original parts.

The other one was sold to British driver Arthur Dobson, who was often seen behind the wheel on racetracks in the late 1930s. It was then sold to Peter Atkien who removed the rear engine in order to make the car drivable. It found its way to Australia and was only discovered a decade later, in bad condition, with a GMC truck engine! Apart from that it had a lot of original parts such as the chassis, interior, gearbox… British businessman Tom Wheatcroft bought the remains, and had them restored over a 10 years period by Hall & Fowler’s in the UK. This car was important for Wheatcroft: as a tennager he used to go to Dinington Park on his bicycle to watch the races, especially the battles between Alfa Romeo, Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union. Once the restoration done, the car was part of his museum, the Donington Grand Prix Exhibition.

The front engine…
… And the rear one!

As you can now see, the Alfa Romeo 16C Bimotore is one of the most important prewar cars. It may have never won a race, but to me, it is the best representative of its times.

Not only it is a tribute to every driver, every hero of the 1930s, and to engineering, having been built with no regulations in mind, and realizing the maddest dreams of every technician and engineer. Its importance also comes from a small detail only visible today on the British Bimotore: it may bear the letter “ALFA ROMEO” on its grill, but above it is a Scuderia Ferrari logo. It was an Alfa Romeo, but dreamt and conceived by Enzo Ferrari, and built by the Scuderia Ferrari. In many ways it can be considered as the first Ferrari car.

Alfa Romeo + Ferrari, the two greatest names of the History of the Automobile gathered on one car.