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  Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B Le Mans Berlinetta
 

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Country of origin:Italy
Produced in:1938
Numbers built:one-off
Designed by:Touring
Author:Wouter Melissen
Last updated:October 18, 2010
Download: All images
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Click here to download printer friendly versionAt 10 am on the Sunday morning of the 1938 24 Hours of Le Mans, Clemente Biondetti and Raymond Sommer held a commending 11-lap lead over their closest rival in their startling Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B Le Mans Coupe. At well over an hour and 160 km (100 miles) this was the largest lead at Le Mans ever but could not be converted into a victory due to a succession of mechanical problems. After those disastrous final hours of the race, the car was shipped back to the Alfa Corse workshop and not raced again. After a lengthy spell in private hands, the car was reacquired by Alfa Romeo and is today proudly displayed in the beautiful 'Museo Storico' museum.

The chassis used for the unique Le Mans special was one of five 8C 2900Bs modified for racing early in 1938. Although offered to customers as a road car, the 8C 2900B was effectively a road going version of Alfa Romeo's Grand Prix cars and nearly identical to the 8C 2900As that had convincingly won the 1936 and 1937 editions of the Mille Miglia. Built around a steel ladder frame, the car featured independent suspension at both ends. The front end consisted of twin trailing arms, while at the rear single radius arms and swing axles were used. What set the five competition cars apart from the 'regular' production cars was the rear of the frame, which was bend further down to make the use of a quick-lift jack possible.

Giving the 8C 2900 its name was the beautiful, Vittorio Jano designed straight eight engine with a displacement of just over 2.9 litre. It represented the ultimate road going development of the engine first introduced in the all-conquering 8C 2300 of 1931. Constructed almost entirely from lightweight alloys, the 8C engine consisted of two blocks of four cylinders. As a result the double overhead camshafts were driven from the middle of the engine. In this configuration the length of the camshafts was cut in half, making them less prone to flexing. With the help of two superchargers, one for each block of cylinders, the 8C 2900 engine produced 180 bhp in road trim and a hefty 220 bhp in competition specification.

Another advanced feature of the 8C 2900 was the use of a gearbox that was fitted in unit with the rear differential. This 'transaxle' helped shift some of the weight towards the rear of the understandably nose heavy car. The competition cars also used a sizeable petrol tank that was mounted behind the driver's seat, on top of the rear axle. Like most high performance cars of the period, the 8C 2900 featured hydraulic drum brakes. The rolling chassis of the car weighed in at around 850 kg (1874 pounds). The coach-builder of choice for the 1938 cars was Touring of Milan, who produced light and very slippery bodies.

It is believed that all five 8C 2900B competition chassis were originally clothed by Touring with open bodies for the Mille Miglia. Quite in contrast with the earlier 'cycle fender' bodies used on the competition 2900s, the MM Spiders featured full width bodies that looked very slippery. Four cars were entered in the gruelling 1000 mile road race and Alfa Corse recorded a clean sweep of the podium. The winning car of Clemente Biondetti and Ado Stefani completed the race with a startling average of 135 km/h (84 mph). The success in the Mille Miglia prompted Alfa Romeo to prepare one car for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a race the 8C 2300 won four years running between 1931 and 1934.

The Spider body was stripped from the chassis and replaced with an even more aerodynamic coupe body. Designed by Touring's Carlo Felice Anderloni, the shape was very futuristic with its front fenders that were an integral part of the body and not separate as on most contemporary road and racing cars. The large panels directly behind the front wheels could be removed to allow the mechanics better access to the engine. The 'fastback' roof was also a departure of common practice and gave the car a truly unique look. All this work was done to optimise the 8C 2900 for the long straights at Le Mans. In Italy the coupe received the nickname 'Soffio di Satana' or 'devil's breath'.

Biondetti's and Sommer's dominating performance in the race showed that all this preparation was not for naught. Their life was made an even easier by the retirement of several of the quickest Delahayes and Talbot Lagos. Not long after Sommer set the fastest lap of the race at nearly 155 km/h (96 mph), the right front tire blew on the Mulsanne straight. Despite traveling at around 210 km/h (130 mph), the Frenchman managed to keep the virtually uncontrollable car out of the barriers. One of the cords of the tire ripped the fender apart, requiring repairs. Still with a healthy lead, Biondetti went back out. Unfortunately the car ground to a halt after only a few laps with either a broken valve or gearbox failure.

There were still several hours to go when the Le Mans Berlinetta retired but it had nevertheless completed more laps than the Delahaye that eventually finished fourth. Although there are different reports on what broke on the car, most agree that the blow-out was the cause of the problem. Sommer most likely attempted to slow the car down without touching the brakes, which undoubtedly would have ended in disaster. While slowing down the engine probably over-revved causing damage to either the gearbox or one of the valves, or both. The result was the same; an almost certain Le Mans win slipped through the team's fingers.

After the car was completely repaired, it was sold to a gentleman in Rome. It eventually disappeared from the radar until it was discovered in Rome during the late 1960s by Count Giovanni Livorno and Corrado Cupellini. The Le Mans Berlinetta was complete and original condition but did need some work to restore it to its former glory. With a fresh coat of paint, it was sold to the famous British broker Colin Crabbe. The subsequent custodian of the unique machine was Lord Doune and finally it passed into the hands of Mike Sparken and Caroll Spagg. Under their care, the car was carefully restored to full running order.

Understandably, Alfa Romeo was more than a little interested in reacquiring the ill-fated but still hugely impressive machine. A most unusual trade was agreed in the late 1980s; the 8C 2900B Le Mans Berlinetta for one of the Museo Storico's 158 'Alfetta' Grand Prix cars. Since then the car has been prominently displayed in the museum but also made numerous outings. In recent years it has been repainted from a rather bright red to a more period correct deep red. In this configuration, it was demonstrated at the 2010 Goodwood Festival of Speed, where the company's centenary was celebrated. One of the runs up the hill was made by Goodwood supremo Lord March with his daughter in the passenger seat.

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  Article Image gallery (16) Specifications User Comments (2)