Alfa Romeo, celebrating its 110th anniversary this year, is digging into its archives to bring us previously unpublished anecdotes and photos. In Episode 1 of "Storie Alfa Romeo", the tale of the 24 HP and the men behind it is told.
The story begins officially on 24 June 1910 when Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili (hence "ALFA") is founded. But the A.L.F.A. story started a few years earlier, with a colourful character: a Frenchman with a handlebar mustache and an outstanding instinct for business.
Pierre Alexandre Darracq began his career running a bicycle factory in Bordeaux, before falling in love with cars. So, he began producing motorcars in France and making a success of it.
Then he decided to export them, opening branches in London and then Italy where he began operations in Naples in April 1906. But Naples was a long way from France and the journey was complex and costly and by December, he had transferred production to Milan, at number 95 in the Portello district.
Along with the logistical challenges, he realised that there were also market problems. Car sales in Italy were struggling: only a few thousand cars on the roads, and generally low average purchasing power didn't help. To make things worse, compared to France, prospective customers in Italy had different expectations: Darracq’s cars were light and inexpensive, lacking power for Italian tastes and in late 1909, Darracq put his company into liquidation.
The Cavalier from Milan
But someone else was convinced of the Portello factory’s potential. Cavalier Ugo Stella, managing director under Darracq, moved quickly to find local funding and a guarantee from Milan’s Agricultural Bank, then took over the factory and re-hired the over-200 people who worked there. An ambitious and definitely risky move... but Stella's was one of the many daring intuitions throughout the Alfa Romeo story. He knew his job well, had weighed up the risks, and understood which cars his customers desired. Plus, he had an ace up his sleeve: he’d found the man to design it.
The surveyor from Piacenza
Giuseppe Merosi had been a quantity surveyor in Piacenza. But like many young men at the time, he’d been seized by a passion for motorcars and had worked in various roles in the sector.
In the autumn of 1909, Stella asked him to create two completely new cars in the power ranges of 12 and 24 HP: more powerful than the Darracq, suitable for the tastes of Italian customers, and with a frame enabling the mounting of prestigious bodywork.
In his lodgings in Milan, at Via Cappuccio 17, the young engineering designer worked night and day, and on the 1st of January 1909 he consigned the plans for the first car to the Technical Office.
The 24 HP
Perhaps for the only time in the history of motorcars, the vehicle model was created before the Brand that would sell it. The 24 HP had a monobloc engine (uncommon at the time), four cylinders, 4.0-liters of displacement and 42 horsepower, driving the rear wheels. It had a sturdy frame with side members and crosspieces in C-pressed sheet metal, enabling the coach builders Castagna, Schieppati, Sala and Bollani to develop open and limousine versions for a highly demanding clientele. The 24 HP aimed high from the start: today we would call it a Premium model, costing about two years of an employee’s wages.
It was also fast, reaching 100 km/h, and was built with extraordinary care and precision allowing exceptional road-holding. No wonder it was so well received. The first A.L.F.A. was already a true Alfa Romeo: elegant and sporty, technologically advanced and projecting unmistakable charisma.
Merosi realised that he was on the right track and by 1911 had developed the 24 HP Corsa: less weight and more power – a bit like today’s GTA. And with this model, just a year after its foundation, A.L.F.A. entered the world of racing. The first victory came in the Parma-Poggio di Berceto race in 1913 driven by Nino Franchini who came second overall and first in his category.
The 40/60 HP
For a fledgling Brand, racing was the best way to establish its name. Well aware of this, Merosi decided to take the plunge and build a racing car with a new engine. By 1913 the 40/60 HP was ready.
Count Ricotti had requested coach-builder Castagna to model this A.L.F.A. on the principles of a new science: aerodynamics. The result was the 40/60 HP Aerodynamic Ricotti Torpedo, a creation straight from a Jules Verne novel, but capable of reaching a speed of 139 km/h.
But the outbreak of the first World War changed the playing field for everyone, including A.L.F.A., which was called upon to contribute to military needs. But change means opportunity, and on 2 December 1915 a company named Engineer Nicola Romeo & Co took over the Portello factory, reconverting it to manufacture ammunitions and aircraft engines. The original production department was flanked by a new smelting works and foundry, equipped with machine tools and equipment purchased directly from the United States. A few hundred employees soon rose to over 1,200.
The Engineering Senator
During the war, Nicola Romeo – a future Senator of the Kingdom of Italy – bought up major machinery engineering companies such as “Costruzioni Meccaniche di Saronno”, the “Officine Meccaniche Tabanelli” in Rome and the “Officine Ferroviarie Meridionali” in Naples. He renamed his company, which became the “Engineer Nicola Romeo Anonymus Co.” and when the Banca Italiana di Sconto asked for the liquidation of A.L.F.A., he was ready to buy it.
The ensuing argument with the previous owners concerning the name made Romeo decide to sell his products by combining Alfa with his surname. The first vehicles to bear the name of the new brand were the 20-30 HP and its derivative the ES Sport, cars that followed Merosi’s design philosophy before the war: elegant, fast and with an unmistakable personality.
In the post-war years, racing drivers like Giuseppe Campari, Antonio Ascari, Ugo Sivocci, and the young Enzo Ferrari made their way onto Europe’s front pages. Alfa Romeo became a regular sight amongst the prizes at Mugello, Parma-Poggio di Berceto, the Targa Florio, Aosta-Gran San Bernardo, and Coppa delle Alpi. All that was missing was the first international victory.
“The Italian answer to the world’s most elegant vehicles”: that’s what the British press had to say of the new Alfa Romeo RL when it was presented at the London Motor Show in November 1921. The RL once again rewrote the rules of motoring. It was probably Merosi’s masterpiece. A 3.0-liter engine with 56 horsepower, a six-cylinder monobloc with removable head, valves controlled by a rod and rocker arm system: the RL was a precision instrument capable of reaching speeds of 110 km/h.
In 1923 Merosi produced two special Corsa racing versions, their weight trimmed down to 980 kg. They were designed to win the famed Targa Florio race... and they did.
In April, Ugo Sivocci took his place on the starting line with a green quadrifoglio four-leaf clover painted on a white background at the side of his car. The good luck charm did its job: Sivocci triumphed in the 15th Targa Florio and the Quadrifoglio became part of the Brand’s history.
The designer introduced by Ferrari
The time had come to separate mass-produced models from special Grand Prix racing cars. It was Enzo Ferrari who suggested the right man for the job: Vittorio Jano was a young engineering designer from Piedmont who had worked for Fiat and was a specialist on the architecture of engines and chassis.
He brought revolutionary ideas to Alfa Romeo, such as the forced induction of low displacement engines. Jano’s winning ideas didn’t take long to show results. His grand prix P2, with Ascari at the steering wheel, crushed all competitors on the Cremona circuit, at an average speed of over 158 km/h.
The P2’s victories brought Alfa Romeo to the pinnacle of the world of motor racing. And in 1925 Alfa Romeo triumphed at the first Grand Prix World Championship, recognized and organized by the International Association of Recognised Automobile Clubs. To celebrate the victory, the Alfa Romeo logo was surrounded by a laurel wreath.