1938 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B

Ron Kimball Dan Gentile

The jury at the 2009 Villa d'Este Concorso d'Eleganza inevitably, but a bit reluctantly, designated this Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B Best of Show. The reluctance was not because Jon and Mary Shirley's 1938 Touring Superleggera Berlinetta was Best of Show at Pebble Beach last year, but because it was so far superior to the rest of the field that we--I was one of the seven jury members--were deprived of the usual spirited discussion that would have enlivened our lunch meeting had there been another close contender. As it was, the unanimous decision was attained in about half a minute, eliminating our usual fascinatingly passionate arguments. Too bad, because while actual judging is hard work, the debates moderated by jury chairman Lorenzo Ramaciotti are pure fun.

This is a truly remarkable car for many reasons. It had the most extraordinary performance road car chassis in the world when it was built more than seventy years ago. Developed from an earlier Type C monoposto racer for the Mille Miglia (8C 2900s won five times), the supercharged in-line eight-cylinder engine was enlarged from 2.3 liters to 2.9, giving at least 180 hp for road cars, 220 hp for racers. Of the total of about forty chassis made, ten were on the "lungo" 118-inch wheelbase, graced by closed Touring bodies, each one slightly different. This is probably the most beautiful, and it also has a significant competition history, winning the first-ever race at Watkins Glen in 1948.

Carrozzeria Touring was perfecting its "superlight" construction technique at just about the time that the 8C 2900 was new, and although applied to many marques, it was in full flower on the 2900B coupes, most of which had skirted rear wheels. Some covers were solid, some perforated as on the Shirley car, and at least one had a curious and quite ugly C-shaped skirt exposing the wheel but not the tire. Factory drawings also show bright metal strakes between the elongated slots on some designs for chassis of Fiat 1500s and Alfa 6C 2300s.

A curious feature that seems anomalous to me is that the top of the door window is almost horizontal to accommodate sliding glass, presumably in the interest of saving weight, because several earlier 2300 bodies were made with a far more harmonious profile, wherein the side daylight opening is curved to match the roof profile, rather like a Porsche 356 or 911. Another oddity is the wartlike rear lamp cluster, stuck on as though it were an afterthought, although there obviously had to be rear lighting. No matter; overall, the car is flawlessly detailed, a monument to Italian automotive design sensibility. An aspect of this body that differs from others in the series is the continuation of louvers from the hood onto the fixed side panel. Seen in profile or in plan, indeed from any angle, the composition is as close to perfect as anyone will come in combining function and aesthetics. Magnifico.

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