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.
1 The front fender profile and the valance between it and the body slope downward in a very modern manner, rather like that in today's sports-racing cars.
2 By 1938, not fairing the headlamps into the body was somewhat retrograde, but these gorgeous chrome bullets must have cried out to the designers to leave them exposed.
3 It's hard to imagine crank-starting this car, but the option was there, showing just how low the crankshaft sits in the car.
4 Notice that there are actually two chrome strips; the thin upper one underlines the Carrozzeria Touring badge on the hood side.
5 The actual wheel opening is round, concentric with the wheel, and set into a teardrop deformed so the front and rear peaks are at wheel-center height. Perfect.
6 I like wire wheels, but not nearly as much as I like these concentric-ring aerodynamic fairings for them.
7 The extension of the louvers into the cowl side on this car seems to be unique, and it enhances the visual importance of the "engine room," which is actually well forward.
8 The degree of curvature is limited by the depth of the channel in which the glass slides. It is very subtle, but subtlety was stock-in-trade for Italian coachbuilders.
9 No fancy design here. The molded black steering wheel is the simplest expression of its function, carried on until quite recently by Rolls-Royce. I love its simplicity and declaration of intent.
10 Even for something as simple as a locking control for the sliding glass, one sees concern for elegance and functionality.
11 A glove box that is actually intended to house the driver's gloves, close to hand and imminently practical. The elegance lies in the execution.
12 Today, even tiny city cars have tires wider than these, the most dated of all the details on this masterpiece of performance automobile design . . .
13 . . . apart from this apparent lower door hinge and the vestigial running boards, both of which ultimately disappeared, even on the simplest and cheapest cars . . .
14 . . . or the sliding glass side windows, last seen on the Ferrari F40, where they were more an affectation than a weight-saving measure.
15 A classic mark of Carrozzeria Touring, perforated fender skirts existed in dozens of variations. This six-slot execution is elegantly elongated toward the rear.
16 The upper chrome strip ends here, while the lower tapers to a point, emphasizing the pointed plan view of the body.
17 The hard crease separating the lower body flanks from the aerodynamic upper structure come together in a point just below another subtle badge.
18 Floating in the air, separate from the body shape and structure, the rear lamp cluster is the final point of rupture with past and present design practice.