Origins and Early Years
Alfa Romeo’s origins date back to 1906, under the name of SAID, Societa Anonima Italiana Darracq. It was founded by French entrepreneur Alexandre Darracq and some Italian investors but produced cars that “were totally unsuited to local conditions, unreliable and underpowered.” (Owen, D, 1999) After only a few short years the company was nearly bankrupt. It was overhauled and renamed to Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili, or A.L.F.A. Ugo Stella was appointed Managing Director and a former building surveyor Giuseppe Merosi would design and produce the engines. Their intentions were to make cars that “would appeal to the sporting motorist, and at the same time would stand a real chance in competition.” (Frostick, M, 1976)
The 24HP A.L.F.A of 1910 and slightly smaller 15HP version were popular with Italian buyers and saved the company from certain death. 1911 is when A.L.F.A decided it would go racing. The 24HP Corsa, a normal 24HP but with bucket seats and stripped of weight, as well as the narrow axels from the 15HP. This would constitute A.L.F.A’s first attempt at a racer. However, it was unsuccessful in both the 1911 and 1912 Targa Florio road race. It was with the introduction of the 40-60HP Corsa, with a 6082cc four-cylinder that produced 73bhp that A.L.F.A’s luck would change. “From the beginning, the 40-60HP Corsa was a winner. On their very first outing, two cars finished first and second in their class in the Parma to Poggio di Berceto hill climb.” (Owen, D, 1999) This persuaded the A.L.F.A board to take the leap into Grand Prix racing, the pinnacle of motor sport. They would allow Giuseppe Merosi to design the car. Unfortunately it was not meant to be as Europe descended into war, killing off motor sport and the private car market meaning that A.L.F.A was once again in strife.
A man by the name of Nicola Romeo would come to the company’s aide and become managing director. “An industrialist and mining engineer with little interest in car making. He was, however, a supremely shrewd and successful businessman.” (Owen, D, 1999) Nicola would turn the company from building cars to war time supplies, “such as tractors, railway equipment, aero-engines, pumps and compressors.” (Owen, D, 1999) After the war finished in 1918 and demand was drastically reduced for many of the Romeo’s groups parts it was time to build cars again. However, the company could only produce cars from 1914 parts that had been stored from before the war. The company needed to be reinvented as the ties to A.L.F.A were outdated and Romeo was linked with heavy industry. Taking influences from past and present the name Alfa Romeo was chosen and a famous marque was born.
After the war was over, Alfa Romeo had to seek out new ways to stay in business. It began making drills, rolling stock and tractors. Nicola Romeo also sought out and purchased companies in Saronno, Rome and Naples. However, this didn’t distract him from automobiles, becuase in 1920 the Torpedo 20-30 hp was born, the first to wear the company’s new name. That same year, a man by the name of Enzo Ferrari finished second in the Targo Florio at the wheel of an Alfa Romeo.
In 1923 they would secure first, second and fourth places in the Targa Florio, this time in the RL Model. In 1928 Nicola Romeo left the company after it went broke, when it could no longer source defence contracts after the first World War.
While Merosi was a good designer, Alfa Romeo needed someone with proper Grand Prix experience. Vittorio Jano of Fiat was hired to produce Alfa’s Grand Prix cars and creating the P2. On its first outing in June 1924 it won at the Circuit of Cremona. “More importantly, in August, it won the Grand Prix of Europe so convincingly that the all conquering Fiat GP team withdrew after the event, never to enter Grand Prix racing again.” (Owen, D, 1999) In 1925 they secured their first world championship in Grand Prix racing and their second would arrive in 1932 right before the financial crisis and the sale of Alfa Romeo to the Italian Government, which ceased the racing program to save money. However, Alfa Romeo had established themselves as a sporting marque, known throughout Europe. The factory racing team was outsourced to former Alfa Romeo driver Enzo Ferrari’s Scuderia Ferrar team from 1933 to 1938.The Quadrifoglio emblem (cloverleaf) has, been an important part of Alfa Romeo’s racing cars since 1923. Used as a good luck symbol after Ugo Sivocci, a racing driver noted for his bad luck, painted a white square with a cloverleaf on his car before the Targa Florio. Finding immediate success, this became the symbol of the Alfa Romeo race cars and after World War Two, would be used to designate the higher trim performance models.
At the start of the 1930’s the worldwide depression had hit Italy. Its industries were declining and an industry bailout by the banks began. However, many of these banks became bankrupt, leading to the Italian government purchasing the shares of these companies and taking control. In 1933 the Industrial Reconstruction Institute (IRI) was formed to take over and subsidise the industrial sector. Alfa Romeo had struggled after the war and the bank of one of its major shareholders had collapsed. IRI intervened and in 1933 Mr Gobbato became Managing Director of the company and was tasked with rationalising and modernising the company.
While Alfa Romeo’s racing team was outsourced to Scuderia Ferrari, they won more races than all other manufacturers in 1934. Amazingly in 1936 standard production took a back seat to racing.
Vittorio Jano resigned at the end of 1937, Gioacchino Colombo and Luigi Bazzi would take over under the supervision of Wilfredo Ricart. In 1938 the 8C 2900 B Lungo was created and would take the first three places in the Mille Miglia.
In the early 1930’s the IRI had pushed Alfa Romeo into producing commercial vehicles and aircraft engines. This proved to be a successful venture as its buses were adopted in Rome, Milan and Genoa as public transport. Its trucks were also used by the fire brigade and the Italian Army used more than 2000 vehicles for its Ethiopian campaign. Alfa’s aero engines were some of the best in the world, utilizing a material Duralfa, which was a light aluminium alloy used in propellers, pistons and cylinder heads. In 1939 the 135, would become the most powerful aircraft engine of its time, producing over 2000 hp. Aero engines now accounted for 80 percent of Alfa Romeos turnover. This resulted in a new plant being made in Pomigliano d’Arco (Naples) at the end of the decade and the workforce growing from 1000 to over 14,000 in just seven years. However, it was not to last as Italy joined Germany in World War 2 in June 1940.
The above paragraph was referenced from http://www.aroc-uk.com/company-history
Owen, D, 1999, Alfa Romeo: Always with a Passion, Somerset, Haynes Publishing
Frostick, M, 1974, Alfa Romeo ~ Milano, London, Dalton Watson LTD