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Automotive History, Personalities and Passion

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Rick Carey -- AxioMedia

Automotive History,

Personalities

and Passion

Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 2.6 liter Monza Spider Corsa

S/N 2211125

A "Cover" is a big deal for a magazine, but it's a bigger deal when a "cover story" supports the sale of a multi-million dollar car. Terry Cohn's Alfa Monza is the fifth consecutive RM Auctions' catalog cover car they've chosen me to describe. Am I proud of their confidence? Sure thing. Am I proud all five of the cars have sold? You damn betcha. But I'm proudest of all that the cars, the history, the owners and the stories have been right on. Research, finesse and understanding blend automotive history, personalities and passion into an enjoyable and informative narrative. Sometimes it even contributes to the history of the cars and their owners/drivers. 

Rewarding? Yes, it is. It's also fun.

[This description appeared in RM Auctions' March 2002 Amelia Island Auction catalog and is © 2002 RM Auctions, Inc. and the author.]

From the estate of Terry Cohn

The 1933 French GP 3rd Place, inaugural 1949 Bridgehampton Road Race Winning

1933 Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 2.6 Liter Monza Spider Corsa

Chassis No. 2211125

Engine No. 2211125

178hp 2,556cc. supercharged dual overhead camshaft inline 8-cylinder engine, 4-speed manual transmission, 4-wheel drum brakes. Wheelbase 2,650mm (104¼").

 

Automobiles, like people, are known by the company they keep and by that standard the Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 belongs among the most exclusive circle. Ferrari, Caracciola, Trossi, Chiron, Chinetti, Birkin, Nuvolari, … the famous and discriminating owners and drivers who made the effort to experience the 8C 2300 when it was both intensely competitive and the height of fashion is a who’s whom of Thirties motoring. The 8C was so good, in fact, that factory drivers for other marques bought 8Cs out of their own pockets or the pockets of their patrons to race when their factory duties didn’t conflict, and even in preference to uncompetitive drives in other marques. Brianza, Touring, Zagato, Farina, Figoni, Carlton, Castagna and other equally famous and well-regarded coachbuilders graced the 8C chassis in its various lengths. And to list the races which were won or fiercely contested by the 8C in its many forms is simply to document the racing history of the early Thirties.

The 8C 2300 was Vittorio Jano’s creation, applying both the lessons learned and experience gained from the 6C 1750. Its heart lay in Jano’s magnificent engine which carried over the 6C 1750’s 65x88mm bore and stroke, growing by a third in displacement with the addition of two cylinders. Unlike the 6C cars, supercharging was integral to the 8C’s design from inception, with a Roots-type blower mounted low on the engine’s right side and breathing through a Memini – later Weber – dual-choke carburetor. The alloy cylinder block (with steel cylinder liners) and heads were cast in two 4-cylinder units which when mounted to the alloy crankcase were separated by a central gear train driving the camshafts, generator, water pump, supercharger and oil pumps. This not only took advantage of the 2-piece castings but also kept the camshafts short, minimizing valve timing aberrations from camshaft twist. Dry sump lubrication was provided for the engine including its 10-main bearing 2-piece crankshaft. Ignition was by coil and distributor to single spark plugs although some race cars replaced the generator with a magneto for ignition.

With a nominal 6.5:1 compression ratio 8C Alfas could and usually did run on gasoline of as little as 80 octane but racing cars were tuned for what Shell called "Dynamin", a mixture of alcohol, benzol, gasoline and castor oil which when brewed up for the most important and demanding races (like Monaco) with up to 88% doses of ethyl and methyl alcohol not only improved cylinder cooling but also gave an octane rating of 120 and allowed extravagant tuning.

Alfa Romeo counteracted heat buildup in the pressurized induction system by incorporating some of the most beautifully and delicately finned aluminum castings ever seen, rivaling even the jewel-like products of Harry Miller. Opening the hood of an 8C Alfa is a curtain-raising that never fails to delight even the most familiar onlookers. At the risk of overworking similes, it’s like the raising of the Met curtain for the start of Aida or Tosca: a breathtaking set – and the promise of great music to follow.

The 8C chassis was, by comparison, relatively simple but also beautifully constructed by artisans and craftsmen who were proud of their work and endeavored to give each detail a fine finish and pleasing mechanical function. Even minor functional details like the hood latches, where a simple spring and hook sufficed for other constructors, on the Alfa 8C were intricate little geared constructions. The frame consisted of two formed C-section side rails joined by a series of cross members. The rear mounts for the engine/gearbox assembly was an integral part of the chassis frame. Suspension was by semi-elliptical leaf springs both front and rear with solid axles. Shock absorbers were lever-type friction units at first, eventually upgraded to a system that allowed their adjustment through an hydraulic system. There were two basic wheelbases, Lungo of 3,100mm which was used for 4-seater bodies and Corto of 2,750mm which received more sporting open and coupé coachwork. The third chassis length, introduced in late 1931 or early 1932 for the Spider Corsa bodies was achieved with an entirely different frame and shorter front semi-elliptic springs with correspondingly short "dumb irons" forward of the radiator. The front axle was thus repositioned 100mm back giving the Spider Corsa a 2,650mm wheelbase.

The familiar names given to the three 8C versions reflect their competition applications – and successes – "Le Mans" for the long-chassis since the regulations then in effect for the great 24 hour race required 4-place bodies; "Mille Miglia" for the short-chassis; and, most important in this context, "Monza" for the 2,650mm Spider Corsa with pointed-tail bodywork in recognition of the important victory of Tazio Nuvolari and Giuseppe Campari in the 1931 Italian Grand Prix at Monza.

In fact, it is difficult to imagine a more auspicious beginning to the history of a racing model than that achieved by the 8C 2300. After its entry in the 1931 Mille Miglia was spoiled by well-documented (but never fully-explained) tire failures Nuvolari drove his 8C to overall victory in the Targa Florio. Two weeks later came the 1-2 finish of Corto-chassis 8Cs driven by Campari/Nuvolari and Minoia/Borzacchini in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza followed in a further three weeks by the victory of Lord Howe and Tim Birkin at Le Mans, two of the "Bentley Boys" who had turned to Alfas after Bentley’s closing – Birkin had already bought an 8C 2300 Lungo with which he had a week earlier won the Eireann Cup Race in Ireland, beating Giuseppe Campari in the process. It’s worth noting at this juncture that the day after Le Mans the Bobbio-Penice hillclimb was won by yet another 8C Alfa, driven by Enzo Ferrari. These were only the first in a long series of outright and class victories and podium placings amassed by Alfa 8Cs over the next several years, including the Monza offered here, 2211125.

Sir Henry Ralph Stanley "Tim" Birkin was one of the most colorful and talented racers of the late Twenties and early Thirties. Winner of Le Mans in 1929 with Woolf Barnato on a Bentley, he was an insatiable racer who exhausted not only his own cars but those of numerous patrons including Barnato, Lord Howe, the Hon. Dorothy Paget and Bernard Rubin. He was a central figure in the "Bentley Boys", responsible not only for many of the Bentley marque’s racing successes but also for gathering support and supporters for W.O. Bentley’s enterprise. His talents were remarkable, as was his love of life and racing, and it is regrettable that he died only shortly after beginning his Alfa Romeo 8C association from complications following severe burns received from the exhaust of a Maserati in North Africa.

This 8C 2300 2.6-liter Monza Corsa Spider was recorded as delivered to Tim Birkin on April 19, 1933, just days before the 1933 Monaco GP. In fact, practice began on the 20th and Peter Hull reports in his 1971 book "Alfa Romeo" that Birkin, rushing back to Monaco from Portello with his new car, had an accident requiring extensive repairs to the front axle and its accoutrements. The mystery, however, deepens as the result of Simon Moore’s exhaustive research for his new book, "The Legendary 2.3" which has a photograph showing Birkin at Monaco in an earlier Monza, identified by its conventional shock absorbers for which the chassis of 2211125 has no mounting provision. 2211125 does, however, have evidence of number 3 piston exiting the block and a supercharger with non-matching number, the only non-matching mechanical component number on the car even today. The physical evidence coincides with the history of Nuvolari’s 1933 Monaco mount and not with the subsequent history of Tim Birkin’s 2211125. Nuvolari’s 1933 Monaco drive was one of several that stand out even in the legendary career of the Flying Mantuan. A race-long duel with Achille Varzi in a Type 51 Bugatti ended with Nuvolari building a steady lead as the race finish approached, only to be frustrated by an engine failure on the final lap. Logic and inference, seasoned with racing experience and the known factory-adjusted chassis numbers of other 8C Alfas, thus suggests that Birkin drove an earlier Monza while Nuvolari enjoyed the latest Series 2 car. In any event, the Nuvolari car evidently returned to Portello for repairs and Birkin (or his patron, fellow "Bentley Boy" Bernard Rubin) subsequently drove off in the car known today as 2211125, the car presented here.

Is there a connection between Tazio Nuvolari’s 1933 Monaco GP car and 2211125? It will, unfortunately, probably never be conclusively demonstrated, making the association between the Flying Mantuan and 2211125 an intriguing but unsubstantiated legend. What is, however, abundantly clear are two important and indisputable facts. The first is that Tazio Nuvolari drove, with more than even his usual gusto and skill, an unidentified Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Monza in the 1933 Monaco Grand Prix. The second is that this car, ostensibly owned by Tim Birkin but probably acting for Bernard Rubin, was delivered prior to Monaco but is not the car which contemporary photographic evidence shows Birkin driving in the race. The webs which old race cars weave are complicated indeed.

Bernard Rubin entered an Alfa 8C Monza for the race at the Eifelrennen on May 28, 1933 to be driven by Captain George Eyston (who would a few years later best John Cobb and the Railton Special to become holder of the Land Speed Record with "Thunderbolt" at 357mph) but it was apparently a no-show, circumstantially supporting the inference it may not yet have been repaired – after ventilating its block at Monaco, perhaps, or just repairing the front axle, frame and steering after Birkin’s crash? On June 4, however it ran the GP de Frontieres at Chimay driven by Clifton Penn Hughes where it finished second, then only a week later was driven by Eyston in the French GP at Montlhéry to an excellent 3rd place. Eyston captured another third place in the Mannin Moar race on the Isle of Man, then Whitney Straight placed it second to Count Antonio Brivio Sforza’s Scuderia Ferrari 8C in the Swedish GP.

The Monaco Mystery aside, Eyston’s third place in the mother of all motor races, the French GP, would make this Alfa Romeo Monza a cherished and historic automobile – and there is no question that it was Eyston’s French GP mount.

Birkin’s – or more likely Rubin’s – 8C 2300 Monza then disappears, despite having been sampled with success by some of England’s best drivers and being a front-line competitive racer. Evidence so far uncovered points to it returning to England where it was completely disassembled.

Disassembly had its purpose, however, as Donald Healey had convinced Triumph management to create the Triumph Dolomite. His team’s brief was nothing less than to clone a 2-liter version of what was then the best built, most competitive and technically advanced motor car in the world, the Alfa Romeo 8C 2300. Healey’s recollection is that the Dolomite team’s model was 2211130 but another trail of recollections and paper leads to 2211125 which would make this Alfa Monza the progenitor of yet another automotive legend, and a particularly rare distinction.

A former employee of Jack Bartlett recalled some years ago that an Alfa Monza was picked up at Triumph and delivered to Jack Bartlett’s shop, and the paper trail of 2211125 picks when Bartlett sold it to Dick Wilkins on March 23, 1935, a week after Bartlett had raced it at Brooklands in what may have been a "demonstration" for his prospective purchaser. 2211125’s disappearance while still in the hands of some of England’s most enthusiastic racers is otherwise hard to understand.

Wilkins raced 2211125 at Mannin Moar and other events including Brooklands where it turned a lap at 122mph in the hands of Cyril Paul. Bill Everitt finished third with it in the April 1936 British Empire Trophy at Donington. Then, in November 4, 1937 a new phase of 2211125’s career commenced with its purchase by American Sam Bird.

Bird had the bodywork from the cowl back rebuilt as a Spider by Ranelagh in the UK retaining its original hood and other panels where possible. The Monza was, however, held hostage by hostilities, remaining in the UK until after the war (although Bird’s son-in-law, George Huntoon, related later that 6,000 miles had been driven between its acquisition and its emigration to the States, no small mileage for a car getting only something like 13 miles per Imperial gallon in fuel-rationed England.) After finally getting it to the US, Huntoon immediately returned the family’s new Monza to competition, entering the inaugural 1949 road races through the potato fields and around the golf course at Bridgehampton, Long Island. The Monza may not have showed its heels to Briggs Cunningham’s sparkling new little Ferrari 166 it but outlasted it, winning what is now recognized as one of America’s first big-time postwar road races (and where the writer, then 6 ½ years old, perched on a stepladder, enthralled to this day.) It also featured in the 1949 race at Watkins Glen, leading from the start but eventually suffering damage and retiring.

Huntoon presumably continued to use and race 2211125 until selling it in 1953 to Art Roberts who in turn sold it in June 1955 to Norman Andrews, a Sunman, Indiana egg farmer, for $2,100 complete with something like 13 wheels and tires, the original distributor, a magneto, Monza exhaust header and a pile of papers from Thomson and Taylor in the UK who had maintained it for Wilkins. [Put in perspective, $2,100 was the price of a brand spanking new ’55 Chevrolet Bel Air V8 2-door sedan.] 2211125 lay fallow with Andrews until 1968 when he sold it to Arthur Jacobs – back in Mineola, Long Island close to where its US history had begun at Bridgehampton. A decade later in 1978 it was acquired by Paul Grist, still complete with the spares which had accompanied 2211125 through various owners for going on forty years.

Grist then conferred upon 2211125 the remarkable restoration which has become his trademark, a restoration which has survived to today. It was a comprehensive undertaking that emerged mechanically fresh, but blessed with a seeming gently aged patina as if it has never felt the restorer’s touch. Grist’s approach re-created the appearance of the car that had raced in 1933, without shiny paint, mirror-polished aluminum or plentiful chrome. An extensive test by Mike McCarthy in the May 1984 Classic & Sports Car followed that documented the look, feel and sound of the classic 8C Monza followed by a comparison test with a C-type Jaguar and a Ferrari 250 GTO in the July 1990 Supercar Classics by Mark Gillies where Grist’s matte finished but competent Monza "was just astonishing for such an old car. In many regards, it’s not far behind some of today’s top performers, and makes many of the supercars of the late 1960s and early 1970s look a bit pale."

After nearly a decade of frequent and enthusiastic use by Paul Grist during which it began to acquire the delightful patina which it bears today, it was sold in 1991 to the late Terry Cohn. 2211125 in the last decade has been widely driven, shown and employed in all manner of events from the Mille Miglia Retro to the Monaco GP Historique and from the Monterey Historics to the Alfa 8C Reunion in Montana. In Terry Cohn’s ownership it has been enjoyed and exhibited, exercised and savored to the delight of thousands of spectators, becoming perhaps the single most well-known and recognized example of the magnificent Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 to a generation of new fans. A consistent competitor and participant in historic events around the world, its appearance to many spectators and participants is now like a solid old friend who shows up, now and again, to renew acquaintances and share old stories. Superbly maintained while acquiring an authentic mellowing of Paul Grist’s careful restoration into a true patina of use, 2211125 is today the Alfa Romeo Monza which has reached the consciousness, and the hearts, of the world.

No one can say for certain that 8C 2300 Monza 2211125 is Tazio Nuvolari’s 1933 Monaco GP car in which he raced brilliantly against Achille Varzi’s Type 51 Bugatti. But equally, no one can say for certain it’s not. Over the years 2211125 has assumed the Nuvolari-Monaco GP distinction to the apparent satisfaction of third parties but based entirely on circumstantial evidence. Its history, along with its teammates, is lost in the jumble of records destroyed years ago, leaving only physical, anecdotal and photographic evidence from which to infer its history, all of which clearly demonstrates the basic character of 2211125. It is an 8C 2300 Monza Corsa Spider, built that way by Alfa Romeo and possessor of an illustrious and competitive racing history on two continents which spanned nearly two decades.

Terry Cohn’s stable at one time included three great Alfa Romeo 8Cs: a Touring Spyder, a 2.9 Pinin Farina drophead coupe and this Monza, all choice automobiles with delectable histories. In 1995 the writer asked Terry the inevitable question: which of the three was his favorite? His response, without hesitation or reflection was, "The Monza. It has the best combination of power and handling – It is the best bloody car I have ever owned." To see Terry drive it was to witness his absolute conviction of the truth of that statement.

Taking out all the conjecture, inference and supposition, Terry Cohn’s 1933 Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 2.6-liter Monza Corsa Spider is a wonderful and charismatic real Alfa Romeo-built Monza, if not the best-known example of its model then firmly established among them. It finished third in the 1933 French Grand Prix, the oldest and most important race of the time. It was driven by George Eyston and Whitney Straight. It may well have been the pattern from which Donald Healey created the Triumph Dolomite. It won the first Bridgehampton Road Race and competed at the second around-the-houses Watkins Glen road races. It is complete and correctly presented as built and now with more than two decades’ recent history of enthusiastic use by Paul Grist and Terry Cohn. It is the most important Alfa 8C 2300 2.6 liter Monza Corsa Spider ever to come to auction; a Monza that has, in the vacuum created by lost records and memories, established its own reputation. A Monza that has the character and personality conferred by nearly sixty years of history and will always be welcomed by event organizers and fellow participants.

2211125 is known by the company it has kept and that it continues to keep: the best.

 

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