The Mighty Monza. Mick Walsh revels in a dream flat-out charge around Goodwood in an Alfa-Romeo 8C. Behind the wheel of the privateer Alfa Romeo Monza that took the fight to the factories in brilliant blue – in all weathers. Words Mick Walsh. Photography Will Williams.
EXCLUSIVE! ALFA MONZA ON TRACK – A WEALTH OF SUCCESS
Few drivers competed from the vintage era through to the early years of Formula One. The charismatic Norman privateer Philippe Étancelin raced a wider range of machines than most, against all the greats from Nuvolari to Fangio, and must have been a great dinner party guest.
But the closest contact now is through the surviving cars he raced, such as this, his second Monza. ‘Phi-Phi’ drove the Gauloises-blue Alfa Romeo 8C extensively for the 1933 season, the swansong for two-seater Grand Prix machines. When current owner Peter Neumark phoned out of the blue last autumn to invite me to demonstrate this great car at Goodwood for a charity day, I was almost lost for words. Better still, the event didn’t require crash helmets and allowed passengers. I’ve written a book, collected photographs, made models and ridden in several Monzas but, after five decades’ fascination, I’ve never properly experienced the fastest of the 8C family.
‘The mechanical orchestra of bearings, gears and supercharger whoop is one of the greatest engine scores – it always gets me’
The Monza’s supremely functional style has mesmerised me since I was a child. Compared to a Bugatti it might lack elegant componentry, but the way the brass radiator and steel petrol tank mould into the body has a supremely purposeful aura. With signature front cowl and long outside exhaust, it’s the ultimate Grand Prix car for use on both road and track. Add the 8C’s pedigree of sports car glory and it’s easy to appreciate the reverence for Vittorio Jano’s stop-gap racer before the monoposto Tipo B arrived.
Just starting up, that deep-chested supercharged roar always gets me; I’m amazed its exhaust bellow doesn’t set off Goodwood’s noise sensors. Within the confines of the pit lane, the glorious sounds of Jano’s masterpiece under the long tapering blue bonnet are dramatically amplified. The mechanical orchestra of bearings, gears and supercharger whoop is one of the greatest engine scores.
‘Phi-Phi indulged in his second Alfa Monza and it was delivered direct from Milan to Pau for the Grand Prix’
It fires up first time all day, despite the wet conditions. Accelerating out of the pits the marvellous torque delivers from low revs with smooth, lusty punch right through to its 5500rpm redline, marked on the saucer-sized remote rev counter mounted on the steering column.
Around the paddock the steering is direct and weighty, but speeding through the double apex of Madgwick the feel is immediately transformed. Sharp and super-responsive, with excellent feedback, the steering inspires in the wet.
Monzas by reputation are superbly balanced and like to drift, as Patrick Blakeney-Edwards proved in grim conditions at the 2018 Members’ Meeting when he dominated the Caracciola Sportwagenrennen race. Powersliding through the sleet, he was a joy to watch.
Alfa 8Cs reveal a touch of understeer with a trailing throttle on turn-in, but that soon balances out mid-corner followed by progressive oversteer as you accelerate out. Alain de Cadenet used to power out of the old Woodcote at Silverstone with an armful of opposite lock, and maintained that on smooth modern tracks the Monza was very chuckable. In a private 8C group test, German ace Frank Stippler claimed the Monza felt better balanced, sharper and more responsive than a Spider, which suffered from a pendulum effect due to the extra weight of twin rear-mounted spares.
For a design that’s close to 90 years old, the performance is still remarkable. Weighing about 900kg, and with 200bhp from a motor remade by Jim Stokes, it delivers astonishing acceleration with 0-60mph in less than 8 secs and a top speed in excess of 120mph. That feels very, very quick in a live-axle, leaf-sprung and vintage-style chassis; on bumpy roads you definitely need a body belt because of the firm ride and its shorter springs. There’s little support in the stark cockpit without a passenger, and through tighter turns you’re gripping the broad four-spoke wheel to steady yourself over the bumps.
Its tall drum brakes with rod/lever operation are powerful when they start to bite, but set-up balance is critical because there’s no compensation at the back, unlike in the more advanced Alfa Romeo 6C-1750.
Too many 8Cs have been converted to a modern throttle location, but the authentic centre button-style pedal here feels perfect for heel-and-toeing when downchanging into turns. The long, elegant gearlever sweeps up from a clearly defined H-gate on the quadrant tower, with a cover clip to prevent an expensive slot into reverse. The timing of changes through the crash ’box is tricky and shouldn’t be rushed if you want to avoid grating gears. As this dream day progresses, the relentless rain floods the corners and requires some strange lines to avoid the deep water – and provides a cold shower from the tall rooster tails of spray from the cars in front. Soaked, I continue happily to the end before the track is judged too dangerous.
Pushing the Monza back into Jim Stokes’ trailer, I can’t help thinking about Étancelin’s first race with this very car in similarly murky conditions, but without the luxury of mudguards, at Pau in 1933. The season had started early on a new street circuit around the old royal city. The previous Grand Prix had been staged back in 1930 on a fast triangular road course featuring the Route Nationale 117, and Étancelin’s victorious Bugatti Type 35C was chased home by a heroic Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin in a stripped ‘Blower’ Bentley.
Three years later the race was relocated to the city, with a new 1.6-mile street circuit to rival Monaco. The date was 19 February, but due to Pau’s south-westerly location the organisers were confident of fine early spring weather.
They couldn’t have been more wrong. The early Grand Prix fixture attracted an impressive entry of 18 cars, the majority Bugattis driven by rising Gallic stars keen for the season’s start. Molsheim’s fastest included Marcel Lehoux, Guy Moll and René Dreyfus, all in Type 51s, together with a young Louis Trintignant, older brother of Maurice, in his Type 35C. To challenge the Bugatti army were four Latin exotics: Jean de Maleplane’s elderly Maserati 26M, matched against three new Alfa 8C Monzas driven by Pierre Félix, Jean-Pierre Wimille and Étancelin. ‘Phi-Phi’ had indulged in his second Monza and chassis 2211097 was delivered direct from Milan to Pau. The 37-year-old, with signature tweed cap turned back to front, was a popular figure on the European scene and could afford the best machinery.
The Grand Prix was the star of a full week of motoring-themed events with practice on Friday, but only 10 drivers ventured out in the dry conditions to learn the new course. With the backdrop of the Pyrenees and free entry for spectators, the atmosphere was electric.
Top of the timing charts, with matching laps of 1 min 56 secs, were the wealthy Algerian Lehoux in the works Type 51 and Étancelin’s light-blue Monza – regulations demanded that teams paint their cars in the driver’s national racing colours. No other entrant could break the two-minute mark, but conditions changed dramatically as the weekend progressed.
Heavy spring snow started to fall on Saturday evening and by dawn the town and park were covered in a white blanket, but that didn’t stop a huge crowd turning out. Snow continued and the organisers considered the possibility of cancelling the race. But, with a packed calendar, there was no chance to postpone the event and eventually they decided the drivers were experienced enough to cope with the slippery track. All morning up to the 2pm start the track was swept and salted to reduce the ice risk. As was the norm in the early 1930s, the grid was decided by lottery and Moll’s Type 51 and Félix’s Monza were chosen on the front row. Étancelin had more luck than Lehoux with a third-row slot, while the Bugatti ace was right at the back alongside Trintigant’s Type 35C.
The 16-car grid gathered outside the casino for the start, but the Monza of Wimille failed to start because of engine problems and snow continued to fall as Charles Faroux, the famous French journalist and race organiser, stepped up to the podium to wave the cars off. Moll’s T51 headed the nervous pack, as drivers tested the grim conditions, while a queue formed behind the struggling Félix. Étancelin was soon up to fourth, despite the challenging visibility. After a few laps the once-white course turned into a treacherous mess of melted snow, salt, dirt and gravel, the open wheels churning the slush that covered aeroscreens and drivers’ goggles.
Stanisław Czaykowski and Étancelin found a way past Félix but had by then dropped back from the leading Moll, who with a clear road had started to lap at 2 mins 10 secs. Lehoux was cutting his way through the field, his position helped by the frequent pitstops of other drivers. Dreyfus had problems with his eyes, while on lap 11 Étancelin pitted from third with a misfire. On opening the bonnet, his mechanic discovered that the plug holes between the cam boxes were full of snow – the delay cost Étancelin two laps and dropped him right down to 13th place. Lehoux, meanwhile, was now setting fastest laps of the race and running fourth.
Finally, after one hour and 25 laps, the snow stopped but the track conditions remained as tricky as ever. Étancelin continued his comeback, Lehoux kept his cool and by lap 30 was up to second place behind compatriot Moll. The lead became his on lap 31 when young Moll pitted, who then struggled to repass the second-placed Czaykowski and his mentor extended his growing margin out front by a minute.
Étancelin took over as the fastest man on track, and was into the top 10 by lap 40. With Dreyfus close behind, the muddy Monza continued its pace with a fastest lap of 2 mins 1 sec. Fourth by lap 60, and third when Guy Bouriat pitted unable to see, Phi-Phi was cheered on by the frozen wet spectators who sensed his impressive charge to catch Moll. After nearly three hours’ racing and 80 laps, the chequered flag came down for an Algerian one-two, Lehoux one minute clear of Moll, on one of the foulest race days ever. Étancelin claimed third.
No doubt the Monza required some serious cleaning back in his Rouen garage before it was shipped across the Mediterranean for the Tunis Grand Prix on 29 March. Étancelin would go on to take two victories during 1933 with the blue Monza, first at Reims in the Grand Prix de la Marne after a dramatic last-lap battle with Wimille’s Monza, the two aces drawing alongside at the Thillois hairpin.
His winning streak continued the following weekend at La Baraque Hillclimb, but his most impressive performances were at Monaco and Montlhéry. Around the Principality he chased the epic lead battle between Tazio Nuvolari’s Monza and Achille Varzi’s Type 51 before retiring with a broken differential, possibly caused by hitting the sandbags after a spin.
Later in the summer the blue Monza came close to winning the French Grand Prix following a tense battle with Giuseppe Campari’s works Maserati 8C-3000. The popular Italian champion was faster but harder on tyres around the rough Paris bowl and Étancelin remained sufficiently in contention to lead with five laps to go. Campari was catching fast but the bulky opera-lover made a very late stop for fresh tyres, and the hot Maserati proved difficult to restart. In the late drama, three mechanics pushed him off rather than the permitted two. But for a very lenient official Campari would have been disqualified and he was allowed to chase on.
Étancelin was having his own problems with clutch failure but the blue Monza led on to the final lap by 24 secs. He virtually had to stop at the tighter turns when it would stick in neutral, and the Maserati stormed around Montlhéry and jubilantly passed the slowing Monza to win. The partisan crowd sensed Phi-Phi’s frustration and cheered him home to second.
Étancelin was always fast but not the most mechanically sympathetic of drivers in his early years, often over-driving in the heat of the chase and pushing his machinery too hard. By the end of the season the new monoposto Alfas were unbeatable and Étancelin, realising that the two-seater Monza was now outclassed, ordered a new Maserati 8CM for 1934.
The Monza was sold to Julio Villars in Switzerland and later to Henri Simoret, who eventually repainted it in Swiss racing colours of a white bonnet over red bodywork. The car kept Étancelin’s distinctive leather wind protector under the aeroscreen and ran at various races and hillclimbs through the 1930s, including one of the last outings of a Monza in a major European Grand Prix when it kept out of the way of the Silver Arrows at Bremgarten in ’1937.
At some point in the late ’30s the Monza was rebodied with a more streamlined style, featuring an Alfetta-type nose cowl and rear wings moulded into the tail. Not even Alfa 8C guru Simon Moore could discover who built this distinctive body. The dramatic-looking 8C survived WW2 hidden away in Switzerland and by the early 1960s had been sold to America. The restyled 2211097 changed hands several times among East Coast Alfisti until the late Peter Giddings acquired it and immediately removed the Swiss shell. With a more authentic Monza rebody and a rebuilt motor, Giddings returned it to the track and competed in early historic racing events in America.
Japanese collector Yoshiyuki Hayashi purchased the car in 1981 and had the then-red Monza sent directly to Macau, where he won a historic support race at the Grand Prix, the straight-eight roar sounding fantastic through the narrow streets. In 1985 Hayashi shipped both his Monza and Tipo B to Laguna Seca for the Alfa-themed weekend, and showed 2211097 at Pebble Beach on the Sunday.
The Monza eventually returned to Europe in the late 1980s, first to Germany with Hein Gericke and eventually to Peter Neumark in England. Road-registered, the famous Monza has been very active for the past 24 years competing at Monaco, Spa-Francorchamps, the Nürburgring and in VSCC events.
“It’s a fantastic car and a joy to drive,” beams Neumark. “We did the Mille Miglia but broke down at night with electrical problems. A local garage enthusiastically sorted it the following morning and we cut across to Siena to rejoin. We ended up having a fantastic lunch with ’bikers Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman before a great run home to Brescia.”
Neumark also made the inspired decision to put the car back to French Blue, as raced by first owner Étancelin with such distinction.
What better way to celebrate 2211097’s rich and colourful history?
Thanks to Peter Neumark (see v-management.com for details of the charity day at Goodwood); Jim Stokes (www.jswl.co.uk); Simon Moore
The view most rivals saw of the 8C. A fantastic sports car with wings and lights, stripped it ran in Grands Prix. Note the steel tank shaped for the distinctive tail. Clockwise from top left: large Jaeger rev counter is easier to read at speed than the twin dials on main dash, particularly on rough roads; easy-access fusebox; gear quadrant with fly-off handbrake, and rare centre throttle retained. Étancelin proudly sits in his new Monza in a deserted street after painting it French Racing Blue for the 1933 season. Jano’s 8C masterpiece features two blocks of four cylinders sandwiching a central gear tower, and beautiful finned induction from the Roots supercharger. Purposeful, exposed cockpit with cutaway sides, and broad cast four-spoke wheel. Riding mechanic helped brace the driver on the pleated flat seats.
‘PHI-PHI’: FROM WOOL TO GRAND PRIX WINNER
Few Gallic aces were as popular as the charismatic privateer Philippe Étancelin from Rouen. Born in 1896 into a wealthy family of wool merchants, Étancelin was keen to be a boxer but a serious liver illness put a stop to his training in the ring.
Story has it that his parents were very negative about motorsport, but after a trip to Paris to buy a wedding ring with his savings from collecting goose and duck feathers from local farms he came home with a Bugatti Type 35 and started hillclimbing. His debut GP wasn’t planned, either. On a business trip to Reims, with his partner Suzanne squeezed in beside him, he stopped to investigate the local Grand Prix de La Marne. Amazingly he talked a reluctant Toto Roche, the organiser, into letting him enter and ended up winning his first major competition.
Wearing his distinctive Bériot-style tweed cap back to front and Mica goggles, his press-on style and energetic sawing at the steering wheel were mocked by contemporaries, but, despite a self-confessed total lack of mechanical knowledge, Étancelin started to chalk up impressive results first with the Bugatti, and then a succession of Alfa Romeo Monzas. Always a true sportsman, there was only one way to win for Étancelin and that was from the front. When beaten by Campari in the 1934 French Grand Prix, friends advised him to protest after the Italian had clearly broken the rules with three push starters. Étancelin shrugged his shoulders, insisting “that kind of victory doesn’t interest me”.
Fast on street circuits, he impressed at Monaco in 1935 when in an elderly Maserati he caught and passed Rudi Caracciola’s Mercedes W25 for second. He dropped back to fourth after cooking his brakes. Mercedes invited him to test for the Silver Arrows squad, but he preferred instead to be his own boss.
Étancelin never enjoyed Le Mans, favouring the “cut and thrust of formula racing”, but at his first attempt, teamed with Luigi Chinetti, he won the 1934 race with a blue Alfa Romeo 8C.
He had several shunts in his career, the most dramatic coming at Monza in the 1935 Italian Grand Prix when the throttle of his new Maserati V8R1 jammed open. Skidding into a low stone wall at the Lesmo Chicane, the car somersaulted into a tree. The surgeon advised him to retire from racing, but he was back on the winner’s rostrum at Pau the following spring.
Frustrated by the dominance of the German manufacturers, Étancelin briefly retired in the late 1930s but after WW2 he was back in an elderly Monza in the 1945 Coupe des Prisonniers in the Bois de Boulogne. He later found his form again with the beefy Grand Prix Talbot-Lago, scoring several top placings in the 1949 season including a win at Montlhéry in the Paris Grand Prix. Much to the frustration of organisers, the Rouennaise insisted on wearing his signature reversed cap late into his career. It’s now on display in the town’s museum. Only in his last few races did he reluctantly wear a bizarre leather bicycle racing helmet.
A much-loved character, Étancelin eventually retired in 1954 after four decades’ racing but remained involved with motorsport as a key figure in the Anciens Pilotes group. A regular at veteran reunions, he died aged 84 in Paris. Spectacular to watch, fearless in the chase, but a gentleman after the finish who won and lost with true dignity, this noncomformist was one of France’s greatest racers.
Éntancelin with partner Suzanne after winning the 1927 Grand Prix de La Maine – organisers told the novice not to overtake.