Alfa Romeo 6C Restoration. Story of #Pinin-Farina
’s post-war predictor of the future. Back To the Future.
Battista ‘Pinin’ Farina set the template for post-war sports car design with this remarkable #Alfa-6C
– which has undergone an equally remarkable restoration. Words David Grainger. Photography Joe Wiecha.
Before the second world war a brash Italian left the family bodyshop business Stabilimenti Farina and struck out on his own with the dream of building a world classcarrozzeria. During the war he built military vehicles for the Italian Government and then, as hostilities ended, designed a car that he hoped might draw international attention to his fledgling company. His name was Battista ‘Pinin’ Farina and he spent much of 1945 crafting a wonderfully original body onto a military-ordered #1942 #Alfa-6C-2500
chassis. It was commissioned and funded to the tune of five millionlire by Giuliana Tortolli, a wealthy Milanese lady perfumer. Gone were the flying fenders and stand-out headlights of pre-war cars; in their place a smooth design that heralded the sports cars of the coming decades and, more importantly, acted as the foundation for the postwar success of design house Pinin Farina
In May 1946 Farina asked Giuliana Tortolli if he could exhibit the car at Première Journée d’Elégance, a fashion show in Lausanne – and she attended in person with it. Later that year, Battista and his son Sergio decided to take two of their newest designs (the 6C plus a more traditional Lancia cabriolet) to the Paris Salon and, having loaded up with suitcases and two companions from the Italian automotive media, they raced the two cars across the Italian and French countryside.
It was a gamble, not just because they were driving to the show, but also because Farina knew that cars from Italy, Germany and Japan had been banned from the Paris Salon. His attempt to display his wares was understandably met with a frosty rejection but, true to form, rather than slinking back home, the pugnacious Farina went to a friend’s garage in Paris, where he and his son cleaned and prepared the cars for display. It was there that the Parisian media were invited for their first glimpse of the cars. And they were ecstatic.
Next morning, before first light, they parked the two cars at the bottom of the staircase leading to the front doors of the Grand Palais, home to the Paris Salon. The show’s organisers were livid, calling Battista ‘that devil Pininfarina’, but the press and public dubbed it the Turin coachbuilder’s petit salon . The Alfa caught the imagination of the French media, as well as the lines of people filing past on their way in; so much so that the Alfa and its creator became the stars of a show they never got into – although the organisers invited Pinin Farina back to exhibit the year after, and placed his display in one of the finest locations in the building.
After that successful French debut, the 6C was entered in the 11th Turin Concours d’Elégance, where it won best open car, and then in the Monte Carlo Concours d’Elégance, where it won best in show. Six months later, Giuliana Tortolli sold the 6C back to Battista Farina and he drove it as his personal car for six months.
It was then sold to Leonard Lord, chairman of the Austin Motor Company. There it was used not only as a personal car but also as a design mule and inspiration for the A90 Atlantic. The American designer Bob Koto was working for Raymond Loewy in his London office as a consultant with Austin then, and bought it for £1000 – when it was probably worth more than £9000.
Koto eventually took the car with him to the USA. On arrival it was damaged by stevedores, when it was swung from the ship on ropes secured by hooks to the front and rear bumpers (which were made from painted hardwood with hand-wrought trim). The ropes twisted the car’s fragile aluminium panels and bent the body substantially. Koto took it to Loewy’s personal garage for repair, and it’s possible that he decided then to change its colour to a dark green from the original metallic dusty gold. After the change the 6C 2500 won several more US shows and, in 1952, Koto reluctantly sold it on.
In what amounts to the car’s last hurrah it appeared in a US magazine called Cars. The issue was dedicated to the new cars of 1954, yet the Alfa cover star was almost a ten-year-old design. After that highpoint it bounced between several owners and descended into obscurity.
A few years ago a phoned call tipped me off that a mutual friend in Japan was selling the remains of his classic car collection. Included was a beaten-up pile of aluminium and parts, which he swore was an early postwar Alfa. There was also (more interestingly to me) a 1948 Alfa Romeo Freccia D’oro. With those two cars in the equation the price made sense and I spoke to Chris Ohrstrom, the patron of the Bugatti Aerolithe recreation, and we made the purchase. After several weeks a shipping container arrived and I stood by as the guild of Automotive restorers staff opened it wow. That was all I could think – but not the WOW! one might utter when first seeing a magnificent work of art. No, this is what escapes one’s lips at the sight of a horrendously expensive pile of limp, tortured aluminium, sprinkled with abused and rusted steel, greasy, broken mechanical parts and mouldy vermininfested leather and horsehair. The kind of wow that’s generally accompanied by a sinking feeling akin to that felt when you lose your wallet.
Yet my mood lightened when the two old hulks were drawn out of the container and I realised that, in parts alone, we had a win. But what to do with the two cars? The seller’s reasoning had been that the freccia d’oro would act as a parts car for the cabriolet, but in truth few parts were shared. That was a fairly complete car and, while shabby and rodent-damaged, its end value of at least £140,000 made its preservation seem sensible.
In the meantime I had been researching the cabriolet and, as I learned more, my excitement increased. Not only had we acquired a very rare car, we had in fact obtained a car that was a building block for Pininfarina, and was of great design and historical importance. So began the restoration process. Initially it seemed that it would be a much easier project than the Bugatti we were busy with for Chris Ohrstrom, but the Alfa was fraught with as many of its own complications. one was that Chris and I had determined to preserve as much of the car’s original material and build quality as was possible. In hindsight that may not have been clever from a financial standpoint but there is no doubt that the car and its builder’s souls needed to be preserved.
There were two very real problems, aside from the usual ones of missing parts and replacement unavailability, spotty information and all the other things that make the historically accurate restoration of extraordinarily rare cars demanding. first to become apparent was the car’s shoddy workmanship. whoever did the original coachbuilding must have been inexperienced. The welding was atrocious, looking more like little piles of grey dung than a process of adhesion, the surrounding areas were covered in splatter, and internal panels were ill-fitting. I could almost imagine a couple of its builders leaning on it and muttering to one another abbastanza buona (good enough)!
None of this is surprising if you think of the period in which the car was built, as war ended in northern Italy. It was likely finished very early in 1946. The labour pool at the time was thin and the need to introduce the car and its design pressing. So, should we remove and redo all the original work, or act to preserve it while making sure people in the future would understand what was original and what was part of the restoration process?
Chris Ohrstom is currently chairman of the World Monuments Fund and has spent a lot of his life preserving art, craft and architecture. To him the answer was easy: we needed to preserve as well as restore. So we came up with a few tricks. One was to run modern and tidy welds up to and slightly over the older ones so that it would be obvious that there was a geological layering. We would preserve and illustrate the differences between original and new in almost all other aspects of the car’s structure.
The next hurdle was the material that the car was made of. It had an aluminium body likely made of salvaged drop tanks from P51 Mustang aircraft. A large proportion was badly damaged by age and inexpert past repair and all of it was full of impurities and weaknesses. This presented problems when we were repairing skins but where it really became a pain was when impurities buried in the aluminium bled out and disrupted the primers and paints, causing blisters and irregularities.
It is never fun to have to backtrack on a project. We were lucky in that a large proportion of the car’s original and exclusive appointments were still with it and, no matter how tortured a piece was, where possible we exhaustively repaired original parts rather than fabricating new – yet still there was a lot of fabrication required. One extreme example was that we were missing one – just one! – of the original hubcaps. They are quite dramatic, complicated – and unobtainable, so we had to make one. To do so it was necessary to create hardwood spinning bucks and then buy a new lathe large enough to spin a full disc on. The brass had to be spun and pressed by hand over the wooden buck using a large wooden ‘spoon’ with a roller at the end. This was not a process that ended happily for quite a few attempts, though we were pleased that we still came well under what it would have cost to have a modern manufacturer set it up and spin it on modern machinery.
After the forming, the rim of the hubcap had to be hand-louvred and great care was taken to make the louvres as irregular as those on the originals. Today few aside from ourselves can tell which of the hubcaps we crafted – which is, of course, exactly how it should be. We were fortunate to have good photos of the interior, which included the extravagant chromed dashboard and transparent knobs and buttons. One thing we did not have was a clear shot of the steering wheel (someone was always sitting in the way), though we could see enough to tell it was no ordinary Alfa wheel.
It took months to finally pin down a photograph that revealed it was one of the anti-shock wheels featured by Alfa, though likely a one-off made for this car. The solution, again, was to hand-fabricate the whole wheel, including the fancy Lucite centre and Alfa crest, and the leather inlays on its spokes and rim.
Mechanically the car is stock 6C 2500. Many historians presumed it was a triple-carburettor S model, but a 1953 photo in a 1978 issue of Thoroughbred & Classic Cars magazine proved that it had only the single-carb set-up of its original military-order chassis and driveline. The project took several years to complete, during which that jumbled pile of decrepit aluminium and abused steel, revealed when the container door was opened, regained its former glory. And what glory it has. It is often in a company’s early years that inspiration creates masterpieces and this car, one of the first truly revolutionary designs by Pinin Farina, showed the immense promise that would be fully realised over the coming decades.
The car was a dramatic departure from pre-war design and was the very first to exhibit the wheelarch eyebrows made famous by the Mercedes 300SL. They are often attributed to another Pinin Farina design but this car predates that by almost two years.
What is more important from a design standpoint is that this 6C truly represented where car design was heading. Some feel that there is perhaps a bit too much going on but I put this down to a talented man brimming with ideas, stifled by the years of constraint demanded by war. Exuberant maybe, but – wow!
ENGINE 2442cc straight-six, DOHC, single #Weber-36DCR
POWER 95bhp @ 4600rpm
TRANSMISSION Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
STEERING Worm and roller
Front: double wishbones, coil springs, hydraulic dampers.
Rear: trailing arms, torsion bars, hydraulic dampers
Top speed 97mph
Left, above and below As much as possible was preserved, but necessary fabrication from scratch included a single hubcap and the steering wheel; engine is built to correct single-carb military spec.
‘Whoever did the original coachbuilding must have been inexperienced. the Welding Was atrocious’