The style count He was the equal of Nuvolari on his day, but Count Carlo Felice Trossi had more important things on his mind. Words Paul Fearnley. Photography Motorsport Images.
OUT FOR THE COUNT
The local hero was hunting down a national hero. Scuderia Ferrari’s president had his hooks into its star employee. Race leader Tazio Nuvolari was his usual self, all synapse, crackle and pop. But Count Carlo Felice Trossi – the laid-back, loose-limbed ‘Didi’ among social equals – came alive on the streets. Last year, 1934, he’d started the Monaco Grand Prix from pole and set fastest lap after pitting for new plugs at the end of the first – and won three lesser round-the-houses races: at Montreux, Vichy and hometown Biella. The latter had been a stitch-up with a conciliatory teammate. This home race was different.
According to Prince Chula, White Mouse Stable manager to cousin ‘B Bira’, Nuvolari had seconded Trossi’s high opinion of his own ability; and the Count liked nothing better than a real scrap with Nuvolari. (Mutual respect despite the controversial incident at Alessandria in ’34 that had fractured Nuvolari’s left leg.) Yes, there were days when the aquiline aristocrat with hooded lids and stooped shoulders that hid his emotion and height failed to muster the motivation to unfurl his talent: Nuvolari wore his heart on his sleeve; Trossi wore a gold 46mm-diameter Patek Philippe (sold at auction in 2008 for $2.25m) on his. But today wasn’t one of those days. Two stunning laps drew Trossi up to the tail of the sister Alfa Romeo Tipo B. And on the following lap, he squeezed past Il Maestro. It didn’t last, as so often. Nuvolari retook the lead two laps later and pressed on to victory while Trossi, the junior by 15 years, pitted.
Because of sunstroke, according to reports. Because of something potentially more sinister, according to Enzo Ferrari: Trossi would complain of a sharp pain behind his left eye when operating under strain. His love of speed – aeroplanes, boats and cars – was exacting a toll.
‘He spent much of 1935 overseeing the wildest of GP cars: a plane without wings. His active mind could swirl beyond control’
Trossi’s wife ‘Lisetta’ could neither bear to watch races nor listen to them on the radio, and would sit in the family chapel throughout.
Certainly Trossi looked older than 40 by the time of the Autodrome GP, a celebration of Monza’s reopening, in October 1948. Alfa Corse team manager Giovanni Battista Guidotti leaned into the car to query if he was okay to continue. Trossi nodded – he would finish second to teammate Jean-Pierre Wimille – but his was a faraway stare. The tumour that would claim him the following May had been diagnosed already. The scion of a wool merchant/industrialist (with a factory in Biella, an office in Bradford) and the Piedmontese Sella banking family, Trossi lived in the 13th-century Gaglianico castle bought, rebuilt and modified – its drawbridge was electric – using the inheritance bequeathed after the death of his father. Money was never short. Nor were ideas, big or small. Sketches by this privileged polymath, benefactor and entrepreneur were the basis of the most sensational Mercedes-Benz SSK roadster – now part of Ralph Lauren’s collection. The prototype Vespa scooted around his grounds. And that wristwatch, so readily readable (at 150mph+) and visible, was made to his exacting specifications.
An Anglophile – he boarded at St John’s College, Southsea, before studying textiles at Leeds University in 1926-’27 – and fond of pipe and tailored Oxford shirts with button collars, Trossi was an influencer, as most photos of Fiat boss Gianni Agnelli attest. But he was happy to muck in with his mechanic Cortopassi, too – albeit always while wearing white linen gloves. A professional amateur inclined to dabbling, he never let the grass grow beneath his feet. He bought a controlling interest in Scuderia Ferrari in February ’32; mainly his would be an ambassadorial role, fulfilled with “a genteel aloofness”, yet he made a powerful impression on the man in charge of this blueprint for the modern team.
‘With the greatest of nonchalance, he would do things, both in everyday life and on the track, that no one else would have thought of,’ wrote Enzo Ferrari of Trossi. ‘I cannot think of him without warm feelings, for he was one of the first to have faith in me and my Scuderia.
‘And he was a great driver.’ Trossi made a good early impression by winning January 1932’s Coppa Gallenga in the hills south-east of Rome. He topped it by finishing a measured second to the works Alfa 8C-2300 of Baconin Borzacchini in the Mille Miglia. The following season was made problematic by Alfa Romeo’s refusal to release its allconquering Tipo B monoposto after withdrawing from racing. Thus Scuderia Ferrari had to diversify.
Having flirted with ’bikes – Rudges and Nortons – it considered MG K3 sports cars; Trossi ordered a single-seat racer from Augie Duesenberg. What arrived from America was a bitsa: a redundant ’27 chassis fitted with a Junk Formula straight-eight by Fred ‘Skinny’ Clemons. It would prove fast but ill-fated.
Trossi finished fifth at Monaco in a Scuderia Ferrari 8C Monza and, engine increased from 2.3 to 2.6 litres, second to Nuvolari in Alessandria. His Mille Miglia, however, this time ended near the start, a crash while crossing the River Mella pitching co-driver and closest friend Marquis Antonio Brivio into the water. Trossi’s energetic road driving of the elegant Hispano-Suiza H6C coupé and 12-cylinder Packards was infamous, his knack for attracting trouble – ‘a natural if gay’ pilot, he crashed a De Havilland Leopard Moth attempting to land on a Genoa jetty – matched only by that for escaping unharmed.
Tragedy stalked him in 1933. Driving through the Bois de Boulogne in July, his passenger, ex-Bugatti GP and Indy 500 driver Pierre de Vizcaya, suffered a fatal head injury when he fell from the car restraining a boisterous dog. And at September’s Monza GP, Trossi would be blamed for one of racing’s blacker days. Retiring due to a cracked cylinder liner, inspection found his Ferrari-red Duesenberg’s oil supply intact. Yet the ‘slick’ it did not lay was reported as the cause of the fatal crashes of Borzacchini, Giuseppe Campari and Count Stanislas Czaikowski.
Poor Campari had been driving a Tipo B finally released to Scuderia Ferrari, Nuvolari’s mid-season switch to Maserati’s 8CM the driving force behind the U-turn. Trossi’s reassuring presence no doubt played a crucial counterbalance to Enzo’s eagerness, verging on desperation, during the Milan restaurant meet with Pirelli representatives that raised the Lire1.7m Alfa demanded.
Not that Trossi was yet allowed to race a Tipo B in Grands Prix. He had to make do with winning Pescara’s Targa Abruzzi support race and the three victories – only the last of them achieved aboard a Tipo B – that made him European hillclimb champion, succeeding Caracciola.
In 1934, however, he was promoted to Ferrari’s A-squad, alongside Achille Varzi and Louis Chiron, with newcomer Guy Moll among the reserves. In theory. The latter had a tiger in his tank, and upstaged sleeping lion Trossi. Moll won at Monaco – after a late mistake by Chiron – and finished second to Varzi in a photo finish at Tripoli before winning Berlin’s Avusrennen.
When Trossi pitted during the French GP at Montlhéry to explain that he had lost first and third gears, Moll badgered to take over and brought the hampered car home third. At Livorno’s Coppa Ciano Moll finished second, Trossi was almost nine minutes back in fourth.
Trossi had technique to burn but could be accused of lacking the stomach. He drove the Nice GP with the scuttle removed to improve cockpit ventilation. His third place in the Italian GP, at a hot Monza peppered with chicanes, had to be completed by relief driver Gianfranco Comotti. Even his Vichy win was predicated on mechanic/test driver Attilio Marinoni’s qualifying the car. Racing and its thrill of the chase seemed more important than any end result. His prowess was obvious without having to risk all to prove it. He would leave that to the seemingly indestructible Nuvolari; as should have Moll, killed at Pescara’s Coppa Acerbo that August.
Trossi throttled back in ’35, contesting four races before relinquishing his Ferrari presidency – “for personal reasons” – in January ’36. He had “neither the patience nor perseverance – nor the wish,” said Enzo. He had also been involved in another road accident, at Morges, Switzerland.
Instead he spent much of ’35 funding and overseeing the wildest of GP cars: an “aeroplane without wings”. Conceived by Augusto Monaco and Giulio Aymini, it featured a twin-supercharged 16-cylinder 3892cc two-stroke radial mounted ahead of the front axle and attached to a welded tubular spaceframe – perhaps a motorracing first – of manganese-molybdenum steel. Tested at Monza in July, it was underpowered at 250bhp and overheated even without its streamlined cowling. It never raced. His active mind could swirl beyond control on occasion. He regrouped for ’36 by joining friend Gino Rovere, who had invested heavily in Maserati to become its president. Though Trossi contested GPs in Scuderia Torino’s independently sprung V8RI, he preferred its new 6CM voiturette and flourished. In the junior formula’s most competitive season, he battled ERAs and Dick Seaman’s revamped 1927 Delage, winning at the Nürburgring, Milan, Livorno, Lucca and Modena.
He would not be so successful in 1937, making do with wins in Naples and Lucca. Yet some listed him as Italy’s voiturette champion for a second time. Others did not. Linked to Auto Union, also he returned to Scuderia Ferrari and again exhibited flashes of inspiration, passing Nuvolari’s sister Alfa 12C/36 for the lead of the Milan GP – only to stop a lap later for new plugs.
This flickering pattern continued in ’38 when Maserati, now owned by Adolfo Orsi, produced a car as fast as the V12 Silver Arrows for the new GP formula. Reliability couldn’t match its speed. He led in Tripoli and set a 136mph fastest lap of the desert-dusted Mellaha Lake track – sustained high speed was within his compass – but pitted with fuelling problems and retired with a broken back axle. Fastest in Coppa Ciano practice, the 8CTF’s twin-supercharged 3-litre fixed-head (Testa Fissa) straight-eight failed when leading. He was challenging at the front in the Coppa Acerbo when, in discomfort, he handed over to the inexperienced Luigi Villoresi, who set fastest lap.
When finally Trossi finished a race – sixth in the Italian GP at Monza – he was disqualified for receiving assistance beyond the pit area. He was 37 by the end of WW2, during which he had flown with the Regia Aeronautica. Still, he was younger than Alfa Corse teammates Giuseppe Farina, Varzi and (albeit by just two months) Jean-Pierre Wimille. He had driven the magnificent Alfetta before – to third in a 1-2-3 at Tripoli’s 1940 voiturette race – and was determined to make the best of his most competitive car yet. Alfa Corse was able to carve up races, though not to everyone’s satisfaction. Second to Farina in the Nations GP at Geneva in July, when the tables were turned in Milan in September an irked Farina parked a healthy car rather than acquiesce. The team would be calmer without him during ’47 and ’48.
Trossi finished third in the 1947 Swiss and Belgian GPs – despite being bloodied by a stone at Spa – before winning the Italian GP in Milan by a tenth, crossing the line with his hands off the wheel after allowing Varzi to close; an out-of-character action that angered some in the crowd.
His 1948 European GP victory at Bremgarten, Switzerland – another treacherously fast circuit – was by two-tenths, Wimille charging after an unplanned stop for water but unable/ unwilling to pass an unflappable teammate.
There was no joy; the victor hung his wreath on a barrier in tribute to Varzi, killed during practice. Two years later, Alfetta drivers would dominate the inaugural World Championship – instigated by CSAI president Brivio – but neither Wimille nor Trossi was alive to see older man Farina crowned. Wimille, killed in a Gordini in January ’49, had gained the upper hand by ’48, but Trossi was a match for anyone on his day. ‘Newcomer’ Luigi Fagioli, almost 10 years his senior, would arrive at 1950’s finale still with a chance of becoming World Champion… It wasn’t to be. Trossi died an agonising death in a Milan clinic on 9 May 1949, just turned 41.
It was never going to be. The aesthete uninterested by financial gain and, to a lesser extent, personal glory might have railed against the increasing professionalism. Ruthless, consistent speed was its new currency. Elegance curried little favour; nonchalance none. And urbane Trossi was a man whom Enzo had pegged as “an old-fashioned type” as long ago as ’32. Points and prizes were not what defined him.
Trossi (22, Alfa Romeo Tipo B) powers away at Monaco in ’34, but René Dreyfus (8, Bugatti T59) gets the best of the starts. Philippe Étancelin (14, Maserati 8CM) splits the pair on the front row.
Poleman Trossi leads teammate Louis Chiron at Monaco in 1934, proving typically fast but out of luck. Left: Trossi with his Scuderia Torino Maserati V8RI ahead of the Italian Grand Prix of 1936, a year best served racing voiturettes.
Trossi, with Patek outside his overalls, chats with Wimille at the 1948 Swiss GP. Right: Monthléry in 1934, where Trossi retired only for Moll to take over. Trossi’s Alfa Romeo 158 en route to victory in the European Grand Prix at Bremgarten, Switzerland, in July 1948. He pipped teammate Jean-Pierre Wimille to the win by just two-tenths of a second