Stronger Than Dirt: Saving a Zagato-Bodied Alfa

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Written by The Staff of Motorsport Marketing

From the Jan. 2015 issue

Posted in Features

By Massimo Delbò
Photography by Dirk de Jager

In the fall of 1954 in Lucca, an ancient and breathtaking Romanic city in the northwest of the Italian Tuscany, life is running smoothly, with the beautiful month of September bringing warm, sunny weather.

The opening scene of our story takes place September 28 at the Grande Garage Internazionale, the city’s Alfa Romeo dealer. Here, Signor Ruggero Ricci takes delivery of his brand-new car, something to be proud of. It’s the dream car of the day, the jewel of Alfa Romeo for that period: the 1900 Super Sprint Zagato.

It is based on the Alfona, the “big Alfa,” the 1900 sedan that made its first appearance in October, 1950 at the Paris Motor Show. The 1900 was the very first new Alfa after the war. It had a four-cylinder engine, meaning it was smaller and less expensive, but it was still a real Alfa: beautiful, smooth and fast. The alloy head, twin cams and hemispheric chambers were the engine’s trademarks, while the chassis featured a live rear axle and double wishbones up front.

Today, the Alfa 1900 sedan is remembered as a capable racing car. However, as is often the case in the world of automobiles, enough was just not enough. That’s why, in March 1951 at the Geneva Auto Show, Alfa introduced the Sprint.

This Touring-built coupe, based on the Alfa 1900, featured a shortened wheelbase–in addition to the special bodywork, of course. The shape was so aggressive and attractive that many still consider this car to be one of the most beautiful Alfas ever built.

Not surprisingly, as soon as the coupe was available, many drivers used it to race. In response, Alfa introduced the TI version–short for Turismo Internazionale. This one was already prepared to compete in the TI class, receiving a pair of two-barrel carburetors, twin exhaust pipes and bigger drum brakes.

In 1955, the Sprint became the Super Sprint thanks to a 2mm overbore that upgraded the engine from 1884cc to 1975cc and 115 horsepower. The gearbox became a five-speed unit.

The production coupes were built by Carrozzeria Touring in Milano, while Pininfarina in Torino built the cabriolets. As is typical of the period, though, other coachbuilders used the powerful 1900 SS mechanicals as a base for their work. This is how Carrozzeria Zagato, in one of the many mysteries of the Italian car world, started to produce a car with SS specification during the summer of 1954, a good half-year before the official launch of the SS.

Ugo Zagato established his company in 1919 with the aim of bringing his aeronautical experience to automobiles. The shop’s trademarks quickly became slippery aerodynamics and lightness thanks to its wide use of aluminum.

After the war, the growing appeal of cars sporting a very low roof forced Zagato to develop a new style concept: the double bubble, a roof featuring two longitudinal bubbles that allowed the driver–usually a very wealthy gentleman–and a co-driver to remain comfortable in a car so sleek.

One of Just 39

Combine this beautiful coachwork with Alfa Romeo’s wonderful drivetrain, and it’s easy to understand why Signor Ricci’s purchase is something so special.

His car had left the Alfa Romeo plant at the very end of July and was delivered to Zagato’s headquarters, a few hundred yards away, to be dressed and painted. Odds are strong that the car wore green paint, typical for the day, when it left on September 24.

“We are not 100-percent sure about the original color,” says Paolo Di Taranto, marketing manager and archive curator at Zagato, “because we don’t have every detail about this car in our archive. We do have a note that the car is green, but we’re not 100-percent sure if this note was written when built or in the early ’60s.”

The inside of the dashboard’s fascia and some of the metal details are light blue, and Di Taranto confirms that this combination had been used by the company before. “Looking at the period black-and-white picture, we see the car too dark to be light blue, so if it has been repainted, it has been done quite early. Anyway, the color the car is showing is ‘our’ green.”

Other info confirmed by the factory: This is the seventh one made out of just 39, it rides on the S chassis despite the SS nameplate, and it didn’t receive the roof bubbles–at the end of production, only six copies of the 1900 had the characteristic Zagato roof.

First on Track

We don’t know a lot about Ricci, though. We know that he registered the car under plate No. LU 20404 and, as reported in Auto Italia Magazine, entered it in the second edition of the Firenze-Siena Sports Race. The contest took place October 30, 1954, one month after delivery.

Otello Biagiotti, a noted racer of the day, handled the driving. This was quite an important competition, with 90 drivers fighting for the final victory over a 70-kilometer race held on normal roads. Biagiotti won his class–GT machines with more than 1300cc–traveling at an average speed of more than 71 mph. Elio Zagato, son of the famous coachbuilder, finished a fifth of a second back in an identical car. Eugenio Castellotti, driving a 3.3-liter Lancia Sport, kept an average speed of 81 mph to win overall. Biagiotti finished an impressive fifth overall.

We also know that Biagiotti became the owner of the car on February 7, 1955. As was mandatory in Italy back then, Biagiotti got a new number plate for the car since he lived in a different town, a small village in the Pistoia area.

Biagiotti and the Zagato-bodied Alfa are shown on the entry list for the 1955 Mille Miglia, but for whatever reason they didn’t start the May race. A month later, the car sold again. This is when it was repainted.

Unlike many other race cars, this one enjoyed an easy retirement. The car was purchased by Maria Laura Pelliccia, a Florence resident, who occasionally used it as a daily driver. Ownership passed through other hands until a Rome resident, a Signor Strippoli, purchased the car September 15, 1969.

Strippoli loved cars, owned many, and drove the 1900 for a while. He rebuilt the engine and had a local body shop make new bumpers, since the original ones had been spoiled over time. Finally, he put the 1900 away.

A Long Slumber

“We knew the car since many years,” says Lorenzo Marzullo. He is a member of the Registro Italiano Alfa Romeo, the official club tasked by Alfa Romeo with maintaining the brand’s archives.

A lot of people knew about the car, Marzullo continues, but Strippoli was not interested in selling it–until Italian architect and noted car collector Corrado Lopresto offered to buy it. His cars have won concours events around the world, and many of his treasures are unrestored, one-off Italian machines.

“When we went together to see the car for the first time, we had to climb above every kind of stuff before reaching it,” Marzullo recalls. Even though the car was covered by a thick layer of dust, the two of them immediately fell in love.

“The car was looking so right, complete, a real time bubble, directly from more than 40 years before,” Marzullo continues. “Luckily, the garage where it was stored was very dark and dry, so the longterm rest did not affect the car too much.”

Despite the long slumber, the car didn’t need much–and Lopresto knew that it would have to stay that way. “After new oil, water and battery, and a little of fresh gas in the carburetor, the engine immediately started,” he says. “I had to clean the tank, change the fuel line that was leaking, refurbish the brakes, and I showed it in this way, collecting many enthusiast comments. After so many years hidden away, the 1900 deserves to be seen, because to our knowledge it is the most original 1900 SS Zagato in the world.”

The 1900’s first public appearance came in the Netherlands in 2013 at the Louwman Museum. This August it went to Pebble Beach, where it took top honors in the Postwar Preservation class. Call it proof that four decades of storage cannot spoil the beauty of some cars.

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Reader comments:

tuna55
tuna55 MegaDork
Aug. 24, 2017 1:03 p.m.

Wow cool, what a rare and neat looking car.

jakebarrell
jakebarrell New Reader
Aug. 29, 2017 1:07 a.m.

In reply to The Staff of Motorsport Marketing:

I have never heard about this Alfa Romeo model, must've missed it. Alfa Romeo has always been unique with their car models since the beginning.

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