The Last Testa Fissa

Powered by a very special 1,500cc engine, this Scuderia Ferrari Alfa Romeo has twice finished on the Mille Miglia podium—76 years apart.

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October 12, 2010

This year, one of the earliest Scuderia Ferrari Alfa Romeos returned to the Mille Miglia, where it had won its class in 1934. The car is a 1933 Alfa 6C Gran Sport 1500 Testa Fissa Zagato, a special competition version of one of the most successful forebears of the modern sports car.

A.L.F.A. (Amonima Lombarda Fabrica Automobile) didn’t really shake the automotive world until after Nicola Romeo, a young engineer, took over the company in about 1918. In the early 1920s, Alfa Romeo began making history on road circuits throughout Europe with its famous P2 Grand Prix cars. Powered by a supercharged 2-liter DOHC straight-8 engine, the P2s carried Alfa to the 1925 World Championship.

Vittorio Jano, the father of the P2, also designed a supercharged 1,500cc DOHC straight-6, the 6C, which powered an entire generation of sports cars which dominated the European racing scene in the 1920s and ’30s. The 6C was enlarged to 1750cc in 1928, and built in both forms through 1934.

In 1929, Alfa produced a small batch of six specialized 6C 1500cc race engines with a fixed head, or Testa Fissa, designed to eliminate the head-gasket failures which often plagued long-distance racing. Later that year and in 1930, a second batch of 12 more Testa Fissa engines was built. These were only provided to the top racers of the day, such as Tazio Nuvolari, Giuseppe Campari and Achille Varzi.

They were also supplied to Enzo Ferrari, who had helped Alfa claim important victories in the 1929 Mille Miglia, the Brooklands Double Twelve and scores of other events. When Scuderia Ferrari became operational in 1930, it started with six 6C Alfa Romeos, several of which were Testa Fissa competition models.

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This particular 6C Gran Sport 1500 Testa Fissa (s/n 10811406) was purchased new several years later, in 1933, around the time Alfa was disbanding its factory racing effort. It was the very last original 6C Gran Sport model built, and in addition to its rare engine, it featured special competition features and aggressive, one-off coachwork by Zagato.

THE TESTA FISSA’S FIRST OWNER was Anna Maria Peduzzi, the young daughter of a wealthy family from Olgiate, near Como. Known within racing circles as “Marocchina” (the Moroccan) due to her dark complexion, she was out to beat men at their own game—and, in the Alfa, she finished third in class in the grueling Targa Abruzzo and fourth in class at the Stelvio Hillclimb against her male competitors.

Peduzzi’s most impressive successes in the car came with Scuderia Ferrari, which she joined in late 1933. Under the Ferrari banner, she scored a class victory at the Coppa Principessa di Piemonte, an endurance race in southern Italy. Then, in August 1934, Peduzzi won her class at the Mille Miglia. She drove the 1,000-mile race with her soon-to-be husband, Gianfranco Comotti, another member of Scuderia Ferrari, and the couple achieved an impressive 13th-place overall in a race dominated by the more powerful 8C Alfas.

A few months after the Mille Miglia, Peduzzi wrote a lengthy article in La Scuderia Ferrari defending the “weaker sex” and encouraging women to compete in automobile racing. “A courageous sporting women who adores motoring is someone who reasons, has nerves of steel and while doing battle on the road possesses strength of will and mental coolness equal, I dare assert, to any man,” she wrote. Marocchina was a women of strong will, conviction and skill—all traits necessary to be part of Enzo’s team.

Peduzzi sold the Alfa in 1935, and by 1936 it had become part of the Jacques de Rham Scuderia Marremano race team. De Rham, a Swiss baron living in Tuscany, entered three Alfas for the 1936 Mille Miglia: an 8C 2900 B, an 8C 2600 Monza and the 6C 1500 Testa Fissa. The 6C was given to a first-time racer, the 21-year-old Baron Emmanual “Tuolo” de Graffenried.

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“De Rham had asked me to take part as a member of his stable which I found very flattering, as the Mille Miglia was already a mythical race,” Graffenried later recalled. “Unfortunately, I was so excited that, on a long straight, I spotted a railroad bridge too late and caught it with the rear of the car…. I still managed to get to Florence, where I had to drop out of the race because everything locked up.”

A month later, young Graffenried, who would become a noted Grand Prix driver after World War II, scored his first class win with the car at the Prix du Bremgarden, held in conjunction with the 1936 Swiss Grand Prix. He then won the Clug Hillclimb in Romania, in front of an audience that included King Carol and Prince Nicholas.

For the next 17 years, according to Italian registration documents, the car was passed between a few Italian enthusiasts. It was sold in 1936 to Vittorio Belamondo, a year later to David Vitale and, after the war in 1946, to Ermanno Motto.

IN THE SPRING OF 1953, postman and aspiring racer Danny Collins joined George Joseph, Jr., the Western U.S. Ferrari rep, on a trip from Denver to New York to meet with Luigi Chinetti. [We profiled Collins’ racing career in issue #50’s “The Pony Express.”—Ed.] Chinetti knew that Joseph had been importing old Alfas, Jags and Rileys from England, and asked if he would be interested in a 1,500cc supercharged Alfa a friend wanted to sell.

Hearing this, Collins interrupted the conversation to ask the price. Chinetti replied, “Eight-hundred fifty dollars,” and before Joseph could open his mouth, Collins said, “I’ll take it.”

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The car arrived in Colorado on Friday, June 19, 1953. The final bill was quite a bit more than Collins had expected—$1,400, which included a $125 valve job and freight from Italy—but friend Dabney Collins (no relation) quickly tuned the car and, the next day, Danny drove it 60 miles to his first race.

The Estes Park Road Race was uneventful. Collins drove carefully, learning the course and the behavior of the car and its center throttle. He finished in last place out of caution; the Alfa was not yet paid for.

A few days later, George Joseph and Dabney Collins called Danny and explained they had met someone from St. Louis who might like to buy the car—and, after owning the Alfa for less than a week, Danny sold it for a small profit. Ten years later, he wrote a short article about how he regretted the sale in Steering Wheel, the Sports Car Club of America regional magazine he edited.

The Testa Fissa was purchased by David Biggs, a Dartmouth-educated gentleman farmer and racing enthusiast. By the late 1950s, he had assembled an enviable collection of exotic machinery at his farm in Clarksville, Missouri. But by 1960, Biggs’ wife, Nancy, decided to take matters into her own hands, offering the Testa Fissa and other cars, including a Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa, for sale in Sports Car and Road & Track.

Hugh Bell of Iowa paid $2,000 for the Alfa, which Nancy described in a letter to him as a “1928 1.5 liter blown, limited production factory team car” with a Zagato body. Bell owned the car for several years and was intent on reviving it, but had trouble finding parts.

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In 1966, Bell sold the Alfa for $1,000 to Richard “Dick” Merritt, one of the co-founders of the Ferrari Club of America, who hauled the car, in pieces, from Iowa to Michigan with a VW microbus. [In issue #28’s “When Ferraris Were Cheap,” Merritt credits his love of Ferraris to Danny Collins, who gave him his first ride in one.—Ed.]

Two years later, Merritt sold the Testa Fissa to Henry Wessells, III, an avid Alfisti living near Philadelphia. The final price was $4,250, a tidy profit for a car that was partly dismantled and still not in running order.

Wessells was an engineer employed by the Budd Body Company, and he worked with Alfa Romeo on several projects. During his travels to Milan, Wessells became friends with Luigi Fusi, a key member of the Alfa design team during the glory years from 1920 to the mid-1950s, and the man who, in the 1970s, established the Alfa Romeo museum. Wessells and Fusi corresponded extensively about the Testa Fissa, which had an unusual body and a very unusual engine.

Fusi’s recommendation was to restore the car in a manner more typical of the “standard” Zagato Gran Sport. Wessells agreed, and had several cosmetic changes made to the body, including new fenders and door hinges. By the mid-1980s, the car was finally up and running; its first outing was at Lime Rock in 1986. Wessells, who had raced in the SCCA in the 1950s, raced the Testa Fissa and an equally rare 1953 Alfa Romeo 3000 CM with gusto until he retired from competition in 2003.

I HAD ADMIRED THE CAR from the first day I saw it in the late 1990s, tucked away in David George’s shop in rural Pennsylvania. DL George Coachworks had looked after the Alfa for some years and did what was needed to keep it on the track. To my eye, the Testa Fissa was a beautiful specimen, an evocative 6C with possible links to Scuderia Ferrari. I had tried for several years to find a similar car, but without luck.

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In late 2003, I received a call from Wessells, who asked if I wanted to purchase the car. Like Danny Collins, I jumped at the chance.

At that time, the car’s definitive history was not yet known. Some sleuthing over the next couple of years, with help from previous owners Wessells, Merritt and Collins, as well as Ferrari historian Marcel Massini, allowed me to trace the ownership all the way back to Anna Maria Peduzzi. Then, in 2005, at the Mille Miglia Museum in Brescia, I discovered period video footage that showed the Testa Fissa pulling into scrutineering at the 1934 Mille Miglia. Later, the museum provided entry documents that confirmed the chassis and engine number.

Using the many period photographs I had discovered as guidance, David George restored the car to its precise configuration from the 1934 Mille Miglia. We were lucky to find all the parts that had been removed during Wessells’ earlier restoration; more than two decades later, they were still sitting in a shipping container outside the restoration shop he had used. In the meantime, the Testa Fissa engine was rebuilt by Gianni Torrelli in Italy.

By late 2009, the process was complete. What remained was to return the car to Italy for the 2010 Mille Miglia. My goal was to win the race as a fitting way to ring in the Alfa Romeo Centenary being celebrated that year.

THE MODERN-DAY MILLE MIGLIA is not an all-out race like it was in 1934. Rather, it is a time-speed-distance rally, or “regularity race,” in which competitors must precisely complete timed sections to earn points. Over a 48-hour period, the racers cover 1,000 miles from the northern city of Brescia to Rome and back.

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In 2009, I started talks with three-time Mille Miglia winner Luciano Viaro, formerly of the official Alfa team, about driving the car. Viaro thought the Testa Fissa was a good choice: It was light and nimble, powerful enough but easy to manage during the timed sections that account for all the points; it would receive an extra bonus for being one of the original Mille Miglia race cars; and it would also receive the best handicap possible.

Viaro soon agreed that he and I would share the Alfa. We were part of a four-car team called SPORTS / HAGERTY—a combination of Viaro’s Scuderia SPORTS and my friends McKeel Hagerty and Angus Forsyth, who would share a 1957 Alfa Romeo 1900 SS Zagato double bubble. Joining us were two Argentineans in a prewar Aston Martin and two Italians in a 1953 Nash Healy.

Although I had competed in the Mille Miglia three times before, 2010 was serious business. Our #44 Alfa was one of the pre-race favorites, along with the factory cars from Alfa Romeo, Mercedes and BMW.

I shipped the Testa Fissa to Italy months before the race in order to give Viaro plenty of seat time. The car also returned to Torrelli’s shop, where it spent several weeks being perfectly prepared.

I arrived in Italy five days before the Mille Miglia in order for Viaro to sharpen my skills as a navigator and co-driver. We were on the road every day (even some wet nights) leading up to the race, honing our precision to within hundredths of a second of the target times.

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The race started on a beautiful evening. The crowds cheered wildly as we streamed down the streets of Brescia, accompanied by the Alfa’s roaring engine and whining supercharger. Viaro was in the driver’s seat with a sophisticated chronometer strapped to his right leg; this would be used on the special timed sections. Sitting in the passenger seat, I was tasked with navigation and time management, and to serve as a relief driver when needed.

The first leg of the race ran through the night from Brescia to Bologna. We arrived at our hotel well after midnight in second place overall; Viaro had driven the seven timed sections masterfully, completing them within an average of 0.06 second of the target times.

Day 2 entailed 12 hours of driving from Bologna to Rome. We dropped to fourth midway though the day, but had climbed back to second by the time we arrived, exhausted, in Rome. Along the way, we had experienced dense fog, 10-foot snow banks and the natural beauty of the Italian countryside—along with tens of thousands of spectators cheering us on! It was after 1 a.m. when we reached our hotel for dinner, and we were up again before 5 a.m. to prep the car for the final day.

Day 3 was the longest, nearly 14 hours (if you are on time) from Rome back to Brescia. We were in solid contention: Viaro and the Alfa were nearly flawless in each of the timed sections. We consistently racked up points and felt like we had a real chance to win. Then, disaster struck.

On one of the final timed sections, Viaro accidentally hit the wrong button on the chronometer. We crossed the line more than three seconds off, receiving no points. Viaro threw his hands up in disgust: “We lost the race,” he said. “The mistake will surely drop us to tenth or worse.” We soldiered on to Brescia with our spirits dampened, but about a half-hour later received a text message: Amazingly, we were still in second! It was now a matter of getting to the finish. Traffic was challenging, so we drove in the middle of the road, splitting traffic in typical Mille Miglia style.

We reached the finish line outside Brescia in second place overall, behind the BMW factory team of Giuliano Cané and Lucia Galliani. We soon drove to the finish ramp to resounding cheers from the crowd. We sprayed Prosecco on our crew and each other and took a few gulps. It was an unbelievable experience.

It was also the end of an amazing journey though time. The Alfa Romeo had returned to Italy and the race in which it achieved its most famous victory. We had reunited the car with its past, restored it to its former splendor and added another chapter to the rich history of the last Testa Fissa.

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  • F1 race report
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