A Visit to the Official Alfa Romeo Historic Club
Photography by Federico Bajetti
Sometimes, my work is just an excuse for me to spend time with wonderful things. I work as a full time automotive journalist, and there’s no better excuse to experience great cars and have fun, all while being exactly where my boss tells me to be. Put simply, I have the best job in the world.
My work–if we’re still calling it that–recently took me on a visit to the official Alfa Romeo historic club, Scuderia Del Portello, where I got an up-close look at an array of special Alfas. For obvious reasons, I am not going to divulge the location of this buffet of Alfa Romeo goodness, but I will tell you that my experience there stands as a highlight of my life. From the outside, the building that contains these automotive gems is unremarkable, hiding in plain sight from the countless passersby on the busy road out front. As with most prized collections, this one bears no signs, no indication of what sits inside, only a gate and a large, anonymous old garage door.
I arrived with Federico, a photographer, and we were greeted with handshakes at the entrance by Mr. Marco Cajani, the president of the Scuderia, and his secretary, Serena. Immediately inside, we came face-to-face with a pair of red, heavy-duty Iveco transporters and, a bit further down the corridor, a freshly-restored Giulia GTAm. We ducked our heads inside the cockpit for a closer look and noticed that the interior was spartan, to say the least.
“It’s a finished project, but we’re waiting the new seats to arrive,” I heard a voice behind me say.
Turning around, I saw a puff of smoke coming toward us, and emerging through it was Alberto, mechanic emeritus at this shop, officially retired but not yet willing to be put out to pasture. As we shook hands, I could feel the grip that comes from countless hours of wrenching and I wondered just how many cars these hands had touched over the decades.
After climbing a flight of stairs we walked through a door–the “the pearly gates”–and entered the inner sanctum. And, oh, what a sight! My heart did a hop, skip, and a jump as it tried to regain its rhythm: in this single room sat what seemed like every racing model of Alfa Romeo, from a La Carrera Panamericana 1900 TI to the last 147 made by Alfa Corse. We had come to see a pair of the almighty 33s, the jewels in this collection’s crown, so we were unprepared for these other gems. We spent a moment taking it all in and then made our way to the 33s.
“This one has a very simple story,” said Mr. Cajani, point to a car on our right. “It is 33/TT3 chassis #1, the one with the tubular frame. It was the first produced and was used for the shakedown test at the 1971 Targa Florio with Rolf Stommelen and Nino Vaccarella. It was still an experimental model at the time and they preferred to use the box frame for the actual race.”
Mr. Cajani went on to note that he and his team bought the car directly from Alfa Romeo in 1986–”back when there was no interest in these cars and folks were begging us to take them”– and brought it back to its original configuration, thereby making it a period correct Works car. This car differs from its siblings of the era, however, as it features the first configuration of the 3-liter setup: no front Alfa grille, covered side seat, smaller windshield, side air intake, and no front lamps. Since restoring the car, Mr. Cajani & Co. have given the car plenty of exercise at events such as Goodwood, Portimao, and Monza, with Mr. Cajani often sharing the cockpit with none other than Arturo Merzario.
“How is it to drive?” I asked as I put my head into the cockpit.
“It’s fantastic!” said Mr. Cajani. “With its short wheelbase and a top speed of 186 miles per hour, it takes a bit of time to master, but once you’re in control it’s like a rocket-powered go-kart.”
The short wheelbase, Mr. Cajani continued, accentuates the oversteer and, back in the day, made this car a perfect fit for the Targo Florio. The engine was built by SCAM Lavorazioni Meccaniche and was the first of the Tubolare, which featured 360 horsepower pushing a mere 750 kilograms in weight. It has a Porsche-style transmission with forward mounted gears. As for the starting procedure, well, it’s a race car so one doesn’t just hop in and turn a key. Indeed, the team uses an external battery in order to start the engine, which must then be warmed properly, lest the oil lines blow out.
At this point Mr. Cajani chuckled and gestured toward Alberto, saying, “It’s him you should be talking to. He built every car here and knows of the life, death, and of every single screw on each one.”
As well he should. According to Alberto, the team typically runs the car about 1000 kilometers per year over the course of 3-4 events, with the engine being overhauled after each of these races. Those hours add up quickly.
As I said, we had come to Scuderia Del Portelo specifically to see the 33s, but we certainly were not going to ignore the rest of this collection, especially when I realized that we had stumbled upon a collection of cars and engines that bear the fingerprints of one Virgilio Conrero. One of the finest tuners of the 1950s and the man responsible for making a fast Giullietta Veloce even faster, Conrero deserves credit for many victories won in Alfa Romeo GT cars, including those in the 1900 and the Giulia GTAm of Jolly Club. Not surprisingly, given that they epitomize one of Alfa Romeo’s most important post-war chapters, Conrero cars are now highly sought-after and thus a rare site. Suffice it to say, then, I had never seen so many in one place. Among the Conrero treasures here at Scuderia Del Portelo were a Giullietta Sebring, a De Tomaso Formula 1 car driven by Nino Vaccarella (for which Conrero built the head), and an unassuming 1900 sedan for which Conrero built the race-prepped engine.
While we were ogling the Conrero treasures Alberto and Federico were busy rolling out the collection’s other 33, specifically, the 1967 “Fleron” 33. The car takes its nickname from Teodoro Zeccoli’s famous victory in the Fleron hillclimb, and legend has it that Zeccoli broke down in tears when he first saw the car. I can relate: this car was the first of its kind, and it’s been at the center of my automotive fantasies for years.
“When I bought this car,” Mr. Cajani explained, “it was in its original condition. It still has its experimental 2-liter V8, 45” Weber carburetors, a magnesium chassis, and internal rear brakes. I don’t race this one very often, though, because the material up front may have weakened with time and I’m a bit nervous that it could fall off.”
He then looked at me while gesturing toward the car.
“You’re enough of an enthusiast that we’ll let you sit in it. Just don’t touch the windscreen as you’re climbing in.”
I could hardly believe my good fortune. I put my feet on the seat, put one hand on the thin black roll bar behind the cockpit and the other on the air intake and dropped into the cockpit. The car felt bigger than you might expect inside, with the bubble windscreen so long and tall that it ended right above my head. The controls had been distilled to the bare minimum: a tachometer, a gear lever, and perfectly-situated pedals.
Given the depth of Alfa Romeo history here at Scuderia Del Portello, Federico rightly wondered what Mr. Cajani had to say about present-day Alfa Romeos.
“They’re all identical,” said Mr.Cajani. “If Fiat wants to revive the brand, it should get back into racing and be serious about performance, like it was in the old times.”
This from a man who, along with his team, races regularly.
As we wrapped up our tour and wandered toward the front of the building–past the last 75 made by Alfa Corse, a fetching pair of Giullietta sedans, and an elegant Maserati 3500 GT–I realized that my fingers were numb. In all my giddiness, I had not realized that this space was entirely unheated and, actually, felt like a refrigerator.
Fortunately, with hosts like Mr. Cajani and his team, and cars like those pictured here, creature comforts were the last thing on my mind.