After The Targa Florio And Decades Of Racing In The UK, This 1924 Alfa Romeo RL TF Is Enjoying Active Retirement In Italy
Sometimes life gives you an unexpected gift, bits of poetry to remind you that such things exist. Like having the chance to jump into a vacant passenger seat of a 1924 Alfa Romeo RL Targa Florio in the middle of a classic car rally in Italy.
That was a unique experience, not just because the car is one of the rarest and most significant examples in all of Alfa Romeo’s competitive history, but for the more visceral assault on the senses that comes with riding in a car like this. Seeing such a great piece of history still alive and under its own locomotion is impressive in itself, and, even better, the owner of this special Alfa isn’t one to pass up any occasion to race, enjoying the museum piece at indecent speed.
He has over 40 years of racing experience as a gentleman driver in the United States, and it’s great fun being in the car with someone whose skills you trust, to feel this beast of a car operating at the peak of its power in the hands of someone who knows how to keep it out of the ditch. After our 70km journey through the Umbrian countryside during the Coppa della Perugina earlier this year, I asked the owner if Checco Bonfanti, a respected historical Alfa Romeo specialist who knows the car very well, could drive it for our photo shoot.
First a bit of history for context. Portello’s Ufficio Progetti started the design of the post-WW1 sports purpose RL type cars (Romeo Lungo), with inline six cylinder engines, in 1920. The first prototypes of the road versions were already testing in the second half of the following year in Milan. Alfa built multiple versions of the RL in the mid 1920s, the Super Sport version that became successful in motorsport, and was widely campaigned in Italian race series with works drivers, including renowned names like Enzo Ferrari. Before the SS cars though, Alfa fielded specially-built racing versions of the RL type for the Targa Florio, so-called “RL TFs.” In 1924, they brought four of these to the starting line.
Modifications included seven main crankshaft bearings in place of the standard four, front wheel disc brakes, and smaller V-radiators than those found in the road-going Sports models. As reported by experts Peter Hull and Roy Slater in their “bible,” Alfa Romeo: A History, Giuseppe Campari and Louis Wagner drove three-liter-engined cars, while Alberto Ascari and Giulio Masetti raced 3.6-liter versions with the engines developing 125bhp at 3,800rpm.
The example pictured here, with chassis designation TF 11, is widely believed to be that of Giulio Masetti, and is recognizable as such by the fact that at the time when this car raced, the number of chassis used to be the same as the number of the driver.
The history of this particular car is highly detailed in a vehicle registration document that is “A museum item in and of itself,” the owner enthuses. “Every annual road tax is noted, and every handover between previous owners has been noted in black and white as well.” After the 1924 Targa Florio that this car competed in, Alfa Romeo sold this TF—without the body—to Mr. Frederick W. Stiles, the first Alfa importer in Great Britain, as part of the concessionaire agreement.
While in the Britain, the car raced in different classes, both with the three-liter and 3.6-liter engines, and was road registered with the license plate “XX 5060” in March of 1925, registered in the name of: “Alfa Romeo British Sales Ltd.” The TF would change owners almost every month during the first two years in the UK, each time returning to the dealer in between, suggesting that it was likely rented out to various people for competitions, after which it was always re-registered in the dealer’s name. In other words, it was enjoyed often and by many. Somewhere along the line, its bodywork was set as a two-seater with a pointed tail done by A. E. Leadbetter. A starter motor, headlamps, and a dynamo were also added in its post-Targa life.
In the early 1960s, it was raced in Vintage Sports-Car Club (VSCC) events in the UK until Earl Giovanni Lurani bought the car and brought it back to Italy at the end of the decade. He was a very well known gentleman driver who completely rebuilt the original Targa Florio body of the car, which was then passed down to his daughter Francisca, who owned the RL TF from 1995 until 2014, which is when the sale to the current custodian occurred, more than 40 years after the last handover.
I would have loved to drive it, but being in the seat next to the guy who owns the thing (and thus, can drive it without the timidity of someone who doesn’t!), is not a bad concession. He tells me that the clutch is heavy like a truck’s, but that the steering allows mid-corner corrections to a degree that’s hidden by the skinny tires. “In particular, the left hip struggles, but even if you’re feeling some pain you don’t give up on changing gears, as the adrenaline is inevitably coursing through you. You have to give the car the opportunity to stretch its legs, it wasn’t built to go to the church!” Well said.
The photoshoot was done in the Palladian Villa di Maser (Treviso)