Meet The One-Off, Alfa Romeo Twin-Engine Rally Prototype From The 1970s
Photography by Luca Danilo Orsi
When we talk about Alfa Romeo, we are not only referring to the stereotypical sexiness of the design and past motorsport triumphs, but also to the technical innovations that the Milan-based manufacturer has introduced over the years, from the halos down to the less-exotic mass-produced models. Sometimes, as with this twin-engined one-time economy car, the two sides of that spectrum find a way to meet.
One of the first applications of the double overhead camshaft (DOHC) engine dates back to Alfa’s use of the technology in its 1914 Grand Prix car, and one of the first automotive fuel injection systems was used in the Alfa Romeo 6C that competed at the Mille Miglia in 1940. Later, the Alfa Romeo 1900 became among the very first cars to introduce the monocoque concept to the market, and we can also not forget the brand’s early adoption of the rear transaxle transmission, which was part of the affordable Alfetta’s stronger selling points thanks to the near-perfect weight distribution that was obtained as a result.
But the Alfetta wasn’t the only humble Alfa to be fitted with interesting mechanicals, for in 1974 the world saw the birth of a very unique machine. The twin-engine aspect of this Alfasud was not a brand new idea—in fact Alfa Romeo had begun experimenting with two power plants as early as 1935 on the recommendation of Enzo Ferrari, in the 16C Bimotore racing car—but in terms of its application in a standard road car, it was an impressive leap.
The idea in the Alfasud Ti Bimotore 4×4—the only example of which is pictured here—was to combine the standard front-wheel drive propulsion with an engine in the trunk to send power to the rear axle, effectively created a full-time all-wheel drive vehicle.
The intent was to investigate ways of turning the Alfasud into a competitive force in the world of rallying and racing in general, though clearly the thrust was behind the off-road abilities. The crazy idea found its way to the desk of well-known tuner Gianfranco “Wainer” Mantovani, a consultant for Autodelta, the racing department of Alfa Romeo during the marque’s 1970s efforts.
Wainer’s intuition was remarkably simple on paper but a bit more complex in application: transform a compact front-wheel drive car into an all-wheel drive car. Remember, when this car was completed in 1977, it was still years before Audi would shift the course of rallying technology in the early 1980s with its Quattro system.
As a basis for this early all-wheel drive experiment, the Alfasud Ti 1200 was chosen in the typical rallying tradition of turning economy cars into racing heroes (the Alfasud remains the second best-selling car for the brand). To build the Bimotore, the original rear axle was removed, and the rear seats were eliminated in favor of a second engine compartment, inside of which went the same four-cylinder, 1186cc boxer engine with 79 horsepower that lived at the front of the car. A new fuel tank of approximately 80 liters in capacity was created and fitted in the one-time luggage compartment, a pump was added to operate the clutch of the rear drivetrain such that a single pedal could be used, while the second gearbox was linked to the same gear-lever that controlled the front.
More mechanical doubling ensued with a separate exhaust system fitted for the second engine rather than trying to combine the two mills’, and more instrumentation was added to the dashboard to monitor the two engines separately. To ensure enough cool air got into the rear engine, two sizable slab-like intakes were added behind the doors, housing a pair of radiators with an electric fan.
Wainer’s Alfasud never made it to a rally competition, and over the years it had begun to lose its originality. When it was purchased by the current owners—the car will be up for auction later this month—it was in an aesthetic condition that no longer conformed to the original build: the graphics and stickers were gone, and the bodywork wore three different shades of red.
A careful refurbishment of the bodywork with the reproduction of all the original decal design has brought the car back to its original condition, while the interior remains in a well preserved original state.
The car, clearly a unique piece, was pointed out to me by my friend Stefano, whom I thank greatly for doing so, and he gave me the opportunity to spend a day photographing it in person before it looks for a new home on February 13 in Paris, as a part of RM Sotheby’s auction lots.
Here ends the information dump, the didactic part. It’s an interesting car to read about, a novel piece of history that’s not often talked about, but it’s better in person. Externally, apart from the side air intakes and the symmetrical exhaust, it is an Alfasud like so many others. To the untrained, it would appear as one of the million-plus Alfasud’s sold, albeit with some words written on it.
But peering inside, you would immediately understand that there is something unusual going on. People always love to make comparisons to the Group B years of rallying, but in this instance I think there’s a real case to be made for this car contributing to that period’s rapid technological progress. At the very least, it is clearly an envelope-pusher for its own time.
It would have been wild to see this car competing in desert raids in the late 1970s, but witnessing it in 2021 is still incredibly cool: obviously we weren’t testing it as rigorously as the Autodelta engineers did the first time around, but it’s not every day that you get to see an eight-cylinder car as bizarre as this in action. And of course, it doesn’t sound like any typical eight-cylinder; more like a stereo version of the otherwise mono output of the boxer four. It certainly makes the doppler effect extra wobbly at the point when its passing by with one motor ahead and one behind.
As for its performance credentials? Well, what can I say… the car is a handcrafted prototype dating back to the mid 1970s, whose fine-tuning is very delicate: synchronizing two engines, two gearboxes and two clutches to be controlled by the same command is not an easy task. But the sound of the two boxer engines in tandem is engaging, the engines rev up quickly, and together they push the compact Alfasud with more thrust than I expected. I would think that some precise tuning would be essential to fully enjoy the potential of the Bimotore, but it’s plenty of fun as it is.
This rare unique piece of Alfa Romeo history will be auctioned on February 13th in Paris by RM Sotheby’s, and although many have never heard of this car, it’s not hard to imagine the Alfisti paying close attention, looking to add a truly one-off piece to their collections.