Secondhand Champion: This Alfa Romeo Alfasud Went From The Road To The Race Track
Photography by Piers Hulford
October 4th 1981. Silverstone, the final round of the British Saloon Car Championship. Jon Dooley, a privateer racing driver, lines up on the grid in his five-year-old Alfasud. In front of him is two-time BSCC champion Richard Longman in one of three factory-backed Datapost Austin Metros. If Dooley gets past Longman and can stay in front of the other Metros, he will claim the 1300cc Championship.
You’ve probably never heard of Jon Dooley. Beyond the circles of diehard Alfa Romeo fanatics, most people haven’t. Jon Dooley was undoubtedly quick but he was not a professional racing driver. He raced an Alfasud built from a secondhand road car with 90,000 miles on the clock.
During the week, he and his team of part-time mechanics all worked regular jobs. Nevertheless, Dooley and his tight-knit team of enthusiasts were sitting in 3rd overall in the British Saloon Car Championship by the start of the race in Silverstone, competing against tin-top royalty like Win Percy, Gordon Spice, and Andy Rouse. In an era when it was still possible to be one, Jon Dooley was an underdog.
Squadra Alfa was a privateer racing team founded in 1974 by Jon Dooley, Michael Lindsay, and Leo Bertorelli, and early successes gained them the blessing of the Alfa Romeo factory. Henceforth they were known as the Alfa Romeo Dealer Team (ARDT), but the factory only agreed to help with parts, leaving the team to remain fully independent otherwise. With further success came a lucrative sponsorship pairing with the Italian food importer Napolina, the ARDT cars became synonymous with the Napolina colors: black with red and green stripes.
From 1977 Jon Dooley had been racing the Alfa Romeo Alfetta GTV, but switched back to a 1300cc Alfasud for 1979. In the UK they were still running to FIA Group 1 regulations, which meant the Alfasud engine was strangled by its single carburetor and factory exhaust manifold. Despite the handicap, Dooley proved that the Alfasud still had potential against Richard Longman’s Mini Clubman. At Oulton Park, however, Dooley’s exuberance pushed the Alfasud a little too far, and he rolled it… badly. The damaged Alfsud was beyond repair, and Dooley’s ’79 season was effectively cut short.
For 1980, the British Saloon Car Championship made an amendment to the rules which could finally see the Alfasud reach more of its potential. Carburetors and inlet manifolds would be free, provided no more chokes were used than standard. Exhaust manifolds were also free, but since the wreck at Oulton Park, Dooley was without a race car. Not one to be deterred, he had no choice but to donate his daily driver to the task, a 1976 Alfasud 1.3 Ti with no shortage of mileage.
“The 1979 car was scrapped, so I donated my 90,000-mile road car, on the basis it had gotten used to traveling quickly already,” Dooley adds.
Keen to take advantage of the new regulations, preparation for the 1980 season began in earnest. Dooley’s team ditched the single twin-choke carburetor and installed a pair of enormous Weber 48 IDAs, each with one choke blanked off. They also fabricated a bespoke four-into-one tubular exhaust manifold to replace the restrictive stock system.
“The transformation was enormous, another 35 to 40bhp, plus an extension of the rev range way above our normal 7750rpm limit. The car would rev to 9000, which it would pull in fifth gear.”
The new regulations gave the Alfasud an honest shot at winning the 1300cc division of the championship, and by the second half of the 1980 season the team was scoring regular class wins. With further development they hit the ground running in ’81, and with improved speed and reliability came more consistent class wins. By Easter, Dooley was leading the championship overall, but 1981 wasn’t to be the walk in the park they’d hoped for.
By the second half of the season the Alfasud was losing pace, and Dooley was dropping in the points. The team prided themselves on their level of preparation and failed to find anything wrong with the car. Heading into the final round at Silverstone, Dooley was getting desperate. If they couldn’t find the issue, they’d lose the championship. The only recent change they’d made was the fitment of a high capacity electric fuel pump, so amped with a milk bottle and a stop watch, they tested the fuel flow and found it to be far below that of the standard mechanical pump. With the original fuel pump reinstalled, and all fingers crossed, they headed to Silverstone with cautious optimism.
It was a dry weekend. In qualifying, Richard Longman was lapping quickly in his Austin Metro. As the Alfasud’s tires came up to temperature, Dooley increased his pace. Hitting the Hanger Straight, he pressed the throttle pedal to the floor and watched the tachometer needle rotate. The mechanical fuel pump did the trick, and Dooley’s Alfasud was back on song. Lap times were close, but Longman got the better of him by a mere five tenths of a second by the end of qualifying. Dooley would have to get past him in the race, which he did, holding onto the class lead for the remainder. He crossed the line four seconds ahead of Richard Longman with a new lap record of 1:49.7, and the 1300cc Championship crown.
For 1982 the team switched to the Alfa Romeo GTV6 but following reliability issues with that car, Jon jumped back into his trusted Alfasud for the last time. The car was eventually retired, only to have one final foray in 1986 in the support race for the European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch. Fitted with a 1500cc Group A-spec engine, Nick Sismey drove the Alfasud to finish 15th overall. The car remained in Jon Dooley’s possession, but like many retired race cars, it was largely left to deteriorate as the years passed.
By 2012 the British weather had taken its toll on the Italian steel, and though the car was still in one piece, the rust was prolific. Jon listed the car in an auction but it wasn’t well presented and the sale fell through. Then came Chris Whelan, an avid Alfa Romeo enthusiast and an experienced engine developer for the likes of Weslake and Cosworth. Recognizing the car’s historical significance, Chris made an offer and Jon accepted.
The restoration began all but immediately afterwards. Chris purchased a donor vehicle but was determined to retain the original body no matter how much rust it had. Every flake and fleck of rust was removed and each panel carefully repaired, with the donor car providing valuable skin grafts wherever required. Chris rebuilt the original 1300cc race engine, and completed the restoration in 2019. When word of the Alfasud’s rebirth got around, Chris was invited to compete in the Gerry Marshall Trophy race at Goodwood’s 78th Members’ Meeting, which would have been the first time the car had raced since 1986, but due to the virus, the event had to be postponed.
As such, we are here on a country road in Sussex, rather than the pit lane at Goodwood. It’s a brisk morning in late fall, the road is damp, and shadowed by a shedding canopy of copper and gold foliage. The sun does its best to break up the heavy clouds as we listen to the off-beat rhythm of the flat-four motor. The high-revving nature is immediately apparent when it comes “on cam,” the staccato thump becoming smooth and crisp instead. You have to take it above 4500rpm to get the full effect. Generating 140bhp and 9000 RPM redline, along with the exquisite handling, it was enough for Dooley to stay in front of the Metros all those years ago.
Sadly, Jon passed away this year, and had the 78th Members’ Meeting not been postponed, he would have been with us at Goodwood to witness his old Alfasud return to the circuit. Stories like Jon Dooley’s 1981 championship are rare ones, and hardly ever told. The level of passion and commitment from Jon and the Alfa Romeo Dealer Team is truly inspirational. On an October day 39 years ago, Jon Dooley took the checkered flag and a championship title in a second-hand Alfasud. Today, with the very same car, we reflect on the career of a champion, of an underdog, and of a true enthusiast.
We send our condolences to his wife Meg, his brother James, and his family and friends.