Shortly after the introduction of the totally new Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint in 1954, Alfa decided to have a go at creating a racer for the road.
In Part I , Nicholas Lancaster describes the development, and in Part II, he
looks at the SV's success on the track.
The Sprint Veloce’s first appearance in competition was comparatively low key—a Sprint Veloce driven by Ignazio Scaletta appeared at the Coppa della Consuma hill climb on 25 April 1956. Scaletta finished in second place in the 1300 GT class, following home Odoardo Govoni in a modified Sprint ‘Normale’. Govoni was an accomplished hill climb competitor who later won rounds of the European Hillclimb Championship, so this was no disgrace, but a few days later there would be a different tale to tell. It was time for the 23rd running of the Mille Miglia.
Always difficult and often very dangerous, the Mille Miglia was the shop window for every Italian motor manufacturer; a unique event where pure amateurs could compete against the top professionals. In some years the entry list had breached the 500 mark and included everything from Isetta ‘bubble-cars’ (!) to the latest sports prototypes from Ferrari and Maserati.
Alfa Romeo always took this incredible race very seriously indeed. Journalist Henry Manney competed in the 1957 event at the wheel of his own Sprint Veloce, and later related his adventures in “Road & Track” magazine. As an example of the Alfa Romeo attention to detail, Manney recalled that as he approached the famous starting ramp in Brescia shortly before his start time, a team of Alfa Romeo works mechanics suddenly descended on his car. Tires were inspected, the bonnet opened and various leads and fluid levels checked, before the bonnet was slammed shut and he was urged on his way, the mechanics then waiting impatiently for the next Alfa Romeo in line. They were kept busy, because in both 1956 and in the following year, the entry list contained a healthy proportion of 1900s and Giuliettas. Amongst the 1956 entry, six of the Giuliettas were specially prepared by the works—Alfa Romeo might no longer be involved in front-line racing but they were certainly very serious about giving the Sprint Veloce a successful debut.
Making their mark
The race was won overall by Castellotti’s Ferrari in dreadful conditions that left many entrants stranded at the roadside with extensively damaged vehicles. Through the carnage came the Sprint Veloce of Sgorbati and Zanelli to take eleventh place overall and first in class, ahead of much more powerful opposition. Indeed, the top ten contained five Ferraris, four Mercedes 300 SLs and a lone 1500 cc Osca in ninth. The best Porsche 356 came in almost half an hour after Sgorbati, and it was a 1600 cc version at that! The Sprint Veloce had made it’s mark.
During the rest of the year, Sprint Veloces stormed to class victories in such diverse events as the Tour of Sicily and the 1000 Kilometres of the Nurburgring, where Jo Bonnier and Herbert MacKay-Fraser led home an Alfa Romeo parade with Sprint Veloces filling the first six places in the 1300 GT class. In a strong field, Bonnier and MacKay-Fraser didn’t just trounce the 1300 class Porsches, they also lead home the 1600 cc examples as well!
To ensure this level of success, Alfa Romeo did more than just build the cars and offer special preparation for selected clients. To get the best out of the equipment there was help on hand from chief test driver Consalvo Sanesi. Sprint Veloce driver, Egidio Gorza, lapped Monza with Sanesi at his side. The veteran test driver was keen to point out that the Sprint Veloce was capable of taking the daunting ‘Curva Grande’ flat out in fourth gear. Gorza was not convinced, but he managed to persuade himself to give it a go. To his relief he found that Sanesi was right and that the car stayed glued to the track. It was a lesson well learnt as Gorza went on to win both the Italian 1300 GT Championship and the Italian 1300 Mountain Trophy that year.
Along the way, he put in another typical giant-killing performance with his Sprint Veloce in the Coppa delle Dolomiti. This was a unique event notable for a 300 kilometre course that ran up, down and around the wonderful scenery of the Dolomites near the famous village of Cortina d’Ampezzo. The race was particularly difficult with steep climbs and dauntingly fast downhill bends. The road conditions were poor and dust was usually a problem. The weather was often an added difficulty with poor visibility and even snow falling on occasion. This was unusual terrain for a motor race and meant that victory didn’t always go to the fastest, most powerful machinery. In 1956 the overall winner was Giulio Cabianca in an Osca Mt 4 1500, averaging just over 62 mph. He came in ahead of Olivier Gendebien in a 3490 cc Ferrari 290MM. The first GT car home was a Ferrari 250 GT ahead of Gorza’s Sprint Veloce, the little Alfa snapping at the powerful Ferrari’s heels. At least two Mercedes 300 SLs followed Gorza home. Yet again, the nimble handing of the Sprint Veloce had proved ideal for the event, boding well for high placings over similar mountainous terrain in events such as the Alpine Rally. Sure enough, in 1957 a Sprint Veloce triumphed in the Austrian Alpine Rally with Bauer and Zannini coming in first overall, while on the Tour de Corse, around the twists and turns of the Island of Corsica, Nicol and de Lageneste claimed another first place outright.
Overall 1957 proved to be another excellent year for the Sprint Veloce. Once again there was a class victory on the Mille Miglia. This time the French team of Martin and Convert lead home the Giulietta charge in 20th place overall after the previous year’s winner, Sgorbatti, had gone off the road just when he looked to be heading for a repeat of the previous year’s victory. At the Nurburgring, Mahle and Graf lead home another train of Giuliettas whilst up-and-coming Swedish star, Jo Bonnier, took class wins in several events and Gorza and Morolli took a class win in the Rheims 12 Hours. However, at International level the writing was already on the wall.
As early as September 1956, the Sprint Veloce drivers competing in the Coppa Intereuropa at Monza had been given a glimpse of the future, courtesy of Massimo Leto Di Priolo. Driving a Zagato bodied Sprint Veloce, Leto di Priolo won the class, comfortably beating Bonnier and Gorza. From that moment on, the Zagato SV became the car to beat.
Still, the Sprint Veloce success story wasn’t quite over yet. In the United States, Van Beuren and Velasquez won the 1300 GT class in the 12 Hours of Sebring in early 1958, whilst on home territory Sprint Veloces scored fine class wins in the Giro di Sicilia and the Targa Florio, but generally, the lightweight Zagato bodied coupes were taking over at the top of the class.
While all this was going on, Alfa Romeo had been developing their own follow-up to the Sprint Veloce. The curvaceous Bertone styled Giulietta SS was originally intended to take up the baton as the company's top line competition model, until the Zagato coupes appeared and spoilt the plan. The Giulietta SS would go into production, but as an addition to the road car range, not as a competition car. Meanwhile Alfa Romeo continued to sell the Sprint Veloce in ‘confortevole’ form, complete with steel panels and glass for the windows rather than perspex. While the original ‘lightweight’ cars continued to perform well in the years ahead for countless club drivers, the car’s front-line competition career was over.
The story behind the Giulietta Sprint Zagato involved an extraordinary twist of fate – the Sprint Veloce’s top line competition career effectively came to an end due to an accident during the same 1956 Mille Miglia that had established the car’s giant-killing reputation.
Two members of the enthusiastic Leto di Priolo family had entered a Sprint Veloce in that year’s race, following successful attempts on the Mille Miglia in previous years, latterly in a potent Zagato bodied Fiat 8V in which they had won the 2000 cc GT class in 1955. The brothers took delivery of their new Giulietta only two days before the race, so perhaps their unfamiliarity with the car, combined with the wet conditions that year, lead to disaster.
At around three-quarters distance the brothers slid off the road then down an unguarded railway embankment. Thankfully nobody was injured seriously but the new Sprint Veloce was badly damaged. The wreckage was returned to the Leto di Priolo’s garage where the mangled remains were unloaded next to the Fiat 8V that had served them so well in previous years. As they surveyed the wreckage, wondering what to do with the mechanical remains, their eyes must have shifted to the Zagato bodied Fiat, and the answer to their dilemma became obvious. The Giulietta Sprint Zagato was born.
This article originally appeared in UK Alfa Romeo Owners Club Magazine. Our thanks to the club, owner Paul Gregory and especially Nicholas Lancaster.