By Peter Darnall
Our thanks to Matteo Rinaldi at the Museo Nuvolari
The AIACR (Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus), which was the governing body controlling Grand Prix racing, issued an innovative ruling which would define racing events beginning with the 1934 season. Known as the 750-kilogram rule, the weight of a race car was limited to 750 kg, less tires, liquids, and driver. Intended to restrict the ever-increasing speed and power of Grand Prix machines, the ruling had quite the opposite effect: German interests, closely followed by Italian efforts produced the fastest and most powerful racing cars the world had ever seen.
The Tipo C Alfa Romeos were the Italian answer to the German Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union race cars. Both Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini took personal interest in automobile racing at the highest levels. Intense national pride, fueled by government propaganda, followed the racing fortunes of both the Alfa Romeos and the Silver Arrows.
These titanic battles for supremacy on the Grand Prix venues took place more than seventy-five years ago. Few living today can recall the spectacle of Grand Prix racing of the mid-thirties and the heroic men who drove those cars—unless they happen to be Italian and had just come face to face with an 8C 35 Alfa Romeo.
Such an impromptu Italian history lesson was delivered to unsuspecting spectators at a recent vintage racing event . . .
Tipo C Alfa Romeo (Frame #8, Engine #50012) was cooling down in the paddock area following a practice session on the track. The Tipo C was absolutely pristine, meticulously original in every detail. In the spartan cockpit, a metal figurine was mounted on the bare metal dashboard next to the instrument cluster. This piece was in the shape of a tortoise, with the monogram “TN” inscribed on the shell. It was small—about the size of a quarter—and lay nearly hidden in the shadow of the large steering wheel.
The Alfa had put on a fine performance on the track and a number of spectators had gathered in the paddock area for a closer look.
“This is the greatest racing car ever built! It’s an Alfa Romeo.” proclaimed a middle-aged man in the group. The way he pronounced “Alfa Romeo” drew attention. Not the flat monotone of American English, but with a dramatic lilting quality; the words seemed to hang in the air. The fellow was Italian, a real paisan from the old country. His descriptions of Italian artisanship and metal working skills, which were delivered in broken English, were emphasized by pointing to features on the Alfa. Then came colorful descriptions of bygone racing days, enhanced by flamboyant arm movements with hands gripping an imaginary steering wheel. His loud voiced imitations of screeching tires and high-revving engines began attracting passersby as curious spectators paused to take in the performance.
When the exuberant Italian’s attention turned to the cockpit of the Alfa, he immediately pointed to the tiny tortoise figure on the dash and shouted “Nuvolari! This is Nuvolari!” Then his demeanor changed and became almost reverential as he explained that Tazio Nuvolari was the “greatest driver of all time” and “(although) he was too young to have watched Nuvolari drive, his grandfather knew the great driver well and was often a guest at his (Nuvolari’s) home.”
The story behind the tortoise figurine was an interesting one: It begins with a truly bizarre character named Gabriele d’Annunzio. D’Annunzio has been described as a writer, poet, journalist, playwright, and soldier. One might add: sadomasochist, drug addict, fearless pilot and politician. D’Annunzio’s exploits and eccentricities were the stuff of legends.
On September 12, 1919, he took over the city of Fiume (now Rijeka, Croatia) and installed his self-proclaimed state, the Regency of Carnaro, awarding himself the title of Duce (Dictator). D’Annunzio’s political actions were closely watched by Benito Mussolini who appropriated d’Annunzio’s concepts to form the basis of Italian Fascism. In the later stage of his life, d’Annunzio lived in a hillside estate overlooking Garda Lake. The premises, named Il Vittorale degli Italiani (Shrine of Italian Victories), is now open to the public and contains a vast collection of books and objects d’art amassed by d’Annunzio during his lifetime. The ornate garden incredibly contains the remains of half a naval battleship, which was a gift from Mussolini.
Among the art treasures is a large bronze bejeweled tortoise shell which sits at the head of a magnificent dining table. According to the story, the original tortoise died (in d’Annunzio’s words) from a “surfeit of tuberoses.” D’Annunzio had the shell bronzed and placed at the table to warn guests of the danger of overindulgence. This tortoise was the inspiration behind d’Annunzio’s tortoise award which he bestowed on those whom he considered worthy.*
A stunt staged in 1931 at Lottario, near Rome, put Tazio Nuvolari in the headlines and captured d’Annunzio’s attention. Nuvolari, driving an 8C 2300 Alfa Romeo was matched against a Caproni Ca.100 aircraft. Although Nuvolari lost by a few yards, d’Annunzio was impressed with his fearless driving and the honor he was bringing to Italy behind the wheel of Alfa Romeos. On April 28, 1932, he summoned Nuvolari to Il Vittorale and presented him with a small golden tortoise which bore the dedication “to the fastest man in the world, the slowest animal.”
Tazio Nuvolari considered turtle figurine to be a good luck charm and adopted it has his personal talisman. He had a turtle likeness embroidered on his yellow racing jerseys, printed on stationery and, later, painted on the side of his personal aircraft. According to automotive journalist, Eoin Young, Nuvolari had once embellished a document with a hand drawn tortoise in place of his (Nuvolari’s) signature, adding considerable value to a collector’s autograph album.
Nuvolari died at his home in Mantua, Italy on August 11, 1953. His driving exploits are the stuff of legend and a museum, Museo Tazio Nuvolari Mantova, was created to immortalize the Italian driver.
The small tortoise figurine on the dash of the Tipo C probably would have gone unnoticed by the spectators, had the enthusiastic Italian not retold the story. When he finished, there was a moment of silence followed by spontaneous applause.
One of the onlookers, referring to the experience, summed it up: “It had to be Italian.”
*“Gabriele d’Annunzio Poet, Seducer, and Preacher of War” by Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Alfred Knopf, 2013 is an interesting if incomplete look at the life of d’Annunzio.