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Tazio Nuvolari was the first superstar of the racing circuit – on cars and bikes

Posted in Cars, Engineering, Historical articles, History, Sport, Sporting Heroes on Friday, 27 September 2013

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This edited article about motor racing originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 412 published on 6 December 1969.

Tazio Nuvolari, picture, image, illustration

Tazio Nuvolari driving his Alfa Romeo by Graham Coton

During the 1920s, private cars had been pouring on to the highways of the world in ever increasing numbers. By the 1930s, this powerful trickle threatened to become a flood. This was a time, also, when motoring sports flourished as never before. One of the sad things of this period was the loss of the Bentley as a great sporting car.

Bentleys had upheld the reputation of British engineering on the Continent ever since Sunbeam had dropped out in 1924. In addition to their massive successes at le Mans, where they defeated all comers for years, they won the T.T. in Ireland and the Double Twelve at Brooklands. Eventually, they succumbed to lack of finance and were taken over by Rolls-Royce and turned into unimaginative and dreary saloons – a sad end to a great sporting car.

On the Continent during this period, two young women were giving the crack Grand Prix drivers of the world a very worrying time. In the Targa Florio, a classic race held annually in the blazing heat of the mountains of Sicily, Madame Elizabeth Junek and the Countess Einsiedel, both driving Bugattis, were up with the leaders most of the way. Indeed, only yards separated Madame Junek from the eventual winner, Divo, for the whole 335 miles. She finished fifth and the countess eleventh – a wonderful performance, for the Sicilian circuit had often defeated the toughest men.

Alfa Romeo were beginning to come back into sports car events. Ivanowski won both races comprising the Irish Grand Prix and Robert Benoist won the Belgian Grand Prix, at this time a sports car race.

This beginning developed into the most astounding series of Grand Prix and sports car victories ever recorded for, between 1931 and 1933 alone, Alfa Romeo gained 60 victories. In 40 of these they took second place and in 20 they were first, second and third. In two instances, they occupied the first five places. Alfa Romeo also dominated the great Italian event, the Mille Miglia, up to the Second World War.

In 1932, Alfa Romeo introduced the first successful single-seater Grand Prix car. Although the riding mechanic had been dropped years before, the cars had always had two-seater bodies. The P3 (as it was known in this country) Alfa Romeo was, with Bugatti, probably the greatest racing car ever made. It had a maximum speed of 150 mph and its 1932 form was never defeated.

The driver always so closely associated with it was the legendary Italian, Tazio Nuvolari, who won almost as many Grand Prix events as Fangio and Jim Clark put together, and many more than that if major sports car events were to be included. He had many victories in, among others, le Mans, the T.T. and the Mille Miglia. He was, in fact, the motor cycle champion at the same time as he was racing motor cars, a veritable wizard on wheels.

During 1932, women once again did battle with the men and, this time, defeated them, for Mrs. Elsie Wisdom and Miss Joan Richmond won the J.C.C. Thousand Mile Race at Brooklands on a Riley, averaging 84.4 mph – a famous victory.

Revolutionary activities were going on behind locked doors in Germany. Mercedes Benz were returning to Grand Prix racing – and not only Mercedes Benz – for another German car, the Auto Union, was wheeled out and seen to have its engine at the rear. And so it came about that in 1934, the new designs from Germany met the old but classic designs of Italy and France in a mighty conflict.

This French Grand Prix was an incredible race, for the invincible Alfa Romeos utterly destroyed the winning chances of the German cars. Not one finished and the Italians occupied the first three places.

The tremendous significance of the event, however, can be more fully appreciated when we realise it was not the victory that was the chief significance.

The Alfa Romeos were pitching and snaking, their drivers bouncing waist high in their cockpits, their arms working frantically to hold their cars on a safe course, while the Auto Unions and the Mercedes took these bumpy, twisting sections with their wheels juddering furiously but their bodywork smoothly progressing like arrows and their drivers hardly moving in the cockpit.

Independent suspension on all four wheels had arrived and was destined to influence the shape and design of motor cars from that time forward.

Almost at the same moment, Citroen introduced front wheel drive for their 1935 model, the first time that transmission of this kind had been possible in full production form.

Although during the 1930s there were many great German victories at staggering speeds, on looking back for a moment an astonishing coincidence is apparent, for in the very beginning it was a combination of Daimler of Germany and Panhard of France which pointed the way to the future of motoring; and in 1934 it was again Daimler of Germany, now Daimler Benz, and Citroen of France which, today, incorporates Panhard, who pointed the way yet again into the future.

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