"Storie Alfa Romeo" Episode Three: The 6C 2500 Villa d'Este - a masterpiece of 20th century motorcar art
- Alfa Romeo remained a benchmark during the years before and after the Second World War, while industrialisation began moving the motor car away from the artisan approach towards modern manufacturing
- The 6C Villa d'Este was a trailblazer in terms of elegance, technical novelties, performance and prestige
- Thanks to incomparable sensual styling, the 6C Villa d'Este attracted numerous iconic celebrities of the time, from Tyrone Power to Evita Peron, from Rita Hayworth to Ranieri III of Montecarlo and even a 20-year-old Valentino Mazzola, who - long before he became a footballing legend - worked in the Portello factory in 1939
Symbol of an era
In 1949, the most prestigious motoring award in the world was the Gold Cup at the Concorso Villa d'Este held on the shores of Lake Como in northern Italy. Alfa Romeo brought the 6C 2500 with bodywork by Touring and its sensual, unique lines were so overwhelmingly beautiful that it seemed only natural to honour its accolade by naming the car after the show.
The 6C 2500 Villa d'Este was not only beautiful, however. It embodied the world's emergence from the devasting second world war, merging artisan craftsmanship prevalent before the war with industrialisation learnt during the war and pushing Alfa Romeo towards a more modern manufacturing organisation.
An international engineer from Treviso
But let's go back a decade. When the 6C 2500 was launched in 1939, the Portello factory had already been run for six years by engineer Ugo Gobbato, who brought wide-ranging industrial experience to Alfa Romeo.
Gobbato's background included a Degree in Germany, periods directing the Marelli works and the revolutionary Lingotto factory in Turin, and experience as one of the main creators of the "green fields" project for building the first huge ball-bearing factory in the Soviet Union.
A down-to-earth man who was at home in the workshops, Gobbato often chatted with his teams and always stubbornly tried to understand how to improve efficiency. From his arrival, his first focus was on studying things that were sub-standard: faulty machinery, "a factory lacking harmony" with too much "false movement of materials." Based on this analytic diagnosis, Gobbato launched his cure. He expounded his methods in two manuals published in 1932, with the title "The organisation of production factors". He devoted himself to theorising and implementing a combination of modern manufacturing systems and the tradition of artisan precision that had characterised Alfa Romeo until then.
"Rational production but not mass production" was the aim, mostly achieved through the hiring of a new generation of young engineers. And with them, implementing a series of new rules and modern methods. These included a more clearly established hierarchy, precise responsibilities and proportional salaries.
A promising young talent
Part of the reorganisation of Portello included future-thinking measures of employee engagement, even by today's standards. The Alfa Romeo factory suddenly had a football pitch and an athletics running track along with a small grandstand.
In 1938, the company's football team - named Gruppo Calcio Alfa Romeo - had won the regional championship and been promoted to Division C. As a result, the team engaged a promising young player who was no doubt also attracted by the prospect of a permanent job as a mechanic in Portello. His name was Valentino Mazzola, who later became captain of the national Italian team as well as the legendary "Grande Torino" team.
The football legend could easily have worked on the 6C 2500 when it was launched as he was working in Portello in 1939.
The 6C 2500
Evolved directly from the 6C 2300 and the 2300 B, the 6C 2500 inherited various important technical innovations, like the rear torsion bar suspension with telescopic shock absorbers, and hydraulic brakes instead of mechanical ones.
Performance was improved as was flexibility: power levels shot up to 110 horsepower in the Super Sport, allowing a top speed of 170km/h. It was still an Alfa Romeo, so it naturally went racing, making its debut by winning the 1939 Tobruk-Tripoli race with aerodynamic bodywork.
Once again, the 6C 2500's technical prowess and its sporting successes became the key to attracting an elite clientele. Production began with the five- or seven-seater Turismo versions, Sport and Super Sport and only the short wheelbase models were entrusted to external coachbuilders. Despite the price (ranging from 62 to 96 thousand lire), market reaction was highly positive. It became a great turnover success: the 159 units sold earned as much as 1,200 Fiat 508 Balilla cars.
The return of the 6C
After the Second World War, factories had to be reconverted from war to civilian production. The Portello plant had been severely bombed in 1943 and 1944, and was severely damaged. Resuming production was a complex challenge and, almost inevitably, involved reviving the company's last model, especially since various 6C 2500 mechanical parts had survived.
In 1945 it was only possible to assemble a handful of 6C 2500 Sport models. But Alfa Romeo employees gazed at them as a symbol of hope as the world began its recovery. Outside the Portello factory, Milan and many other Italian cities had been reduced to rubble, and the country's economy likewise: companies had to buy the necessary materials and fuels for their factories directly on the black market.
The 6C 2500 Pinin Farina Special Cabriolet
In 1946 production rose to 146 units, between finished cars and chassis sent to coachbuilders. One of the latter was made into a convertible and transported to the Paris Motor Show. But as a defeated country, Italy was excluded from the event. Undaunted, the enterprising coachbuilder parked his car in front of the entrance to the Gran Palais, and every evening took it to the Place de L'Opéra. It was enough to ensure the success of the car and its creator, Battista "Pinin" Farina.
Also in 1946, the Alfa Romeo-styled Freccia d'Oro was built on a Sport frame in Portello. It featured a short and rounded rear that reflected the latest developments in aerodynamics. Pinin Farina created an elegant coupe with groundbreaking lines, while Achille Castoldi, the powerboat champion, bought a Touring coupe and used the same tactic at the Geneva Motor Show as Farina had done in Paris.
A VIP model
Tyrone Power drove his Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 all over Rome, Juan Peron and his wife Evita wanted one to show off in Milan. It was bought by household names like King Farouk of Egypt and Ranieri III of Montecarlo. On May 27th 1949, when Rita Hayworth arrived to marry Prince Ali Khan at the town hall in Cannes, she was driving a 6C 2500 model she had just received as a wedding present. This particular car was finished in elegant grey paint with a deep blue roof and upholstery perfectly matched to the bride's dress.
Originally, the wedding had been planned for early in May, but it was postponed due to the Superga air tragedy, where the entire "Grande Torino" football team perished. The Prince was a soccer fan from Turin. In a sense it brings the story full circle back to 1939 and the birth of the first 6C 2500 in Portello, where the young unknown Valentino Mazzola was working.
The 6C 2500 SS Coupé Villa d'Este
The Villa d'Este perfectly encapsulated the most beautiful elements of car design. It was one of the last Alfa Romeo models to be built with a chassis separate from the bodywork. Only 36 were made, each of them unique in some measure to reflect their individual owners and the inspiration of its coachbuilders.
Departing from the 6C 2500 SS Coupé, built by his own Touring coachbuilding company, Bianchi Anderloni introduced major changes: the front was redesigned, with the four headlights better integrated with the bodywork, and two superimposed elongated cooling vents added. The fenders were integrated with the side profile, but clearly visible. The windshield was split in two parts and more steeply raked, while the back was very low and pronounced, with two small, elegant round taillights clearly visible.
A masterpiece of twentieth-century motorcar art was born.
In 1949, this car won the public vote to be awarded the Grand Prix at the Concorso Villa d'Este, forever marrying its name with the event that consecrated it.