A company that grew with two owners who never met each other.
One was an ambitious Frenchman eager to capitalize on a burgeoning industry. The other was a skilful Italian engineer who wasn’t even sure he wanted to be in the business of making cars. And they didn’t even know each other. But together, Alexandre Darracq and Nicola Romeo can thank each other for Alfa Romeo’s existence. Not that they ever met. To know Alfa’s story, you have to begin in France. Alfa Romeo might be Italian, but it can thank the French for its beginnings. Born in Bordeaux in 1855, Darracq was an innovator. Educated as a draftsman, he was at the forefront of automotive inventions, producing steel chassis, suspension parts and inventive engine bits. He was also one of the first to plan mass production of motor vehicles.
After flirting with electric vehicles and motorized bicycles, Darracq finally settled on building a motor car with a 12-horsepower, two-cylinder engine.
Built in his French shop in 1906, it would be the first Alfa Romeo. But Alfa wasn’t even Alfa yet, it was just a subsidiary of Darracq automobiles until he moved the operation to Italy.
Darracq considered the Italian car industry to be more progressive so, in 1907, he transferred operations to Portello, a suburb near Milan. In a modern factory on a large lot, Darracq produced one- and two-cylinder engines built from parts he imported from Paris. But the project floundered, awash in red ink. The French vehicles were fragile, lacked power and had no customers.
Auto enthusiasts from around Portello stepped in to buy the factory from Darracq and the Societa Anonima Lombrada Fabrica Automobili (ALFA) was founded. In 1910, the first vehicle with an Alfa name rolled out. Called the 24HP, it left the factory with a top speed of more than 60 mph.
But there were problems. During the purchase of the factory, Alfa mistakenly did not buy all of Darracq’s shares. What was left was bought by Banca Italiana di Sconto, a financial institution, which acquired a majority shareholder stake. By 1915, it filed for bankruptcy with the board of directors powerless. Fortunately, the Institute for the Financing and Development of the Italian War Industry stepped in to save the company and delegated responsibility to the employees.
The first general manger was the second-half of the Alfa puzzle: Nicola Romeo.
Born near Naples in 1876, Romeo graduated with a degree in engineering in 1900 before traveling outside Italy to gain work experience. Upon his return in 1911, he founded his own company to produce mining machinery. His purchase of the ailing Alfa company was not initially motivated by a desire to build cars. Romeo bought the company to gain control of the Portello factory and used it to manufacture hardware to support Italy’s involvement in the First World War.
When the war ended in 1918, Romeo changed the name of the company to Alfa Romeo.
In his first prospectus, published Feb. 3, 1918, Romeo announced the purpose of the new company: the construction and management of engineering; steel; agricultural; mining; chemicals; and internal combustion engines for all possible applications in airplanes and automobiles.
Of course, the latter would be what Alfa Romeo would be most known for.
Romeo surrounded himself with some of the finest engineers in Italy from a wide range of disciplines.
With the assistance of government subsidies, Romeo turned away from aeronautical production to specialize in cars. A brand was born.
After the war, Romeo helped feed the company back to life. Keen on racing, he developed six- and eight-cylinder engines and engines with doubleoverhead camshafts and compressors, high-end equipment for that time. With large, robust and powerful cars that were better suited to the Italian roads, the consumer versions also did well.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Romeo was determined to make Darracq’s little company work and he poured enormous amounts of money into racing and engine development; two elements that set the path for Alfa for years to come. Alfa’s cars had the newest technology and the company produced everything from tractors, to trucks, buses and locomotives as well as engines for ships and airplanes with production facilities in three cities, including Rome. His goal was simple: Romeo wanted to turn
Alfa, already one of Italy’s leading car manufacturers, into the world’s best car manufacturer. It didn’t happen, at least not under his watch. Although Alfa’s race cars found success in 1929 at the Mille Miglia race, Belgium Grand Prix and other endurance races, the depression tore Alfa apart.
During the crisis of 1929, Romeo’s industrial empire was in trouble and suffered serious damage. He was subsequently removed as director. Alfa rolled on, but never again with the direct hand of a private owner. The Italian government stepped in to save the company from bankruptcy and Alfa effectively became a nationalized industry. Owned by the Italian government it became famous for its models specifically designed for Italian police. At the end of the 1970s, a general economical crisis forced the government to sell Alfa Romeo to Fiat, which still owns it. Darracq and Romeo would be long forgotten in the automotive history, mere blips on the landscape.
Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. You can drop him a note on the Web at www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html. Wheelbase Communications supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.