Alfa Romeo AC 2300
Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 5
If you were asked to name a Classic Alfa today, we doubt you would nominate Vittorio Jano's 8C 2300 (or 2·3) Alfa Romeo. But you should - because to many, and that includes the team at Unique Cars and Parts
, it was this car that engendered the sporting soul that would remain in each and every Alfa to this day.
The 8C 2300 fought the Bugattis, Maseratis and Mercedes during the early 1930s, both as a sports and full racing car. It was driven by a galaxy of star drivers of whom few survived, whereas a fair proportion of their machines achieved a sort of mechanical immortality. Names long forgotten perhaps, but automotive historians will be familair with the exploits of drivers such as Nuvolari
, Campari, Borzacchini, Varzi and Trossi from Italy, Birkin and Howe from the UK, Etancelin, Sommer and Wimille from France, Caracciola from Germany, and many more who all had their turn behind the wheel.
Yet although the 2·3s at that time seemed almost ubiquitous, racing all over Europe as well as in Britain and Ireland, the total production of sports cars, including those sold to the public as ordinary road cars, amounted to a mere 188 between the 1st Series of 1931 and the last of the 3rd Series in 1934. Figures quoted in those two monumental works on the make, Peter Hull's Alfa Romeo, a History,
and Luigi Fusi's Le Vetture Alia Romeo dol 1910,
quote 24 of the 1st Series in 1931, 68 of the 2nd in 1932, 89 of the 3rd in 1933 and seven only of the same type in 1934. Of these only nine were long-chassis competition cars that came to be called Le Mans.
The story of the 8C began in 1923, when Enzo Ferrari, then the general factotum of the company's management, persuaded Jano to leave Fiat and put a new Alfa Romeo racing car on the drawing board. This he did with almost unbelievable rapidity, joining Alfa in October 19-23 and having the car ready to race - and win
- by early the following June. It was the immortal P2, a supercharged straight-8 with twin o.h.c., inevitably owing some ancestry to the Fiat 805, for which he had also been largely responsible.
Jano went on to create the little 6-cylinder single and twin o.h,c; 1500s, then the 1750s derived from it and the 8-cylinder 2300s. He remained with the firm through to 1937, then transferred to Lancia
where he stayed until retiring in 1955, his last work for them the 2½ litre V8 Grand Prix
car that was later handed over in toto
to his old friend Ferrari.
First news of the 2·3 was released in April 1931, and two of them ran in the Mille Miglia
that month driven by Nuvolari
and Arcanageli. Nuvolari was leading at Rome, but was progressively defeated by a heartbreaking succession of tyre
failures and finished 9th; Arcangeli, in the lead at Bologna, crashed near Verona, so the type did not enjoy the traditional Alfa victory first time out. But after that event, it was a different story, and the three competition types, the short-wheelbase Mille Miglia, long-wheelbase Le Mans and the full racing Monza achieved tremendous success.
With bore and stroke 65 x 88mm (2,336 c.c.) the straight-8
engine developed 130-135 b.h.p. at 4,900 r.p.m, in its original standard form with 5·7 to 1 compression ratio and the supercharger driven at engine speed, but this progressed to 142 at 5,000. For the competition versions from 155 to 180 b.h.p, was claimed. The crankshaft was made in two halves, bolted togther in the middle, where they also trapped two helical cut spur wheels driving the camshafts and auxiliaries through a train of gears; this centre drive relieving the shaft of considerable torsional stresses. The aluminium crankcase supported the shaft in 10 plain bearings, and the connecting-rods also had plain bearings. Two identical cylinder blocks were likewise united in the middle with space for idler gears to run between them.
The first series engines had cast iron blocks, but subsequently light alloy ones were substituted; in each case dry liners were fitted. Each half of the divided cylinder head
was also identical and therefore interchangeable. The hollow camshafts were made in two pieces bolted up solid with their driving gears, and the cams operated directly on hardened caps screwed to the valve stems. The valves
were inclined at 100 deg. included angle in the hemispherical combustion chambers, sat on phosphor bronze seatings and had triple return springs. An 18mm sparking-plug was contained in a masked pocket between the valves
. Engine lubrication was on the dry sump principle, with a reservoir beneath one or other of the front seats.
The Roots-type blower with two-lobe rotors was made by Alfa Romeo, driven indirectly by one of the crankshaft gears, and fed by a Mernini carburettor. A Bosch coil and distributor provided the sparks and twin Autovacs drew fuel from a 24-gallon tank and deposited it in a 21 gallon reservoir carried on the bulkhead. These were later replaced by an electric pump. A dry, multi-plate clutch transmitted the drive to a conventional 4-speed gearbox with ratios 3·35 (Ist), 1·86 (2nd), 1·29 (3rd), and direct top. The propeller shaft was enclosed in a torque tube, the rear springs being shackled at each end, and alternative final drive
ratios were 4·25 and, 4-5.
At the front, too, the springs were shackled at both ends, the axle being located by long radius arms. With these springs only 22in. long and having just ¾in. full deflection on bumps, we suspect the ride would have been bone-jarring at best. Rod-operated brakes
were employed. Alternative wheelbases were 9ft and 10ft 2in., and the track 4ft 6in. Top speed of the standard 8C 2300 was about 100 m.p.h. for the long chassis, 106 for the short, but the competition versions were much faster.
A True Racing Pedigree
In 1931, the 2·3 really won its spurs in Sicily in May, when Nuvolari
was first home in the Targa Florio
in appalling weather conditions. Nuvolari
also won the Italian Grand Prix
at Monza, partnered by Campari, when the formula stipulated a race of not less than 10 hours for 2-seater cars. Thus the short chassis Monza got its name. It was to be two very famous Englishmen who brought the long chassis car its first victory. Lord Howe bought one and entered it privately for Le Mans with Tim Birkin as co-driver. But before the race started they received factory backing and ran with the official team, and when the two- works cars failed, Howe and Birkin went through to take the prize money, after which that model was known as the Le Mans.
The following year 2·3 Alfas came home 1st and 2nd (Sommer and Chinetti, Cortese and Guidotti) and in 1933 they managed a hat-trick. This time it was Sommer and Nuvolari
, Chinetti and Varent, Lewis and Rose-Richards. In 1934 Chinetti won again, now with Etancelin, and the following year Helde and Stoffel finished second in a similar car. The 8C 2300 would then take the first two places in the Mille Miglia
in 1932, and the first three in each of the following two years.
As you can imagine, speaking to owners, past and present, has proved somewhat of a problem. We can only relay what we have read while researching the car, where observers of the day described the engine as 'snarling with delight its supercharger sang as the revs rose, and it would hit its straps over the hundred. There is something haughty and aristocratic about the low-pitched drone of the self-starter, and the almost even tone that distinguishes eight or more cylinder compressions as distinct from a four. Then the vivid red beast is suddenly sparked into life with that deep-throated Milanese snarl, sheer music in the believer's ear
The Alfa Romeo 2·3 was not a car which could be rushed off as soon as the engine was started. It needed to be idled fast for a few minutes while the oil warmed up, becoming fluid enough to circulate freely from reservoir to oil pump, round the engine and back to base. Otherwise the delivery pump could be starved and cavitate, and the scavenge pump fill the reservoir with froth. Once the oil pressure had steadied on a healthy reading and the temperature gauge
needle was clear of its stop pin, only then could you put the car into gear. Those lucky enough to have driven one noted '...the big surprise in this car
(2·3) is that it is so quiet and docile...' .
Drivers noted the engine was relatively quiet, free from valve-gear taps (which was a common noise on engines from the era) and clatters, and operated without drama.
Like most Alfas, it was silky smooth all the way up to its 4,500 r.p.m. limit, although it should be remembered that supercharged engines from the 1930's were usually smoother than their un-blown counterparts. But some supercharged engines had an irritating time Iag in response to the throttle, but the 8C picked up quickly and cleanly from a gentle idle. The clutch, too, was light to release and engaged sweetly. All the indirect gears whined but the change was straightforward, with dog-clutches between 3rd and top. 1st was very lowly geared, 15·3 to 1 overall with the lower axle ratio - compared to British designers of sports cars at that time that used to leave narrower gaps to bridge between 3rd and top. But probably the Alfa spacings were ideal for the Targa Florio
circuit, and perhaps the Mille Miglia too - we are only guessing.
Alfa Romeos were always renowned for its super-sensitivity and quick reactions at speed, together with a measure of oversteer; perhaps it was this that enabled the old maestro Nuvolari
to adapt himself so readily to the fiendish Auto Union racing cars in the late 1930's, when the team ran dry of local talent. We know we will never be lucky enough to drive one, and would consider ourselves lucky simply to see one in the flesh.