Thursday, 16 February 2012


During the early eighties I had the privilege of visiting Giulio and Irene Ramponi at their Nelspruit home in South Africa, overlooking the Crocodile River Valley and the Kruger National Park. We spent many hours chatting on their shaded verandah. The Ramponi’s were very open and friendly, and answered my reams of questions about grand prix racing and personalities... on condition that “I did not publish any of the stories”, as then 80-year old Giulio warned: “My memory is too good and I know too much about the people involved, many of them very important.” Irene divulged her store of knowledge too, including some ‘colourful’ episodes involving Enzo Ferrari and Tony Vandervell of Vanwall fame. Sadly my last visit was just after Giulio’s passing in 1986 at age 84, to work with Irene on an obituary for South African magazines.

Giulio Ramponi (1902-1986) in 1981 on the verandah of their Nelspruit home. In his Alfa Romeo overalls, taking a tea break while servicing his Alfa Romeo 2000 Berlina. Photo by Rudi de Groot

“Just look at this! Some blasted foreigner won at Brooklands by dirty driving. His small Alfa Romeo car was much slower than our Bentleys, but he sat behind, got towed along in their slipstream and nipped by at the finish! Typical.” Irene did not take much notice of her father’s jingoistic outburst at their north Liverpool home that morning in 1929.

Nearly twenty years later in 1946, while working as a secretary for the Shrewsbury engineering firm of Wales and Edwards, Irene was introduced to ‘the most famous racing mechanic in Europe’, Giulio Ramponi. Italian-born but British resident since the thirties. Within a year Irene and Giulio were married. It had in fact been Ramponi to whom her father had been irately referring in 1928. Driving the lithe, agile Alfa Romeo 6C1500 with shrewd racecraft and efficiency, the ‘blasted foreigner’ had defeated the huge Bentleys to win the 1928 Brooklands Six Hour. As co-driver to Campari he also went on to win the Mille Miglia races that year and the next, as well as the Brooklands Six Hour and Dublin Grand Prix in 1929.

Irene and Giulio Ramponi hilariously told this story on the shady verandah of their home in Nelspruit, near South Africa’s world-renowned Kruger Park. Set on a hilltop covered with sub-tropical creepers and typically African, spreading acacia thorn trees, the house had a breath-taking view over the Crocodile River valley. They had retired here in 1968, in fulfilment of Giulio’s thirty-year-old dream. It was on his first visit in 1934 that he fell in love with the country, its warm climate, wildlife and scenery. Ramponi had come out as team-manager and chief mechanic to Whitney Straight’s team for the First South African Grand Prix at East London.

Listening avidly to Giulio’s reminiscences and anecdotes, with Irene filling in many details, was totally absorbing. In his eighties, his memory was crystal clear, his analytical mind sharp and his enthusiasm still boyish. The sessions were permeated with humorous bickering, for Irene liked teasing Giulio for his seriousness and fastidiousness. Giulio claimed: “My wife is the only one to criticise my driving, which was good enough for Alfa Romeo!” He still drove spiritedly, cutting corners and overtaking smartly and quickly but, Irene admitted, “He drove our 2000 Berlina very safely and always taught me to look far ahead on the road, from his racing experience.”

Born in 1902 in Milan, Ramponi began doing an engineering apprenticeship at age 16. A friend of his stepfather’s, racing driver Giuseppe Campari, driving past on the road, stopped Giulio on his bicycle and said: “Giulietto, I will get you work with Alfa Romeo. Within two days Campari had got me out of my first job, and I began doing motor engineering at Portello in 1918, attending evening draughting classes. Campari then asked me to be his riding mechanic in the 1919 Parma-Berchetto Hillclimb. He was driving a big, pre-war Alfa, but when the bonnet flew off, I had to retrieve it and lie along the cowl holding it down!” Exhausted but ecstatic when they crossed the line, for the burly Campari was not known for his smooth driving style, “I jumped to the ground before the car stopped and fell flat on my face, in front of the crowds!” But the great driver Felice Nazzaro was so good, he helped me up and congratulated me!

1924 Alfa Romeo P2: Giulio Ramponi was involved in this car’s development under designer Vittorio Jano and was also riding mechanic to Antonio Ascari. Ramponi spoke so highly of both men

From this baptism of fire Ramponi’s racing career proceeded in leaps and bounds. His perfectionism, fastidious industriousness and passion for automotive machinery were soon noticed. By 1924 he was personal mechanic to the Alfa Romeo team’s number one driver, Antonio Ascari; in 1925 chief test driver and a works sports car driver by the late-twenties! When I asked about the oft-repeated story of the Alfa Romeo team sitting down to an impromptu meal on the Spa pit apron in 1925, when they were far ahead of the Delage cars, Giulio exploded! “Rubbish, we just slowed our cars a bit; there is not so much time in grand prix racing. Anyway we had too much respect for the Delage people; Jano was too much of a gentleman to do such a thing. It is absolute nonsense.” When asked what actually happened to cause Antonio Ascari’s fatal crash in the 1925 French GP at Monthlery, Ramponi scoffed at the commonly-held reason that it was rain or a wet road. During practice Campari had, most unusually, set a faster time than Ascari. Grid positions being decided by ballot in those days, the team gave their fastest drivers the front positions. This always went to the younger and more talented Ascari, Alfa’s number one. “But one of the directors, Rimini, who normally didn’t attend and knew nothing about racing, insisted that Campari be given the front slot, based on his practice time. Ascari was furious, for there had always been some envy and friction between the two drivers. Antonio had a point to prove and charged ahead from the start, increasing his lead despite my signals to slow down.” He just misjudged that long corner. It was not even raining at the time, and he died in my arms.” The 24-year-old Giulio fainted, and took some time to recover, for he idolised Ascari, telling me “He was the first Nuvolari, very soft on his cars, smooth and so fast.”

More than a mechanic, Giulio became an expert, practical, mechanical development technician, his skills being highly valued by Alfa Romeo’s design engineers and the drivers. Always a very sincere and guileless person, Ramponi unfortunately had a great fall-out with the management at Alfa Romeo in 1929. “Most of the drivers of those days were wealthy, as well as getting starting and prize money, yet the very hard-working mechanics took home so little. I approached management and asked for pay increases and a share in prize money for the mechanics. There was no negotiation. I was told to leave.” Giulio was no politician, and commendably never exploited his outstanding abilities or impressive contacts for personal gain, as he could well have done.

Ramponi had made many friends and his skills were respected among the English racing fraternity after his forays for Alfa Romeo to Brooklands and Ards in the late twenties. Such that Tim Birkin invited him to join the Dorothy Paget Team of 4.5 litre, supercharged Bentleys for the 1930 Le Mans race. Giulio was soon unpopular with the other drivers, for he sided with WO Bentley in stating that “the Bentley engine, particularly with the pistons chosen, was not designed for supercharging. Unless the drivers took things easily, they would not finish.” He was proved right as all the ‘Blower’ cars retired and his charging co-driver Benjafield holed a piston “when we had a good chance of winning.” This was the start of over thirty happy years living and working in England. Giulio’s highly-structured, punctual nature sometimes found the easier-going Italian business approach irksome. Settling in England was easy for him, but this first sojourn did not last long.

1932 Alfa Romeo 8C 2600B: Giulio Ramponi was called back to Alfa Romeo to help with development of this dominant car

Preparing the new Alfa Romeo 8C2600B or ‘P3’ for the 1932 season, Jano and Bazzi recalled Ramponi to the team! They needed his development skills. For the next two years Giulio worked closely at Alfa Romeo with that unique galaxy of star drivers Nuvolari, Caracciola, Varzi, Chiron and Fagioli. He also oversaw the development and conversion of the 2.3 litre Monza model into the enlarged 2.6 litre version for 1933. One of the many stories he related involved the fatal crash of Alfa team driver Borzzachini. On that fateful day at Monza when Campari and Czaikowski also died, Giulio was approached by Borzzachini before the race and asked to remove the front brakes from his Maserati, for lightness. Ramponi refused, but the driver insisted; reluctantly Giulio completed the job, saying, “You should not take such a risk on this high speed track; only Nuvolari, Caracciola or Varzi can get away with it; no-one else.” Giulio reckoned Borzzacchini was a very nice person, but not a talented enough driver.

Whitney Straight then offered Giulio employment as manager, chief mechanic and tester for his newly-formed team in 1934. With brother Michael Straight and Dick Seaman as drivers, they soon built up a reputation for good car preparation and success. When he arrived in East London, South Africa by ship with the three Straight cars for the 1934 Border 100 (later ‘named’ The First South African Grand Prix) Giulio said: “I took the Maserati round for a test lap to check gear ratios. I was impressed by that wonderful road circuit, so fast that I was going to have to fit our highest ratios!” Under Giulio’s tutelage Whitney developed as a driver to such an extent that he was offered test drives by both Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union. However he decided to retire from racing and went into the aviation field.

Ramponi’s was then employed by his other young protege Dick Seaman, who did go on to drive for the Mercedes-Benz grand prix team. What brought this about was perhaps Ramponi’s greatest achievement: modifying the 1927 Delage for Seaman to contest the 1.5 litre Voiturette class championship in 1936. Seaman had asked whether he should buy a Maserati or an ERA; bravely Giulio told him to buy a nine-year-old Delage! Up against the works ERA and Maserati teams, Giulio described how he modified the car: “Before starting I got full cooperation including the original blue-prints and advice from the designer Albert Lory. I have great respect for him as an engineer and a person. I improved the roadholding by mounting the springs on outriggers to lower the centre of gravity, altered roll centres and brakes and worked on the magnificent engine.” The blown, roller-bearinged, double overhead camshaft, 1.5 litre straight eight yielded 170 bhp at over 8000rpm. Seaman won the championship in this remarkable, shiny black Ramponi-Delage. They beat the official Maserati and ERA teams.

Having got to know the Mercedes-Benz team’s engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut when they collaborated with Bosch on racing spark plugs, Ramponi asked him to give Seaman a try-out. Once he was an established Mercedes-Benz driver Dick showed his appreciation by getting Uhlenhaut’s permission for Giulio to drive the W154 grand prix machine in 1938: “It was a fantastic car!” Ramponi then went on to describe the circumstances of Seaman’s fatal crash at Spa in 1939. “Dick begged me to come over during practice and be his private signalman, away from the pits. Such unofficial practice had been employed by Nuvolari and Varzi to circumvent team orders and discipline during races! Dick told me he was faster than his team-mates and intended to win. He had great respect for Caracciola but reckoned he was better than Lang and von Brauchitsch. “I was furious and refused: telling him to obey Neubauer, he knows what he us doing. You are too ambitious and try to go too fast. Get more experience first like Lang did.” It was the last time they spoke, for Seaman crashed in the wet, dying of his burns that night. Ramponi was heartbroken, for Seaman had been like a son to him and he had great hopes for his career. Ramponi spent the last years before the War running the Arbuthnot Racing Stable in London’s Lancaster Mews.

Out of loyalty to Italy, Giulio elected to be interned on the Isle of Mann during the War. This despite the protestations of his many and influential English friends and acquaintances. Those tedious and stressful years from 1941 to 1945 were relieved as Giulio continued with engineering work. He laughingly related how the camp’s gas heater rationing was nullified “by threading and welding a darning needle to form a valve. It was fitted to the system, so that the prisoners had heating 24 hours-a-day while the guards shivered.” An elaborate whisky still was also made using the oddest components to ferment potatoes.

After Italy surrendered and at the request of the British Government, the well-known Ramponi was seconded to the engineering firm of Wales and Edwards in Shrewsbury. He was put in charge of automotive engineering jobs for a large American corporation, to earn much-needed dollars. This was where he met the girl from north Liverpool, Irene. They were married in April 1947.

In 1948 ex-Bentley tool-maker and race engineer Bill Rockell invited Giulio to join him in opening their own garage and Alfa Romeo agency. Located in London’s Lancaster Mews, ‘Ramponi and Rockell’ gained immediate fame amongst the racing fraternity. When the Alfa Romeo team came over for the 1950 British Grand Prix at Silverstone, they used Giulio as their ‘communication centre’. Officially the firm’s secretary, Irene Ramponi was in fact also their PRO. She actually drove down to Dover to meet and guide the Alfa Team vans to Silverstone! Irene also entertained the Italian drivers’ wives in London. Today, sixty years later, the garage continues in business, still an Alfa Romeo agency.

Ramponi’s renown as a development expert with a talent for solving practical engineering problems, led to his being commissioned on a consultancy basis by many firms in the UK and Europe. For the next twenty years he worked in the automotive and aircraft fields with Alfa Romeo, Spica, Girling, Ferodo, Vandervell, Burman Steering, Ricardo, Borg-Warner, Lodge, with whom he developed their very slim, small-diameter spark plug, Hepworth and Grandage, Pressed Steel and Castrol. This last led directly, at Rampoini’s suggestion, to the establishment of Castrol Italiano. While Giulio was away on one of these trips Peter Berthon telephoned Irene to invite Giulio to join BRM as development engineer and tester on the V16 project. Before he returned home however, Raymond Mays called a week later and withdrew the offer, saying they “wanted BRM to be an all-British effort We don’t want people saying that an Italian had to help.” Representing The Motor in 1964, Editor Michael Bowler met Ramponi during a Ferodo test session lunch: “I drove the last 60 miles in a Morris 1100, against the Monte Carlo Rally route, tight bends downhill and twisting bends along the gradual slope to Brive. With the excellent 1100 handling the brakes were used quite hard... on one long, hair-pinned descent we reached 500 deg C, but despite that these pads, which had reached 700 deg C on the Stelvio with Ramponi driving, still gave fade-free service.”

After the Ramponi’s bought their retirement house in Nelspruit in 1968, Giulio enjoyed gardening, tinkering with and servicing his own Alfa Giulia 1600 and later Berlina 2000. He was sometimes bored. Alfa Romeo South Africa consulted him when setting up their new factory at Brits, west of Pretoria. In 1982 and at age 80, Ramponi was flown to Milan to help develop the variable valve timing on the Bosch fuel-injected Alfetta 159i saloon model.

Giulio Ramponi behind the bonnet/hood of Antonio Ascari’s  P2 at the Belgian GP. Pic Alfa Romeo

To counter the impression that Giulio was all-work and seriousness, about which Enzo Ferrari used to tease him, his infectious and boyish enthusiasm was often revealed. When a topic struck a chord, full of vitality, he would sit forward and even stand to enact a particular scene, and really enjoyed a laugh. He got up to show how he and Antonio Ascari “always foxed the Pirelli engineers while racing the P2 Alfas during 1924-25. Pirelli wanted their pressures high to make sure they finished the races; Ascari wanted them soft for more grip, knowing he could preserve them. On the grid, while Antonio chatted to the Pirelli men, I would be on the opposite side of the car, wiping the bodywork with a rag, at the same time leaning down to undo the valve cap and quietly release tyre pressure!” The octoganerian slapped his thigh, laughing.

The Alfa Romeo team behind the P2 at the 1925 Italian GP, wearing the red silk jerseys their wives knitted for the 1924 French GP:  Giulio Ramponi is third from left (in jerseys) and going right are: Campari, Antonio Ascari, mechanic Louis Wagner, two others in suits then Nicola Romeo  wearing a cap. Pic Alfa Romeo.

Giulio avidly watched current Formula One racing on television. When I saw him in early 1982 and asked what he thought of the contentious Villeneuve- Pironi battle at Imola, he was adamant: “I would fire Pironi; he showed no respect. But I blame Ferrari for not setting team orders to prevent this warfare.” A week later Gilles Villeneuve was dead. Ramponi really did react very emotionally when he saw injustice. He told me that “so much nonsense has been written by journalists through the years.” He allowed me to make copious notes but would not let me publish anything: “I know too much and remember accurately what happened between many famous people.” While I was listening to Giulio, his wife Irene chimed in with some startling tales of well-known personalities!

Sadly at 84 years of age, Giulio was diagnosed with cancer. He tried to be active for as long as possible. Irene related how he went downstairs to their Alfa Romeo Berlina 2000 in the garage, on the development of which he had been a consultant. He checked the fuel, oil and water levels, disconnected the battery and removed the sparkplugs with their carefully greased threads...  It was the last job this great man did. A week later on 17 December 1986 he passed away. In the many hours of reminiscing Giulio never gave any impression of his own fame or eminence in the motoring world. Sometimes referred to as ‘Ingegnere’or ‘Cavaliere’, he insisted, “I have no titles, I am just Giulio Ramponi”.

© Patrick O’Brien. Nothing from this page can be used without the permission of Patrick E. O’Brien.