Sunday, 17 February 2013


Between 1926 and 1935 Sunbeam, Mercedes-Benz, Maserati, Alfa Romeo and Bugatti built ‘monster-engined’ cars to exploit the fast circuits. Were they successful?

Imagine in 2013 McLaren, Red Bull or Ferrari building special fast-circuit models, powered by two 2.4 litre V8s producing a combined1400 horsepower? In the McLaren laid side-by-side as a W-16-cylinder, in the Red Bull end-to-end to form a V16 and in the Ferrari one in front of the cockpit, the other behind. How fast would they be? Would they perform better than the standard cars at the high-speed venues Silverstone, Monza and Spa?


After the end of the 2.0 litre Grand Prix Formula of 1922-1925 and during the poorly-supported 1.5 litre Formula of 1926-1927, many major grand prix races reverted to Free Formula for the years 1926 to 1933.

Most grand prix cars of the 1926-1933 period had engines of between 2.0 and 3.0 litres. However in those carefree days of the late twenties and early thirties, when grand prix engine formulae capacities were unrestricted, the top manufacturers produced ‘monster-engined’ cars of at least twice the capacity of the ‘standard’ models. These ‘Heavy Metal’ cars’ engines ranged in capacity from 3.5 to 7.1 litres, and all were supercharged.

The motivation for building these ‘brutes’ was to exploit the wide difference in circuit speeds that then existed. Lap speeds at the slowest circuits, the Madonie in Sicily, Monte Carlo, Alessandria and Montenero did not exceed 100 km/h (62 mph). At the fastest road circuits, Tripoli, Tunis, Pescara, Monza, Reims and San Sebastian, the cars averaged over 160 km/h (100 mph). At the banked Avus, Littorio and Miramas tracks up to 260km/h (160mph) was attained.

Taking the slow street circuits at a base speed figure of 100.0%, this variation represents an increase in speed of 60% for the road circuits and up to 160% faster for the banked tracks. By modern comparison in 2012 the lap average speed at the slowest circuit, Monaco, was just over 160 km/h (100mph) while at the fastest, Monza, it was 250 km/h (155 mph). That is a difference of about 56%, much less than the circuit speed differences of the 1926 to 1935 period.

The manufacturers in the late twenties and early thirties wanted to exploit the fast circuits and considered it worthwhile building special, large-engined cars for that purpose. Bizarre as they were, these ‘Heavy Metal’ cars certainly were the fastest of their day as well as technically adventurous and exciting. Some were surprisingly successful.

The races included here are all among the major, classic grand prix events tabled in my 1993 analytical book, ‘Grand Prix: a Century of Racing; 1894-1993’.

1926 SUNBEAM TIGER, 4.0 LITRE, V-12: CAREER 1926-1932

1926 Sunbeam Tiger
The first manufacturer to experiment with a ‘Heavy Metal’ option in grand prix racing was the British Sunbeam. Their ex-Fiat-engineer designed, six-cylinder cars had been England’s first successful grand prix winners in the 2.0-litre Formula years 1923 and 1924. In 1926, Brooklands-influenced and with an eye to further utilising their now-obsolete but outstanding, 2.0-litre, supercharged, six-cylinder engines, Sunbeam built two blocks into a V12 of 4.0-litres. Mounted in a larger car named ‘Tiger’, the supercharged, four overhead-camshaft, V12 engine produced 296 BHP (225 Kw) and set a new world land speed record at 245 km/h (152 mph). This at a time when the fastest grand prix cars managed about 200km/h (124 mph) flat-out.

The first race the Sunbeam Tiger entered was the Spanish GP in July 1926 at the fast, 17 kilometre/10.6 mile Lasarte road circuit at San Sebastian. There was strong opposition from powerful, 2.0 litre Delage V12s and nimble, 2.0-litre Bugatti Type 35s. The Sunbeam Tiger’s experienced and very refined driver Henry Segrave took the lead from the Delages shortly after the start, until a wheel bearing failed after 85 of the 693 kilometres (430 miles). The Sunbeam’s handling was obviously good, for the narrow Lasarte roads consisted of some sinuous parts that suited the lightweight Bugattis.

The big Sunbeam’s next classic grand prix appearance was the 1932 Avus Rennen. This time the driver was the aging Malcolm Campbell, nowhere near Segrave’s class or speed. In addition the circuit was much faster than Lasarte and the opposition included some new Heavy Metal: Maserati’s 16-cylinder, 5-litre V5, Bugatti’s 4.9 litre Type 54 and Mercedes-Benz’s 7.1 litre, aero-bodied model SSKL which won. The eight year old Sunbeam Tiger retired without featuring near the front. It was a good looking car, well-proportioned and but for that wheel bearing failure, would probably have won its debut at San Sebastian.


1929 Mercedes SSK
During the depths of the German depression the two pioneering firms Daimler and Benz combined in 1926 for financial survival. Daimler-Benz continued their long-time racing involvement, but due to financial constraints, could no longer fund special grand prix car manufacturing. They had to make do with modified versions of their big, roadgoing, touring four-seater, the Typ S. The engine was a powerful, supercharged six of 6.8 litres, which partly overcame the racing disadvantages of the large, heavy and unwieldy touring body and chassis. Careful development, initially under Dr Ferdinand Porsche, produced surprisingly successful results for this unpromising behemoth during the six seasons 1927 to 1932.

In assessing the competitiveness of any car one has to take the opposition into account. Mercedes-Benz carefully picked most of their races, understandably, in view of their car’s size and weight. These white cars performed exceptionally well at their ‘home-tracks’ the Nurburgring and the high-speed AVUS, against strong opposition from the lighter, nimbler, ‘normal-sized’ 2.0- to 3.0- litre cars as well as against rival Heavy Metal models. Their prime weapon was their outstanding driver Caracciola, who ranked with Nuvolari, Varzi and Chiron the best of the era. Additionally the company ran such a competent racing department and used the Nurburgring as their own test-track. Mercedes-Benz were meticulously-prepared for these ‘home’ events.

1927 S
The first major race for the big, heavy Typ-S, four-seater was the German Grand Prix of 1927 on the magnificent, new, 22.8 kilometre Nurburgring in the Eifel Mountains. The big, white cars dominated against weak opposition, consisting of several 1.5 litre, privately-owned Bugattis. They scored the first three places and set fastest lap for a hollow victory.

1928 SS
In 1928 the Stuttgart team again entered just one major race, the German GP at the Nurburgring. This was with a lighter, lower, upgraded 7.0 litre version, still four-seated, re-named SS. The Stuttgart team achieved an even better 1, 2, 3, 5 result and fastest lap. This time the big Mercedes-Benz’s surprisingly and soundly beat strong rivals in the form of four official Bugatti team 2.3 litre 35Bs of Conelli and Minoia and the 2.0-litre 35Cs of Chiron and Brilli-Peri, all top-rate drivers. Outclassed, the best Bugattis finished fourth, sixth and seventh. Birkin’s 4.4-litre, ‘Blower’ Bentley finished eighth, 31 minutes down on Caracciola’s winning Mercedes-Benz SS, after nearly five hours, a margin of almost 11%.

1929: SSK
For 1929 the white cars in SSK for ‘kurz’ or shortened-chassis form, were now two-seaters. They competed in the Monaco, Rome, German and Monza grands prix. In Monte Carlo in one of the great drives of all time, Caracciola charged through from second-last on the 16-car grid to the lead! Let down by an uncharacteristically slow refuelling stop, he yet managed a third place finish! This against far nimbler Bugattis which finished 1, 2, 4, 5, 6 and 7.

On Rome’s Trefontana circuit Caflisch and Momberger both retired their SSKs, being completely outclassed by the resuscitated 1925, 2.0-litre, P2 Alfa Romeos.

Back home for the German GP at the Nurburgring, the German cars were at last beaten by the Bugattis, the Chiron and Rothschild 2.0-litre, Type 35s, and only managed third and sixth places. Caracciola led initially, but the big car was too exhausting to drive. The season’s finale at Monza saw the Momberger and Caflisch SSKs unable to cope with the Varzi Alfa Romeo P2 and Nuvolari’s 1.7 litre Talbot-Plate, nor with the 16-cylinder Maserati V4’s speed until it had tyre problems. This despite the German cars’ 7.0, supercharged litres and the circuit consisting only of the high-speed, banked oval. Momberger finished third, Caflisch fifth.

1930 SSKL
Further lightened as the ‘Licht’ in the model name, the SSKL entered only two events with star driver Caracciola , and several other events with private owners. The long, low white car now produced 300 bhp and was capable of 215 kmh/135 mph. But its 1600-odd kilogram startline weight told against it. Completely outclassed at Monza by the 2.0-litre, P2 Alfa Romeos, the 2.5-litre, 8C2500 Maseratis and by the 2.3- and 2.0-litre Bugattis, Caracciola came in seventh. This seemed to indicate the end of the road for the big German car.

1931 SSKL
At Monaco, using his car which had won the Mille Miglia the week before, Caracciola could not match the normal-sized cars, the new 2.3-litre, Type 51 Bugattis and Monza Alfas and the 2.8-litreMaseratis. He retired with clutch trouble without featuring in the top six at all. At the Nurburgring’s Eifelrennen and in the absence of other works teams the Caracciola SSKL managed to win from privateer Von Morgen’s 2.3-litre, 35B Bugatti, with Mercedes-Benz SSKL team-mate Von Brauchitsch third. Caracciola’s big white car was then trounced for speed in the French GP at Montlhéry by the works 2.3-litre Bugattis and 2.8 and 2.5-litre Maseratis, and retired.

In the German GP at the Nurburgring however, Caracciola scored another of his great wins. He beat the three other best drivers of the day in their normal-sized, 2.3-litre cars, the Chiron and Varzi Bugattis Type 51which finished second and third and the Nuvolari Alfa Romeo 8C2300 Monza which was fourth. This was a great race, started in drizzle which increased to a heavy downpour until lap eight of the 22. Unexpectedly, in the rain the SSKL outhandled the smaller cars! Caracciola was famed for his wet-weather ability, but veteran team-mate Merz finishing fifth and Stuck sixth in the other SSKLs underlined that Caracciola’s skill was aided by the SSKL’s marked competitiveness at the Nurburgring. Nuvolari, Chiron and Varzi, like most great drivers, were also renowned for their wet-weather abilities.

Another great Rudi Caracciola win followed at the high speed Avus track outside Berlin. Again it was Rudi’s renowned sensitivity and tyre-saving drive that saw him edge out Von Morgen’s faster, 5-litre, Type 54 Bugatti, with Von Brauchitsch’s SSKL third.

The season- ending Masaryk GP saw Caracciola’s SSKL damaged by the opening lap bridge crash which involved and sidelined the normal-sized grand prix cars of Fagioli/Maserati 8C2500, Nuvolari/Alfa Romeo 8C2300 and Varzi/Bugatti 51. Von Brauchitsch’s SSKL managed a fine second place behind Chiron’s 2.3-litre Bugatti 51.

1932 SSKL
After three wins in 1931 and the appearance for 1932 of the new single-seater, ‘P3’ Alfa Romeo 8C2600B, the big Bugatti T54s and Maserati V5, it seemed that the huge, sports-tourer based Mercedes-Benz’s days were over. In addition Caracciola had left to drive for Alfa Romeo! The Stuttgart engineers had other ideas...

For the 1932 Avus race Daimler-Benz had an aerodynamically-efficient body designed, which added 25 km/h to give the SSKL a top speed of about 240km/h (150 mph). Despite Caracciola’s best efforts in his 2.3 litre Monza Alfa Romeo and early leader Dreyfus’ sixteen-cylinder Maserati V5, Von Brauchitsch drove a canny, tyre-conserving race to win right at the end! The huge Berlin crowd were ecstatic, especially as their man and car had beaten Caracciola’s red Alfa Romeo. Stuck in a standard-bodied SSKL was fourth, behind Stuber’s 2.3 litre Bugatti T51. This fine win was in fact the SSKL’s last.

At the next race on the Nurburgring for the Eifel Trophy, Von Brauchitsch drove the aero-bodied version and Stuck the normal model. Caracciola’s 2.3-litre, Alfa Romeo Monza dominated and Von Brauchitsch could only manage fourth place behind the 2.3 litre Bugattis of Dreyfus and Chiron, with Stuck’s standard-bodied SSKL fifth. The Caracciola/ Alfa Romeo was fortunate that Chiron’s Type 51 Bugatti suffered ignition trouble from the start, for Chiron’s was a far faster package. The last SSK and SSKL appearances were at the 1932 season-ending races at Pescara for the Coppa Acerbo and at Miramas for the Marseilles GP. All the white cars retired, being totally outclassed by the 2.6-litre, 8C2600B Alfa Romeos.

Six wins in six seasons, four seconds and eight thirds from 20 grand prix events was outstanding, especially for a big, tourer-based car. This was a triumph of development over concept! As well as superb driving by Caracciola and Von Brauchitsch.

1929 MASERATI V4, 4.0-LITRE, 16-CYLINDER: CAREER 1929-1934

1929 Maserati V4
The Maserati brothers were perhaps encouraged by the Sunbeam Tiger. They certainly had their eye on the high speeds possible at Tripoli, Monza and Rome’s Littorio banked oval. For 1929 they built their own ‘monster’, by setting two of their 2.0 litre supercharged straight-eights side-by-side, each with its own compressor, to make the 4.0 litre, 16-cylinder, Tipo V4. This referred not to the engine configuration but to the capacity. Power was initially 280 bhp at 5500 rpm, later improved to 305 bhp. This compares with the 155 of the ‘normal’ 2.0-litre, Maserati Tipo 26B grand prix model. The big V4 was well-proportioned and handled well too. It was certainly no monster. Except in terms of being about 300kg/660 lbs heavier than their normal grand prix model. The V4’s maximum speed set a new grand prix top-speed record at 246kmh/152 mph, timed on the road circuit at Cremona.

The aging Alfieri Maserati debuted the powerful, hefty, 16-cylindered, V4 in September 1929 at the First Monza GP. Cruising to finish just a fifth of-a-second behind a 7.1-litre Mercedes-Benz SSK in its heat, Alfieri then displayed the V4’s superior acceleration and top speed in the final by taking the lead from the start. However he soon suffered tyre troubles, the consequent pit stops delaying the heavy car to finish sixth. It did set a new grand prix, lap-speed record at 200 kmh/124 mph. This was against a pair of revamped Alfa Romeo P2s, 2.0 litre Maseratis and 2.0 and 2.3-litre Bugattis and the big, 7.1-litre SSK Mercedes-Benzes.

Early in 1930 second string driver Borzzachini dominated the Tripoli GP in the V4, his closest rival being team-mate Arcangeli in the ‘standard’ 2.0-litre, Tipo 26B which finished second. In the Coppa Acerbo at Pescara Luigi Arcangeli drove the big V4. He revelled in its power and speed on the 10-kilometre-long Adriatic seaside straight, the climb up into the hills and then down the five-kilometre straight back to the seafront. From the start the 16-cylinder V4 led a strong field of team-mates Varzi and Fagioli in the latest Maserati 8C2500 models and Nuvolari in a P2/30 Alfa Romeo. This was until one third distance when Arcangeli spun off and crashed. He had set fastest lap and was timed at 246km/h (152 mph) on the long straight. This grand prix road-race record exactly equalled the Sunbeam Tiger’s speed on the beach at Southport.

In the 1930 season finale at Monza younger brother Ernesto Maserati drove the V4 to win the heat for cars over 3.0-litres. But in the final he could not cope with his top-rated team-mates Arcangeli and Varzi in the 2.5-litre, 8C2500 models who finished first and second. Ernesto’s V4 finished third, but did beat team-mate Fagioli’s 8C2500 and Caracciola’s 7.1-litre, Mercedes-Benz SSKL.

In 1931 at the huge, steeply banked Littorio track outside Rome, Ernesto became the first owner-driver to win a grand prix. This pre-dated Jack Brabham’s 1966 feat by 35 years. Ernesto’s V4 averaged 163 km/h (101 mph) to beat team-mates Fagioli and Dreyfus in 8C2500s and the 2.0-litre Nuvolari and the 2.3-litre Varzi Bugattis. The moderate average speed was due to the tight, hair-pinned section before the pits, which drastically reduced speed from the banked oval. This proved the V4 was no brutish, ill-handling monster; just as the 1926 San Sebastian race showed that the big Sunbeam Tiger was no freak either.

The last major grand prix appearance for the V4 was in the 1934 Tripoli GP. Driven by privateer Gazzabini, the now five year old, 16-cylinder car retired early on.


1931 Alfa Romeo Tipo A
Since 1929 Alfa Romeo had been racing their cars under the management of Enzo Ferrari’s Scuderia Ferrari based in Modena. Inspired by the Maserati V4, engineer Bazzi proposed building a twin-engined Alfa Romeo for the fast circuits. He used two of the Tipo 6C1750 sports car, six-cylinder engines side-by-side, to create the Tipo A, a 3.5-litre twelve. Like the Maserati V4, this car appeared well-proportioned and handled well.

The Tipo A was of course bigger, wider and heavier than the ‘standard’ Alfa Romeo Tipo 8C2300 Monza models. Its startline weight of about 1200 kg/2640 lbs compared with the Bugatti T35’s 975 and the 1020 kg/2244 lbs of the Alfa Romeo P2/29 and Maserati 8C2500. The Tipo A’s power at about 220 bhp was much less than the 300 bhp of the Sunbeam Tiger, the Maserati V4 and the Mercedes-Benz SSKL.

The Alfa Tipo A’s debut was tragic: practising for the Italian GP at Monza in June, Luigi Arcangeli crashed fatally. Nuvolari and Borzzachini shared the remaining Tipo A in the race, but soon withdrew due to high-speed tyre problems. In August Campari drove the Tipo A to win the Coppa Acerbo at Pescara’s fabulous road circuit. Team-mate Nuvolari had set the fastest lap in the other Tipo A, but troubles delayed him to finish third. The field included strong opposition from the ‘normal-sized’ brigade, Fagioli, Dreyfus and Klinger in 8C2800 and 8C2500 Maseratis, Chiron and Varzi in Type 51 Bugattis and the Monza Alfa Romeos of Borzzachini and Severi. This was great win that displayed the all-round capabilities of the Tipo A on fast road circuit.

The third and final appearance for the Tipo A was at the Monza GP. On this event’s slower version of the circuit however, Nuvolari’s Tipo A never led before retiring with piston failure. The Maserati 8C2800s of Fagioli and Dreyfus dominated to finish 1-2, sounding the death knell of Alfa Romeo’s twin-engined Tipo A.

1931 BUGATTI TYPE 54, 4.9 LITRE, 8-CYLINDER: CAREER 1931-1933

1931 Bugatti T54
The next manufacturer to join the Heavy Metal ranks was Bugatti from Molsheim in Alsace, north-eastern France. Ettore Bugatti’s team used their existing big, twin-cam, supercharged, 5.0-litre, straight-eight engine and three-speed gearbox from the Type 50 sports-tourer.
Installed in a new chassis and body, the new model Type 54 looked like scaled-up Type 35 Bugatti. It was good-looking and very fast on the straights, but surprisingly for Molsheim, was deficient in handling and braking. The big engine developed about 300 bhp, enough to reach top speeds of 250-260 km/h (155-160 mph). The startline weight at about 1270 kg/2790 lbs was about 30% more than the normal’, 2.3-litre, Bugatti Type 51’s 970 kg/2134 lbs.

Debuted by Chiron and Varzi in the 1931 Monza GP in September, the big Bugatti beat the Tipo A Alfa Romeos driven by Nuvolari and Campari as well as Ernesto Maserati’s V4 in their heat. However in the final on this slower version of the Monza circuit, Varzi’s Type 54 could only finish third behind two ‘normal-sized’ grand prix cars, Fagioli’s 8C2800 Maserati and Borzzachini’s Alfa Romeo 8C2300 Monza.

For the 1932 season the five Type 54s built appeared in works team and private hands for six events. In the Tunisian GP in April Lehoux’s Type 54 finished second to Chiron’s normal-sized Type 51 Bugatti, with Czaikowski’s Type 54 fourth while the other privateer, Von Morgen’s Type 54 retired. The Type 54’s next appearance was in June on the Avus circuit. This very high-speed track utilised two ten kilometre-long lanes of the new autobahn south-west of Berlin, joined by a steeply-banked curve at one end. Veteran Albert Divo’s Type 54 set the fastest practice lap at a grand prix record 220 kmh/137 mph, as well as the fastest race lap. However that other Heavy Metal car, the Maserati V5 led from the start and Divo’s Type 54 retired early. The race was won by another Heavy Metal machine, the aero-bodied SSKL Mercedes-Benz. The other Type 54 of privateer Prince Lobkowicz crashed fatally in practice.

Two weeks later the Bugatti team entered two Type 54s for Chiron and Varzi in the Italian GP at Monza, run on the combined road and banked, oval-track sections. Each led briefly before being overtaken by Fagioli’s 5.0 litre, 16-cylinder Maserati V5. Both Bugatti’s retired before half-distance.

At the fast Reims road circuit for the French GP a month later, Varzi was joined by Divo, with privateers Lehoux and Howe, all in Type 54s. The big Bugattis were completely outclassed from the start by the 2.6-litre, Alfa Romeo 8C2600Bs. The Type 54s all suffered brake and gearbox problems and none featured high-up in the race.

For the Monza GP in September Chiron and Varzi again drove Type 54s. They could only finish fifth and sixth in the final, being beaten by three Alfa Romeo 8C2600B’s and again by the big V5 Maserati. At the season-finale on the Miramas banked oval, the Chiron and Varzi Type 54s were again outpaced by the 8C2600B Alfa Romeos and the 16-cylinder, V5 Maserati. Both Type 54s retired.

At the 1933 season-opening Tunis GP, despite two straights over three kilometres long, Lehoux’s solitary Type 54 Bugatti did not shine against the normal-sized Alfa Romeos , Maseratis and Bugattis, retiring early on with piston failure.

At the AVUS Rennen in May though, the big Bugatti Type 54s won at last. Varzi, Czaikowski and Williams competed against works 2.6 litre Monza Alfa Romeos and the aero-bodied, 7.1-litre, Mercedes-Benz SSKL. Czaikowski had just completed setting class world records at AVUS in his Type 54. That he knew the car and the circuit were obvious when he led Varzi’s T54 from the start, set fastest lap at 222 kmh/138 mph and averaged over 205 kmh/127 mph for the race. However the crafty Varzi had followed him closely all the way until the last few hundred metres, when he nipped passed to win by three lengths. This one-two was the Type 54s only success.

Czaikowski retired his Type 54 from the next GP, the French at Montlhery. At season’s end on Miramas’s banked oval Dreyfus’s singleton Type 54 did manage to lead one lap in a close struggle with the ‘normal’ 2.6-litre Alfa Romeos and 3.0-litre Maseratis. The Type 54 then shed a wheel and crashed at half-distance. This was the Bugatti Type 54’s last major grand prix appearance. Two weeks later Czaikowski crashed his Type 54 fatally in the Monza GP. This event I have not included in my classic grand prix tables. It had dropped in status, being run in two short heats and a 60 kilometre final, and was held on the same day as the Italian GP.

1932 MASERATI V5, 5.0 LITRE, 16-CYLINDER: CAREER 1932-1934

1932 Maserati V5
For the 1932 season Maserati built an bigger-engined, more powerful car, using two of their 2.5 litre, twin-cam, supercharged straight-eights from the 8C2500 that had dominated the 1930 season. Set alongside each other as in the V4, the resultant 5.0-litre, 16-cylinder model V5 developed 330 to 360 bhp. The V5 weighed about 1290 kg/2840 lbs, about 35% more than the new, single-seater ‘P3’Alfa Romeo 8C2600B.

The V5 scored a debut win on Rome’s banked Littorio track, despite a tight road-type section that drastically reduced average speeds. Fagioli’s V5 easily outpaced the main opposition, team-mate Dreyfus’s 2.8-litre Maserati 8C2800 and Varzi’s 2.3 litre Bugatti Type 51.

The next outing at the AVUS track featured two V5s driven by Ernesto Maserati and René Dreyfus. They faced the old Sunbeam Tiger, two Bugatti Type 54s and the aero-bodied Mercedes-Benz SSKL. Dreyfus proved his V5’s superior power and speed to lead convincingly for one fifth distance, before troubles sidelined both Maseratis. The V5 set fastest lap at 200 kmh/124 mph.

In the next major race, the Italian GP at Monza, Fagioli led the field in his V5 with ease. Until one of his notoriously slow pit stops carelessly delayed the big V5 to finish second behind Nuvolari’s 2.6 litre Alfa Romeo 8C2600B. The V5 again set the fastest lap, at 184 km/h (115 mph). At Pescara the trio of Alfa Romeo Tipo Bs were too competent all-round on this fast but varied road circuit; Fagioli’s V5 could only manage a fifth place finish. Fagioli and the V5 did better at the Monza GP, where he beat the Nuvolari Alfa Romeo 8C2600B in the heat. The exciting final saw Fagioli’s V5 mixing it with the Nuvolari and Caracciola Alfa 8C2600Bs to finish second. At the huge, featureless, shallow-banked Miramas track near Marseilles, Fagioli’s V5 managed to wrest the lead from Nuvolari’s Alfa Romeo 8C2600B for five laps. Then the customary leisurely Fagioli-Maserati pit stop dropped him from contention to finish fifth! Two potential V5 wins squandered.

The last appearance for this big Maserati V5 was at Tripoli in 1934 when Piero Taruffi led the formidable field from the start. Then the brakes started locking, and on lap eight, when travelling at 255 km/h (155 mph) approaching the corner at the end of the straight, the fronts locked solid. As Piero himself described it in that excellent book ‘Il Lotteria Gran Premio di Triploi’: “I can still see the spectacle of my immobile front wheels and the smoke from the tyres as they melted […] it was an appalling situation, the bend was coming nearer […] finally the wheels unlocked, but I dared not touch the brake pedal and I tried rubbing off speed along the sand dunes […] I decided to leave the track forwards to prevent rolling the heavy car. I took off and had the sensation of being one of those flat stones I used to skim across the water of the Adriatic as a boy.” The car bounced three times before plunging into a sandbank; Taruffi was concussed and suffered a broken arm and shattered leg. Fortunately his father was a surgeon and after months of painful treatment he recovered.

The big V5 never raced again.


1935 Alfa Bi-Motore
With the advent of the 750 kilogram Formula in 1934 and the appearance of the technically advanced, larger capacity, 4.4-litre Auto-Union and 3.4-litre Mercedes-Benz cars, it seemed that extreme, monster-car experiments would no longer be viable. By 1935 when the Scuderia Ferrari realised their Alfa Romeo grand prix cars were no longer fast enough, engineer Bazzi reckoned they had little to lose by trying again. He proposed building a new car using two of the current 8-cylinder engines, one in front of the cockpit as per normal, and one behind! The resultant Bi-Motore ended up being big and heavy, but amazingly fast, Nuvolari setting a world road-speed record on the Milan-Como Autostrada at 320 km/h (199 mph).

Two Bi-Motores were built using the current straight-eight engines in 2.9 and 3.2 litre forms, to make 5.8 and 6.4 litre models. Although these two Alfa Romeos were 18% and 30% larger in engine capacity than any of the previous Heavy Metal cars, except for the Mercedes-Benz SS-SSKL range, this was partly negated by the large engines of the latest 1935 German cars with 5.6-litres for the Auto-Union and 4.3 litres for the Mercedes-Benz. Where the Sunbeam Tiger, Maseratis V4 and V5 and the Bugatti Type 54s were about double the capacity of contemporary ‘normal’ grand prix machines, the Alfa Romeo Bi-Motores were not: the 5.8 Bi-Motore was 13.5% up on the Mercedes and just 3.5% up on the Auto Union; the bigger 6.4 litre Bi-Motore was 15% up on the Mercedes-Benz and 11% larger capacity than the Auto-Union. However the Bi-Motores were prodigiously powerful: at 510 and 540 bhp against the 380 and 350 of the Auto-Union and the Mercedes-Benz respectively. It must be pointed out that the Bi-Motore’s exceeded the 750 kilogram Formula weight limit, so Alfa Romeo/Ferrari only entered them in the two, free-formula events at Tripoli and AVUS.

On their Tripoli debut, Nuvolari showed his 6.4 litre, Bi-Motore’s pace by ostentatiously overtaking Fagioli’s Mercedes at full speed in front of the main grandstand. This speed was false though, for Nuvolari had to make the first of his thirteen tyre stops on lap three of the 40! The rubber technology was not up to the weight and speed of the Bi-Motores. Nuvolari’s finished fifth, Chiron’s smaller 5.8-litre version sixth.

Two weeks later at AVUS Nuvolari and Chiron ran again. The German cars had various special ‘tweaks’ for this high-speed venue: faired-in suspensions, behind-wheel fairings, high-sided cockpits, smaller radiator air intakes and one Auto Union even had a fully-closed, clear plastic bubble cockpit cover. To such effect that an Auto-Union and a Mercedes-Benz lapped at an astounding 260 km/h (160 mph) lap average! The Bi-Motores could not do more than a few seconds at 305kmh/190 mph before stripping tyre treads. In his heat Nuvolari had to pit for a tyre change so only finished an unclassified sixth. Chiron drove a canny, tyre-conserving race in his heat, non-stopping to finish fourth and qualify for the final. Using his renowned sensitivity and race-craft, Chiron finished second to Fagioli’s Mercedes-Benz in the final. An outstanding drive from this vastly under-rated driver.

The most audaciously conceived and fastest of the Heavy Metal cars, the Bi-Motores never again raced in a grand prix.


Measuring success in terms of bare win-rates, the best were the Mercedes-Benz S of 1927and the SS of 1928, which each won their single, albeit carefully selected, races for a 100% win-rate. Next was the 1931-1933 SSKL with four wins from 10 races and an impressive win-rate of 40%. Then the 1931 Tipo A Alfa Romeo with one win in three races for a 33% win-rate. The 1929 Maserati V4 won once in six appearances for a 17% win-rate; the V5 Maserati at one win in seven races for 14%; then the Bugatti 54 with one win from 12 races and a rate of 8%. The Sunbeam Tiger and Alfa Romeo Bi-Motore did not score wins.

The total victories for the ten Heavy Metal models from five manufacturers was eleven wins from 52 races for a rate of 21%. This one-in-five win-rate would be very good for any grand prix car over a period of ten seasons. So it can be said that the monster cars were a success. Bear in mind that they only entered a few, selected events in that frenetic period of up to 16 classic, grand prix races per season.

These brutes met each other only occasionally, so I am going to briefly state how they fared:
*1930 Monza GP: the Ernesto Maserati/Maserati V4 beat the Mercedes-Benz SSK, finishing third to the German car’s seventh place.
*1932 AVUS Rennen the aero-bodied Mercedes-Benz SSKL won against the Maserati V5 and the Bugatti T54. Initially the Fagioli and Dreyfus Maserati V5s led, running 1-2 and set fastest lap, until they struck trouble.
*1932 Italian GP at Monza: the Fagioli/Maserati V5 easily beat the Chiron and Varzi Bugatti T54s and lost the lead through a slow pit stop, which dropped the V5 to finish second to Nuvolari’s 2.6 litre Alfa Romeo 8C2600B.
*1932 Marseilles GP at Miramas: the Maserati V5 was again easily faster than the Bugatti T54s, but again lost the lead due to slow pit stops and only finished sixth
*1933 AVUS Rennen: theVarzi and Czaikowski Bugatti T54s dominated from the start and finished 1-2, to beat the aero-bodied 7.1-litre, Mercedes-Benz SSKL.

The big cars did not usually compete on the slower circuits, but they did nevertheless start in many road circuit races. How they fared against their ‘normal-sized’grand prix rivals is stated briefly:
  • 1926 Spanish GP at San Sebastian: this was the first Heavy Metal appearance and clash. The Sunbeam Tiger was leading the 2.0-litre Delages and Bugattis comfortably until a wheel-bearing seized at lap six of 40. The Sunbeam must have had very good handling to lead the Bugattis on this sinuous circuit, where the French cars always performed so well.
  • 1928 German GP at Nurburgring: the first race won by a ‘monster’ car when the huge Mercedes-Benz SS driven by Caracciola and Christian Werner beat the Bugatti team’s four 2.0 and 2.3-litre Type 35B and 35C models.
  • 1929 Monaco GP: Caracciola’s SSK climbed from the back of the grid to lead at half-distance. It should have won but for a slow refuelling stop, which dropped it to a third place finish. Amazingly for this huge, heavy car, at 1680 kg being over 70% heavier than the Type 35 Bugatti’s 970 kg (startline weights), especially on this slow, tight and confined street circuit, it was faster than the 2.0- and 2.3-litre Bugatti 35Bs, 35Cs and a Maserati 26B 2.0 litre.
  • 1929 Monza GP: the V4 Maserati was leading the Alfa Romeo P2, Bugatti 35Bs and 35Cs and a Maserati 26B, until delayed by tyre troubles.
  • 1930 Tripoli GP: the Borzzachini Maserati V4 beat Arcangeli’s 2.0-litre Maserati Tipo 26B, Varzi’s 2.3 litre Bugatti 35B and Biondetti’s 1.7-litre Talbot-Plate.
  • 1930 Coppa Acerbo at Pescara: the Arcangeli Maserati V4 was leading the Nuvolari 2.0-litre Alfa Romeo P2/29 and 2.5-litre Maserati 8C2500s when it spun off at lap four of ten.
  • 1931 Eifel Rennen at the Nurburgring: the Caracciola SSKL beat three private Bugatti T35Bs.
  • 1931 Rome GP at Littorio: Ernesto Maserati’s Maserati V4 beat the 2.5-litre Maserati 8C2500, the 2.0-litre 35C Bugattis and the 1.7-litre 26R Maseratis.
  • 1931 German GP at Nurburgring: the Caracciola Mercedes-Benz SSKL scored a great win in this rainy race, over the Chiron and Varzi and 2.3-litre Bugatti T51s and Nuvolari’s 2.3-litre Alfa Romeo 8C2300 Monza, which finished 2-3-4.
  •  1931 Rome GP at Littorio: the Maserati V4 beat a Maserati 8C2800 and Type 35 B and 35C Bugattis.
  • 1931 Coppa Acerbo at Pescara: the Campari Alfa Romeo Tipo A won against Maserati 8C2800s and 8C2500s, Bugatti T51s and Alfa Romeo 8C2300 Monzas.
  • 1932 Rome GP at Littorio:the Fagioli Maserati V5 won, beating 8C2500 Maseratis and two T51 Bugattis.
  • 1932 AVUS Rennen: the aero-bodied Mercedes-Benz SSKL won, beating an Alfa Romeo 8C2300 Monza, Bugatti T51s and Maseratis 8C2800 and 8C2500.
  • 1932 Italian GP at Monza: the Fagioli Maserati V5 led the Alfa Romeo 8C2600Bs, Maseratis 8C2800 and 8C2500, Type 51 Bugattis and Monza Alfa Romeo 8C2300s. However, surprisingly casual pit stops dropped it to finish second, handing a debut win to Nuvolari’s 2.6-litre Alfa Romeo 8C2600B.
  • 1932 Marseilles GP at Miramas track: Fagioli’s Maserati V5 overtook Nuvolari’s Alfa Romeo 8C2600B to lead until it made another slow pit stop, dropping to finish sixth in this frenetic, high-speed race. The V5 was faster than the smaller-engined Maserati 8C2800 and 8C2500, the Type 51 Bugattis and the Monza Alfa Romeo 8C2300s.
  •  1933 AVUS Rennen: the Bugatti T54s dominated for a 1-2 finish, against Alfa Romeo 8C2600 and 8C2300 Monzas and Bugatti T51s.
  • 1934 Triploi GP: Taruffi/Maserati V5 was led all the works Alfa Romeo 8C2900Bs, the new Maserati 8CM300s and 8C3000, Type 51 Bugattis and private Monza Alfa Romeos from the start. Unfortunately on lap seven of the 40 the big car crashed when the brakes locked on.
The Heavy Metal cars won eleven grand prix races, twice beating rival ‘monsters’ and nine times defeating normal-sized cars in the process. Had it not been for some slow pit stops and tyre troubles, this score could well have been five or six wins more.

The bald statistics however ignore the exciting contribution that these Heavy Metal cars brought to grand prix racing. In the hands of the best drivers of the day- Segrave, Divo, Caracciola, Chiron, Nuvolari, Varzi, Arcangeli, Fagioli and Dreyfus- they set many lap, race and top-speed records and led a great number of laps. The sight and sound of Segrave’s big V12 Sunbeam accelerating on the winding Lasarte roads and echoing through the narrow, village streets; the twin-six Alfa Romeo Tipo A blasting along Pescara’s Adriatic coast road at 225 km/h (140 mph) and passing the ‘standard’ cars with 20 km/h in hand; the heftily powerful, 16-cylinder roar of the Maserati V4 and V5 models, hitting 250 km/h at Tripoli and Littorio; the dominant Bugatti Type 54s finishing an impressive first and second at AVUS outside Berlin in 1933, which sparked Hitler’s propagandist mind; these big, booming Bugattis whooshing past the smaller Alfas and Maseratis on the long straights among Reims’s wheatfields; and Nuvolari’s big, dark red, Alfa Romeo Bi-Motore passing the German cars at 300 km/h (187 mph) in front of Tripoli’s packed, elegant, white-concrete, cantilevered grandstand...

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