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Retrospective: Automobiles and aeroplanes: Alfa Romeo

By: Farah AlKhalisi

14 Dec 06

Alfa Romeo

Alfa Romeo

Alfa Romeo dates back to 1907, founded to produce French Darracq cars under licence at a factory in Naples. By 1910, it had moved to the former Darracq factory in Portello, Milan, had been named ALFA (Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili) and had produced its first self-designed car, the 24hp. Just a year later, a version of that car's engine, upgraded to 36hp, was fitted to a biplane built by Antonio Santoni and Nino Franchini, and ALFA Aviation was born.

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Neapolitan businessman Nicola Romeo took control of ALFA in 1916, securing a contract to produce engines for fighter planes, munitions and other military hardware for Italy's participation in World War I. At first, its aero engines were six-cylinder Isotta Fraschini units built under licence, but ALFA - known by 1920 as Alfa Romeo - also experimented with a 600bhp V12, and went on to build engines including the nine-cylinder, aircooled Bristol Jupiter, and seven- and nine-cylinder Armstrong-Siddeley Lynx and Mercury, in the 1920s, as well as Daimler-Benz units. A version of its own 6C 1750 car engine was fitted in a Caproni 100 light aircraft, however, and in 1932 Alfa produced its first self-designed, purpose-built aircraft engine: the 240bhp D2. This was fitted to planes including the Caprioni 101 D2, used by Italy's Regia Aeronautica (Aeronautical Regiment) in its invasion of Abyssinia in 1935-36.

Savoia-Marchetti SM75

Savoia-Marchetti SM75

Italy's national civilian airline, Ala Vittoria, opted for Alfa engines in place of the Wright Cyclones it had been using, and the Alfa engines were praised for their light weight - they featured Duralfa aluminium alloy components - and reliability and economy. They were fitted in planes and flying boats which took records for speed, altitude and distance, and were even supplied to the German Luftwaffe: the 18-cylinder 135 unit was fitted in Germany's Condor reconnaissance planes. With aeronautical products accounting for nearly 80% of company turnover, Alfa built a new factory at Pomigliano d'Arco, Naples, and employed 14,000 people, making engines for firms including Ambrosini and Lake Varese-based Aermacchi, which made flying boats, and to Savoia-Marchetti for craft including the 24-seat SM75 Marsupiale (1937), later used as a troop carrier.

Alfa engines were fitted in many of Italy's bomber and torpedo craft in World War II, including the S.81A Pipistrello ('125' nine-cylinder 635bhp unit) and CANT Z.1007 Alcione bombers, as well as the triple-engined Savoia-Marchetti SM79, one of the most successful torpedo bombers of the war and known as the Gobbo Maledito, or 'damned hunchback', for its lump on its upper fuselage to house its machine gun.

Alfa D2 engine

Alfa D2 engine

After World War II, four- and six-cylinder engines (120bhp and 190bhp) were produced for light aircraft; these were bought by companies including Fiat and fellow Italian plane-makers Aerfer and Ambrosini. The 120bhp engine was also fitted in a Girfalco S101 plane which flew for 19 hours from Milan to Buenos Aires in 1949, and did a headline-grabbing flight over the Arctic in 1953. However, many of Alfa's facilities had been bombed or had turned to making much-needed domestic products post-war, and from the 1960s Alfa turned mainly to upgrading, servicing and overhauling Curtiss-Wright, Pratt & Whitney, Rolls-Royce and General Electric engines for the Italian and Norwegian airforces and the Alitalia airline, though it did continue to develop its own engines, including Italy's first turbine unit, the 600bhp engine fitted in the Beechcraft King Air, and it collaborated on the building of the Breguet BR 1150 bombers for NATO forces. Alfa's financial difficulties in the late 1970s and '80s, however, led to the merger with Fiat in 1986; the Alfa Avio division was sold off to Aeritalia in 1988, and was then bought by Fiat Avio (see below) in 1996.

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