Alfa Romeo 1900 C52 Disco Volante
a fianchi stretti:
The Complete Story
By the late Renan Uflacker, in 2010
On a recent trip to Mulhouse, in the Alsace region of France, I had the opportunity to visit the Musée National de l’Automobile, home of the famous “Schlumpf Collection.” The building, constructed in 1880 to be a textile mill, was used by Fritz Schlumpf to store and show his automobile collection. The entrance of the museum is impressive (the museum was restored in 2006). There is an access ramp which leads to the main entrance and sided by an artistic, contemporary sculpture with sports car reproductions racing through the glass wall of the entrance lobby in a quite-realistic, ethereal race. The effect is unforgettable and the sense of anticipation is unavoidable.
I planned the stop in Mulhouse to see the unique Alfa Romeo 1900 C52 Disco Volante a fianchi stretti, or “Flying Saucer with narrow sides”, which is a one-off racing machine but part of the remarkable Disco Volante series of five cars. The Alfa Romeo was the target of my interest, but I found it almost anonymously mixed in with more than 100 Bugattis (I counted 92 on exhibit at the time, including two Royales) and 300 other exquisite cars, ranging from the years 1892 to 1971.
Several weeks in advance I had requested permission to have access to the Alfa Romeo for
Upon entering the main exhibition hall, the first impression is one of amazement, as it seems
massive and spectacular with 900 cast-iron lampposts lining the hallways. Even if you have seen
pictures of the museum, which are available on the web, you will certainly be surprised by the
Eric, very professional and to the point, took me directly to the Disco Volante and we started the one-hour appointment, allowing me time to get inside the car, under the car, look at every space and discover the secrets of this jewel while making notes and taking photographs. The Alfa Romeo Disco Volante, like most other cars in the exhibit, is displayed within borders of gravel approximately 35 meters in length by five meters wide, separated by six meter-wide passageways in a geometric fashion, illuminated by the custom-made iron lampposts. The presence of the gravel on the floor produces a significant amount of dust in the exhibit hall, and most cars, including the Disco Volante, have residues of the gray dust on the chassis and suspension.
The wall behind the row of cars is lined with a monumental mirror that covers its entirety, in such a way that you can see the backs of the cars with extraordinary depth. Despite the anonymity of the Alfa Romeo 1900 C52, it is in very good company, between a Mercedes Bens 300SL on the left (the personal transportation of Mr. Schlumpf) and, on the right, a Ferrari Biplace Sport 250MM, 1952, with a Scaglietti body, originally exhibited at the Paris Motor Show in 1952 and first owned by the film director, Roberto Rosselini.
Before we go any further, it is worthwhile to recount some of the convoluted history and events leading to the creation of the museum, an event known today as the “The Schlumpf Affair”. Hans and Fritz Schlumpf became very wealthy, having started their own textile company in 1935 and building an industrial empire upon it. The resulting affluence allowed Fritz to start a fabulous car collection and, around 1964, Hans and Fritz bought the H.K.C. Mulhouse textile mill building to house the cars. Fritz’s passion for the finest cars drove him to purchase the most desirable cars in the world, ending up with a collection of over 400 cars, including more than120 Bugattis.
All of the cars were secretly stored and restored at the old H.K.C. Mulhouse mill building. Part of the old mill was sumptuously rebuilt with offices, a large workshop, a large display area with more than 20,000 m2 (~200,000 square feet), with custom-made lampposts, restaurants, Wallace fountains, organ music and velvet everywhere.
In 1976, everything was ready to welcome guests for a majestic inauguration. But at the same time, however, the economy of the textile industry spiraled down and the crisis abruptly reached the companies of the Schlumpf brothers. Bankruptcy followed, with cessation of production and more than 2000 workers laid off. In 1977, the workers broke into the building and discovered the car collection. Subsequently, the building was occupied for two years and the collection was displayed to the public, with the revenues reverting to the unemployed workers. Some uncertainty followed and some cars were sold in the black market. Under life-threatening conditions, the Schlumpf brothers escaped to Switzerland and took residence in Basel, just 30 kilometers (18 miles) from Mulhouse. The brothers were deprived of all their possessions in France and, in 1978, the car collection was placed in the national historic register, and the assets were passed to the state and classified as a French historic monument.
In 1982 a museum, organized under the management of a conglomerate association, related to the state, private investors, and the city of Mulhouse, opened its doors officially under the management of the National Automobile Museum Association, but the collection entered in decline thereafter. A tremendous legal battle followed the seizing of the assets and, in 1999, a French court ruled that the Schlumpf family should be financially compensated with a total of more than 60 million French Francs (about 16 million Euros today) and the return to the family of 62 cars from the “Malmerspach collection”, including 17 Bugattis. Fritz Schlumpf died in 1992 before the case was settled. The Court of Appeals in Paris also ruled that the Museum organization is obliged to add “Collection Schlumpf” to the museum name and in all the documents referring to any part of the collection. The museum was restored and modernized in 2006, preserving the main hall, where most of the cars are exposed, with reproductions of Paris’ Pont Alexander II’s lampposts. In addition to the 400 cars in the exhibition, there are about 200 cars in storage or awaiting restoration.
Now, back to the Alfa Romeo Disco Volante story.
In 1951, at the end of the racing season, Alfa Romeo retired from racing after winning the Formula
1 world championship. Money was short, and the development of the 1900 Berlina project was the
priority, to improve the financial situation of the company. However, the competition department
did not shut down completely and continued to develop a car for potential participation in the
1952 races of Le Mans and Mille Miglia, with the hopes of selling racing cars to amateur sports
cars drivers and racers, and to produce good publicity for the company. In the meantime, Giuseppe
Busso continued to develop the 6C3000 engine originally designed for a larger Berlina car, which
was later used as a modified 3500cc version, in the 6C3000CM cars, improperly named Disco Volante.
In 1951-1952, with the collaboration of the designer/engineer Gioachino Colombo (at the time with
Alfa Romeo since January 1951) and Carrozzeria Touring, the Alfa Romeo Disco Volante concept
turned into reality and became an immediate publicity tool for Alfa Romeo.
The Touring-bodied Disco Volantes were introduced to the press and to the public with great
fanfare, and the design of the Disco Volante became an icon recognized around the world, creating
an aerodynamic concept unique for the time. The official name of the car was Alfa Romeo 1900 C52
but due to the popularity of the flying saucer sightings in the 1950s, the curiosity about space
exploration, and the strange and innovative design with the ogival cross-section body, the car was
informally called “Disco Volante” within Carrozzeria Touring, and the name stuck. Due to Alfa
Romeo budgetary restrictions, the 1900 mechanicals were used and a number of parts would come from
the 1900 Berlinas and Coupes, cars already in design and/or production. The engineers of the
racing department used an aluminum rather than cast-iron engine block and press-fitted 2000cc
wet-cylinder liners to boost the 1900’s engine power to 158bhp. The body design provided
extraordinary aerodynamic features, allowing the lowest drag at the time (Cd of 0.25).
The Touring-bodied Disco Volantes were introduced to the press and to the public with great fanfare, and the design of the Disco Volante became an icon recognized around the world, creating an aerodynamic concept unique for the time. The official name of the car was Alfa Romeo 1900 C52 but due to the popularity of the flying saucer sightings in the 1950s, the curiosity about space exploration, and the strange and innovative design with the ogival cross-section body, the car was informally called “Disco Volante” within Carrozzeria Touring, and the name stuck. Due to Alfa Romeo budgetary restrictions, the 1900 mechanicals were used and a number of parts would come from the 1900 Berlinas and Coupes, cars already in design and/or production. The engineers of the racing department used an aluminum rather than cast-iron engine block and press-fitted 2000cc wet-cylinder liners to boost the 1900’s engine power to 158bhp. The body design provided extraordinary aerodynamic features, allowing the lowest drag at the time (Cd of 0.25).
According to C.F. Bianchi Anderloni, three Disco Volante spiders with a light-alloy block 2000cc engine were built. One additional car was fitted with a cast iron block 3000cc engine, the original Busso’s engine, requiring a modification in the chassis with a slightly longer wheelbase and slight bodywork modifications. A second 3000cc spider car was possibly built but there is no information available on it and, according to Anderloni’s recollection, Alfa Romeo dismantled that car. To save money and time, of the three original 2000cc spider cars, one was developed as a closed version (coupe) and the other as a narrow sided spider (a fianchi stretti) so, as a result, Alfa Romeo had three different versions of the same car for testing.
One DV Spider 2000cc and one DV Coupe 2000cc are housed at the Museo Historico Alfa Romeo, in Arese. One DV Spider 3000cc car is in the Museo dell’Automobile Carlo Biscaretti in Torino. The modified DV a fianchi stretti, with the 2000cc light alloy engine—the focus of our research—is now part of the Schlumpf collection. Despite all the promotion and publicity achieved by the concept car, the wind tunnel-tested Disco Volante, a revolutionary design with a belly pan and great aerodynamic penetration, was not as successful as the designers expected. The cars proved to be unstable at higher speeds with lift at both ends. The existing C52 Disco Volante a fianchi stretti is possibly the last of the four cars originally called Disco Volante (despite the chassis number AR 1359*00002 which suggests that it was the second chassis in the series), most likely a recycled chassis from one of the first three true Disco Volantes, as suggested by Carlo Felice Anderloni in his book Alfa Romeo Disco Volante (1993). However, nobody really knows in what order the cars were assembled.
The Disco Volante a fianchi stretti was built by Carrozzeria Touring using the company’s trademark Superleggera construction technology. The coachbuilder preserved the tubular space frame chassis, mechanical and power train characteristics of the original DV car. The body redesign was significantly simplified with removal of the bulges of the original car body to improve stability at higher speeds, without the interference of Gioachino Colombo, who by that time had left Alfa Romeo for Ferrari in 1953.
There are rumors that the “fianchi stretti” was actually made by Carrozzeria Colli. However, according to Anderloni, in his DV book (1993), Carrozzeria Touring built the 3 spider Disco Volantes. One remained spider, one was rebodied into a coupe and the other was refurbished as "fianchi stretti". I guess that settles the issue that the “fianchi stretti” was originally made by Touring.
However, it is possible that the refurbishing could have been made by Colli, but Anderloni did not elaborate mentioning only that the modifications were ease to make. In 1952 Touring was at that same time doing the new body for the 1900 C52 DV coupe, which was much more involved, at the same time was working on the other DV spider 3000 (two were made, accordingly to Anderloni’s recollection in his DV book from 1993) and was also working on the new 1900 sprint coupe, which was a much more important project and the focus for survival of the company, now entering a period of "mass production".
The following is Anderloni’s quote about the Disco Volante a fianchi stretti: “It was simpler to build and did not require any special aerodynamic research, and actually all that was necessary for building that car was to take something away from the original.” It is, therefore, conceivable that Carrozzeria Colli had been commissioned to refurbish the body of the DV car with chassis AR1359*00002 because it was simple to do and Touring was busy with other more important projects.
It is all conjecture, but it explains some of the rumors about the existence of a mysterious Colli
Disco Volante car, which is not the Rezzaghi car “Alfa Romeo 1900 Spider Colli Tubolare Gilco”,
independently built by Colli and led by Fusi, in 1953, for a Mr. Benvenuti from Napoli with a
Gilco chassis #0029853 (probably the date the car was finished) after building the 6C3000CM cars
for Alfa Romeo.
However, despite the
modifications, several DV design characteristics were maintained, such as
the original aerodynamic frontal profile, giving the car a low drag
coefficient, which was once more recycled in the later Alfa Romeo Colli
6C3000CM series and subsequently imposed by Alfa Romeo on many other 1900
cars developed by independent coachbuuilders,
The Alfa Romeo C52 Disco Volante a fianchi stretti was, apparently, a last-minute solution in an attempt to overcome the aerodynamic handicaps of the ogival body of the original Disco Volantes and was the only one that was ever raced in Italy, France and Switzerland, while the other original Discos were never raced, except for appearances in the modern Mille Miglia driven by Phil Hill (at least twice) and the Targa Florio Classics 2001, driven by Nino Vaccarella.
The “fianchi stretti” was raced in Italy by several pilots, particularly in the south of Italy and in Sicily events, always as private entries on loan from Alfa Romeo, and never by Alfa Romeo itself, which at that time was racing the 6C3000CM cars.
The “fianchi stretti” was eventually sold by Alfa Romeo to the Swiss racing driver Jean (Willy) Ducrey, who participated in several races in the 1954-1955 season, including the hill climb Cote de Planfoy (France) (3rd), Bremgarten Circuit (Switzerland) (did not finish) and the Gran Prix d’Orleans (France) (2nd) in June 5th, 1955. He also participated in the hill climb at Kandersteg in 1959 (#123).
In April 1963, Fritz Schlumpf bought, through an Alfa Romeo representative, Mr. Jean Studer, the unique Alfa Romeo 1900 C52 Disco Volante a fianchi stretti, owned at the time by the Italian racer Luigi Bellucci, from Naples.
The Chassis: The chassis number is AR1359*0002*. Evidence of the tubular space frame chassis is visible everywhere inside the car, in the cockpit, in the engine bay, underneath, and in the rear part of the car within the spare tire compartment. The structure of the car body is typically Touring and was based on a space frame comprising tubes of differing sections and thickness which, when welded together, helped create a monolithic structure of considerable strength. Alfa Romeo and Touring worked together very closely on the structures of both the chassis and the body attachment structure, reducing repetition and excess weight. The chassis is comprised of two almost-independent structures, the inner a thicker and stronger tubular basic chassis structure and the superficial, thinner tubular body structure where the aluminum skin was applied in almost perfect symbiosis with the chassis structure, making it difficult to perceive where one finishes and the other starts. The suspension is attached to the space frame, as are the engine and transmission.
On the left there is the usual set of gauges for water and oil temperature, with oil and fuel pressure on the right. The dash, in aluminum, is not as the original and has been extended all the way to the left, and the temperature gauges have been repositioned, side-to-side, instead of on top of each other as seen in the original pictures of the car. The steering wheel is “Nardi looking” aluminum and wood, but does not have an inscription, or maker identification, while the plastic horn button is faded and the Alfa Romeo emblem in the center almost disappeared. The windshield is clear plastic fixed to the body by a polished aluminum trim from which emerges the windshield wiper. The windshield shape is different from the original, identified in photos from the time of the car presentation to the press and is unknown why or when it was changed.
The room for the driver and passenger feet is very small, and the foot pedals are cramped within a
tunnel advancing through the firewall. The gas pedal is bent medially due to the space
restriction, getting very close to the brake pedal, which may facilitate the heeling of the gas
pedal (“punta e taco” in Italian). The steering wheel is on the right, typical for the racing cars
of the time, with the gear shifting done with the left hand. The tubular chassis is visible
Engine and transmission: The engine number is AR1309*00302* and it is a DOHC, four cylinders in-line, light-alloy block with removable cast iron cylinders wet liners, with 1,997.4cc
The radiator is low, and placed way up front in the engine bay, and painted in satin black. The tank on top of the radiator is relatively small and the coolant filler is remotely located on a smaller secondary tank placed in the center of the firewall. There is a long metal pipe connecting the radiator tank with the secondary tank, running parallel to the main pipe connecting the radiator to the cylinder head. The water temperature sensor is attached to a “Y” connection to the main pipe and connected directly to the dashboard gauge through the firewall. The water pump is different from the regular 1900 engine and is not turned by an external belt. The oil filter is not immediately visible under the set of carburetors and is not visible from underneath the car without placing the car in a lift, which we did not have the opportunity to do. The oil temperature sensor is attached to the oil filter bracket and is connected to the fire wall and gauge in the dash. The oil pressure system is attached to the right side of the block as the regular 1900 engines and connected directly to the gauge in the dashboard by a small hose.
The four-speed gearbox is all synchromesh, manual, located under the tunnel within the cockpit. The gear ratios are for racing: 1st–1:2.80, 2nd–1:1.845, 3rd–1:1.235, 4th–1:1, and Rev–1:3.09. Due to the structure of the car underneath, it is difficult to visualize the gearbox from below without having the car on a lift. But the bottom of the gearbox is made in aluminum with fins, and seems to be square in format, similar to the regular 1900 gearbox but all made in aluminum. The oil pan is made in alloy with fins and has a draining port in the back, similar to the early 1900 Series cars.
Undercarriage: The Disco Volante cars were probably the first cars to have an underbelly pan, to reduce drag related to the several irregular protuberances and contours of the mechanical hardware underneath the car. The aluminum structure of the body at the front end of the car advances all the way to the front edge of the oil pan and the oil pan is flush with the body skin, which also covers the radiator underneath. The bottom end of the gearbox is also flush with the bottom of the car’s floor. Behind the gear box there is an aluminum plate covering the bottom of the car all the way to the differential, hiding the propeller shaft, which is quite short. The central bulge of the differential aluminum housing is partially hidden by the aluminum plate on the anterior aspect and by the gas tank cover bolted to the bottom of the car in continuation to the body structure on the back. The aluminum underbelly pan in this car was partially loose at the time of inspection, and probably had been removed before to take away the battery from the compartment behind the driver’s seat. The undercarriage is stained by oil leaks, which is not a rare finding in Alfa Romeos of that era.
The suspension is very similar to the 1900 road-going cars. The front suspension is independent by transverse links of unequal length (A-arms or wishbones), coil springs and tubular shock absorbers (both shorter than in the road-going 1900), limited by an anti-roll bar at the top. The rear suspension is a live axle, with aluminum casing of the differential, spring coils and tubular shocks all linked to the underbody by longitudinal thrust arms covered underneath by the aluminum sheet in the underbelly and limited by worn rebound straps in both sides. The braking system is unassisted hydraulic, drums all around with fins, and cooling scoops in the front brakes.
Visiting the Schlumpf collection was an unforgettable experience, as it is one of the most
In fact, the “fianchi stretti” was the aerodynamic solution that Carrozzeria Touring and Alfa Romeo found to overcome the design flaws of the Disco Volante concept, a solution which, however, actually resulted in a more conventional body design. It carried on the space frame chassis and the Superleggera technology to the post war modern car racing arena with reasonable success and later adopted almost universally by multiple racing teams of the 1950s and 1960s.
There is very little information published about the Disco Volante a fianchi stretti, the reason why we decided to visit with this car and find out “in loco” what are the car’s current features. It was interesting to document that the car had minor but significant changes since its inception, probably made while in the hands of the two previous owners. Extensive racing probably didn’t help to preserve the delicate aluminum skin of the car associated with natural aging. However, the car is superbly crafted at the best Touring style, and the design is timeless even in 2010.
We hope this report contributes to the knowledge of the Alfa Romeo 1900 C52 Disco Volante a fianchi stretti and brings to light again this important piece of automotive history.
Dimensional Drawings of the Alfa Romeo 1900 C52
Alfa Romeo 1900 C52 Disco Volante a fianchi stretti
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