Enzo Ferrari’s Auto Avio Costruzioni Tipo 815

The story of the true “first Ferraris”

After Alfa Romeo fired Enzo Ferrari in 1939, he was wealthy but without a mission. He discovered one soon enough by building sports cars for two motorcycle racers to compete in the 1940 Mille Miglia.

Sometimes successful and sometimes turbulent, Enzo Ferrari’s racing relationship with Alfa Romeo began in 1920 and ended on September 6, 1939, when Alfa chief Ugo Gobbato advised Enzo that he was terminating his contract as a senior advisor a year and a half before its official ending. Gobbato effectively liquidated the famous Scuderia Ferrari in order to take all racing in-house. This cost Alfa Romeo quite a lot in view of the contract’s termination conditions.

“While we express our regret that circumstances have prevented us from continuing to require your assistance,” Gobbato wrote, blaming Italy’s expected entry into the war, “we would like you to know that we appreciate the work that you have done for Alfa Romeo in the last twenty years. We are pleased that your liquidation came about in a friendly and fair way and with mutual satisfaction.”

When his portrait was taken, Alberto Ascari’s spanking new Tipo 815 did not yet have the front air inlets flanking its grille. Doors and side vents were elegantly flush with the skin.

“In the end I was sacked,” was Enzo Ferrari’s summary, “which seemed to be the only logical solution to the situation that had developed. In 1939 came my divorce from Alfa Romeo. I sold the racing cars to Gobbato and he fired me. With the settlement after my twenty years and with my savings I transformed the Scuderia into a small car factory.” “Ferrari obtained quite a substantial sum,” said historian Alessandro Silva. “He bought an entire apartment building in down­town Modena with part of his severance payment from Alfa Romeo.”

The public announcement was concise: “Ferrari, after mutual agreement with the management of the make, resumed his freedom with respect to Alfa Corse, and is now setting up, in the premises that were already home to the Scuderia, a workshop for repairing cars. Racing is for the time being set aside.”

That last—so disappointing to Ferrari’s many fans—would turn out to be erroneous, even though a clause in the agreement he had signed with Alfa Romeo prohibited Ferrari for four years from rebuilding his Scuderia and from being involved with the racing world. “I was a leading and possibly a crucial character,” he avowed, “in two sensational clubs—Fiat and Alfa Romeo—by which I mean in the motor-racing sector.” But he found a loophole.

One of the Touring “visualizers” produced this illustration of the “Type Brescia Torpedino Superleggero” for the 815 chassis. Its anodyne front end prompted Ferrari to ask for more distinction.

Enzo Ferrari could not compete, but what if his name were not on the maker or its product? In September 1939 he founded a new company called Auto Avio Costruzioni (AAC). This opened its doors at his existing headquarters, the former Scuderia base at 11 Viale Trento e Trieste in Modena, to provide design and manufacturing services. Its supposed use for “repairing cars” would be entirely secondary.

Joining Ferrari were engineer Alberto Massimino, tester Enrico Nardi and an engineer with workshop experience, Vittorio Bellentani, as well as faithful members of his mechanical crew. Federico Giberti controlled the office while Lorenzo Ross managed finances. Production was overseen by Rolando Paolo Rosso. Equipped to carry out all machining work in-house, the AAC needed only to obtain castings from the Fonderia Calzoni in Bologna.

Almost immediately an opportunity presented itself. An attractive objective was the 1940 Mille Miglia, scheduled for 28 April. Conditions in Italy at the time prevented the usual race down to Rome and back again so the resourceful Brescia auto club organized its first “Gran Premio Brescia della Mille Miglia” on a 103-mile triangular course with apexes at Cremona, Mantua, and Brescia. Nine laps would cover 927 miles, a decent approximation of the original thousand-mile race. Pecuniary rewards were on offer. The prize for victory in each of five classes was 10,000 lire. In addition Fiat posted a prize of 5,000 lire for a class win by a car that was a Fiat or at least Fiat-based.

A high-angle view helps viewers appreciate the flowing shape of the Tipo 815, an elegant design by Carrozzeria Touring to meet the needs of a demanding customer.

Near the end of 1939 Ferrari discussed the idea of a 1.5-liter car for that category with a wealthy Modenese Marquis, his friend Lotario Rangoni Machiavelli. He was an experienced sports-car racer who first competed in the Mille Miglia in 1937 and moved up to Alfa Romeos in 1938. With Ferdinando Righetti he won the 1939 eight-hour Targa Abruzzo on the demanding Pescara circuit, driving an Alfa 6C-2500SS Corsa. The Marquis was friendly with budding auto racer Alberto Ascari, son of Ferrari’s mentor Antonio Ascari at Portello. On behalf of Ascari and himself Rangoni Machiavelli expressed interest in suitable Ferrari-built cars for the Brescia event.

With only four months to go before the race, at a Christmas Eve dinner party, Ferrari agreed to build suitable cars for Machiavelli and Ascari. In charge of the car-design project was the AAC’s Alberto Massimino, a talented and versatile forty-five-year-old engineer who had moved to Modena to work on the Alfa Romeo Tipo 158 and the engine of the Tipo 316 Grand Prix car.

To facilitate fast completion and conform with the terms of the possible Fiat prize, Ferrari had his men use a Fiat 508 C as their starting point. Fiat had made a handful of these mainstream sedans into endurance racers, so Ferrari’s team reinforced the chassis but left untouched the brakes, live rear axle, steering, and Dubonnet independent front suspension. The four-speed transmission received new gears with more suitable ratios.

It was the task of Alberto Massimino to create a competitive 1.5-liter class contender with Fiat components. His engine was based on Fiat’s 508 C model with multiple carburetion.

The power unit needed extensive design and fabrication attention. Massimino created a straight-eight based on the 1.1-liter 508 C Fiat’s four-cylinder engine. By keeping its 68 mm bore and shortening the stroke from 75 to 60 mm he created an oversquare in-line eight with a displacement of 1,496 cc. This required the casting of an aluminum cylinder block by Bologna’s Fonderia Calzoni, Ferrari’s usual supplier, who also cast the new one-piece sump for what was called a “semi-dry-sump” lubrication system. Cylinders with ferrous liners were topped by two suitably ported Fiat 508 C cylinder heads. Cooling enjoyed a larger water pump.

Carried over was the Fiat pushrod and rocker overhead valve gear, underneath a one-piece aluminum rocker cover. The engine needed a new five-bearing crankshaft and matching camshaft, both of which were designed by Massimino and made in the well-equipped former Scuderia workshop. Feeding the siamesed inlet ports was a quartet of downdraft Weber 30 DR 2 carburetors. A single Marelli distributor served all eight cylinders. With a compression ratio of 7.0:1, up a point from the 508 C original, this ingenious engine gave 72 to 75 hp at 5,500 rpm.

The AAC 815’s big tachometer was calibrated to show road speed as well with 5.50 x 15 tires and a 3.91:1 rear-axle ratio. Water-temperature gauge was an add-on.

For the cars’ bodies Ferrari turned to Felice Bianchi Anderloni, the design head of one of Italy’s most forward-thinking coachbuilders, Milan’s Carrozzeria Touring. Felice’s son, Carlo Bianchi Anderloni, then a twenty-three-year-old cadet in the military, well recalled his father speaking of Enzo’s visit to Touring.

“He said Ferrari wanted something that could be recognized as a Ferrari at a glance,” the younger Anderloni remembered. “Ferrari was obviously thinking of some type of production, for he wanted his car to have a touch of luxury.”

Felice Anderloni made some initial sketches, then refined them through use of his “visualizers,” who turned his initial drawings and ideas into detailed renderings. As well as the sports-racer their designs included a more formal cabriolet version. After a false start with a less distinctive front end, both had the same pear-shaped grille, which when combined with the new headlamps created for the latest Opel Kapitän did indeed give distinction to the AAC’s first offering. It was known as the Tipo 815, a cheeky reversal of the Alfa Romeo Tipo 158, another 1.5-liter eight.

A 1:10-scale model of the chosen design was analyzed in a wind tunnel. Based in Milan, young Alberto Ascari was often seen around the workshops as the cars were bodied, taking an interest in every detail. While the marquis’ car was trimmed with some elaboration, the one for Ascari was sparely outfitted in the sports-racing tradition.

Having the 815 survivor at his disposal, this artist was able to show its 508 C Fiat frame and suspension, including its independent Dubonnet system at the front.

Construction was by Touring’s “Superleggera” method of a network of tubes over which the material was closely fitted, an alloy of magnesium with aluminum called Itallumag 35. The body weighed 119 pounds and the car 1,177 dry. Wheelbase was 95.3 inches and track 48.8 inches. Borrani wire wheels with Rudge hubs carried Pirelli Stella Bianca tires in 5.50 x 15 dimensions. Its fuel tank held 23.8 gallons.

The first completed 815 underwent tests on public roads in the hands of Enrico Nardi. Carlo Anderloni said that Touring’s favorite stretches were between Milan and Como and between Milan and Bergamo. “The car was covered in felt ribbons,” he said, “then followed by a second car with a photographer onboard who took pictures. Once the photos were developed, my father looked at the ribbons to analyze the airflow.” The two bodies differed, Rangoni’s having a longer tail. At least one had a tiny prancing horse and the AAC initials above its grille.

The prudent Ferrari entered the cars only provisionally just two weeks before the race. However, both were on hand for the start. After an obligatory haranguing of the crews of the seventy-five starters by a Fascist party official, Ascari’s Tipo 815, serial 021 and race number 66, was flagged away at 6:21 am, a minute after Rangoni’s sister car, serial 020. Alberto, wearing the Nuvolari-like kit of a motorcyclist’s sleeveless waistcoat over his jersey, was accompanied by Nardi. He soon overtook his teammate and easily assumed the class lead. On his second lap one of the Fiat-made rocker arms failed and Ascari was out.

A smoother tail than the Tipo 815’s was not possible, its running lamps being relegated to locations under the bodywork. The registration plate was illuminated.

Driving with his cousin Giovanni Minozzi at his side, Rangoni Machiavelli lasted longer in a car that had enjoyed more pre-race testing. He assumed the class lead, setting a 1.5-liter lap record at 91 mph on its way to tenth place overall. Rangoni’s long-tail 815 led its class by more than half an hour when its transmission failed with two and a half laps to go. “The experiment that started so brilliantly,” said Ferrari, “ended in failure, largely because the car had been built too hastily.” Nor had there been time to test it thoroughly.

It was anything but a total loss for Ascari, however. In February 1943 he sold his 815 for the handsome sum of 42,000 lire. Ferrari’s price to him had been 20,000 lire. The new owner of 021 was Milan’s Enrico Beltracchini, who was moving up from a Fiat 500. In nine entries in 1947 he retired four times and enjoyed one fourth and three fifth places. He entered the 1948 Mille Miglia but didn’t start.

The subsequent history of Rangoni Machiavelli’s car was less happy. After it was damaged in an accident his Tipo 812 was sent to a scrapyard—more for storage than immediate dismantling. While test-flying an airplane in 1942 the marquis crashed fatally. The car went to his brother Rolando, who set about recovering it from the scrapyard in 1958. He located the Tipo 815 and confirmed its identity with Enzo Ferrari. Returning to collect it, he found that his historic long-tailed “First Ferrari” had been scrapped in the meantime.

The short-tailed Ascari 815 passed from Enrico Beltracchini to Emilio Fermi-Storchi, who had a small museum near Modena. Ultimately it was sold to Mario Righini and Domenico Gentili. Settled in Righini’s estate at Anzola dell’Emilia, it received a substantial overhaul. Bodywork was refreshed by Campana di Modena while the engine and drive line were rebuilt by Gianni Torrelli of Campagnolo at Reggio Emilia. Then the two owners enjoyed in it the 1991 Mille Miglia Retrospective.

Thus one of the Tipo 812s is happily intact and among us as evidence of Enzo Ferrari’s determination to be active in the world of motor racing. Though he would build more ambitious cars after the war, they would never be the “first Ferraris.”