How a French bike maker got Alfa started…sort of

The birth of Alfa

In its 110th year, Alfa Romeo has been looking at pivotal moments in its history. We reckon the decision by a French bicycle maker to move his business to Milan in 1906 is where it all began.

Alfa (Romeo) celebrates 110 years this year. Hell of a year for it. The official birthday is 24th June 1910. But, as with all good stories, Alfa’s story began a few years earlier. And its origins were thanks to a Frenchman. What? We’ll get to that. Does anyone know what Alfa stands for? Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili (ALFA). Let’s get into this.

Indeed, the birth of Alfa was down to a bloke called Pierre Alexandre Darracq who used to make bicycles in Bordeaux. But like Mr Toad, Darracq fell in love with fast cars. So much so that he began building the things.

And he got pretty good at it, exporting them to London and Italy. Indeed, in 1906 annoyed with how long it took to get his vehicles, and himself, from France to Italy, Darracq moved his factory to Italy, setting up shop in Milan (Number 95 in the Portello district)  in 1906. But the move to Italy had been a mistake…or so it seemed.

Italians expected more from their cars (more power mainly) and Darracq’s cars were cheap and under-powered. He put his business into liquidation in 1909. What’s this got to do with Alfa? Hang in.

The Frenchman might have called time, but his canny managing director, Cavalier Ugo Stella,  had smelled the air and sensed what needed to be done. He raced around and secured the funding, including a loan from Milan’s Agricultural Bank, re-hired the 200 factory workers who’d been let go by Darracq and took back the old factory and tools.

With a factory and workers and an idea for what Italians wanted from their cars, Stella just had to find someone to design the thing. Enter Giuseppe Merosi.

The quantity surveyor from Piacenza knew how to handle a pencil and loved cars. Stella asked him in 1909 to knock up a design for two new cars with outputs of 12hp and 24hp. These were both more powerful than the Darracq, and power was something the Italians wanted.

Working day and most of the night, Merosi finished his design for the 24hp vehicle and handed it to the Technical Office on 1 January 1909. Oddly and uniquely, a vehicle had been designed before the brand that would build it had been created. It wasn’t until 1910, that ALFA officially became a company (the Romeo part didn’t come along until a long while later).

The 24 HP had a monobloc engine (uncommon at the time), four cylinders, four-litres of displacement and pumping out 42hp, with a single cardan transmission for the rear wheels. It had a sturdy frame with side members and cross pieces in C-pressed sheet metal, enabling the coach builders Castagna, Schieppati, Sala and Bollani to develop torpedo and limousine versions. The 24 HP wasn’t cheap, costing about two years of an employee’s wages.

It also went fast from the start, able to reach 100km/h. But Merosi wanted more and in 1911 he created the 24 HP Corsa which was lighter and more powerful. Knowing that racing would catapult the company forward, ALFA took the 24 HP Corsa to the race track. But it was a hard slog, and the brand’s first victory didn’t arrive until Parma-Poggio di Berceto race in 1913, with driver Nino Franchini coming in second overall and first in his category.

For a fledgling brand, racing was the best way to make its name. Well aware of this, Merosi decided to take the plunge and build a racing car with a new concept engine. By 1913 the 40/60 HP was ready.

Castagna, the coach builder (still working today), had been requested by Count Ricotti (who’d purchased the 40/60 HP chassis from Alfa) to build a blimp-like body for the thing. But it was quick, able to hit 137km/h.

The birth of Alfa

And then World War One broke out and changed everything but that’s a story for another time.

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Isaac Bober has been writing about cars and 4x4s for more than 20 years, has worked on some of the country's biggest motoring magazines (remember what they were?), and launched Practical Motoring. Now he's back, back again... to share dad jokes and much more.