Watching black and white videos of Monza, the Mille Miglia, the Targa Florio, Monaco and the old Nürburgring and imagining what it was like for Borzacchini, Ferrari, Campari and the Figlio del Diavolo, the Devil’s Brother, Tazio Nuvolari behind the steering wheels of these narrow, lightweight and ferociously powerful cars in the early Thirties?
There were, by model expert Simon Moore’s reckoning, about 190 Alfa 8Cs built between 1931 and 1934. They embodied some of the most advanced technology of their time: 2.3 (or 2.5 or 2.6) liter inline eights with dual overhead camshafts, superchargers and a driving position set well back behind the long hood.
Today they are among the most sought of all pre-war cars, commanding prices in the mid- to high-seven figures. The last one sold at auction, 2311218, brought $6,710,000 at Gooding & Company’s 2010 Pebble Beach auction.
At Amelia Island this March I drove one.
But that requires a little explanation, since Dr. Fred Simeone, Roger Willbanks, Keith Duly and others fortunate enough to own 8Cs didn’t let me behind the wheel of one of their irreplaceable 8Cs.
Especially since righthand drive is unfamiliar at best and the classic positioning of the accelerator pedal between the brake and clutch was a novel experience.
What I drove was parked discretely on the Ritz Carlton access road where it attracted frequent but low key attention. Its dull blood red paint was matched by patinated upholstery and a suitably blackened tail beside the exhaust pipe. It looked used, just the way an 8C should.
It was a Pur Sang 8C Monza, a nut-and-bolt reproduction of the original.
How “nut-and-bolt”? Pur Sang sells engine blocks, superchargers and other components to owners of Alfa 8Cs. Matched, drilled and fitted in the artisanal tradition, they are bolt-in replacements.
Pur Sang is the dream of Leonidas Anadón who builds Type 35s, 8Cs and similar cars in the Villa Lola – the former residence of Argentina’s president – in Paraná, Argentina. Pur Sang makes every part, literally every part, in its own workshops following original blueprints and the variations observed on original cars.
It is a consuming labor of love and respect rendered with the skill and individual attention to detail that was last seen in the ateliers of Molsheim and Milan two generations ago.
How does it drive?
Well, I’m a poor observer because I’ve never driven an Alfa 8C.
Thus qualified, it’s ferocious, a cacophony of gears, supercharger, exhaust and wind that could be disorienting but is somehow coherent and logical.
At the same time it’s impressively docile and sensitively responsive. In retrospect it’s possible to see how the aces of the day were able to place their Monzas precisely on the track, coaxing power back to the skinny rear tires in sympathy with grip and angle.
The tires sit out there and it takes only a glance to lean over to the right and see exactly where they’re pointed and tracking.
That is an object example of why European performance cars into the Fifties were righthand drive on Europe’s clockwise circuits, making it possible to clip every righthand apex with absolute precision.
The engine’s inertia and the straight-cut gearbox take some experience, let alone the center accelerator placement. I learned to drive in an XK 120, not known for flawless synchros, and still double clutch downshifts, but the 8C took another level of skill and experience.
I embarrassed myself a few times, but not completely, which speaks volumes for the robustness and simplicity of the 8C.
I got out a little breathless – not quite as breathless as driving few laps in full face helmet in a kart on a 1/4 mile road circuit, but close – and wishing for a hundred miles or so to acclimate to the engine and gearbox’s relationship and the pedal placement.
The 8C would drive easily on the road. It’s not modern – it’s far from modern – but it’s straightforward and mechanically logical. Driven conservatively it pulls from minimal rpm in any gear and would burble through town as easily as a flathead V-8 (but with more power and a great straight-eight sound). The steering is light and stable above parking speed; it goes where it’s pointed. The brakes pull down straight and true if at drum brake deceleration rates. Still, they make the XK 120 look needy in braking.
It has something to do with weight – which also contributes to the 8C’s handling (on those skinny tires), acceleration and braking.
Then there’s the question of replica-ness.
It’s not easy.
The Pur Sang 8C is not an Alfa Romeo. It’s a Pur Sang.
Pur Sang numbers its cars with clearly identifiable replica numbers, a BO prefix for Bugattis and a PS prefix for 8Cs.
But the experience is the pur sang, the real thing rendered in 21st century metal and craftsmanship.
It’s hard to separate the two, but if five (or eight or ten) million dollars isn’t even close to realistic and you want to know what it felt like to be Tim Birkin at Le Mans or Nuvolari at the Nürburgring this is the experience rendered as exactly as possible.
In many ways the Pur Sang 8C is hardly less “real” than many rebodied Alfa 8Cs assembled from an assortment of disparate parts.
In any event the argument is largely academic. The Pur Sang 8C is no more than it claims, a nut-and-bolt re-creation of the Alfa 8C.
It gives the experience of driving a legendary sports car, which is all that its builders claim for it.
And that is something to experience. I know, because I had it.
You can, too. All it takes is a phone call to John Bothwell, Pur Sang’s American and English-speaking Commercial Director at 949 698 6603 or an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pur Sang’s cars have been well known in Europe for decades but the lack of an English-speaking representative has kept them from becoming better known in England and North America. John Bothwell’s addition to the team is intended to remedy that. The initial step was the company’s display of a Type 35 and the 8C at Amelia Island this year – and letting a wanker like me get behind the wheel.