|the Aerospider pioneered a central driving position...|
The Aerodynamica Spider â€“ colloquially known as the Aerospider â€“ is one of the all-time great â€˜might have beensâ€™. Itâ€™s one of the earliest mid-engined sports racers, and its body was shaped according to the most advanced aerodynamic thinking of the time. It also pioneered a central driving position, 30 years before Ferrariâ€™s 365P â€“ and well over 50 years before the McLaren F1. If fate hadnâ€™t intervened, it would have had Alfa V12 power, too. But fate did intervene, and the Aerospiderâ€™s potential was never realised.
Donâ€™t go thinking this is some unproven concept car, though, which never turned a wheel in anger. It was
certainly driven on the road in the late 1930s and may have been used in a few low-profile racing events before it was hidden away during WW2. But, until very recently, no-one knew exactly why, where or by whom the Aerospider was constructed. Now, thanks to painstaking research carried out by the current owner, a German enthusiast, the truth may finally have been revealed.
There are three key players in the Aerospider story. Four, if you include Mussolini; for it was his domineering presence, so the theory goes, that cast a long shadow over the project and was responsible for it being developed not at Alfa Romeoâ€™s own factory but in the dockyards of a provincial town in what is now Croatia.
The central figure in the story is Alfa Romeoâ€™s chief engineer, Vittorio Jano. In 1934 Alfa Romeo, which had dominated the race tracks of Europe for several years, received a nasty shock when Auto Union unveiled its mid-engined Type A â€˜silver arrowâ€™. Daimler-Benz also brought out the new Mercedes W25 â€“ still front-engined, but powered by a dohc, supercharged straight-eight.
At a stroke, Alfa was put on the back foot and Italyâ€™s national pride was at stake. Jano was under pressure to come up with a response, and quickly.
Time constraints meant that it wasnâ€™t practical to experiment with an all-new chassis layout like the Auto Unionâ€™s. Instead, Jano opted to find more power by developing a V12 for a conventional front-engined single-seater. But he also â€“ and this is where everything gets a bit murky â€“ made a secret deal for a mid-engined Alfa Romeo sports racer to be made, literally, off-shore. And for this he turned to the Jankovits brothers, Gino and Oscar, who were relatively big fish in the small pond that was Fiume, an Italian outpost on the coast of modern Croatia.
Why did Jano take this unusual step? There are several possible reasons. The obvious one is deniability. If everything went pear-shaped, the mid-engined project could be swept under the carpet and no-one would be any the wiser. It would also be conveniently out of the sight-line of rival manufacturers. And, very importantly, Jano had family connections with the Jankovits brothers.
Vittorio Jano is an Italicised version of his original name, Janos Viktor â€“ his parents were Hungarian and were friendly with the Horvath-Jankovits clan, who had a big stake in the car business in Budapest. They also had a toehold in Fiume (now called Rijeka), a remnant of the old Austrian-Hungarian empire that in the 1930s belonged to Italy, where they owned a garage and a wharf.
The set-up was simple. Jano would control the project remotely and supply Gino and Oscar Jankovits with Alfa parts and his own expertise. The car would be built and tested in Fiume. It would initially be powered by a straight-six 6C-2300 engine â€“ but, as is clear from the end result, with room for that promised V12. Now that would be one hell of a sports car.
To get the ball rolling, Jano had a 6C-2300 chassis (no. 700316)
shipped to Fiume in 1934. It had been modified so that it could take an
engine mounted mid-ships â€“ also a 6C-2300 unit, but fitted with triple
Weber 36 D04 carburettors. Jano seems to have been anticipating a
future ban on superchargers in Italian racing, so upgunned the 2300
engine with triple carbs, probably the first 2300 to be so equipped.
Itâ€™s been suggested in the past that the Jankovits brothers were acting independently and simply making a special in their own backyard, but the fact that they were sent such a unique engine would seem to contradict this.
Moreover, one-off parts for the modified chassis appear to have been made at Alfaâ€™s Portello factory and stamped with instructions â€“ montare sinistra (â€˜left-hand mountingâ€™) on a wishbone, for example â€“ before being sent out to Fiume.
Remarkably, a number of drawings and photos from the carâ€™s development stage have survived. It seems that the Jankovits â€“ possibly Gino, who had studied as an architect â€“ made sketches and blueprints based on their discussions with Jano; the first proper general arrangement drawing is dated â€˜Fiume 1935â€™. The relationship seems to have been one of students and teacher, with the Jankovits brothers sending their submissions over for approval by the master, Jano.
The prototype evolved considerably over the next three years. The 1935 drawing shows a transaxle with the gearbox hanging off behind the differential, but this was changed for a more straightforward engine-gearbox-differential layout in the prototype, and the Alfa diff was swapped for a Lancia Lambda unit. A contemporary photograph of the bare chassis proves that a more mundane engine than the 2300 was used for testing, and another picture, reproduced below, shows a very Auto Union-style nosecone fitted.
Prototypes tend to be rough and ready machines, and the Aerospider is no exception. Although major components were made at Alfaâ€™s Portello factory, at Fiume they might be attached with coachbolts of the sort used in the Jankovitsâ€™ shipyard. And, while elegant, the Aerospiderâ€™s coachwork was made not from finely crafted alloy but from sheets of 1.8mm steel, butt-welded together.
Steel may have been chosen to give greater high-speed rigidity, for an alloy body would certainly have been lighter â€“ the finished Aerospider tips the scales at 1150kg, which still compares well with, say, the 1380kg of an alloy-bodied, Mille Miglia-spec 6C-2300 Coupé. The body itself was absolutely unique in its flat-topped â€˜pontonâ€™ styling, for every other streamlined roadster of the time still had vestigial wings, however carefully faired in. The â€˜batcarâ€™ comparison isnâ€™t entirely facile, either, for the Aerospiderâ€™s rear wings are actually slightly concave on their inner faces, prefiguring the much more exaggerated bat-wing styling of the famous 1950s Bertone concept cars.
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