815, a war machine

  • 15 February 2021
  • 6 min read
  • 9 images
815, a war machine image

The divorce between Ferrari and Alfa Romeo, although initially appearing like a defeat for Enzo, was in fact a fundamental and extremely fortuitous moment for his future career as a manufacturer. 1938 had been a disastrous year for Alfa Romeo in racing and the engineer Gobbato, General Manager of the Company which, let’s not forget, was owned by the Italian State, was not convinced by the organization that Ferrari had brought with him from Modena to Milan, using the same approach as he had always done with the Scuderia.

1-4A car with no name: compelled by the clauses of his termination letter from Alfa Romeo, Enzo could not call his first car a Ferrari. It was referred to simply as 815 for its 8 cylinders and 1500cc displacement. Note that if you reorder them, the numbers are the same as those used for the Alfetta 158.

For Ferrari, the organization had to be agile and quick to make decisions. For Gobbato, a pragmatic engineer, everything needed to be calculated and planned. Another element that contributed towards making this situation even more tense was a man Enzo despised, a Spanish engineer called Wifredo Ricart who supported Gobbato’s thesis by underlining the fact that Ferrari was neither an engineer nor a technician.

2-4Derived from the mechanics of a production-line Fiat, the 508 Balilla, the car had a reinforced steel tube-frame chassis. The 8-cylinder in-line engine’s driveshaft and crank mechanism were paired to two Fiat 4-cylinder monoblock engines joined together and fed by 4 carburettors.

Instead of trying to calm everyone down and fuelled by his anger over Ricart’s assertion that the 158 was destined for the scrap heap or for museums, Ferrari forced Gobbato to anticipate the termination of his contract. This was done with a written communication sent to Enzo on 6th September 1939, almost a year and a half before its natural expiry. We may wonder why this “dismissal” was important to Ferrari. There are two reasons for this: it freed him from a situation in which he was effectively powerless, paving the way for him to become a manufacturer in his own right and, just as significantly, brought Enzo a large sum of money to start his new business with.

3-3For racing and for the road: Ferrari planned to produce 10 examples of the 815 and the simple dashboard responds well to this need.

There was a clause in the termination letter that could have hindered Ferrari’s projects: the promise to renounce all competitive technical activities for four years. In other words, Alfa Romeo didn’t want any competition. Since Germany had invaded Poland and the War was becoming a reality, Ferrari accepted but, as the facts clearly demonstrate, he had a plan. He immediately created a company that did not bear his name, Auto Avio Costruzioni, and in Modena, at the headquarters of the Scuderia, with the support of the engineer Massimino, he created the 815 with the objective of producing around ten to sell.

4-4Alberto Ascari, flanked by Giovanni Minozzi, at the start of the 1940 Mille Miglia. He started out strongly, against the recommendations of Ferrari, and pushed so hard he quickly broke down and had to retire with valve problems.

He began by building two for for two very different drivers: the noble gentleman racer from Modena, Lotario Rangoni Machiavelli, and Alberto Ascari, the son of Antonio who had been his true friend at the beginning of his career, despite being hindered by his widowed mother who attempted to stop her son from racing after he began with motorcycles. But fate brought Enzo and the Ascari family together again. It is not surprising that Ferrari wanted his car to debut at the 1000 Miglia, which was scheduled to start on 28th April 1940. That reduced development time to a minimum, particularly as they couldn’t use any Alfa Romeo components! Today it seems ridiculous, but back then it was almost normal to start from a normal production chassis and adapt it to racing. Enzo took the chassis from the Fiat 508, known as Balilla, while he couldn’t find a better solution than making his own in-line 8-cylinder, 1,500cc engine by combining two 4-cylinder Fiat 508C engines placed end to end.

5-4Victory narrowly missed by the other 815 which raced at the Mille Miglia: the one driven by Lotario Rangoni Machiavelli which developed a transmission problem when he was leading the 1500cc class.

The bodywork of the car he also wanted to sell to the public was done by Carrozzeria Touring in Milan. The owner of the famous Italian coachbuilder, Bianchi Anderloni, made every effort to ensure the car was as light as possible by using aluminium alloys, and also very aerodynamic. They carried out numerous preliminary tests and made very useful modifications. The cars were ready in time but as they had not undergone prolonged testing, Ferrari was very clear in recommending to the drivers – who were the owners of the cars in compliance with the clause with Alfa Romeo – not to push them too hard. Because of the War, the Mille Miglia was on a lowland course that circled between Brescia, Mantua and Cremona nine times for a total of 1,000 Miles.

6-3The initial design of the bodywork of the 815 made by Touring is both elegant and harmonious. The desire to make it suitable for road use is clear.

The two cars that, as indicated by the initials 815 were powered by an eight-cylinders 1,500cc engine, started with the numbers 65 and 66, one minute from each other. Ascari, driving a more luxurious version with leather interior, and who started behind Rangoni Machiavelli, immediately forgot Enzo’s recommendations, reached his companion, overtook him and shortly after destroyed his engine. He was leading his class and left the lead to Rangoni Machiavelli who remained at the head of the race until the very last lap when he too was forced to retire. When victory seemed certain, the second 815 Auto Avio Costruzioni gave in due to a transmission failure. At the time, he was half an hour ahead of the second placed entrant!

7-2The large grille and the unusually-shaped headlights characterize the front while the compact and clean rear is typical of the racing cars of those years. Of the two 815s produced, only one has survived and now resides in the outstanding Righini Collection in Castelfranco Emilia, Italy.

For Enzo it was a disappointment but also a very valuable test. The War was now very real, and the races were forced to stop. Taking advantage of the subsidies given to industrial factories outside the cities battered by the bombings, Enzo bought the area in Maranello where Ferrari still stands to this day, built a factory made of long, narrow sheds that were less vulnerable to bombings, and began to build small engines for training aircraft and, later, machine tools that were in great demand during the war. The four years were passing, and the dream of the first car with its V12 engine fast approaching. It was built in 1947.

8-3-scaledWith the outbreak of war, Ferrari halted the construction of the 815 and created his first real factory in Maranello, where Ferrari has been operating ever since.