The history of the Alfa 158 (the predecessor of the 159) starts on 7th December 1935. Alfa Romeo has great difficulty to compete with the growing strength of Mercedes and Auto Union on the race track. The P3 and the ‘Bimotore’ just can’t keep up with the German race cars. The ‘Bureau Permanent International de Constructeurs des Automobiles’ (The Permanent Bureau of Automobile Constructors) meets on this day to discuss what new rules to implement after the current racing rules will be abandoned on 31 December 1937.
Mercedes wanted to maintain the same rules after 1937 and suggested an additional ‘voiturette’ class with a 1500 cc engine capacity restriction to race before the ‘big’ 750 kg class, which was to stay the highest racing class. Alfa Romeo directly started making plans for a 1500 cc racing car. But things turned out differently and in 1938 the major racing class were the 3 litre supercharged and 4.5 litre normally aspirated cars.
Rumours kept going around that in 1940 the 1500 cc class would become the main racing class and in 1936 Enzo Ferrari as head of the Alfa racing team ‘Scuderia Ferrari’ urged the Alfa Romeo management to start developing what was to become the 158 with a 1500 cc engine. Eventually Alfa’s board gave the green light and development of the new racing car started in May of 1937.
Gioacchino Colombo was in charge of the new project and Luigi Bazzi designed the new engine. Alberto Massimimo designed the transmission and Angelo Nasi the suspension. Engine development took place in Modena at the Scuderia Ferrari workshop and the engine turned out to be legendary. Only nine engines where ever made, which were used for all races in the 14 year lifecycle of the Alfa 158/159. It was a streight eight cylinder 1479 cc engine that produced 195 HP.
The Grand Prix racing still wasn’t going very well during the time of the development of the 158. Alfa Romeo boss Ugo Gobbato took drastic action and pulled the complete Alfa racing activity away from Enzo Ferrari. Gobbato started ‘Alfa Corse’ which was to operate from the factory in Portello. New chief of racing was Wilfredo Ricart. In August of 1938, six brand new 158’s were finished in Portello. The ‘Alfetta’ (little Alfa) had been born…
Three of the six 158’s were entered in the Coppa Ciano Junior race in Livorno on 7th August 1938. Emilio Villoresi won and Biondetti finished second, both in Alfa’s 158. Severi, driving the third Alfa finished 7th. In the races that followed during the 1938 season, the 158 proved to be fast but not reliable.
In August of 1939 the problems seemed solved, with Alfa Romeo finishing 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th in the Coppa Acerbo in Pescara. The next race in Bern (Switzerland) the Alfa’s started in the ‘Voiturette’ race prior to the main event of the 3 liter and 4.5 liter car race. After the main race, cars of the Voiturette class and the 3 and 4.5 liter class would drive a combined race. Alfa finished first and second in the Voiturette race with Farina and Biondetti. The 158’s finished 6th and 8th in de combined race that followed.
There were 4 cars left of the six originally built and Alfa Romeo decided to build an additional six cars in 1940. During the war, the cars were kept in a safe place to avoid the bombardments.
In 1946 racing started again and Alfa Romeo entered four 158’s in the Grand Prix des Nations in Geneva (Switzerland). Two of the Alfetta’s were modified with a twin-stage supercharger, giving the engine 254 hp. They were driven by Farina and Varzi.
Farina won the race, Trossi was second and Wimille third, all driving Alfetta’s. For the 1947 season, the cars were further modified to produce 275 hp. One of the six 158’s was further modified with an extra fueltank and a different exhaust. Also the air intake of the supercharger was modified, which resulted in 310 hp. Alfa won all races it entered that year and als won all races of 1948.
Alfa Romeo didn’t compete in the 1949 season, due to American pressure not to waste Marshall money on racing.
The Alfetta’s were back in the 1950 season; the year of the first official FIA Formula One Championship. Three new drivers were contracted: Farina, Fangio and Fagioli. The cars were modified to produce 350 hp. Alfa won all races and Farina took the championship.
For the 1951 season Alfa built four new and modified cars and named them Tipo 159. The cars produced a staggering 425 hp. The fuel consumption was enormous and to accommodate a bigger fuel tank, the tail had to be lengthened. Fangio won the world championship title.
1951 was the last year of the Alfetta. Alfa Romeo retired from Formula One racing due to a lack of fundings. Alfetta’s (158 and 159) started 157 times in 54 races; 47 races were won.