1950 Alfa Romeo Alfetta Tipo 158 Grand Prix racer Amazing Jim Stokes Workshop racer recreation

1950 Alfa Romeo Alfetta Tipo 158 Grand Prix racer Amazing Jim Stokes Workshop racer recreation

The incredible story of how Jim Stokes Workshop created an Alfa Romeo Alfetta 158 Grand Prix racer from rediscovered parts in Italy. Story by Peter Collins Photography by Michael Ward & Peter Collins.


Jim Stokes never thought this could happen. “If you had suggested to me, when we were disinterring the Alfetta racer from the Crypt at Portello back in the late 1980s, that one day I would be able to build my own, I would have dismissed such a remark as a crazy fantasy! Yet here we are.”

1950 Alfa Romeo Alfetta Tipo 158 Grand Prix racer Amazing Jim Stokes Workshop racer recreation

The boss of the world-renowned Jim Stokes Workshop organisation was talking to me about the creation of a precise replica of one of the world’s most successful ever Grand Prix cars, the Alfa Romeo Alfetta 158/159.

As his opening comment intimates, this is not the first Alfetta that has been through his hands. He was privileged to be one of the team that rescued what was most of an original car from Alfa Romeo. It had been resting, stored, in the ‘Crypt’, a sort of warehouse for no-longer-used Alfa Romeo cars and parts at the original factory site of Portello near Milan.

This was a fairytale in itself. The ‘negotiations’ to obtain the car took arch-Alfa enthusiast and racer, Mike Sparken (real name Michel Podberejsky), many years to complete. Often several months would pass before replies were obtained from Alfa Romeo after being asked as to a particular car’s whereabouts and availability.

So, what was the Alfetta that was considered almost the holy grail of Grand Prix cars? Jim Stokes once stated that he considers the Alfetta 158/159 and the Lancia D50 the two best-engineered GP cars he has ever experienced. Why was the Alfa regarded in such high terms?

By the late 1930s, Alfa Romeo and Maserati were desperately trying to beat the might of Germany in Grands Prix. The northern Europeans had constructed the best GP cars of their era in the shape of the Mercedes and Auto Unions. These projects were assisted by unlimited budgets made available by Adolf Hitler’s fascist government’s state funds, in order to establish Germany as all-powerful and unbeatable on the racetracks of the world. The Italians could do little to retaliate, with comparatively tiny budgets at their disposal, so they started to think of constructing cars in which to compete one rung down in the ladder of motor racing from Grands Prix. This would be the equivalent of competing in the Formula 2 of the post-war period.

Giaocchino Colombo was given the task of designing Alfa’s new Tipo 158 junior racer, which would be widely known as the Alfetta, or ‘little Alfa’. He came up with a 1.5-litre supercharged straight-eight engine with 195hp. This fitted into a relatively simple chassis suspended by transverse-leaf independent suspension front and rear. Having parted ways with Enzo Ferrari and ScuderiaFerrari (Alfa Romeo’s acting racing division), the racing team was also revamped and given the name Alfa Corse. The Tipo 158 debuted in the Coppa Ciano at Livorno in August 1938, finishing first and second with Emilio Volloresi and Clemente Biondetti driving.

Several more wins were achieved that year but, much to the team’s irritation, Mercedes secretly built its own 1.5-litre car and promptly beat the Alfettas in early 1939 at Tripoli. Development of the Alfas continued up until 1942, with 225hp being extracted from the 1479cc motor, before the invasion of Italy by Germany forced Alfa to move the cars into hiding in a cheese factory in Melzo. Once the war was over, in June 1946 two cars were extracted from their hideaway.

The resuscitated Alfettas ran at St Cloud in the Paris GP but both retired. These looked like the Alfettas we recognise today, with widened bodywork for bigger fuel tanks, as the everincreasing amount of power being extracted from the relatively small capacity motor used more and more fuel. Engineering developments and massive improvements in vehicle preparation then paid dividends, as from their first race in 1947 the cars won every event they entered up until 1949 when the team effectively ran out of money. Alfa was preparing its 1900 saloon for launch and funds were being diverted to that.

So successful had the Alfettas been, however, that Alfa dealers got together and helped fund the return of the cars for 1950. More work had been done on the engines so that they now developed 350hp – still from 1479cc, remember – when the cars returned to the tracks for the San Remo Grand Prix in April 1950, where Juan Manuel Fangio duly won. The team now consisted of the famous ‘Three Fs’ – Farina, Fagioli and Fangio – who simply dominated the Grand Prix scene yet again, winning every race until July 1951, when Gonzales famously beat them at Silverstone to score Ferrari’s first ever GP win. Alfa Corse finished the year with Fangio taking his first World Championship for himself and the team. By this stage, the car – known as the Alfetta 159 by 1951, with a de Dion axle fitted – reportedly developed 425hp from its 1.5-litre engine.

But at the end of the 1951 season, the cars were retired. The specification of the cars changed continuously throughout the period they were raced. This makes it almost impossible to pin down what constitutes a 158 and what a 159. In fact, Jim Stokes considers that only one race was ever won by a 159. It’s even difficult to nail down what exactly a 159 is, other than having a De Dion rear axle, so there will always be discussion on the subject.

The Alfetta’s domination of Grand Prix racing epitomised Italian superiority during this period. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the attempt to retrieve one of the original cars from Alfa Romeo was to become almost an obsession for Mike Sparken. He eventually realised his dream in 1986 when he travelled to Portello, taking with him Jim Stokes – by then already a guru of Alfa Romeos of the period – to check that what they were hoping to bring back was indeed the real thing. Jim told me that he looked at the engine in the chassis that was offered to them back in the 1980s and said to Mike: “This engine is a specially made block, probably by apprentices, that will need a huge amount of work to make it fit to run.”

Mike told Mimmo Magro, the Alfa Museum curator, what Jim had said, expecting bad news. Instead, the Alfa man simply turned round and pulled a dust-sheet off a complete new engine saying, “Well, you’d better have this as well then!” The deal duly struck, the car was taken back to the UK, where a massive amount of work was done by Jim Stokes on the mechanical and chassis side, and by Paul Grist on bodywork. The car reached the point where the only running Alfetta in private hands finally stood in the UK in the ownership of Mike Sparken. It has since passed through the hands of various custodians, at one time being looked after by Jim himself. It is today quite possibly the most valuable historic racing car in the world. One interesting thing about this car concerns a known issue with the engine. Jim Stokes has, over the last 40 years, amassed an encyclopaedic knowledge of pre-1950s Alfa Romeo mechanical and chassis data. He was aware of an Achilles’ heel in the Alfetta engine in period, namely the valve gear, caused by the extreme pressures that the superchargers worked at. Dynamometer tests of the engine he prepared for the Sparken car led to a five-hour run being finally affected by exactly the same problem as the factory had encountered 80 years previously! Jim: “The weakest part of the engine was the valve stems. When they were running 3.2 bar of boost, the pressure on the inlet manifold was trying to lift the valves off the seats so you had to have valve springs strong enough to shut them and keep them shut. Working on an 8mm thread, those stems were taking 30 tons of load each time they opened and closed, and at 8500-9000rpm they were expecting a lot from the components. They also embraced new technology but instead of altering camber and castor on the front suspension for each race they made up specific frontaxle tubes for each circuit. After fitting in the factory before races, they simply bolted on the suspension they needed with the predetermined settings.” Roll on a few decades and Jim was in for another surprise. Some nine years ago, he received two phone calls in one day, suggesting to him, in much secrecy, that a huge collection of genuine Alfetta 158 parts had become available in Italy and was he interested? Jim’s answer was naturally ‘yes’ to both calls. A little later he received some photos of an Italian courtyard covered in parts. Close inspection of the pictures revealed what looked like a chassis-less 158, only missing its crankcase and brake drums. This ‘complete kit’, as Jim described it later, turned out to have been removed from the ‘Crypt’ over a long period of time and it was clear that whoever had done this knew exactly what were the ‘best bits’. One good piece of news was that Lord Bamford still had what amounted to the rest of an engine in spare parts from the original Sparken car. However, a difficulty arose when it transpired that the vendors in Italy wanted cash payment only for the complete inventory. Jim spent some time canvassing friends and anyone else he knew to raise the amount. Once that was achieved, the question arose as to how the cash was going to be taken to Italy and, more to the point, how all the parts were going to be transported back. To cut a long story short, an Alfa Romeo Giulietta in need of care and refurbishment was trailered out containing a very valuable ‘cargo’. The 158 parts came back in return. It was ensured that the outward and return routes were not the same. So, once safely back at the JSW premises, it could be seen that they had about 70% of an Alfetta. Because Mike Sparken had been great friends with Gianbattista Guidotti, the Alfa Corse post-war team manager, he had obtained a mass of information back in the late 1980s. He had also obtained original 158/159 drawings from the famous Alfa Romeo engineer and historian, Luigi Fusi. The drawings had been sold in the time since the Sparken car was completed, but through Jim’s contacts he was able to borrow them back. The construction of a ‘new’ car was thus entirely feasible.

Before any work could be started, though, it was important to find someone who would take on the role of patron and future owner. The late Peter Giddings took it all on and work duly started, but tragically Peter succumbed to illness soon after the car was completed for its debut in Paris. The car was eventually sent to the USA and ran at the Sonoma race track, before it was decided to enter it for the 2021 Goodwood Revival meeting where it would be driven by Giddings’ friend, Peter Greenfield, in the Festival of Britain Trophy. Peter was on a steep learning curve that weekend in Sussex and despite some issues he finished the race.

My immense thanks go to Jim for giving me his time so freely. To reiterate, when the new car was finally completed, he said that he never believed this would ever happen, or that he would be responsible for a second Alfetta Grand Prix car being delivered into private hands. And now he is, having constructed a new chassis to factory designs and specification to complete the car. We hope to see the car out and about at shows and on racetracks — looking at it and hearing the finished article is something Jim and his crew at JSW can forever be immensely proud of.

Overall weight is below 700kg. Car has already seen action at Goodwood – we hope to see it a lot more soon. Jim Stokes Workshop created a new chassis under authentic parts sourced direct from Italy. All 158/159 Alfettas used a four-speed gearbox mounted in rear transaxle. Cabin feels very purposeful. Supercharged straighteight capable of delivering up to 425hp. Valve issues noted in period still pose problems today.

Editor's comment
Workshop racer car recreation
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John Tindle 1 month ago #

An amazing story, and all credit to everyone involved to recreate, what is, a very impressive Grand Prix car...one of my favourites

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