This is a story of speed, secrecy and technology. It is the story of The Great Escape, but not as you know it. This is the story of the Alfa Romeo 6C 2300 Aerodinamica Spider.
The year is 1934 and in racing, Alfa Romeo was basking in a warm glow of victory in the European Grand Prix, winning more than half of all the races they entered. However, Alfa Romeo’s chief engineer Vittorio Jano had noticed the looming threat of the mid-engined Type A from Auto Union. Realising the performance potential, Jano set about designing and creating his own mid-engined racing car. To keep the project secret, development and construction of this new car would not take place at the Alfa Romeo factory. Arguably, it would not even take place in Italy. Instead, Jano recruited the assistance of Hungarian engineering brothers Gino and Oscar Jankovits - licenced dealers of Alfa Romeo and the owners of the largest garage in Fiume (now Rijeka) in Croatia, which by 1934 had been annexed by Italy. With their wealth and technical assistance, Jano’s vision for a revolutionary racer could be manifested in metal.
Throughout 1935-1937, the Aerospider began to take shape. Its chassis was designed to take two different engines - a V12 12C engine designed for racing, and a 2.3l straight-six 6C for road use, both mounted in the middle. It had a central driving position with seating on either side of the driver for passengers, just like a McLaren F1.
It also had a clever twin-circuit braking system with two fluid distributors, two master cylinders and adjustable duplex brakes. This allowed for an equaliser that would vary the distribution of the braking force between the front and rear, presumably to reduce the possibility of locking up the wheels under heavy braking. The transmission was lifted from a standard 6C 2300, but a pre-selector system was developed to change gears. Furthermore, the clutch was hydraulically assisted and the Aerospider enjoyed the benefit of all-round independent suspension, with double wishbones and hydraulic dampers at the front, swing axles with a transverse leaf spring and torsion bar at the rear.
Most significantly though was that sensuous, voluptuous body. At the time, aerodynamics were only starting to become understood and the Aerospider made full use of knowledge back then. Not only was the body smooth on top with integrated door handles and lights, but underneath as well - by incorporating a mainly flat underside, turbulence and front-end lift was greatly reduced. Furthermore, wings enclosed the wheels as opposed to most open-wheeled designs of the time and care was taken in regards to the nature of air pressure. Inlets for cold air were placed in zones of high pressure, whereas hot air outlets from the engine and brakes were placed in zones of low pressure. As a result, weighing in at less than 1000kg, that slippery, slippery body and just a straight-six 6C engine outfitted with triple Weber carburettors, the Aerospider could hit speeds in excess of 155mph. The project looked evermore promising.
That was until 1937. Alfa Romeo were now conceding defeat after defeat in Grand Prix racing, with the opposition from the teutonic Silver Arrows outclassing them entirely. Looking for someone to blame, Alfa Romeo bosses turned to chief engineer Vittorio Jano, brainchild of the Aerospider project, and decided to dismiss him from the company. All of a sudden, the Jankovits brothers in Fiume lost access to the V12 powerplant needed to make the Aerospider a competitive machine on track. Nevertheless, they soldiered on, developing the project into the road car it was also designed to be by installing creature comforts such as bumpers, a windscreen and a heater. However, as WWII broke out, the Janovits were forced to hide the car in their garage to keep it away from prying eyes and hands, where it stayed until after the war.
After WWII, the city of Fiume came under Communist control as part of Yugoslavia. The Aerospider remained hidden within the Jankovits’ garage until one brother, Gino Jankovits, was accused of collaborating with the Nazis. With the loss of the family business and property through seizure by the new Communist government under Tito and facing execution, the Jankovits realised escaping the country was the only solution to survival. But how would they escape the country? While sources are unclear as to the actions of Oscar Jankovits and how he survived, his brother Gino was set on a plan - he would save the Aerospider and use it for a do-or-die run to freedom.
So under the cover of darkness on Christmas Eve 1946, Gino unearthed the Aerospider from the Fiume garage and woke it from its wartime slumber. After loading it up, Gino set a course for Italy, buried his foot to the floor and made a break for the border. As he approached the barrier gate at high speed, Communist soldiers alarmed by the Aerospider’s sleek and rapidly approaching silhouette opened fire. Bullets ripped through the rear tyres and hit the rear bodywork but thanks to the Aerospider’s low profile and speed, Gino was unharmed and with expert driving skill, rocketed past the border guards by driving underneath the barrier gate to Italy and freedom. Sadly, to finance their life in Italy, the Jankovits were forced to sell the Aerospider to an Anglo-American solider based in Italy and it disappeared for 20 years until it was found once again in the United Kingdom.
Since its discovery, it was returned to Italy for a full restoration and has since made several appearances at car shows including the Concorso D’Eleganza Villa d’Este, Salon Privé and Goodwood Festival of Speed. It is now currently on display at the Auto & Technik Museum in Sinsheim, Germany, but just for this weekend, it made an appearance at the London Classic Car Show in full working order.