Exquisite, rare and a race winner, Alfa Romeo's 8C was a pre-war supercar

Rearview Mirror The hugely successful Alfa Romeo 8C captured the imagination of its era with haute couture automobile design that dominated on the race track.

Enzo Ferrari helped develop the straight eight engine in the 8C. AFP
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On the eve of the new millennium in Palm Beach, Florida, a hammer broke the awestruck silence as one of the most beautiful and iconic of all supercars was sold for US$4 million (Dh14.6m), making it one of the 10 most expensive cars ever bought.

Its sweeping, elegant lines were the haute couture of automobile design and beneath its sartorial elegance lay state-of-the-art engineering that made it the undisputed darling of Europe's most prestigious races. But the car that hogged the headlines was not a Bugatti, Lamborghini or Bentley, but a much more familiar marque, with a badge that adorns blue-collar bonnets across the world.

The Alfa Romeo 8C is perhaps the most coveted classic of all, exquisite in its beauty and expressive in its rarity. It was such a car of its time that Benito Mussolini, the Italian leader-cum-deity who bought the company for the furtherance of civilisation, presented the 8C as a symbol of the style, strength and superiority of the Italian nation. Throughout the 1920s, Alfa Romeo enjoyed an intense rivalry with Mercedes for dominance of the track. The Italian firm countered their German rival's power with precision engineering. But by 1930, Alfa was beginning to lose touch and, under the stewardship of a young Enzo Ferrari, who ran the racing arm of the firm, they developed a new straight-eight engine. Designed by the legendary Vittorio Jano, the 8C configuration became one of the classic powerplants of all time, producing almost 100hp per litre, a remarkable feat for the time.

With this engine and a chassis featuring independent suspension, Alfa reclaimed its racing crown, dominating grands prix and the alpine Mille Miglia. This included a famous one, two, three finish in the Mille Miglia in 1936 and victory at the Spa 24 hours. A Le Mans model was made and was on course for victory in 1938 before having to retire due to mechanical problems while leading its second-placed rival by 160km.

Shortly after the model had been launched, the company was rescued from financial trouble by Mussolini, who ensured funds were available for success on the track to reflect glory on his modern-day Roman Empire. He was rewarded with victory in the Italian Grand Prix in 1932. Alfa Romeo did not intend for the 8C to be made available on the road but, with strong demand, it relented and made a long and short wheelbase chassis available. These were then transformed into elegant roadsters and coupés by coachbuilders such as Carrozzeria Touring, Zagato and Pininfarina. The most famous of these road-going versions were produced between 1935 and 1938, with an enlarged 2.9L engine fitted with twin superchargers. The racing version of this engine produced 220hp but a decision was taken to de-tune it to 180hp for more civilised performance on the road. However, despite this, the 8C was a supercar of the age, producing more power than the huge V8 and V12 powerplants of its English and American counterparts. It was capable of reaching 170kph and possessed neck-bracing acceleration.

With only 32 road-going 8C 2900B models produced it ranks among the rarest supercars ever made. And exclusivity was increased further by the fact that no two cars were the same; all were built to different specifications by coachbuilders. Some were of a cabriolet style, with sweeping wheel-arches and tapering bonnets, while others were elegant coupés. All shared the trademark deep, scooped grille that hinted at the pedigree of its racing cousins. Like the Bugatti Royale, another dream car of the pre-war era, the Alfa Romeo 8C is not merely a car but a commodity. Always the main draw of any car show or collection, the prices they command at auction make headline news around the world as these are some of the most expensive objects money can buy.

Such is the prestige and awe associated with the 8C that Alfa recently revived it for a limited edition sports car in 2007 and 2008. Fittingly, and perhaps in homage to his time with the marque, the car was powered by a 4.7L Ferrari engine. Though this was modern Alfa's flagship model, you could buy 130 of them for today's price of the original.

Invoking nostalgia is usually a sign that a manufacturer has lost its lustre of yore, and modern-day Alfa Romeo, subsumed by Fiat, makes spirited saloons rather than salivate-on-sight supercars. Thankfully, the new 8C is such an exquisitely beautiful car, it makes for a fitting tribute to the company's legendary legacy.