Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Alfa Romeo P3 Tipo B 'Don Lee Special'

Photos - Mark Saunders; words - Daniel Bevis

There are special racing cars and there are special racing cars, and this is most certainly the latter. The first of thirteen P3s built by Alfa Romeo, the Don Lee Special is dripping in heritage and race provenance. Look at the stats: 1st place at Monaco, 1934; 1st in the Mille Miglia, 1935; 1st in class at the Corso dello Stelvio, 1934; 4th in the Mille Miglia, 1936... the list goes on and on. Indeed, it was winning Grands Prix right from the start of its racing career in 1932.

So why 'Don Lee Special'? Well, this Tipo B, chassis no.50007, began by making quite a name for itself on the GP circuit in the 1932/3 seasons. It joined the Alfa Romeo works team, run by Scuderia Ferrari, in 1934; after copious successes in Europe, the late thirties saw it move to America, competing in the Indianapolis 500 and appearing at the 1940 New York World's Fair. Post-war, it was entered in the 1946/7 Indy 500 under the name 'Don Lee Special' because, well, American race team owner Don Lee had bought it by that point.
Key to the P3 Tipo B's success was its twin-supercharged straight-eight, providing around 200bhp and a top speed of 140mph+; it was the power-to-weight ratio that made it really quick, its weight of 772kg meaning an impressive 246bhp/ton. It had a cleverly designed chassis and drivetrain too - power was delivered via individual driveshafts to the rear wheels, allowing an even torque split; it also meant that the driver could sit low between them, thus lowering the centre of gravity and improving handling. The chassis used aircraft-grade duralumin alloys, the engine had lightweight alloy heads - this was, in all respects, a very advanced car for its day. No wonder it wiped the floor with all competitors.

Today, the car remains unrestored in its Don Lee livery. The man in question was the most successful Cadillac dealer on the US's west coast, and is perhaps a weirdly fitting character to commemorate along the car's flanks: he may not have been involved in the Italian racer's salad days, but he certainly threw it onto the world stage after WWII.
As you can see from these photos, the Alfa bears the proud scars of eighty-one years of hard racing. And it's far from over yet...

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