The Amazing Alfa Romeo Disco Volante
The stunning Disco Volante from 1952 is one of the most photographed cars in Alfa Romeo's museum. Seventy years after its construction, its voluptuous curves keep amazing and inspiring the public's imagination.
Yet, for all the success it enjoyed as a design statement, this Alfa's story is also one of wasted potential, as it never got the chance to fulfill its promise of racing victories. Here's the story of the fabulous Alfa Romeo Disco Volante...
The year was 1952.
Alfa Romeo had just retired from Formula One after winning two world championships, and the firm's transformation from boutique manufacturer to volume producer was underway thanks to the 1900 saloon.
However, some indecision lingered on whether Alfa could somehow stay involved in motorsport, leaving the door open for a prototype to compete in the two-liter sports car class using production components.
The Flying Saucer
The Alfa Romeo 1900 C52 "Disco Volante" was the brainchild of Gioacchino Colombo, the same man who, a few years earlier, had designed the original Ferrari V12 engine.
However, very little from the production 1900 saloon actually remained in the C52 sports racer: the inline-four cylinders engine's block was cast in aluminum rather than iron to save weight, and it was installed in a bespoke tubular chassis frame. Fed by two sidedraft Weber carburetors, the unit produced around 160 HP, enough to propel this light (735 Kg) roadster up to 220 Km/h.
Another Colombo idea was the car's striking lenticular shape, with particularly wide and swoopy fenders concealing the four wheels. Devised to reduce aerodynamic drag and maximize top speed, it was designed and built by the Carrozzeria Touring using its trademark "Superleggera" method: a framework of small-diameter steel tubes covered by a thin aluminum skin.
Between 1952 and 1953, while the legendary Alfa Romeo test driver Consalvo Sanesi kept testing the C52 at Monza, the car's unique shape struck the people's imagination, generating considerable media buzz in Italy and abroad. So much so, in fact, that Alfa Romeo's president Francesco Quaroni had to regularly turn down order requests for the car, now famously nicknamed "Disco Volante."
Inspired by period science fiction movies and novels, the name literally translates as "flying saucer."
The press and public alike were soon to be disappointed, though. During testing, severe doubts about the Disco Volante's potential as a race winner emerged, and, following the departure of Gioacchino Colombo, the project quickly lost any support within Alfa Romeo.
The roadster and coupé currently preserved at the Alfa Romeo museum are equipped with the original four-cylinder engine. Instead, two more roadsters were fitted with the same straight-six, three-liter powerplant designed by Giuseppe Busso for the later 3000 CM racer. Just one of those six-cylinder cars is known to survive today, and it's preserved at Turin's National Automobile Museum, while the other is presumed lost.
One more "Disco Volante" can be found in France, on display at Mulhouse's excellent "Cité de l'Automobile" museum. This example is the only one to have ever been raced, and it's known by the nickname "fianchi stretti," which literally translates as "narrow hips." Its more traditional body design increased maneuverability in the hillclimb races its private owner then competed in.
This brings the total "Disco Volante" production to a mere five cars, all built between 1952 and 1953. Yet the model's influence extends much beyond that, as its striking shape inspired the creators of many more iconic vehicles, like the Jaguar D-Type and E-Type or the legendary Chevrolet Corvette Stingray Racer.
Although Carrozzeria Touring went out of business in 1966, the brand was resurrected in 2006 by a Dutch consortium, and it's currently based near Milan. Between 2012 and 2016, the "new" Touring Superleggera built eighteen new "Disco Volante," eleven coupés, and seven spiders.
Masterfully styled by the Belgian designer Louis De Fabrickers, the new car reinterpreted the original's design upon the modern Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione's chassis and running gear. Each required sacrificing an original 8C and around 5000 man-hours to create, so you'd better not ask about the price of such an operation...