The Best Damn Alfa Book Ever Written

Pete Vack of Veloce Today wrote this compelling summary of one of the coolest books written about Alfa Romeos. We love Alfas, so we couldn't resist. Hell, even if you don't love Alfas, you should probably buy it. —Ed.

In the beginning, when Peter Hull was only four years old, it is said that his father took him and his older brother Douglas to Brooklands. That's a fairly young beginning, four years old, and the following recollections as published in Alfa Romeo: A History may in fact have been those of his older brother:

An enthusiast who paid his first visit to Brooklands during a practice run at this time [1925] has vivid memories of emerging from the tunnel under the track…and having the thrill of seeing a racing car in action on the banking above his head. It happened to be the red Alfa Romeo [22/90 RLSS] and the sight and sound of this car rushing round the great expanse of white concrete, its driver and mechanic wearing goggles and reversed cloth caps, created a lasting impression.

The Best Damn Alfa Book Ever WrittenWhile it was possible that the enthusiast was car-crazy Douglas, it was Peter who grew up to be a founding member of the Alfa Romeo section of the Vintage Sports Car Club (UK), would own and use as a daily driver a similar 1927 RLSS, and who would co-author Alfa Romeo: A History, aided and abetted by another Englishman, Roy Slater. We may never know, but given my fairly well-focused automotive recollections from age four, my bets are on Peter.

Roy Slater, who provided the technical information in the book (from here forth "H/S") was if anything even more smitten with the marque. He was an insurance underwriter who moved to Milan, establishing a friendship with Luigi Fusi which would result in the 1968 book 6C 1750 Alfa Romeo, the ultimate word on that model and today commanding prices of up to $250.

In the early 1960s, Hull and Slater combined their expertise, a British tradition of cherishing things past, and an intense love of the subject to create a landmark book that is still a joy to read and learn from. It is thoroughly British in form, character, understatement, humor and enthusiasm; it is at all times thoroughly delightful and remains the best all-around Alfa book ever written. Success can be defined by a tremendously successful print run. The first edition was published in May of 1964 by Cassell & Co. London, selling out almost immediately. A second run was published in March 1965. A revised edition, taking into account Fusi's All Cars From 1910, was published in 1968. A third edition, completely revised to include cars and activities through 1980, was published in 1982 by Transport Bookman. That's what we call a long shelf life.The Best Damn Alfa Book Ever Written

Count Johnny Lurani, here in his 6C1500, wrote the preface for H/S, and would later be a good neighbor to Roy Slater.

The book also earned the respect and attention of the masters. Fourteen years after the first edition was published, Giuseppe Luraghi, writing the preface of the 1978 edition of All Cars From 1910, cites only one book… of now dozens: "I would like to mention here… the work of the British authors, Peter Hull and H. Roy Slater [sic], who published Alfa Romeo: A History in London in 1964." As Hull stated in 1968, Fusi's book "has come to be regarded as an almost essential technical companion to [Alfa Romeo: A History]. Even today, if one only has two books on Alfa Romeo, these should be the ones you have. The Best Damn Alfa Book Ever Written

A nice shot of Alfa hero Consalvo Sanesi, left, with Fangio in 1951. While photos in H/S are good, don't buy it for the photography. (Sanesi! Fangio! Together! Ha! Best picture ever. —Ed.)

There are literally dozens of excellent Alfa books (we list 38 in a 2004 article on Alfa books) that might outdo H/S, beginning with of course Fusi's bible, Simon Moore's 8C works, and down from there. However, most books after H/S focused on a particular model or range of Alfas; a few, "Alfissimo" among the better, tried to tell the whole story but none matched what had gone before. In fact, there are only those books written after of H/S, as it was the first. (Keith Ayling's Alfa Guide was also published in 1964 but there is no comparison).

Not only was it the first, but look at it: Where else can you find out how to read the oil level on an RLSS, read exactly how Ascari Sr. died, learn to overhaul Alfa 1750 GS superchargers, get excellent and thorough technical descriptions of each basic Alfa model from 1910, go back in medieval history to find the meaning of the cross and serpent, see production tables, and track significant Merosi and Jano cars by serial number, all in one book? "All this may sound a bit overwhelming, and it might well be to any but devotees of the marque, particularly those who seek total immersion.", wrote Road & Track in a 1964 review. Total immersion however is indeed what we seek, even to the point of boredom with rather monotonous race reports, a problem Hull faced up to in the very first edition, written with his usual and piquant sense of humor.

Fortunately, the authors alternated the chapters of boring victories and race reports with model descriptions. "Grand Prix Champions" is followed by vintage push rod cars, vintage grand prix cars, and back to racing again with sports-car supremacy, etc. And to keep the reader on the cam, Hull tossed in little gems: "Take care when feeling for T.D.C. with the little finger through the plug hole. Feel pretty helpless with 30 cwt of Alfa hanging on to the end with no means of getting it off…"

Hull's sense of humor was not just evident in his writing, but he was well known for his "rollicking laugh which could be heard the length and breadth of the paddock." He joined the R.A.F. in 1939 and served throughout the war, piloting Mosquitos as well as other aircraft and surviving a crash with a Tiger Moth which destroyed both a hut and the plane but not Peter. After the war, he remained in the R.A.F. as a pilot and instructor. He had a wide interest in transportation, and he owned a Salmson, a Frazer Nash, and an Alvis. He wrote books on racing historic cars, the history of the Vintage Sports Car Club, and Vintage Alvis, a tome as respected by the Alvis community as the Alfa history was by Alfa enthusiasts. The Best Damn Alfa Book Ever Written

Pilkington's Jano-era 1750, left; Slater's Satta Giulia Sprint; and Hull's Merosi RLSS, around 1964. Courtesy of Richard Pilkington.

Slater was more single-minded. Both he and Hull were active members and officers of the Vintage Sports Car Club, and when Slater left for Italy, his entire Alfa Romeo archive was given to the Club. Slater probably didn't need it, as he bought land on Count Johnny Lurani's estate and built a new house with a large garage underneath for his 1750 Zagato, his wife Edna's 1500, and the Giulia Sprint. Well known for his great hospitality, he continued his research on Alfas with the factory now close at hand.

The Best Damn Alfa Book Ever WrittenAlthough Slater gladly drove modern Alfas in both the U.K. and Italy, there is no doubt that the authors tended to place a higher priority on the pre-war cars, and with good reason. There is a world of difference between a pre-war 1750 and a post-war 1750, despite all the similarities. The first edition has 406 pages of chapter text, of which 385 are devoted to pre-war cars (including the 158/159, which were pre war cars raced post-war). The 1982 edition has 335 pages (they are larger in size) with 250 devoted to pre-war cars. Notably, nothing is left out of the 1982 edition, while quite a bit was added, all on post war history.

Hull and Slater updated the 1982 edition by documenting Alfa race cars and victories right up to 1981, but continued to punctuate the dry stats with the same keen sense of humor. Long time friend, Alfa collector and T/33 owner Richard Pilkington, on a visit to Autodelta, noted that the guard dog kennels were made out of three T33 engine covers. "…rather special ones, too, as by the fins on them Richard could identify them as coming off Le Mans cars." Hull was not enthused with the increased use of advertising on racing cars, calling on Bloomsbury essayist Lytton Strachey's criticism of certain paintings by his cousin Duncan Grant inspired by the experiments of Picasso and Braque, "…a coagulation of distressing objects". Though it helps to be British, Hull's very U.K. sense of humor can be found, nugget-like, throughout the book.The Best Damn Alfa Book Ever Written

One of the last illustrations from the H/S third edition. Witty to the last, and disliking ads, Hull noted that the comparative modesty in the number of advertisements on this example seems to indicate that there may be a few more advertisements spaces still to let.

Of the three versions, the third is by far the best, with more photographs and information on the newer cars. At the current time, we see none for sale on the net, but a first edition can be had at Tom Warth for $40. Both authors have both passed on, but the books they left behind are a significant legacy.



Pete Vack is the editor of Veloce Today, a high quality online periodical catering to Italian and French automobile enthusiasts.