The Second World War had only been over for a couple of months when Batista “Pinin” Farina’s shop in Italy started building cars again.
It was late 1945, in fact, when he started construction on a car for perfume designer Giuliana Tortoli di Cuccioli, a sporty two-seater built around one of the six Alfa Romeo truck chassis that survived the 1942 bombing raid on the factory.
That 6C 2500 SS Cabriolet might have been just another pretty little roadster had France not banned coachbuilders from Italy and other former German allies from its famous Paris auto salon. But they did. And that’s when Farina got mad.
“Pinin Farina took this as quite an insult and decided he was going to show up anyway,” explains Thomas Douglas, research head at the Guild of Automotive Restorers in Bradford, Ontario. “If he was going to do that, he needed to make sure he made a big statement.”
So he threw more brightwork at the Alfa, fabulous paint, and the finest leather he could get his hands on. Then he stuck a screw-you-France middle finger on the front in the form of a little Italian flag-on-a-flagpole hood ornament.
After the car’s debut in Geneva and an appearance at a fashion show, Farina himself raced it some 14 hours from Turin to Paris, with son Sergio following in a Lancia Aprilia they’d also built. When they arrived, they washed the cars, then parked them directly across from the Grand Palais where the Salon was held.
“Pretty well all of the 800,000 visitors had to walk past these two cars sitting by the front, and they weren’t supposed to be there to begin with!” says Douglas. “The directors of the salon, understandably upset, told them they had to leave.”
So Batista and Sergio drove off to turn heads all around Paris in the cars, stopped to hold a brief press conference, then headed back to again park by the Salon doors. (Newspaper headlines the next day read “The devil Farina holds his own anti-Salon.”)
Show coordinators came back with police this time, so the Farinas hightailed it home. Sort of.
“Actually they ended up in Lausanne for a concours, where it won best open car in show,” Douglas says. “And from there the car ended up going to Monte Carlo where it again won best in show.”
Pininfarina’s British (and U.S.) invasion
Tortoli ended up selling the Alfa to Batista Farina, who, after making a few tweaks, drove it for the next six months. In late 1947 it was bought by Leonard Lord, then chairman of British automaker Austin, who wanted managing director George Harriman to build the company a car using the Alfa as inspiration.
So he did. Harriman contracted out the job to the firm of Raymond Loewy, who sent over designer Holden “Bob” Koto from the United States. According to Koto, they disassembled the Alfa and analyzed every part, and put what they’d learned from it into the Austin A90 Atlantic.
At the end of his contract, Harriman offered to sell Koto the car at a massive discount – the car was worth about 7,000 pounds, as much as a house then, but they asked him for just 1,000 GBP – as part of his payment. Koto accepted and had the car shipped back to the U.S. but was distraught to hear that it was damaged during transport.
The front and rear of the car were nearly destroyed, the bumpers ripped off, and when Koto’s insurance failed to cover the repairs, he had the guys at Loewy’s shop do it. While they patched it up pretty well, they couldn’t match the original champagne-beige, so Koto had it painted dark metallic green.
Koto won several awards with the Alfa Romeo at events like the Indianapolis concours, but sold it after two years to James Kent, who “American-ized” it by removing the rear fender skirts and adding wires and whitewalls. Two years later it was sold again, and it kept on changing owners—one of whom dropped a small-block Chevy V8 in it.
For a long time the car was considered lost.
On to Japan, and finally Canada
Several years ago, the Guild’s owner, David Grainger, was tipped off to the sale of an odd ’46 Alfa 6C in an auction of the estate of a deceased Japanese businessman who may have been a top-tier Yakuza. After convincing client (and current owner of the Alfa) Chris Ohrstrom of the car’s historical significance, Grainger put it in a bid that would secure its ticket to Bradford, Ontario.
Douglas says he has dug up photos from as recently as 2006 of the then-mostly-intact car being worked on by a California restorer. But when the car showed up at the Guild’s door in 2008, it was in crates.
“It’s mind-boggling. You’re looking in a box at a spring that’s six inches long and has a funny little twirl at the end of it, and you’re going, What the hell is that? Where does it go?”
After cataloguing all of the parts, the car sat for about four years before the Guild tackled the next big challenge, the repair of the aluminum body. Ohrstrom wanted them to retain as much of the original car as possible, but some parts, like the lower part of the nose, were just not salvageable.
“You’re talking about really bad recycled aluminum from the Second World War—that thing’s made up of pots and pans and bomber gas tanks,” Douglas explains. “The skin is composed of like 70 percent dirt, and it’s so incredibly soft, just leaning on it is enough to dent the car.”
(In the end, the team was able to use about 85 percent of the original body.)
The steering wheel had to be completely built from scratch, as did one spun-metal disc wheel cover.
The convertible top mechanism and canvas also needed replacement, a job made a little less stressful thanks to a cheaper substitute material used for a template.
Douglas also managed to get in contact with Holden Koto’s son David, now 75, some time before the Guild was ready to lay down paint on the car.
The younger Koto was able to fill them in on many details about the car they might not have otherwise known about, though one he mentioned threw them off a little.
“Koto said he remembered the dashboard being chrome, but he didn’t have any evidence,” Douglas says. “And for you to not have evidence at a concours is the worst thing you could do.”
While the dash did look shiny in photographs, it appeared too dark to be chrome, Douglas says—it looked more like it was painted to match the interior. But shortly before they were ready to put the colour on it, Koto sent through some copies of a period Thoroughbred Cars magazine article that proved it was indeed plated.
“We actually get complaints about it. ‘It’s a cabriolet, the glare coming off of it would blind the driver!’” Douglas says of people’s reactions to the dashboard. “And I don’t feel any animosity towards these people, even if they’re being quite rude, because I understand where they were coming from. It’s dangerous [the chrome dash], is what it is.”
The Alfa (almost) takes Pebble Beach
Douglas went with the car to Pebble Beach for its debut there in 2014, and says that judging by the reaction it got, the Alfa Romeo was easily the crowd favourite of the show.
However, the Alfa failed to take home any actual accolades from the concours, largely due to the fact it had a not-quite-correct Alfa six-cylinder in the engine bay. (A period-correct ’42 Series I Alfa engine was dropped in shortly after Pebble Beach.)
David Koto was also on hand for the car’s reveal, and revelled in how closely the Guild’s restoration matcehd his memories of the Alfa. For nostalgia’s sake, they replicated one of the period photos of the car Holden Koto had taken of the car in front of the Raven Hotel he was staying at during his time with Austin. Of course, David stood behind the car where his father had in the original, and David’s son leaned over the fender in David’s place.
“The car has impacted [the auto industry] like the ripples from a stone thrown into a pond. And if you were to literally go back in time and take this car out of history, there might not even be a Pininfarina,” Douglas says of the car’s importance.
Besides acting as a springboard for Pininfarina’s rebirth and a template for the cars that arguably helped save Austin, the Alfa Romeo inspired countless designers, he argues, and was likely the first car with a ‘Pininfarina’-spelled-as-one-word badge on it to boot.
In short, the car that started out as a symbolic middle-finger flip to the French is pretty much indisputably one of coachbuilding and automotive styling’s most historically significant artifacts.
But what Douglas really gets a kick out of is the reactions from the people attached to the car like David Koto, and the pleasure in reuniting someone like him with a vehicle like the Alfa after some 60 years.
“I wanted him to be a part of the car, to have those feelings back, because I know if I was in his position I would kill for that opportunity. To be able to basically offer it on a silver platter to him, it was quite the experience.”
All images supplied by Thomas Douglas of the Guild of Automotive Restorers.