Origin Story: Alfa-Romeo

01. © Alfa-Romeo Logo - Donga Tshabalala - ENLISTED by Donga Tshabalala
The Alfa-Romeo insignia – as seen on all Alfa-Romeo vehicles dating from 1920 to 1925.

It all began with a French businessman by the name of Pierre Alexandre Darracq – a man who had seemingly managed to establish a name for himself in the art of profiteering from the principles of engineering and manufacturing. Initiating his career in the world of sewing machines, he – along with business associate Paul Aucoq – founded the Gladiator Cycle Company in the year 1891. This venture saw both men oversee the manufacturing of bicycles, and the company later saw the development of motorcycles and motor vehicles during a time when cars were still being referred to as “horseless carriages.” His experience in co-founding the Gladiator Cycle Company had clearly not been an overwhelming task by virtue of the fact that throughout 1894 and 1895, Pierre Alexandre Darracq dedicated time into the business of manufacturing what was then known as the Millet Motorcycle. The Millet Motorcycle was the brainchild of Félix Théodore Millet, and Pierre Alexandre Darracq acquired the rights to produce the motorcycle throughout the period of 1894 to 1895, ceasing its production a year prior to the sale of the Gladiator Cycle Company. The Millet Motorcycle was a novelty – featuring pneumatic tires and an engine that was integrated into its rear wheel, with each of its cylinders rotating with the rotation of the wheel. However, as novel as the design of the Millet Motorcycle might have been, its novelty was eclipsed by the scale of the following enterprise that Pierre Alexandre Darracq had undertaken. The novelty of the Millet Motorcycle was eclipsed in 1897 when Pierre Alexandre Darracq diverted his profits from the sale of the Gladiator Cycle Company into founding A. Darracq et Cie – his most pivotal foray into vehicle manufacturing.

02. © Pierre Alexandre Darracq - Donga Tshabalala - ENLISTED by Donga Tshabalala
Pierre Alexandre Darracq was born on November 10, 1855 in the port city of Bordeaux, France. His academic training saw him become a draftsman prior to his history of manufacturing sewing machines and co-founding the Gladiator Cycle Company. 1931 marked the year of his passing.

Initially manufacturing vehicles in the French suburb of Suresnes, A. Darracq et Cie gradually expanded its operations to England, Germany, Spain and Italy, with the Italian expansion resulting in the creation of Società Anonima Italiana Darracq (S.A.I.D.) – founded in 1906. The expansion into Italy was motivated by the instinct of Pierre Alexandre Darracq – a man who not only recognized the potential of the budding automotive industry as a whole, but also saw the opportunity to produce vehicles for a market that no major vehicle manufacturers had any interest in supplying vehicle demand for. The Italian division of A. Darracq et Cie began its life in the suburb of Naples, which posed a dilemma to the company for a number of reasons, chief among which was the vast distance separating Naples from Suresnes – where the headquarters of the parent company were located. This presented A. Darracq et Cie with the enormous logistical problem involved in the movement of components from the company headquarters of  Suresnes to Naples, where the components would need to be assembled. As a result, the entire Italian operation of the parent company was relocated to the Milanese suburb of Portello. The production of motor vehicles in Italy proved not to be as profitable as might have otherwise been intended, partly due to the lack of understanding of the preferences of Italian vehicle consumers and the poor communication and supply of materials between France and Italy. To make matters worse, the world was experiencing a recession at that time, which proved to be the final nail in the coffin of Società Anonima Italiana Darracq – a company that was liquidated in the year 1909. In light of this liquidation, a new company was created in an attempt to achieve the success that Società Anonima Italiana Darracq never did. The new company was named [Società] Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili (A.L.F.A.), with its name being registered on June 24, 1910.

While continuing to produce vehicles in the Milanese suburb of Portello, [Società] Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili learnt from the mistakes of the company that preceded it by acquiring the services of an established automotive engineer and designer by the name of Giuseppe Merosi. Giuseppe Merosi established a name for himself through his initial work for bicycle manufacturer F.I.V. Edoardo Bianchi S.p.A., more commonly known as Bianchi and Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino, more commonly known as FIAT. It is his expertise that were responsible for the design and development of vehicles for Italy that Italian vehicle consumers were more eager to embrace, and while the financial success of the company continued to languish, the production of these vehicles continued through to 1915 – at which time the company was being dissolved while facing World War I. Meanwhile, an entrepreneur operating in the suburb of Portello had been tasked with the responsibility of manufacturing military equipment in support of World War I. The workshop he controlled was not large enough to manufacture the equipment that he was tasked with producing, and it was located in close proximity to the significantly larger premises of [Società] Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili. As if the distance between both factories was not coincidence enough, [Società] Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili had been entrusted to the now defunct Banca Italiana di Sconto (BIS), or the Italian Bank of Discount in English – the same bank that was responsible for financially supporting the manufacturing operations of the entrepreneur in question. The entrepreneur in question was a man by the name of Nicola Romeo, and Banca Italiana di Sconto assigned his company – Ing. Nicola Romeo & C. – with the responsibility of managing [Società] Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili. As a result, [Società] Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili halted vehicle production and manufactured military equipment under the control of Nicola Romeo throughout World War I.

03. © Nicola Romeo - Donga Tshabalala - ENLISTED by Donga Tshabalala
Nicola Romeo was born on April 28, 1876 in Sant’Antimo – located in the Compania region of Italy. Prior to his founding of Ing. Nicola Romeo & C., he was a student who acquired two engineering degrees in Italy and Belgium. The most identifiable contribution that he has made to Alfa-Romeo exists in the form of his surname, which was added to the name of the company in early 1918. He died in 1938 in Magreglio, Italy.

In the year 1918 – the same year during which World War I came to an end – the involvement of Nicola Romeo in [Società] Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili saw the expansion of the Portello based factory, in Milan. In addition, the operations led by Nicola Romeo were stimulated by an increase in orders for military equipment, leaving the newly renamed [Società] Anonima Italiana Nicola Romeo & C. with the added problem of finding a way to redirect its efforts back to more civilian activities – chief among which was the production of vehicles. As a result of this problem, [Società] Anonima Italiana Nicola Romeo & C. reinvested its profits from World War I into a series of railway carriage and locomotive factories, which included: The Southern Railway Workshops of NaplesOfficine Ferroviarie Meridionali di Napoli, The Mechanical Workshops of RomeOfficine Mecchanice di Roma and The Mechanical Constructions of SaronnoConstruzioni Meccaniche di Saronno. Vehicle production tentatively resumed in 1919 with the assembly of components that had remained prior to World War I, while new vehicles were only designed and developed at a later stage. In addition to the development of new vehicles at this stage, 1920 marked the point when [Società] Anonima Italiana Nicola Romeo & C. became known as Alfa-Romeo – a name that continues to characterize the company to this day. As encouraging as all of these developments would have been, none of them prevented the failure of Banca Italiana di Sconto – the same bank that Alfa-Romeo had been entrusted to when Nicola Romeo gained control of the then [Società] Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili in 1915. The bankruptcy of Banca Italiana di Sconto in 1921 should have turned Alfa-Romeo into another cobweb of automotive history, but the company survived the bankruptcy because of the intervening of the Bonomi I Cabinet, which held office in Italy from 1921 to 1922 – allowing Alfa-Romeo to live to see another day.

1923 saw the addition of another name to the history of Alfa-Romeo – existing in the form of an automotive designer by the name of Vittorio Jano. In a similar vein to automotive engineer and designer Guiseppe Merosi, the automotive career of Vittorio Jano saw him transition through Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino, also known as FIAT. Unlike Giuseppe Merosi however, Vittorio Jano began his career as an employee of the now defunct Società Torinese Automobili Rapid, also referred to as S.T.A.R.. It was his entry into Alfa-Romeo that marked the exit of Giuseppe Merosi as the chief designer of the company. Furthermore, the entry of Vittorio Jano into Alfa-Romeo resulted in the production of vehicles that were widely considered to be more powerful and more reliable than those that came before him. Despite these improvements, 1925 left Alfa-Romeo facing financial challenges that made it necessary for the company to sell the series of railway carriage and locomotive factories that it acquired through profiteering from World War I – all based in Naples, Rome and Saronno. This financial trouble was further compounded in 1929 by the advent of The Great Depression, and in 1933, Alfa-Romeo was rescued by the Italian government – this time under the leadership of Benito Mussolini making use of the then Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale (IRI)The Institute for Industrial Reconversion (IRI) – under the direction of Ugo Gobbato. The management of Alfa-Romeo by Ugo Gobbato resulted in the improved efficiency of vehicle production in Portello, Milan – during an era where Alfa-Romeo built vehicles for members of the high society, which reinforced the notion that Alfa-Romeo was a manufacturer of the best Italian cars.

04. © Benito Mussolini - Donga Tshabalala - ENLISTED by Donga Tshabalala
Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini was born in July 29, 1883. He became the prime minister of Italy in 1922 and proceeded to remain the Italian prime minister until 1943. During his era of leadership in Italy, Alfa-Romeo was rescued by the then government making use of the Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale (IRI)The Institute for Industrial Reconversion (IRI). This instrument existed to support ailing businesses within Italy and provide capital investment to industrial enterprises. He passed away at the age of 61 on April 28, 1945.

2 thoughts on “Origin Story: Alfa-Romeo

  1. History creates quite incredible tapestries; thanks for sharing this one. I recognized Suresnes as the home of an American Cemetary outside Paris. I learned that Torino is part of FIAT history. You shared a path from bicycles to motorcycles to performance cars. The Wright Brothers in Ohio diverted took a different path with their bicycles.

    Your portraits seem formed by the ephemeral exhaust smoke from an automobile (in an era of less clean air). There’s a mystical quality. Nice work on the drawings and the history.


    1. All very true indeed. It is very observant of you to note the Suresnes American Cemetery, especially considering that the story does touch on the manufacturing operations of Alfa-Romeo during World War I. Torino (Turin) is in fact so pivotal to the founding of FIAT that it is even represented in the word FIAT as an acronym. The path from bicycles was a necessary one because bicycles came at a time that almost coincided with the development of the motor car, and it is quite interesting to consider that had it not been for the initiative of a man who decided to create a bicycle company, the performance brand we know today as Alfa-Romeo would have never existed. It is also interesting to note how The Wright Brothers perfected their understanding of the behavior of planes in flight through the use of their bicycles.

      I appreciate the time that you have taken to engage with the portraits and establish your own meaning of what they represent. They are supposed to be monochrome sketches that place an emphasis on the idea of reflecting on a particular sense of history. In retrospect, they do have a fairly mystical quality about them – one which was never taken into consideration when they were being made. I will take this into consideration before publishing the second installment of The Alfa-Romeo Origin Story. I hope you continue to keep well under these uncertain times we live in.

      Liked by 1 person

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