In the usual list of cars that were ahead of their time, the most common recollections in the UK include the small, electric Sinclair C5, the clever Audi A2 and the Honda HR-V compact crossover, ditched just as the body type exploded in popularity. But there’s one more we’d like to add to that list, and it’s way more interesting than all of the others put together.
The year was 1977 and the World Rally Championship was in its infancy. The competition was looking introduce a parallel drivers’ championship alongside the team battle in place since 1973, and Alfa Romeo was getting a bit annoyed at seeing fellow Italian brand and direct competitor Lancia repeatedly winning the trophy with its tiny, rear-wheel drive Stratos. The answer, Alfa personnel knew, was in four-wheel drive.
But it’s how Alfa did it that was really surprising. Gianfranco “Wainer” Mantovani had a workshop that specialised in building racing cars and collaborated with Alfa Romeo’s Autodelta race wing from time to time. He was asked to come up with something and delivered in style. After much hammering, bending and fixing of metal he presented this: the Alfasud Bimotore.
You don’t need to called Luigi to know the name means ‘two-engined’. The radical (for the time) car – a spare 1974 car – used two standard parts-bin 1186cc four-cylinder engines; one at the front in its normal configuration and a second mid-mounted in place of the rear seats. Each engine drove its own axle, adopting a primitive version of a configuration we’re now starting to see a lot in performance electric cars.
The very machine is for sale right now via auctioneer RM Sothebys. Due to pass beneath the agent’s renowned hammer at the Paris-based sale on 13 February this year, the mechanically original Bimotore is surely one of the most unique and interesting Alfa Romeos ever offered for sale.
Only one was built. The two 77bhp engines still weren’t thought to be powerful enough to compete in a rapidly advancing sport. There were also potential issues with keeping both drivetrains running in exact enough sync, while being thrashed to within an inch of their lives, to really extract the maximum potential performance boost. The idea was sound; the execution problematic. Even so, the prototype would launch to 62mph in a very brisk – for 1977 – 8.2 seconds and go on to nudge 134mph.
It was a serious feat of engineering back then. Seen through 2021 vision the layout seems almost laughably basic, with the two engines using mechanically mirrored throttle actuation, separate gearboxes linked with a simple linkage bar, a pump duplicating clutch inputs over to the rear drivetrain and even two separate starter buttons, so the car could be driven on either engine alone if needed. An 80-litre fuel tank took up the boot.
Expectations and target uses kept changing, with longer rallies like the Targa Florio and African Safari rallies on the cards at one stage, but ultimately the Bimotore never quite showed enough promise to convince the Alfa management to pull the trigger. Even if it worked in the bubbling cauldron of competition, it wasn’t like they could sell it to the public.
Somehow this technically useless creation escaped the crusher or a brutal death on some steep-sided rally stage in the historic competition world. It wasn’t even dismantled and recycled. This would-be rally star has proved to be quite the survivor. Its paint and non-original livery are newly applied and to this day the car has still never been registered for the road.
Fate is a cruel mistress. Lancia’s eventually all-conquering four-wheel drive Delta appeared at the 1979 Frankfurt Motor Show. The HF performance version didn’t arrive until 1983. Who knows what would have happened if Alfa had been brave enough to send the Alfasud Bimotore into battle. The history of early 1980s world championship rallying might have been written quite differently.