In 1917 Wifredo Ricart is 20 years old and has just graduated from the Higher Technical School of Industrial Engineering in Barcelona. Son of a sailor father, this young man with an inclination towards aviation found his first relevant work in the Vallet and Fiol workshops. There, far from focusing on sports mechanics or designs to take to the skies focuses its day to day on the manufacture of diesel engines and water pumps. A practical and prosaic job in which he cut his teeth as a workshop director. Thus, after three years he has accumulated the necessary experience to found, together with his partner Paco Pérez, his first company.
Ricart and Perez. Without a doubt, it is as little inventive in image and advertising work as it is effective when it comes to making engines and racing cars. Regarding the first, his little Rex motorized thousands of bicycles just like after the Second World War Honda did with the 50 Cub. In addition, thanks to the fact that this product balances the company's accounts, Ricart feels free to create his first sports cars. Just a century ago now. In 1922. Mounting on them four-cylinder engines and double overhead camshaft to reach 58 CV.
His first experience with racing, thanks to which he gradually fine-tuned his competition models until he drew the attention of the European market at the 1927 Paris Motor Show. An appointment in which he presented a V6 engine with two valves per cylinder and 1.500 DC. A daring design for the time due to the short diameter/stroke ratio of the pistons and connecting rods. Promoting a higher rotation speed. In short, just the approach of a nervous and cheerful engine when it came to going up in revolutions that during those years began to replace the mills with large displacements.
THE YEARS IN ALFA ROMEO, HEADING TO THE GAZZELLA
Hired in the special projects section, Wifredo Ricart finds himself in a stimulating work environment where he rubs shoulders with Giuseppe Busso, Vittorio Jano and Gioacchino Colombo. Basic names for the history of Italian motoring. Having determined with key designs the direction of Alfa Romeo, Lancia and Ferrari respectively. However, far from shrinking Ricart learns and grows even more until he is appointed director of the section in 1940 by appointment of Ugo Gobbato. General manager of Alfa Romeo from 1933 until his assassination in 1945. Who with that decision puts Ricart at the forefront of the design of competition models.
However, despite being fundamental to the races, Wifredo Ricart never sticks exclusively to them. Far from it, he displays the same versatility that he had already shown in Barcelona. In this way, before 1940 he signs the design of diesel engines -one of his best specialties- of his and even that of a 28-cylinder aircraft engine for the Alfa Romeo Avio in Pomigliano d'Arco outside of Naples. A prolific work that continues during the war. When despite the transfer of the offices to Lago d'Orta -due to the bombing of the Portello factory- he continues to lead both racing projects and others focused on reaching the series.
Among the first is the Type 512. First Italian single-seater with a central engine, also being a 12-cylinder boxer. A true marvel for the engineering of the moment, inspired by the Auto Union to give a very low center of gravity and a balanced weight distribution. Of course, never released at the top of the world competition. As after the fight Alfa Romeo prefers to play it safe by recovering its 158 instead of ending the development of the 512. In addition, Ricart also led the design of the aerodynamic Type 1941 berlinetta in 163.
A brilliant sports prototype for the three-litre category, equipped with a flat sixteen-cylinder engine. Very bold for the moment. Fast-forwarding more than twenty years to Ferrari's adoption of the mid-engine with the 250 LM. However, at this point what interests us most about the Type 163 is not its chassis or its engine. But a detail as precise as the fairing of your wheel arches. Which will be replicated in the design of the Gazzella despite speaking here of a sedan with capacity for up to six passengers. Possibly the most interesting project of Wifredo Ricart for Alfa Romeo when we talk about designs designed to reach series.
GAZZELLA, A SALOON BASED ON THE 6C
During World War II it can be difficult to keep track of certain automotive projects. In fact, it becomes complex even to investigate already built models since they were hidden. Without going any further, the 158 single-seaters that after the contest won many races. Saved from bombings and assaults thanks to their custodian in a cheese factory. Fortunately, however, there is still a record of the activities of the special projects office headed by Wifredo Ricart at the Centro di Documentazione Storica Alfa Romeo.
In this way, we can see how the brand is preparing for times of peace not only by developing competition models, but also some series ones. An activity in which the one known as project 1352 in internal code stands out. Gazzella germ. Saloon designed on the basis of the 6C with which Alfa Romeo wants to put itself at the forefront of mid-high range sedans thanks to a modern and advanced design. Thus, its first references appear in 1943. While the Alfa Romeo development team works hidden in the Italian Alps under the direction of Wifredo Ricart.
In this way, the first thing that was done was to rethink the bodywork of the 6C to make this two-door a saloon model. In this sense, the designers imagined lines clearly inspired by the 1937 Lancia Aprilia if we stick to the sides and the resolution of the rear. In the first, because the absence of the B-pillar is noted, leaving open access when opening the doors wide since the rear ones are suicidal. The same solution used by Lancia in one of its recurring displays of engineering and innovation. In the second, because the way in which they fall, collect and join the lines of the Gazzella in its rear is quite consistent with the unmistakable style of the Aprilia.
INNOVATIONS IN GEARSHIFT AND HABITABILITY
However, despite these Lancia-labeled influences, the Alfa Romeo Gazzella has two very interesting bodywork elements. The first is the fairing of the wheels that we mentioned when talking about the Type 163 of 1941. And the second is the resolution of the front, where the retractable headlights stand out as I had already proposed. Cord in 1936 with his luxurious 810. Beyond the exterior, the interior of the Gazzella required a profound redesign of the base of the 6C to free up the space to be occupied by the two benches. Something that mainly affected the gear lever. removed thanks to incorporation of a hydraulic change system actuated from a lever located on the steering wheel. First the desired gear is selected there and then the clutch pedal is actuated to make the change. Very refined.
Just what is expected from a design conceived by Giuseppe Busso. Who in 1944 raised the mechanics and the gearbox of the Gazzella together with Wifredo Ricart. A point where we come to another important novelty. Since like the Citroën Traction Avant of 1934, this Alfa Romeo was going to be front-wheel drive and not rear-wheel drive. In this way, the absence of the transmission running along the floor of the passenger compartment frees up even more space for passengers. Which is why the Gazzella is conceived as a sedan that can accommodate up to six people. Three in front and three behind.
However, it should also be noted how we have found sources that indicate the adoption of a transaxle system as in the 158/159 Alfetta single-seaters. Something not very believable. Since, although it is true that Wifredo Ricart himself extensively tested this scheme -also in his Pegaso Z102-, does not fit us with the need to free up space in the passenger compartment. Neither with that nor with what Elvira Ruocco pointed out. She worked for the Alfa Romeo registry for three decades, thus having access to primary sources such as the plans of the Gazzella.
ALFA ROMEO GAZZELLA, A PROJECT THAT DID NOT FINISH
Although only a single prototype of the Gazzella is built, it seems that it was very close to reaching series. In this sense, annotations have been found in which Alfa Romeo allocates 256 million lire to the production of a first series with 1.280 units. Set at about 200.000 lire as the sale price. Calculations that speak for themselves about how far this proposal went, of which an emblem of its own was even created in 1944. Another clue to argue how serious Wifredo Ricart's Gazzella was. Since this exemplifies how Alfa Romeo weighed the idea of opening a sub-brand in which to incorporate the new range of sedans.
Those that would end up forging in 1900 of 1950. Five years after the liquidation of the Gazzella project, coinciding with the end of the Second World War. Precisely the commercial moment for which the brand was waiting with the design of this innovative sedan. At this point the question is clear. Why was such an advanced project scrapped to the point of making it fall into complete oblivion? In this sense there are several answers. The first has to do with the fact that Alfa Romeo preferred to wait to develop a more compact and completely new sedan to enter that segment. Process that culminated as we have indicated before in 1900.
The second goes on the thread of the first. Indicating how in 1946 the emblematic 6C Freccia d'Oro was presented. Bodied by Alfa Romeo itself and, even being a two-door, with four real seats thanks to a rear by the way very similar to that of the Gazzella. A model that, being new, really did not need a large investment since it continued the 6C saga itself. without introducing structural changes as the project by Wifredo Ricart and Giuseppe Busso did. The third is more political. Saying that, given Ricart's possible sympathies with the powers of the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo axis, he left Italy at the end of March 1945 for political reasons. Thus, he ended up in Spain. Where he finally stayed to participate in the founding of ENASA under the protection of the Franco government.
However, this theory also raises questions. Since, after all, there are several testimonies in which it is assured how Ricart came to Spain only in passing, tempted by an offer from Studebaker in the United States. In addition, even with political reckonings like the one that possibly followed the assassination of Ugo Gobbato, Alfa Romeo would surely not miss the Gazzella just for ideological squeamishness. Just as both the Soviets and the Americans had no problem using Nazi technology and personnel in their space careers after World War II.
Be that as it may, the truth is that in 1950 the Alfa Romeo 1900 arrived with a new design and accessible to the new middle classes. Something for which, applying the brilliance of simplicity exalted by Ockham's Razor, makes us think of it as the reason why the ostentatious and striking Gazzella was buried. Undoubtedly one of the most interesting designs in Wifredo Ricart's career, as well as one of the most striking lost prototypes in the history of Alfa Romeo.
Images from the Centro di Documentazione Storica Alfa Romeo, Stellantis and FCA Heritage.