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Behind the scenes of Alfa Romeo The key role of people out of the spotlight Bruno Bonini

Bruno Bonini

In the prehistory of car-racing, when an Alfa Romeo finished first there was someone else to thank beside the car and its driver: all the racing mechanics who had worked tirelessly in the shadow to break yet another record. With this article I want to honour these silent heroes who, in Alfa's pits and in lengthy road tests alike, proved beyond doubt their remarkable skills, experience, intuition, self-denial and burning passion.

I often had lunch with Bruno Bonini in the Alfa Romeo canteen, feasting more on his tales than on food. One day, I asked him about his father Pietro, whom I had frequently seen portrayed next to illustrious personalities and drivers in Alfa Romeo's Historic Archive..

Bruno Bonini and me in the office of Alfa's Historic Archive

Bruno Bonini, unforgotten and beloved by anyone who works with or is a fan of classic Alfas, had been a tester for Alfa Romeo since the late 1930s. Thanks to his superior technical skills, which were every bit as good as those of professional drivers, he ended up testing the majority of the Alfas built after World War II, including some of the models most sought after by collectors, like the 1900, the Giulietta, the Giulia in all its variants, numerous prototypes and racing cars. He assisted Manuel Fangio in Formula 1 competitions and took part in the 1000 Miglia and Carrera Panamericana races.

When I told him that I envied him for having travelled all over the world, he replied that to him most of the places he had been to were nothing but workshops and (more or less equipped) garages filled with piles of tyres, oil cans, spare parts and tool boxes with hardly any space left to breathe. A real tour de force made of trials and races during the day and repairs, modifications and improvements at night followed by a few hours of sleep, often with the overall still on and the smell of fuel and burnt oil impregnating the skin.

After a life spent with Alfa Romeo, even when he retired Bruno continued to be part of the car maker's world: he became Restoration Director of Museo Alfa Romeo, Curator for Registro Italiano Alfa Romeo (RIAR) and Team Manager of Scuderia del Portello, for which he kept racing in classic-car competitions. It was in one of these races, during the trials of the 1994 edition of the Francorchamps 6 Hours, that he lost his life at the wheel of a Giulia GTA.

Last picture with Bruno Bonini: he died two days later on a Giulia GTA during the trials of the Francorchamps race.

Bruno left me indelible memories and a deep sense of gratitude for always offering his support and precious help when I was given the task of reorganising Alfa Romeo's Historical Archive in November 1983. I was really scared, not by the amount of work: I felt that creating a tool which allowed to preserve and present correctly a history as illustrious as Alfa Romeo's to strengthen its prestige and brand image (which for a company is far more important than mere capital) was the right thing to do. The issue for me was my limited knowledge of names, events, and dates. But as work progressed and thanks to Bruno's help, things began to change: little by little, I discovered the pleasure of looking back, of learning lesser known aspects of facts and people but, above all, I discovered the excitement of research and the satisfaction brought by each new finding.

Bruno followed in his father's footsteps: thanks to his technical skills, Pietro Bonini had been the "racing engineer" of some notable champions, like Antonio Ascari, Tazio Nuvolari, Achille Varzi and Rudolf Caracciola. Bruno inherited the passion for his work and for Alfa Romeo from his father, who might also have passed down to him the ability to mesmerise his audience and his generosity in sharing all his knowledge in a clear, simple way.

One day, he began to tell one of his tales in front of a plate of spaghetti and continued inside the Archive where we went looking for photos that could corroborate his memories. He started by saying that his father had worked mostly for Alfa's racing sector, especially in Germany where he was sent in 1932 to set up the car maker's Berlin branch. The arrival of Rudolf Caracciola in Alfa Romeo's team was very much his doing. Between the driver and the Alfa mechanic (who was born in Switzerland and spoke excellent German) there was a deep friendship, so much so that when Caracciola was negotiating his return to Mercedes, in a letter dated 3 December 1933 he asked Bonini to go with him.


Dear Bonini! As you can see I'm no longer in Bologna, I'm at Mercedes's to talk about next year. My leg is much better and I think in a couple of months everything will be back to normal. I'm writing to ask you what your plans for next year are and what you would like to do. I can offer you the following for next year: a two-year contract as a "racing mechanic"; a monthly allowance of 3,800 Liras for each month you spend away from Milan. This amount covers your pay, travel costs, board and lodging. Train trips will be paid extra. In addition to that, you'll receive the 3.5% of each prize I win. During the winter months when you are home in Milan and not working, you will earn 1,900 Liras. Plus an accident insurance. Please, think about it and, if possible, let me know what you decide next week. I'd be delighted if you accepted. Should you have other offers on hand or disagree with any of the above mentioned points, do not hesitate to let me know frankly and honestly.

Hoping to receive a positive reply soon, please accept my best regards.

Rudolf Caracciola


Bonini didn't leave Alfa and, as a sign of appreciation for his long and valuable collaboration, the Milanese car maker sponsored his victory at the Milan Chamber of Commerce award for loyalty on the workplace and economic progress, which was assigned in November 1956. His friendship with the German driver didn't suffer from his refusal to follow him; on the contrary, when Caracciola died, Bonini found himself included in his will.

Alfa gave him different jobs, all of which required commitment, competence and much courage. With Consalvo Sanesi and a handful of colleagues, he managed to salvage the Alfettas 158 which had been hidden in Monza in the evacuated premises of Automobil Club Milano at the outbreak of World War II. Colonel Covacivic, Automobil Club's Director, informed Alfa Romeo that the Germans appeared too interested in the racing cars and that they were at high risk of being taken away. With his help, two trucks reached the hiding place and started to load the cars, but they hadn't gone unnoticed. In no time a German soldier arrived screaming and brandishing his gun; this attracted more soldiers and the situation was quickly degenerating. Thanks to his fluency in German and a special card issued by one of the two German commands that had taken control of Alfa, though, Pietro Bonini and his colleagues managed to finish loading the cars. He took them to Abbiategrasso in the workshop of famous power-boat racing driver Achille Castoldi who hid them behind a wall until the end of the war.
General Manager Ugo Gobbato gave Bonini another important assignment: he sent him on a secret mission to Berlin to meet Albert Speer, German minister and head of the Todt organisation, and deliver him a letter asking to stop the looting of valuable materials, such as steel, magnesium and copper, from the Portello warehouses. After countless ordeals and an excruciating two-day wait, Bonini was able to deliver to Gobbato the answer that made Alfa's post-war recovery and racing achievements possible.

He was also in charge of "home" delivering cars to special customers. At the time, Alfa Romeo went the extra mile to meet the most sophisticated requests of its exclusive clientele. For kings, politicians and socialites owning an Alfa Romeo was a sign of distinction because the car maker's winning streak both in road and track competitions gave its vehicles unique character.

In 1935, Bonini personally delivered an Alfa to Benito Mussolini's head of government, who was a passionate Alfa admirer. Bonini drove the 6C 2300 cabriolet Pescara from Milan to Rome with his wife Adele, who was immortalized in a beautiful picture taken during a stop on the Futa pass.
The Berlina 6C 1750 was presented in Gardone Riviera on 28 April 1932 at the presence of Tazio Nuvolari, who attended upon specific request of Gabriele D’Annunzio (illustrious Italian poet who wanted to meet the “irresistible driver”), Alfa Romeo's Managing Director Prospero Gianferrari, and obviously Pietro Bonini, who had fine tuned the car. On that occasion, the poet gave them a golden turtle, which Nuvolari always pinned on his yellow shirt as an amulet. This historic encounter was immortalized in a wonderful shot portraying an elegantly dressed D'Annunzio seated besides Nuvolari on the running-board of the Berlina 6C. Four days later, Bonini went back to Gardone to deliver to the poet the car he had ordered. Being sick and unable to meet him, D'Annunzio wrote him this letter:


Dear Colleague,

thank you for coming to free the exquisite Alfa.
I have been sick with a iodine poisoning since the evening of your wonderful visit.
And I regret not being able to greet you and receive from you practical driving indications for the car. Donna Luisa will gladly take my place since she aims at taking over the wheel! Best wishes to you and all the car maker's community,

Gabriele D’Annunzio.

2 May 1932


Bonini was also in charge of the fine tuning and delivery of all Alfas sold to the House of Savoy. In a letter dated 2 December 1942, the King of Romania complimented Alfa Romeo “for the outstanding perfection achieved by your production, which does honour to Your Brand and to the Italian industry”. With many thanks“for the good conditions in which the 8C 2900 was delivered and for the excellent fine-tuning, clarifications and suggestions on the workings of the car provided by your tester Bonini”. King Bernhard of the Netherlands expressed similar appreciation upon delivery of his 8C 2900, as many other illustrious people did.

A few days after our chat, Bruno shared with me his family memory album and allowed me to make a copy for the Alfa Romeo Archive. A beautiful close-up of Pietro Bonini at the wheel of a 8C 2900 Spider in Cinecittà immediately caught my attention. It had been taken when he worked as a stunt double in the movie La danza delle lancette. That day, Bruno wore on his jacket the famous turtle given by D'Annunzio to his father to show it to me. I will never forget that little turtle for two reasons: for the thrill of seeing it and for the sorrow of learning the next day that Bruno had lost it! He remembered having it when he had stopped at a garage before going home. He had looked everywhere for it but to no avail; the old clasp had likely broken. I told him I felt responsible for his loss because hadn't I been so curious, it would still be safely at home.

In the wake of my personal memories and emotions, I have to remember three more people who contributed to making Alfa Romeo one of the most prestigious names in car history, three important figures I had the honour of meeting: Consalvo Sanesi, Gianbattista Guidotti and Guido Moroni.

Dedication by Consalvo Sanesi (portrayed in Monza on his Alfetta 158)

Consalvo Sanesi arrived in Alfa in 1927 for a trial period as racing mechanic of count Gastone Brilli Peri, who in 1925 had won the first World Championship with the P2. When the driver died in an accident, Sanesi was assigned at first to Giuseppe Campari, then to Baconin Borzacchini and, finally, to Goffredo Zehender. In 1933 he became the tester of all series vehicles racing in Attilio Marinoni's team. When he was sent to work for Scuderia Ferrari in Modena, he was replaced by Gianbattista Guidotti. In 1938, Sanesi passed to the newborn Alfa Corse as a tester and apprentice driver with Emilio Villoresi and Giordano Aldrighetti, who unfortunately were both victims of deadly accidents on their Alfettas 158. In 1940, Marinoni too died while running tests on the Milan-Varese motorway, and Sanesi became chief tester for series and racing cars. His opinion was highly regarded, and his racing record was noteworthy too. In 1964, he risked his life in a scary accident at the Sebring 12 Hours which left his face permanently scarred. His recovery was quick, but he retired three years later.

Shy and humble, that's how I remember him. He made his last public appearence at RIAR's annual Members' Meeting held at the Arese Museum on 16 December 1996. On that occasion he shared a previously unknown anecdote substantiated by a 1950 letter from Enzo Ferrari who offered him a much higher pay compared to what he earned in Alfa Romeo to race for their team. Despite the reiterated verbal and written solicitations, Sanesi declined because his loyalty to Alfa Romeo was worth to him more than monetary compensation.

Dedication by Gianbattista Guidotti (here with Nuvolari after winning the 1930 1000 Miglia edition with his Alfa 6C 1750)
My memories of Gianbattista Guidotti are much more vivid because I had the chance of seeing him often. When I first met him, he told me: “You are so young you can't possibly know who I am”. He had entered my office asking to make a phone call. The person he called wasn't available for lunch, so he invited me to join him in the canteen. That was the beginning of his legendary tales of overtakings with headlights off and Neapolitan songs that replaced the Italian anthem abroad. He was a tireless speaker and, at first, I didn't understand why so many people disappeared when he came looking for them. Then it dawned on me that cavalier Guidotti didn't realise that his chats could "pin you down" for hours. One day while sorting out some documents, I found one of the planners Alfa gave away every year. It listed a long record of honours, and Guidotti's name appeared many times starting from his victorious debut in 1927 as co-driver in the Cuneo-Colle della Maddalena uphill race.

Dedication by Gianbattista Guidotti (here at the wheel of his Alfa Romeo 12 cyl. 4500 cc. during the 1937 Gran Premio d'Italia in Leghorn)
Quite an impressive record! Between 1946 and 1951, a glorious period in which Alfa Romeo won 28 GPs and two World Championships, he was also listed as Team Manager and spare driver. I couldn't help but wonder if the people who avoided him knew who Gianbattista Guidotti was! The last time I spoke to him on the phone was two weeks prior to his death. He had called to tell me that he had sent me a box with some old user and maintenance manuals for the Archive. He passed away in July 1994, preceding Bruno Bonini and Carlo Chiti by a few days.

With Guido Moroni and Giuseppe Busso
What I feel for Guido Moroni is great respect and a sincere friendship which developed during our Wednesday meetings at the Archive. I have learnt a lot on these occasions, including how to read shop drawings. He is so humble he doesn't like people to talk about him, so I truly hope he won't hold these few lines against me. He arrived in Alfa Romeo in September 1938 and attended the company school and the Technical College evening classes at the same time. Three years later he was sent to the Design Division of Direzione Servizi Studi Speciali, where he worked as a racing car designer until the end of 1945. He signed many of the drawings for the technical details of the 512 prototype. Then he became an engine tester and, after being moved to Servizio Sperimentale in 1950, an experimental car tester. He operated under Consalvo Sanesi's oversight and gradually worked his way up until he replaced him when he retired in 1967.

Moroni and me at the celebrations for the Giulietta's 50th Anniversary (Milan, June 2004)
In 1980 he was promoted to executive in the R&D division and supervised the prototype road testing. He retired in 1985 but kept working for Alfa Romeo as an advisor until 1997. Guido is one of those people who never seem to get old, neither in appearance nor in spirit, as his former colleagues can confirm. Whenever they met him on the way to the canteen, they stopped by and greeted him with a: “Hi, Moroni, how is it going? Look at that... he's always the same”. To which he invariably replied: “As the Scriptures said in the past, carry on until it lasts…”.

With Moroni and cav. Giorgetti of Afra

The importance of each contact I had with these knowledgeable men and their riveting memories is not merely professional because they all offered me a true, open, humanly enriching relationship. To them I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude for bringing a warmer and more personal feel to projects dictated by cold productive logics and the constant obligation to win.

Elvira Ruocco

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