In the early 1950s, Alfa Romeo left Formula One undefeated to focus its efforts on series production. The brand's competitive streak remained strong and returned in the mid-sixties with an ambition to win the World Championship for Makes. Thus the “Tipo 33” project was set in motion.
In the 1950s, Alfa Romeo took a major evolutionary step forward, introducing its first assembly line for mass car production. This decision called for huge organisational and economic restructuring. To cut costs, the brand’s management reluctantly withdrew from Formula One after the end of the 1951 season, despite having won the first two editions. This retirement from motorsport's top category did not erase Alfa Romeo’s competitive streak: on the contrary, the Alfa Romeo 1900, which was the marque's first vehicle built on an assembly line in Portello, immediately became "the family car that wins races". Many gentlemen drivers chose it to compete in the Touring Car category, where it proved to be a winner.
Those successful years in Touring car racing inspired the Alfa Romeo design department to create competition cars for racing in the Sports Prototype category of the World Sportscar Championship. The championship was hugely popular with the public at the time and represented an excellent advertising opportunity. The resulting design was for a mid/rear engine car built around a futuristic H-frame chassis. The 1600cc engine that powered this first prototype was taken from the Giulia TZ2.
The Giulia TZ and TZ2 were effectively GT-class racing cars that Alfa Romeo had outsourced to a small external company for assembly, as only a limited number of units were required to obtain homologation. That company was Autodelta, a specialist race prep workshop founded by engineer Carlo Chiti. In 1966 the management of Alfa Romeo decided to acquire Autodelta and relocate it to Portello to become the brand’s official racing department. As a result, the "Tipo 33” sports prototype project passed into the hands of Chiti and his team.
Designed solely for racing, sports prototypes are equipped with a highly sophisticated engine and chassis, and produced in limited numbers needed to obtain homologation. With this in mind, former Alfa and Ferrari engine designer Chiti developed a refined and powerful two-litre V8 engine producing 270 bhp to equip the new “Tipo 33” mid-engine car.
So perfect was the prototype that it even enjoyed a winning debut. Chief test driver Teodoro Zeccoli claimed victory in the Fléron Hillclimb near Liège, Belgium on 12 March 1967, driving the first version of the 33/2, which was nicknamed “Periscopica” because the ram air intake behind the driver looked like a periscope.
The Alfa Romeo 33/2 (wherein the number 33 represented the project number and 2 the displacement in litres) was ready to compete in the International Championship for Sports-Prototypes. Its gruelling endurance races were the blue-riband events of motorsport, with mythical names such as the 24 Hours of Daytona and Le Mans, the 12 Hours of Sebring, the Monza 1000 km, the Nürburgring 500 km and the Targa Florio.
Following numerous class victories, the Alfa Romeo 33 became the car on everyone's lips, so Alfa Romeo capitalised on this fame by producing a limited edition streel-legal version that was nothing short of a masterpiece. The project’s success continued to snowball, culminating in victory in the 1975 World Championship for Makes
The 33/2 racked up numerous class wins in the 1968 championship, most notably in the 24 Hours of Daytona, where it claimed all three podium places thanks to the crews of Vaccarella-Shütz, Andretti-Bianchi and Casoni-Biscardi-Zeccoli. The momentous success of the Alfa Romeo 33/2 in this famous American race was commemorated by adding ‘Daytona’ to the car's model name. The 33 also achieved outstanding results in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, securing another 1-2-3 finish in its class, and in some events even placed higher in the overall standings than overwhelmingly more powerful cars: it happened at Mugello, where Vaccarella-Bianchi-Galli took top spot on the podium.
The 33 also competed in many hillclimb events with aerodynamic modifications to adapt it to the different courses, such as the fitting of a long tail or short tail according to need. The car evolved and the engine displacement was increased to 2.5 litres, enabling it to produce 315 bhp. Then came the Alfa Romeo 33/3—with the V8 engine’s displacement enlarged to 3 litres—which achieved important wins in the 1971 race calendar. A magnificent specimen, wearing the livery used at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1970, still delights visitors to the brand's museum in Arese and is often used in heritage motor events, just like the 33/2 Daytona exemplar.
But the project continued to evolve and finally in 1975, helped Alfa Romeo to realise its dream of winning the World Championship for Makes. The star car in an all-conquering campaign was the Alfa Romeo 33 TT 12, equipped with a three-litre flat 12-cylinder engine capable of developing 500 bhp. Piloted by great drivers, most of whom were also racing in Formula One, such as Arturo Merzario, Jochen Mass, Jacques Laffite, Henri Pescarolo and Nino Vaccarella, the 33 TT 12 cars won seven out of eight championship races to secure the world title. The car's acclaimed 12-cylinder engine would subsequently pave the way for Alfa Romeo's return to Formula One in 1979.
Unlike many race cars, the 33 had the advantage of being developed initially as a competition vehicle. This later formed the basis for a road-going version designed by Franco Scaglione, of which only a handful of superb specimens were produced: the specialist press and the general public alike consider the Alfa Romeo 33 Stradale to be one of the finest sports cars of all time. Alfa Romeo also manufactured a number of Stradale chassis specifically for Italy’s top coachbuilders, who used them to create extraordinary show cars including Bertone’s 33 Carabo, Giugiaro's Iguana and Pininfarina’s P33 Roadster, Spider Cuneo and Coupé Speciale.
Andrea De Adamich—historic Alfa Romeo driver—takes a 33/2 from the Historical Museum in Arese onto the asphalt in the Targa Florio, on the Madonie circuit.