In November 2007, I was doing research at the Alfa Romeo Archives, or Centro Documentazione Alfa Romeo, in Arese, Italy. I spent the day dutifully crawling around in the library stacks and poring over rare books, period newspapers and original documents for a project.
At this time, the Alfa Romeo Museum was closed to the public, so my friends at the Archives offered to give me an afternoon tour of the collection. We had the place entirely to ourselves and were free to walk up to many of the most important cars in history, including countless Grand Prix and sports racing legends. Paradiso.
Among the “greats” are the distinctive Disco Volante cars of the early ‘50s. Disco volante means “flying saucer” and their avant-garde shapes were early aerodynamic experiments, trying to see if cross-section aero would help in long crosswind segments of the Mille Miglia race.
We approached the Alfa Romeo 6C 3000 CM -- a less audacious looking but more powerful variant of the “Disco Volante” family -- to take a closer look. My guide reached into the driver’s area and produced what looked like a small sword. It wasn’t sharpened and was made from a 6-mil aluminum sheet. It had a handle and a guard and a long blade with a rounded tip. He handed it to me to hold and pointed to the handle. On it was stamped: “FANGIO.”
So what is it? As it was explained to me, Fangio wanted the ability to check his oil level while driving at speed. The filler cap was just on the other side of the driver’s windscreen (it was RHD), so he would presumably unscrew the cap, dip the “sword” in, and see what the level in the tank was. It was a simple dipstick, but one designed to be used at speed.
Unlike most drivers of the day, Fangio was a master mechanic which was one element that set him apart from the others. In the middle of grueling, two-week-long races popular in South America in the 1940’s, Fangio repaired driveshafts, axles, and even welded an engine block after throwing a rod! He was very much in tune with his machines, so it makes sense that he would want to personally monitor his oil level during a long race.
To my knowledge, he never actually raced the 6C 3000 CM on display so I’m not sure what the “sword” is doing in that particular car. He famously took a coupé version of this car to second place in the 1953 Mille Miglia, completing the latter part of the race with only one steering arm connected. The man had guts and talent!
I wish I had taken a photo, but I did not. It was before smartphones so I only had a digital camera that I was shy about using.
I have always been curious about what I saw that day, but I’ve never read anything else about it despite copious searching. I hope it wasn’t some elaborate practical joke, like a snipe hunt for unsuspecting Alfisti. I swear that these events happened exactly as described, so help me Juan-Manuel.
If you have more information, please email me as I am eager to know more. If I get clarifying information, I’ll share it in a future update!