The Sword of Fangio: First Photos!

November 15, 2021

Back in August, I shared my hazy recollections about an oddity I saw and dubbed “Fangio’s Sword.” It wasn’t actually a sword, but rather the greatest dipstick in the history of motorsports, although Nikita Mazepin is now in the running for that title <ba dum tsh!>. Without photos or any other documentation regarding its existence, I was rightfully left with doubts and doubters -- I’m looking at you Mr. Russell.

Doubters be vanquished! The photos are here, and the only ones that I know to exist of this holy relic. They arrived attached to an email that hit my inbox last week, and my most heartfelt thanks go out to my friends at Alfa Romeo Heritage. The photos are courtesy of Stefano Agazzi, former director of the Museo Storico Alfa Romeo in Arese, with a huge assist from Marco Fazio, one of my favorite people!

Remarkable Object, Remarkable Driver

Now that we can examine these photos, the sword is even more interesting than I remembered! From what I understand, the Maestro asked for the capability to check the oil in his Alfa Romeo 6C 3000 CM coupé during the 1953 Mille Miglia. Notably, he didn’t just want to check the oil, he wanted to do it while at speed. Fangio was a master mechanic and his aim was to keep a close eye on the health of the 3.5L inline six cylinder engine which was lubricated by a dry sump. 

Fangio/Sala departing Brescia, with oil filler indicated.

The oil filler was within an arm’s length of the driver’s window. He would purportedly unscrew the cap, dip the sword in, and then assess if he needed oil added at the next rifornimento. I can assure you, Michael Schumacher never once checked his own oil mid-race.

You can imagine the poor mechanic who got the request to fabricate it -- likely on short notice!  He did not skimp on craftsmanship. It doesn’t just “kinda look like” a sword. It looks exactly like a sword -- certainly no accident there. The handle has a riveted “guard” which would allow one to insert the measuring stick to the precise level needed. Brilliant!

Marked clearly are lines, either punched or drilled, to show the markings of six oil levels. I am curious how much oil it held and what each line meant. The top level is marked “MASS” for massimo, and “MIN” for minimo is third from the bottom. 

The pièce de résistance is “FANGIO” letter punched prominently in all caps on the blade. 

Fangio’s Courageous ‘53 Mille Miglia Drive

It would make the story better if this was one of Fangio’s shining moments, but that wasn’t the case this time around. However, it was a magnificent drive that illustrates what this champion was about. 

The Mille Miglia, on 26 April, 1953, was Fangio’s first race back in Europe after the worst crash of his career at Monza the prior June. While he narrowly escaped death, he did break a few vertebrae in his neck, which put him out of commission for 8 months. During the race, Fangio was showing he had lost nothing of his skill or courage. He rolled into Rome at about half distance in second place, and was pushing the more dominant Ferrari team. 

On the return leg between Florence and Bologna, over the Apennine Mountains, a support for the steering box broke. This made the car close to undriveable. Mere mortals would've retired with such bad luck, but Fangio was no mortal. Instead, he drove down the mountainous roads to Bologna, where he could weld the steering support himself. The mechanics didn’t have an electric welder. Neither Fangio nor his navigator Giulio Sala told the team or officials of the problem, out of fear they might retire the Alfa. 

The sheared steering box support meant turning left was fine, but when cranking right it would only go straight. Yet, Fangio figured out how to drive it. He used the camber of the road to track around right handers. Hitting the brakes loaded up the front end, resulting in the front right wheel turning right. Thus, all slowing down was accomplished with delicate downshifts for the final portion of the race rather than applying the brakes.  “Bridges were the most dangerous thing, because I had to take aim on them from a long way back to ensure we met them between the parapets,” Fangio later recounted. 

The combination of his innate awareness of driving dynamics, mechanical sympathy, and immense courage got him to the finish line. Only in the last corner did the car misbehave, landing in some hay bales. He backed the car out and got it across the line in Brescia, finishing in a remarkable second place. 

If it had been any other man, one would never believe such a tall tale, but that wasn't just any man, this was Juan-Manuel Fangio.

No Paper Trail

Is this sword authentic? Was it ever used? Who’s to say. Again, I only know of this because I had the good fortune to be shown it on a private tour. I would assume it to be authentic because 1) it is in the Museo Storico Alfa Romeo in Arese, which gives it veracity, and 2) it seems like an odd thing to concoct, especially if you never show it off or document it. 

If it is documented, I have been unable to locate a single reference to it either in Italian or English. Now that I’ve gotten this far I’d love to chase it down. If you have additional information or suggestions, please send them to me at chris@collectorpartexchange.com.

PHOTO GALLERY

Courtesy of Stefano Agazzi and taken at the Museo Storico Alfa Romeo in Arese, Italy.

The sword of Fangio resting on Fangio's Alfa Romeo 6C 3000 CM in the Museo Storico Alfa Romeo in Arese. (c) Stefano Agazzi
Hand-crafted markings for oil levels. (c) Stefano Agazzi
The Maestro's name stamped on the blade. (c) Stefano Agazzi
A close-up of "FANGIO." (c) Stefano Agazzi
Another close-up of the sword's business-end. (c) Stefano Agazzi

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