Of the many makes of prestigious car models on display in the famous Sinsheim Museum in Baden Wuerttenberg, we can well imagine that several have a story to tell. But probably the most incredible story is the one regarding the Alfa Romeo Jankovits – otherwise known as the Alfa Aerospider or the Alfa Romeo 6C Aerodinamica Spider, the first car that visitors come across at the entrance to the museum. A unique, extraordinary vehicle, a car of the future, conceived and built twenty years ahead of its time.
Hands up, those of you who are familiar with it! The almost unknown ARJ has a fascinating and intriguing story to tell which began in the early 1930s in the city of Fiume (now Rijeka) in the Istria peninsula: at the time it was an Italian province, whereas today it is part of the Republic of Croatia. The protagonists are two brothers: Eugenio (Gino) and Oscar Ferruccio Jankovits, two talented young men with a great deal of skill and solid financial backing who together designed and built the car destined to go down in history as one of the most important achievements in world motoring.
The “Jankowits” family was originally from Hungary, and had moved to Fiume at the end of 1800. Then, Fiume was a thriving port within the Habsburg Empire, a melting pot of Italians, Austrians, Hungarians, Germans and people from various parts of the Balkans. After World War 1, Fiume and Istria were annexed to Italy. The spelling of the family name followed the changes first becoming Jankovic and finally Jankovits under the Italian administration.
Two promising geniuses
Eugenio-Gino was born in 1911, his brother Oscar a year later. Their father Matteo died soon after returning from WW1. They grew up in the wealthy family of their grandfather Eugen Fabich, a man with a very solid financial position. An important dealer in the lumbering and saw-mills business, he was a major lumber supplier for the construction of the Suez Canal in Egypt. After graduating from high school, the two brothers went to the Polytechnic University Institute in Turin, Gino to study engineering, Oscar to study architecture. They both had a passion for engines, cars and speed, a passion shared by the other members of the family. Those were the days of great performances in racing cars. Their hero was Tazio Nuvolari. Their dream – and vison – was to build a new, very special car, a sports car that would surpass all the others in performance and beauty. Having this irrepressible urge to build something completely different, they persuaded their grandfather Eugen to invest in a garage where they could experiment and work on their ideas. And so it was that the “Autorimessa LAMPO “ became a reality in Via Ciotta 27, in the centre of Fiume. It was the biggest, most modern garage in the whole region. It employed highly skilled craftsmen: mechanics, car body workers, upholsterers, tyre specialists. It had petrol pumps for different makes of fuel; 100 parking places, and was the exclusive Alfa Romeo and OM (Officine Meccaniche Brescia) dealer for the entire region.
Unable to keep up with their studies in Turin and work in their garage at the same time, the two brothers decided to leave university and devote themselves entirely to their projects. It was no easy task, but they were passionate, determined and totally committed to the cause. It was 1933. The adventure was about to commence.
Their first sketches are dated 1935 and show the complete car, an aerodynamic supercar designed for the road with a single three-seater seat, central driving position and a twin-shaft rear engine. The first idea was to use a large OM engine, but although there was enough room for it in the engine compartment, in the end they opted for the Alfa Romeo 2300 6C Pescara type. It was Eugenio’s job to develop and assemble the mechanical parts of chassis/engine AR n. 700.316: the chassis had independent suspension designed with wishbones, transverse leaf springs, torsion bars, hydraulically shock absorbers and a modified narrow rear track a little narrower than the original.
There was also a modified Alfa 6C-2300 gearbox, a differential gearbox from the Lancia Lambda, modified Ford 8V rear suspension and four drum brakes with Lockheed parts from the 1938 Buick, central steering and a bench seat for three with the driver sitting in the middle. Other modifications included the gear lever that was re-designed so as to be in the front position with respect to the position of the rear engine. The top speed was 160 km/h.
Once they had a complete chassis rigged up with rudimentary road-going equipment and a plate with the registration number FM 2757, Eugenio and Oscar then carried out the road tests in order to make all the necessary modifications and adjustments.
Oscar, who had developed the unusual and original design, supervised the work of the craftsmen who were building the exceptional streamlined steel body at the garage Lampo. When the car was finally completed in 1939, what emerged was a breathtakingly, beautiful, low-slung granturismo spider the likes of which had never been seen before. The dream had finally become reality!
The car was equipped with a three-part windshield, windshield wipers, bumpers, blinkers, mirror, red rear lights, large headlights like lizard eyes, and large cups over the spoked wheels. It was also supposed to have a canvas hood, but this was never completed.
It was already 1939 and the winds of war were blowing. Soon after the outbreak of WW2 Italy formed an alliance with Germany. Eugenio was sent to Russia as lieutenant in the motorised division, while Oscar joined the anti-aircraft artillery in Pisa; the car remained in the garage. Miraculously, both brothers came back alive from the war following the armistice of September 8th, 1943. However, Italy and Germany were no longer allies, and in retaliation the Germans immediately occupied the Italian territory. In Fiume, the Lampo garage was requisitioned by German troops and the Jankovits had to service and maintain the vehicles of the army of occupation. Meanwhile, the car was kept carefully hidden under a tarpaulin in a used tyres warehouse where more and more tyres were piled up. When the German troops eventually withdrew, it was Marshal Tito’s Yugoslavian army that took control of the town and the whole region. This time around, the Lampo garage was confiscated by the Yugoslavs. The same power, the same arrogance. More used tyres were piled on top of the hiding place. Tito’s Military Court charged Eugenio with having collaborated with the (German) enemy and sentenced him to part-time imprisonment: being a highly skilled mechanic, he was ordered to work for them in the garage during the day and go back to prison in the evening.
Life for the Italian population had been difficult enough during the German occupation, but under Tito’s Communist regime it was not only difficult but dangerous, with many cases of people suddenly disappearing. A great number of Italians – some voluntarily and others less so – decided to leave the area for ever, even though it meant leaving all their possessions behind. This was part of that painful pattern of events which took place after the war at the eastern borders of Italy.
In the meantime, Oscar Jankovits had been travelling on business through northern Italy and had therefore avoided all the trouble his brother had had to face. Once he arrived back in Trieste, he set about organising the escape from Fiume of the rest of the two families. Eugenio, still a detainee, was by then desperately trying to leave the town that the Yugoslavs had renamed Rijeka.
On Christmas Eve, December 24th 1946, Eugenio obtained a temporary driving permit, valid until 31st December, ostensibly to buy spare parts in Trieste. The official who issued the permit wrote down the technical details of the Alfa without knowing what the car looked like. That evening, instead of going back to prison, Eugenio dug the car out of its hiding place and a getaway began at 160 km/h on the winding road from Fiume to Trieste. It was a cold, Christmas Eve night, and on the border with Italy the guards were staying inside their booths, trying to keep warm and relaxing. At the checkpoint, the Alfa raced past at full speed with the headlights off. Caught by surprise, the guards jumped out and fired a volley of shots that missed the driver but hit the tyres and the tail of the car’s bodywork. Eugenio arrived in Trieste chilled to the bone, with a couple of flat tyres and bare rims but safe and sound.
So the family was reunited but they had lost everything and were just then starting a new life as war refugees.
In Trieste the car was given the registration number TS 16804 on 13th February 1947. Meanwhile the city and its surrounding area had become a free territory called the A Zone run by an Allied Military Government (AMG) made up of British and American Forces. Under the Allied administration, the car was given the number plate TS 10652.
But it is by no means easy to survive as exiles, and unfortunately, in 1950 the Jankovits brothers had to sell the car. It was sold to an American officer based in Trieste by the name of William Ford, for the price of 375,000 Italian lire, at the time when a new Fiat 500 C cost 625,000 lire (the Fiat 500 C, known as the Topolino, was the smallest of the small cars within the reach of the lower-paid Italians). Mr. Ford loaded the Alfa onto a ship and sent it overseas. For Eugenio and Oscar it was a terrible loss, which made them feel something akin to mourning. That car was not just a machine: it had become a real member of the family.
They never saw it again. It had taken four years to build their aerodynamic spider, and the war had put an end to their dream.
Not lost but unaccounted
The car disappeared for almost 30 years. The Jankovits family had moved first to Merano where they made a living in the transport business and later went into a partnership with the opening of the garage CENTRALE in Merano and the very first Italian VW-Porsche Agency. Years later, they moved to Lake Garda where Eugenio and Oscar designed and built a hotel on the shores of the lake in Sirmione.
In 1978, the August issue of the Italian car magazine “Quattroruote” reported an intriguing piece of news from an English newspaper, recounting the discovery of a peculiar-looking, rusty car in Ballymena, Northern Ireland. The car was a single three-seater with a central driving position, and was powered by a twin-shaft six cylinder Alfa Romeo rear engine. It was sitting in the courtyard of a certain Malcolm Templeton, the Alfa Romeo dealer for Northern Ireland. Somebody suggested it might be the “163” Alfa prototype of 1941 by Wilfredo Ricart, which had never been finished, and the silhouette of the car was indeed similar to Ricart’s design. Eugenio and Oscar were stunned: it wasn’t Ricart’s prototype at all – it was their very own, unique, unrepeatable car that had miraculously reappeared! They got in touch with Luigi Fusi, the Alfa Romeo historian – and founder of the Alfa Romeo museum in Arese – and told him all about how the car had been built, and showed him the documents and drawings that Eugenio had somehow managed to save through all the trials and tribulations of his life. The fact is that in the making of the car, there had been no involvement of the Alfa Romeo factory, and no contact with Vittorio Jano, chief designer for Alfa Romeo in the 1930s.
Mr. Templeton actually invited the Jankovits to Northern Ireland to see their car once again. They were quite excited by the idea but a series of unexpected mishaps led them having to cancel the journey.
But what had happened to the car when it landed in the USA ?
Once in New York, the car disappeared, and did not resurface until 1967, when it was seen at a Vintage Car Store exhibition in Nyack, N.Y. in 1967. Then British collector Colin Crabb, the “Indiana Jones” of finding long lost motor vehicles seems to have bought the car and shipped it to UK without knowing what it was, but on the strength of the 6C Alfa Romeo engine. After various changes in ownership, the Alfa was eventually sold to Malcolm Templeton in 1976.
For some time, however, nobody seemed interested in the car and it remained forgotten in Mr. Templeton’s backyard until the article that appeared in “Quattroruote” in 1978. At that point a lot of curiosity spread around the vintage car collectors’ world. Mr. Templeton was inundated with offers to buy the car, included an offer from Luigi Fusi on behalf of the Alfa Romeo Museum in Arese. It was not until 1989, however, that he agreed to sell the vehicle; the new owner was collector Neil Crabb (no relation to Colin) who, in turn, sold it to Phil Bennet of Rodley Car Centre in Leeds, UK.
Michael Ware, with his background of professional motor sport photographer and Museum Curator at Beaulieu from 1966 to 2001, took many photos of the decaying Alfa for the Photographic Library.
Back to Italy
Eventually, after almost 50 years the Alfa made its return to Italy. In 1999 Nazario Bacchi, IVECO dealer in the Forlì and Rimini area, bought the wreck and began looking for the Jankovits brothers in order to ask for their help restoring the car, since – he admitted – he had no idea where to start. After a long search he did manage to get in touch with the Jankovits family in Sirmione, but unfortunately, Eugenio had died in 1993. Oscar was delighted to know that the car was back in Italy and from Sirmione, he promptly provided Mr. Bacchi with all the material and information he needed necessary. It took Mr Bacchi four years of painstaking attention to restore the car. Sadly, Oscar died before it was finished, in November 2000. It was Enrico and his sister Marisa, Eugenio’s children, who kept in touch with Mr. Bacchi and supplied further details when needed. When the restoration was completed, Mr. Bacchi invited Enrico and Marisa to come and see the final result, of which he was very proud. It was a very emotional moment, as the Jankovits heirs could finally touch a legend …
One more note about the restoration. Since no record was left about the original colour and Mr. Bacchi had forgotten to ask Oscar about it, he decided on a metallic light blue as he seemed to have found traces of blue under several layers of paint in the boot. The seats and upholstery were restored in navy blue. Enrico remembers his father telling them about seats in the finest wine-red leather and his sister had a vague memory of uncle Oscar mentioning a metallic gunmetal grey colour for the car, very trendy in the 1940s.
The great debut of the Alfa was in Forlì at the Old Time Show, a vintage car exhibition, on 14th February 2005, when visitors reacted with great admiration and astonishment.
Then people started to look for more information on the Web, internet forums developed and car magazines published articles, unfortunately from unreliable sources and often adding details never confirmed by documents in the possession of the family, or by the Alfa Romeo factory, or by anyone else of note. Nor were written records left by Vittorio Jano, Alfa Romeo’s chief engineer, who died in 1965. The only thing he shared with the Jankovits was a common Hungarian descent.
It is regrettable that whatever gets put on the Web, however out of date or inaccurate it is, will always remain available to any reader who comes across it.
Some time later, Mr. Bacchi sold the car through a broker without knowing the name of the buyer. Before that, he made a modification that he thought essential, moving the pedals forward a little, since an average-sized driver could not sit comfortably in such a confined space without sliding seats (in fact, both Eugenio and Oscar were less than 1.70 mt. tall.
The Alfa then vanished again until May 2008, when it re-appeared among the classic cars on show at the prestigious Concours d’Elégance at Villa d’Este, Lake Como, at this point restored as a racing car by its present owner, the German professor Georg Gebhard. I was among the visitors and that was the very first time that I happened to know something, although vague, about this car.
In its new livery, Alfa Jankovits (renamed Aerospider) is in a dark blue-green colour, and has a small racing-type windscreen, Ferrari-red leather seats and interior, visible spoked wheels and a brand new exhaust pipe. Now restored to its full splendour, it is ever present in the concours scene worldwide, when not on display at the Museum. And not only: also Goodwood Festival of Speed is another venue for the car, where the Alfa is often there to perform…
After such a long period of neglect and indifference, Eugenio and Oscar would certainly be very proud to see that the aerodynamic dream they had eight decades ago is more alive than ever and continues to amaze people.
This is the true story of an extraordinary, pioneering one-off car that lived through a big chunk of history, escaping both Hitler and Tito, together with its equally extraordinary inventors. It has a human side to it, too, involving the fates of two promising mechanical geniuses forced to give up their dream because of the war and its unfortunate consequences.
These events have been reconstructed on the basis of careful research, using the facts together with relevant photographs and documentation owned by Mr. Enrico Jankovits, Eugenio’s heir and the only surviving member of the family, to whom my profound thanks go for his valuable help. This text therefore invalidates the various rather far-fetched interpretations of the origins of the elegant bolide from Fiume and its constructors that can still be found either on the Web and/or in specialised magazines.
Although this intriguing story ends here, there is a rather unusual sequel: it became a play staged by the Dramma Italiano di Fiume (part of the Croatian National Theatre) both in Fiume/Rijeka – performed in Italian with Croatian surtitles – and in Trieste during the season 2020 – 2021. It was a forgotten story that re-emerged in Fiume thanks to documents preserved in the local State Archives and thanks to extensive investigation carried out by researcher Zoran Petrovic. Then the pen of Laura Marchig, a brilliant intellectual, author of essays and short stories, transformed it masterfully into a successful play despite the challenge of dealing with aerodynamics, transmissions, suspensions, engines, bolts, and more.
On the evening of the première, collectors and Alfa Romeo enthusiasts alike, gathered outside the Theatre to admire a display of Alfa Romeos, while the actors arrived on board Alfa Romeos provided by the Alfisti Club of Pisino/Pazin and the Alfa Romeo Emotion Factory of Fiume/Rijeka.
I was able to see the play performed in Trieste and the emotion and passion created on the stage spread over a very attentive audience and was almost palpable as the story unfolded.