Mussolini's mistress, her Alfa Romeo and the $3 million barn find

Marco R. della Cava
·Automotive Contributor
Mussolini's mistress, her Alfa Romeo and the $3 million barn find
Mussolini's mistress, her Alfa Romeo and the $3 million barn find

Many sports cars make history, but few are part of it. Such is the case with RM Auctions’ Lot 137, which on Wednesday in Paris will gracefully roll into its next owner’s life for somewhere between $2.3 million and $3 million.

The automobile in question is a 1939 Alfa Romeo 6C2500 Sport Berlinetta, a striking pontoon-fendered, wire-wheeled two-door sedan that was a gift from Italian dictator Benito Mussolini to his girlfriend, Clara Petacci.

Fast forward to the spring of 1945 and the waning and frantic days of World War II. Petacci and her brother Marcello hop in the Alfa and, making the most of their race-bred vehicle’s 110-hp, triple-Weber inline six, speed north to rendezvous with Mussolini near Lake Como. Their goal is asylum in neutral Switzerland.

But as the convoy, which includes a retreating German anti-aircraft unit, barrels on, it is stopped at an Italian partisan checkpoint. The Fascist leader and his girlfriend are swiftly shot and then hung by their heels at a gas station. The Alfa Romeo’s keys end up in the pocket of a U.S. Army officer. Mussolini’s story is over, but the Alfa’s begins again.

1939 Alfa Romeo 6C2500 Sport Berlinetta. Click for gallery
1939 Alfa Romeo 6C2500 Sport Berlinetta. Click for gallery

“The history of this car certainly gives you something to talk about,” says Peter Wallman, RM Europe’s car specialist, employing extreme understatement. “The Mussolini provenance adds interest, but first you need to be captivated by the 6C’s harmonious shapes, its delightful rear spats and raked grille.”

And there’s the chance to take the car back home to Italy for a momentous national rally. “Running this Alfa in the Mille Miglia would be a natural,” says Wallman, adding that RM’s estimate for the car was reached independent of its place in world history.

That might be underselling this 6C a bit. Consider that last summer, a Ferrari 275 GTB once owned by Steve McQueen sold for $10 million, more than double what the same car driven by anyone other than the iconic actor might fetch. Granted, Mussolini is no McQueen, but for many collectors owning a car with famous connections clearly is worth a premium.

So what did happen to the red car — which during the flight north was disguised as a Spanish diplomatic vehicle — after its ignominious owners were hauled out of it?

Italian authorities brought the car to the northern Italian port city of Livorno, where it was acquired by Army Air Corps officer Major Charles Pettit, who used it to shuttle around the town. In 1949, Pettit shipped the car home to upstate New York, where he drove it until a failed connecting rod landed the Alfa Romeo a permanent place in a barn.

Then things got interesting in the manner of most great classic-car tales. In 1970, the thoughtful students of a car-loving Mohawk, N.Y., high school teacher named Ron Keno pointed out an ad for the thoroughly forlorn Alfa in Hemmings Motor News.

Ron Keno's twin boys and the Alfa Romeo as found.
Ron Keno's twin boys and the Alfa Romeo as found.

Keno was smitten, not just with the paintless shell but also its vague connection to World War II. Keno tracked down Mussolini historian Richard Collier, who, remarkably, put him in touch with Franz Spogler, a former Nazi whose job it had been to chauffeur Petacci and Mussolini in the 6C in the last few years of the war.

Keno and Spogler corresponded about the Alfa by mail, with the latter confirming enough details about the car to convince Keno he had the real McCoy. Spogler eventually flew to the U.S. to meet Keno and see the car, and in the process pointed out a roll of German tools that he recalled being given by German soldiers in order to fix the Italian sports car during a breakdown. This confirmation of the Alfa’s unique status sped its rise to fame.

1939 Alfa Romeo 6C2500 Sport Berlinetta
1939 Alfa Romeo 6C2500 Sport Berlinetta

In the late ‘70s, the partially restored 6C was sold to a Connecticut enthusiast, who soon thereafter passed it on to the then-renowned car collection at the Imperial Palace Hotel in Las Vegas. In 1999, it was sold to a new owner who had the engine rebuilt in Italy in order to race in the Mille Miglia in 2001 and 2002.

Inspired by the car’s newfound vigor, the owner decided to spend half a million euro to fully restore the 6C, a job that included oversight visits by Carlo Anderloni, the son of the founder of Carrozzeria Touring, which sculpted the exquisite body.

“This was a spare no expense type of restoration, aided by a lot of research, photographs and original (factory) drawings,” says Wallman. “Nearly 85% of the body was saved, which is saying a lot considering what the car had been through over the decades.”

RM’s Paris affair does boast a number of other cars that will be competing for attention and money with the Alfa Romeo 6C. Those include a number of Ferraris (including a first-time-at-auction 1963 250GT Lusso by Scaglietti that could pass the $2 million mark) and Porsches (the most notable of which is an ex-Porsche works 1969 911S that won the Acropolis Rally that could go for as much as $1.5 million).

“Ferraris still stand out from all other marques, and I think that’s largely because you have that close association with Formula 1 racing,” say Wallman. “It’s not just that they continue to race, it’s that they’re the only ones who do everything, from bodies to engines, themselves. And that’s what’s selling their classic cars” for such high figures.

As for Porsche, whose most special 911s continue to surge in value, Wallman similarly says the combination of “brand, quality and racing history is finally getting these cars the recognition they deserve,” noting that the Paris auction even features a non-racing 1989 Porsche 911 Speedster that may sell for as much as $220,000, or nearly four times its 1989 base price.

Such vaulting prices may have an easy explanation. As technology automates more of our lives, there is a greater pull to the old.

“I think we all lust after a tactile involvement with things, whether they be old watches or cameras or cars, things with knobs and switches and noises,” says Wallman. “Modern cars, you open the hood they’re mostly big black boxes.”

Not so the 1939 Alfa Romeo 6C, a true player on the stage of history.

UPDATE: The Alfa Romeo sold on Wednesday for $2.1 million, before RM Auctions' premium.