When I first began reading books and articles about the early Alfa Romeo History, I couldn’t help noticing a face that kept popping up in the winning cars. Alfa Romeo did well from 1920 and the next 15 years, but very often the winning car had a guy called Giulio Ramponi as riding mechanic.
I’ve known a number of good mechanics and skilled workers over time, and I think I can recognize the proud and self-confident face of a technician who knows what he’s doing. And Giulio Ramponi always struck me as one of those guys; he looks polite and friendly – and at ease with what he’s doing.
Then I took notice of what he actually did, and it really occurred to me that he must have earned the respect, and the opportunities that he was given.
He was originally spotted, age 18 years, by Giuseppe Campari who had been with Alfa Romeo since the beginning. This was 1919 and Alfa was just starting their success run, so he was there when Enzo Ferrari joined the following year, and subsequently when Vittorio Jano came from Fiat in 1924. I may be over-interpreting the little facts, but I think Ramponi had big ambitions – and that he really didn’t like Ferrari and was envious of Jano’s success.
Nevertheless Giulio Ramponi did well, and was appointed chief test driver by team manager Attilio Marinoni in 1925, when he was no longer allowed to ride with Antonio Ascari in The P2; this was the year when riding mechanics were banned in GP racing. And this might very well have saved Ramponi’s life, because Ascari crashed fatally during that season in the P2.
He seemed to work close together with Luigi Bazzi, whom Enzo Ferrari also had persuaded to leave Fiat, and he was chief tester on the 6C1500 project; a project that really changed the company. He rode with Campari in the 1928 Mille Miglia – which they won in the 6C1500 compressor car – after a failed attempt at the inaugural 1927 MM in an Alfa Romeo RLTF. And he won again in 1929 in the early 6C1750 with Campari.
His testing earned him the possibility to have a go at racing the 6C1500 himself. Vittorio Jano allowed him to race the 80 km Col de Madeleine hillclimb in 1927, and when the 1928 Mille Miglia win got Alfa Romeo invited to Brooklands in England, Ramponi won the Six Hours race in the little 1,5-liter compressor car.
But 1928-29 was a turning point for Giulio Ramponi. He was 27 years old – he had been looking after cars for the best racing drivers in the world, and he was driving for one of the best marques in the world. But it somehow went sour when he won in another race and weren’t allowed to split the prize money with his Alfa mechanic. He simply left the team and began driving for OM. He stayed in England and even teamed up with Bentley boy Dudley Benjafield, driving a 4,5-liter Bentley at Le Mans in 1930 and in a Maserati with George Eyston at Brooklands in 1931.
And then in 1932 he was back with Alfa Corse in Milano, where he and Bazzi shuttled between Portello and Modena, the Scuderia Ferrari head quarters. He rode with Pietro Ghersi in an 8C2300 in the Mille Miglia, but they crashed heavily, and when they learned that Enzo Ferrari had forgotten to insure their health and life, he was once again angry and left Alfa Romeo.
He went back to London again and teamed up with the wealthy american student Witney Straight, and looked after his Maserati 8C with fellow mechanic William Rockell. The two mechanics opened a garage in Lancaster Mews near Hyde Park, and also tended for ERAs and Delages for guys like Richard Seaman – who would eventually become a super star with Mercedes Benz.
This was 1934-36, and it seems like Giulio Ramponi had grown accustomed with the UK and that the Ramponi-Rockell business was doing well. The address is still listed as Ramponi-Rockell Alfa Romeo and Giulio Ramponi still ran the workshop until the 1970’s.
During the Second World War he was interned, but as early as 1944 he began working for the british aero industry, and he is credited with bringing disc brakes to Italy in the 1950’s when he was a consultant for Girling, Vanderwell, Ferodo and other british parts industries.
Giulio Ramponi always kept a good relationship with Alfa Romeo – the company. But I think he never really got on terms with Enzo Ferrari. And he certainly contributed in Alfa Romeo successes; but I think he could have done much more … if only?!