By Stuart Grant
In December it was 33 years since Giulio Ramponi passed away at his home in Nelspruit, Mpumalanga.While his name might not initially be familiar to many, his involvement, success and dominance on the international motorsport scene puts him into the top echelons of the sport’s history. Search images of pre-war Alfa Romeo racing and you are more than likely to find a picture featuring this Lowveld-loving legend.
Ramponi was born early in 1902 in Milan, and despite his father dying at a young age, developed an interest in all things mechanical. This fascination saw him enrol in a technical course at the Arti e Mestieri school and then take up work at the Pelizzola fuel pump manufacturers. By this time Ramponi’s mother had remarried and his step-father introduced his friend, opera singer and race car driver Giuseppe Campari, to the family. Campari took note of the 18-year-old’s aptitude and mechanical skills, so when the time came to find a new ‘riding’ mechanic to sit alongside him on the Parma-Poggio di Berceto hillclimb, he offered the role to Giulio.
With his foot in the motor racing door and a bum in the Campari passenger seat he joined Alfa Romeo as an apprentice, passing through the engine department, running gear assembly and on to the experimental department run by Luigi Bazzi. Oh yes, and he took driving lessons from Attilio Marinoni, Alfa’s chief development and test driver.
When Alfa Romeo poached renowned race car designer Vittorio Jano away from Fiat in 1923, Ramponi joined in as an engineer/mechanic and became an integral part in the competition programme that culminated in the front-running Alfa Romeo P2 Grand Prix cars. He dovetailed his work duties with his own competitive exploits, riding as mechanic in cars driven by the likes of Enzo Ferrari, Antonio Ascari and of course Campari. The 1924 Targa Florio looked likely to be his highlight of the year when he teamed up with Ascari in an older model RL Targa. Enjoying a healthy lead over the Werner Mercedes-Benz it looked like the victory was in the bag, but with the finish in sight the Ascari/Ramponi engine seized. The pair sprang into action, attempting to hand crank the Alfa back to life but to no avail. The next solution was to push it over the line, which they did with the help of the local spectators and a few soldiers. By then the Mercedes had moved into first place leaving the Alfa coming home second. Further gloom was later added with the officials disqualifying them for receiving outside assistance in getting the car over the line.
When the P2 made its Grand Prix debut at the French Grand Prix at Lyon, Ramponi was again selected to ride passenger for Ascari. And again victory was snatched away when the Alfa Romeo was forced to pit on lap 32. Ramponi rushed to top up the radiator and fit new spark plugs but when the time came to fire the beast up it failed to start, handing the first ever P2 victory to Campari.
In 1925 the Grand Prix rules outlawed ‘riding’ mechanics, a change that not only saw Ramponi developing his own driving career but one that in all likelihood saved his life – Ascari, now driving solo in the P2, fatally crashed while leading the 1925 French Grand Prix.
Ramponi continued in the racing department and moved into the role as chief test driver for the Alfa 6C 1500 development. Non-Grand Prix events still catered for ‘riding’ mechanics/co-drivers though and Ramponi teamed up with his old partner Campari in the new 6C Sport Spider Zagato successfully, taking Mille Miglia top honours in 1928 and ’29. With Jano giving the go-ahead he really kicked off his own driving career when he entered, and finished third overall, in the Maddalena hillclimb mid-1927.
It got better in 1928 in England of all places when he won the Essex Motor Club Six Hour Race at Brooklands and then took the overall handicap win in the 1929 Brooklands JCC Double 12 event. He never left the driver’s seat during the two 12-hour stints, beating a pair of 4.5-litre Bentleys and scooped a generous amount of prize money. It was this money that caused a bit of a stir in the Alfa ranks when Ramponi suggested giving a portion of it to the mechanics – a move never done before and one baulked at by the men in charge, fearing that it might set a precedent for the future.
With political developments in Italy not suiting his beliefs he uprooted and moved to England to work with the Bentley crew – even driving a 4.5-litre Bentley with Dudley Benjafieldat Le Mans in 1930 and then a Maserati with George Eyston at Brooklands in 1931. But he was coerced back to Italy for a stint at the newly formed Scuderia Ferrari racing arm of Alfa Romeo. It was then that he raced his only ever event for Ferrari, sharing with Pietro Ghersi on the 1932 Mille Miglia. With Ghersi at the wheel the pair hit a tree and Ramponi was injured. On learning that the team’s insurance wasn’t up to scratch, Giulio cut ties with the Scuderia and moved back to the UK, where he joined wealthy American racer Whitney Straight as chief mechanic preparing his Maseratis. In 1934, Straight, with Ramponi the team leader, took his Maserati 8CM 3-litre to victory in the first South African Grand Prix held on the 23.4km long East London circuit.
Bentley mechanic Billy Rockwell joined the outfit and when Straight decided to throw in the racing towel in 1934 the duo set up a workshop in London under the title Ramponi Rockwell. Dick Seaman, for whom Ramponi had prepared an MG K3 racer while still with Straight, entrusted his 1935 season ERA preparation to Ramponi. Success was not exactly forthcoming in the ERA and Seaman instructed Ramponi to find him something better for coming years. Ramponi’s solution was a 10-year-old Grand Prix Delage, extensively developed and modified. The results were impressive with the car almost unbeatable, and catapulted Seaman up the ranks to secure a drive in the all-conquering 1937 Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix team.
1938 was Seaman’s year. He won that year’s German Grand Prix, came second in the Swiss Grand Prix and married Erica Popp, the daughter of the director of BMW. Sadly, six months later at the age of 26, Seaman passed away when he crashed out while leading the 1939 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps and the car caught fire. Ramponi, who saw Seaman as a son, was devastated.
Although a British citizen and not fascist in the slightest, the onset of World War II saw Ramponi and his first wife placed in an ‘enemy’ camp on the Isle of Man. His wife passed away while there and Ramponi was eventually released in 1944, after which he took up a short job stint at the Bristol-Siddeley operation manufacturing for the allied war effort. When the war ended he moved back to London and with his new wife Irene Cooper as secretary, re-opened Ramponi Rockwell selling and servicing Alfa Romeos. Thereafter he consulted for various motor and aeronautical giants like Girling, Vanderwell and Ferodo and is often credited as introducing disc brakes to the Italian auto-makers.
Having visited East London for racing reasons and enjoyed numerous holidays with his daughter in the Lowveld, Ramponi had a soft spot for South Africa, so it was not surprising to see that when retirement called in 1968 he chose our country as his final circuit.
Giulio Ramponi passed away at his Nelspruit home on 17 December 1986, surrounded by some of the best driving roads on offer and the majestic views over the Crocodile River Valley.