It’s just over 30 years since Giulio Ramponi passed away at his home in Nelspruit, Mpumalanga, South Africa. While his name might not initially ring a bell, his involvement and success on the international motorsport scene puts him into the top echelons of the sport’s history. Search for pre-war Alfa Romeo racing and you will more than likely 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. He enrolled in a technical course at the Arti e Mestieri school and then took up work at Pelizzola fuel pump manufacturers. Ramponi’s mother remarried and his stepfather introduced his friend, opera singer/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 door and a bum in the 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. And he took driving lessons from Attilio Marinoni, Alfa’s chief development test driver.
When Alfa Romeo poached race car designer Vittorio Jano away from Fiat in 1923, Ramponi joined in as an engineer/mechanic, becoming an integral part of the competition programme that culminated in the Alfa Romeo P2 Grand Prix cars. He dovetailed work with his own competitive exploits, riding as mechanic in cars driven by Enzo Ferrari, Antonio Ascari and of course Campari. The 1924 Targa Florio looked likely to be a highlight when he teamed up with Ascari in an older model RL Targa. Enjoying a healthy lead over the Werner Mercedes-Benz victory seemed in the bag, but with the finish in sight the Ascari/Ramponi engine seized. The solution was to push the car over the line, which they did with the help of spectators and a few soldiers. By then the Mercedes had moved into first place, leaving the Alfa second. Further gloom was later added with the officials disqualifying them for receiving outside assistance.
When the P2 made its Grand Prix debut at the French Grand Prix at Lyon, Ramponi was again selected to ride passenger for Ascari. 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 the beast failed to start, handing the first ever P2 victory to Campari.
In 1925 the Grand Prix rules outlawed ‘riding’ mechanics, a change that saw Ramponi developing his own driving career and also 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 of 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 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 when he won the Essex Motor Club Six Hour Race at Brooklands and 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 seen before and one baulked at by the men in charge, who feared 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 Benjafield at 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 Scuderia and moved back to the UK, where he joined 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 car was almost unbeatable, and catapulted Seaman up the ranks to secure a drive in the 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 while leading the 1939 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps. Ramponi, who saw Seaman as a son, was devastated.
Although a British citizen, 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, reopened 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 automakers.
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 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.