GRR

This Alfa Romeo Monza celebrates a forgotten ace

08th September 2017
Adam Wilkins

Christopher Mann has owned his Alfa Romeo Monza for ten years, but this week’s Revival is its first public appearance in its distinctive two-tone blue colour scheme. “It was a bit of an old nail when I first had it,” says Christopher. “It was in dark red and hadn’t been rebuilt for years.” When the car had engine trouble at Dijon, it was an excuse to rebuild it. He took the opportunity to create a homage to the remarkable female French racing driver, Hellé Nice.

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She raced an Alfa Romeo Monza in these colours, but it was destroyed in a tragic accident in Brazil that cost the lives of six spectators. The car was destroyed but, since nobody has done it before, Christopher decided to build his Monza as a tribute to Nice – and hers must be among the most remarkable of any racing driver.

Born in 1900, she grew up in a tiny French village before moving to Paris at 16, the lively city better suiting her joie de vivre. She found fame as a dancer and model, her nude poses attracting rich and famous lovers, including Philippe de Rothschild. Her own wealth grew to the extent she could afford a yatch. A skiing injury put an end to her dancing career and she found an alternative in motor racing. Finding sponsors didn’t prove difficult.

She bought a Bugatti from Ettore Bugatti himself, the car giving her the opportunity to race against men on equal terms. By 1930, she had set the world land speed record for a woman – at a speed no man had achieved – and spend the next year racing in grands prix. 

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In 1936 she was involved in that fatal accident in Brazil. She swerved to avoid a policeman who was retrieving a hay bale from the road, and careened into the crowd. Because of the circumstances of the accident, public opinion was in her favour. Thrown from the car, her fall was broken by landing on a spectactor. He died, but she survived despite being in a coma for two days. She resumed racing in 1937 until the outbreak of WW2, during which she lived off compensation from the Brazilian government.

Many of her male competitors were jealous of the attention Nice received. Sixty years after racing against her, driver Simone de Forest said of her: “I don’t believe she ever thought about anything but sex and showing off.”

At a pre-race reception for the 1949 Monte Carlo Rally, in which she was due to compete, Bugatti racer Louis Chiron publically accused her of being a Gestapo agent. Nobody knows why he made the claim, but it was untrue.

But the damage was done. Nobody would offer her a drive. Friends and family shunned her and her fortune was wasted by her lover of the time, who then also abandoned her. She lived the rest of her life poor in a rented flat, supported by a charity that looked after theatre performers who had hit bad times.

She died alone in 1983 having never rebuilt her reputation. Yet her achievements were remarkable, and this Alfa Romeo Monza is a terrific tribute and reminder of a woman who has been unfairly forgotten by motorsport history.

Photography by Tom Shaxson

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