2 December 2009

The World of Alfa Romeo

Alfa Romeo’s blend of technical and emotional attributes resonates with almost everyone who encounters one.

It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s a racy convertible (spider, in the vernacular), a boxy sedan or a sleek racer. It could be the way they look – the leading Italian body builders, or carrozzerie, designed many Alfas. Perhaps it’s in the greasy bits – elegantly cast engine parts, transmission cases and rear differentials – proof that they were engineered by people who understood that what you don’t see is as important as what’s easily visible.

The marque’s emblem is based on the coat of arms of the noble Visconti family of Milan, Italy, home of Alfa. It shows a figure being consumed by a large snake, or biscione. And it can be said that the Alfisti – the people who live and breathe Alfa Romeo – are truly bitten with desire for their favorite car.

It starts with an unforgettable encounter. In the case of Bill Gillham (past president and current restoration/preservation chairman of the Alfa Romeo Owners Club), it happened in 1977 when he was a 29-year-old teacher. The school’s auto shop instructor brought in a Giulietta Spider on which his students could work. Gillham was impressed with its craftsmanship, but then he took it on the road. “After my first drive, my face hurt from smiling,” Gillham says. “You have to drive one to understand.” It’s fair to say Gillham was moved by the experience, as he’s owned 130 or so Alfas since and is known for his restoration of body shells.

Changing with the times

The Alfa story began when the French Darracq firm set up business in Milan in 1906 with Italian backing as S.A.I.D., or Società Anonima Italiana Darracq.

When the Darracq venture failed near the end of 1909, the factory became home to the newly established Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili – the Lombardy Automobile Manufacturing Public Company – or A.L.F.A. The brilliant engineer Giuseppe Merosi designed its first car, the 24-horsepower. It went racing the next year, and almost won the demanding Targa Florio in Sicily.

A few years later, Enzo Ferrari was brought in to manage Alfa’s racing activities through his Scuderia Ferrari. Cars like the legendary 6C 1750 (six-cylinder, 1750cc displacement) racing and road cars were followed by the 8C 2300 and 8C 2900s. Alfa excelled in Grand Prix, long-distance, circuit and hill-climb events through the 1920s and 1930s, until the all-conquering German teams from Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union came along immediately preceding World War II.

Following the war, Alfa took up where it left off in the early ’30s and began a new winning tradition in grand prix and sports cars. However, on the passenger-car side, the postwar world had little room for the ultra-expensive cars that Alfa had built before hostilities.

The evolving Alfa

To bring the company to the upper middle class, the new, smaller four-cylinder sedan – the 1900 – debuted in 1950. But the car that represented Alfa Romeo’s real new beginning was the Giulietta (Italian for Juliet).

It was designed as a small four-door sedan to accompany the 1900. Although the Giulietta continued company tradition by using a double-overhead camshaft 1290cc engine mated to a four-speed manual transmission, unlike the 1900, the engine was all alloy. All Giulietta models featured unit body construction and paired independent front suspension with a well-located live rear axle.

Production delays caused the Giulietta to miss its scheduled introduction date in 1954. To appease customers, a lottery was held for Giulietta order holders to “win” a limited-production coupe, the Sprint, in place of their sedan.

The Bertone-designed and -built Sprint proved so popular that it became a cataloged model, along with the open two-seat Spider and the four-door Berlina TI. In various states of tune, including the 50bhp Berlina, 65bhp single-carburetor “Normale” and 90bhp twin Weber–equipped Veloce versions, the Giulietta line changed the company and, arguably, the outlook of driving enthusiasts worldwide.

In 1962, the Giulia joined the Giulietta, ultimately replacing it. The new model used a 1600cc version of the all-alloy twin cam engine in both single and dual carburetor tune, producing from 104 to 122 horsepower. Spider, Sprint and Sprint Speciale bodies were carried over with minor trim changes, while a new fourdoor Giulia (in TI and Super versions) came along in 1963, as did Bertone’s new notchback coupe, dubbed the Giulia Sprint GT.

Together, the Giulia and Giulietta models took Alfa Romeo from a company that built only 12,000 Alfas during its first 42 years to almost 180,000 cars from 1954 to 1965.

In this spirit the Giulia continued on through the early 1990s, although the name gradually was dropped in the mid-1960s. Clearly part of the family, the Duetto – which was introduced in 1966 – never wore the Giulia name. Similarly, the coupe that had started as the Giulia Sprint GT had simply become the GTV by 1969. That was an important year for the Milanese marque in the United States because new cars returned after an absence in 1968 (which was repeated in 1970) when cars wouldn’t meet federal emissions standards.

Unlike other carmakers that cut compression and added air pumps, the 1969 Alfas used the company’s proprietary SPICA mechanical fuel injection on a new 1779cc version of the venerable engine. Many enthusiasts argue that the 1750 – as it was known – was the smoothest and best of the family, with increased drivability and performance thanks to the 132 bhp. Another hallmark of the 1969 model year was the new Berlina four-door sedan, which was larger and more comfortable than its predecessors.

In 1972, the Alfa models for the North American market included the Spider Veloce, GTV and Berlina, all powered by a larger 1962cc version of the twin cam engine. For 1975, the Berlina and GTV were gone, replaced by the radically different Alfetta sedan and coupe, although the Spider Veloce would soldier on until 1994.

A typically Italian sense of style

In the 1950s, Italy’s leading body builders all designed and/or built cars for Alfa Romeo, with contracts going to Pinin Farina, Bertone, Touring and Zagato.

The Giulietta (1954-1963), Giulia (1963-1968) and Duetto Spider (1966-1968) came from Pinin Farina (later Pininfarina), while Bertone defined the Giulietta Sprint coupe and the later Giulia Sprint GT and GTV coupes that replaced it. The dramatic and shapely Sprint Speciale – also the work of Bertone – was based on the three extraordinary Berlina Aerodinamica Tecnica, or technical (study) aerodynamic sedans, show cars of the mid-’50s. Known as the BAT cars, and based on the 1900 platform, they were built to showcase aerodynamic concepts in a particularly futuristic style.

The Duetto was so named as the result of a competition. The winner, Guidobaldi Trionfi of Brescia, Italy, received a new car as a prize, although it turned out that the name was never used on a badge due to commercial conflicts. In any case, the car certainly is one of the bestknown and best-loved sports car shapes ever.

It’s hard to believe today that many were greatly disappointed in the Duetto’s looks in 1966, viewing it as unworthy to follow the beloved Giulia Spider. In 1970, the distinctive pointed rear end gave way to a cut-off Kammback design, making the early cars more desired and valuable – just as the original split-window Corvette Sting Ray is more desirable than the later coupes with the one-piece rear window. But millions of non–Alfa Romeo enthusiasts came to know the marque through a leading role in the 1967 movie The Graduate.

But while the spiders and coupes got all the attention, it was the sedans that in many cases were the best cars to drive. Styled in house by Alfa’s own studio, they appeared to many to be the box the car came in. But that boxy styling hid a secret – they had sophisticated aerodynamics and cut through the air better than the sleeker coupes and spiders.

A reputation on the racetrack

As Alfa Romeo’s reputation had been built on competition from the start, it’s no surprise that the small postwar cars were raced.

The lightweight Giulietta Sprint Veloce was introduced in 1956 and soon followed by a Spider Veloce. They found success on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1300 class with their dual Weber carburetors, revised cranks and cams and stiffened suspension. Privateers raced all, as Alfa left works competition in 1952 and didn’t return until the early 1960s.

Through the ’60s and ’70s, Alfa once again triumphed in competition, with cars ranging from the production-derived, Giulietta-based, Zagato-bodied SZ and Giulia GTA coupe to the lightweight, tube-framed TZ-1 and TZ-2 and the V-8- and flat 12-powered endurance racers (Tipo 33, 33TT12 and 33SC12), which earned Alfa the World Sports Car Championship for Makes in 1975 and the world title for Sports Cars in 1977.

A detuned version of that V-8 found its way into the Montreal, a fast Bertone-styled GT car based on the Giulia 105 platform. In the ’80s, Alfa returned to open-wheel racing in F1 and Indy Cars, but with minimal impact.

The cost of Alfa motoring

Although the postwar Alfas were much less expensive than their prewar siblings, they were never cheap cars.   In 1958, after a price reduction, a Giulietta Sprint Veloce would set you back $4,194, while an entry-level Spider cost $3,298. As comparison, a 1957 Ford Thunderbird V-8 had a list price of $3,151. The 1974 2000 GTV coupe was priced at $5,759, when a 350/195 Corvette coupe was barely more costly at $6,001.

Today, you’re unlikely to encounter any but the most rare racing variants of the allalloy engine cars at the major auctions in Arizona, California or Florida. Most often, these postwar Alfas can be found in club classifieds, at small dealers or on online auctions. That’s not to say some don’t sell for considerable prices; it’s just that deals are more often done privately.

Prices can vary considerably for a model based on condition and the quality of the work. A Duetto can be a $12,500 work in progress or a $25,000 gem. The difference between them costs a good deal more than $12,500 to attain.

Finding the right car

As always, it pays to buy the best you can. While mechanical restoration on a twin cam Alfa is much less expensive than on other thoroughbred Italian machinery, bodywork can be costly. Stay away from rusty cars and try to ensure that the car you’re considering is as original as possible. Keith Martin, publisher of Sports Car Market magazine, suggests that good first Alfas might be a pre-1969 GTV coupe or Duetto. “You can easily drive them on today’s highways, the heaters work and they’re strong and reliable when sorted,” he says. “Plus, they’re easy to love and easy to tune. If you budget $25,000 you’ll probably do OK. Pay in the mid-teens and you’ll end up spending $40,000 for a $25,000 car.”

Some wonder what effect, if any, the coming return of Alfa Romeo to volume sales in the United States might have on the vintage cars. It will probably be minimal, much like the new MINI and the original. Nevertheless, thousands of Alfisti can’t wait to park a brand new Alfa in the garage next to their beloved older companion.

For an in-depth look at the World of Alfa Romeo, including spotter’s guides, a price index, videos and vintage advertisements, visit hagerty.com/alfa.

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COUNTERPOINT: Six-Week Alfa Owner

By Jonathan A. Stein

The last time I saw my family’s 1971 Alfa Romeo 1750 Berlina, it was being towed away after blowing the third head gasket in the brief six weeks we owned the car. Considering that I had talked my parents into that used Alfa, my popularity at home didn’t exactly soar when the car turned out to be a stinker. Dad insisted the dealer take back the car, but my ability to influence the next purchase declined precipitously.

The Alfa Romeos I‘d seen around town seemed much more exotic than the Triumphs, Fiats and Volvos we had previously. It sounded like a good idea at the time, but we couldn’t know that our first taste of the Alfa apple would be so bitter. When it came time to pay for my own cars, I opted for simpler and cheaper MGs. And in 35 years of MG motoring, I’ve never blown a head gasket.

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To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Winter 2009 issue of Hagerty magazine.

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