Part 2: Alfa Romeo
By David Cavaliere
Few auto manufacturers can claim a history as long as, or devotees as passionate as that of Alfa Romeo. When one speaks of a car with soul, Alfa’s name will surely be near the top of the list. 2015 marked the 110th anniversary of this legendary automotive manufacturer. After a twenty year absence from the United States markets, Alfa Romeo (finally) returned in 2014 with the model 4C, a beautifully styled, lightweight sports car. The car is quick, agile, smooth and gorgeous from every angle, but that’s the present. What about the car maker’s origins?
Alfa Romeo is long associated with the city of Milan, in fact, its famous badge consists of two symbols of the city – a serpent, which comes from the Visconti family coat of arms and a red cross, from the city’s banner. The company’s origins lie in shares of Società Italiana Automobili Darraq (a French car maker), acquired by Il Cavaliere Ugo Stella. The first plant, located on the outskirts of Milan, was called Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili (Lombard Automobile Factory, Public Company), better known by its initials – A.L.F.A. In August 1915, the company was taken over by an engineer and racing enthusiast, Nicola Romeo. Given Italy’s presence in the First World War, he converted the factory to military armament production and in 1920 the name of the company was changed to Alfa Romeo.
Car production resumed in 1919 using parts from 1915 to complete 105 cars. The company’s first racing success took place in 1920 when Giuseppe Campari won at Mugello and continued with second place in the Targa Florio driven by Enzo Ferrari. This began a long association between Ferrari and Alfa Romero. The company lured away from Fiat a talented designed named Vittorio Jano. He established the architecture of the company’s engines – light alloy construction, hemispherical combustion chambers, centrally located plugs, two rows of overhead valves per cylinder bank and dual overhead cams. These are features that we find commonplace in performance automobiles today, illustrating how far ahead of his time was Jano. The small/medium displacement engines were produced in 4, 6 and 8-cylinder inline configurations. The designs were both reliable and powerful. On its racing cars, the quadrifoglio emblem has been the symbol of Alfa Romeo since 1923, it consists of a green four-leaf clover within a white triangle. Enzo Ferrari proved a better team manager than driver, and when the factory team was privatized, it became Scuderia Ferrari. Even with its racing successes, the company’s financial stability was not good. In 1928 Nicola Romeo left the company and in 1933 Alfa Romeo was rescued by the Italian government (which maintained control of the company for the next 50 years). Mussolini used Alfa Romeo as a symbol of Italy’s rise to power on the world stage.
The Thirties saw Alfa Romeo establish its reputation as a maker of envy-inspiring automobiles. Their 8C 2300 was widely regarded as one of the finest touring cars in the world. The 8C 2900, introduced in 1937 was the fastest production automobile in the world. Unlike American luxury makers such as Duesenberg and Cadillac, Alfa Romeos were automotive gems, rather than trophies. These were cars that were meant to be driven. The custom cars bodied by Touring of Milan, or Pinin Farina, are among the most beautiful cars ever produced and rivaled perhaps only by the prewar Delage’s, Delahaye’s and Bugatti’s of France. This era peaked with the Alfa Romeo 2900B Type 35 racers. In open-wheeled racing of the day, its P2 and P3 cars regularly won races; however, in 1934, Germany’s Mercedes and Auto Union entered the fray and dominated the sport until the outbreak of war in 1939. Alfa Romeo withdrew as a manufacturer from racing, but continued to give direct support to the Scuderia Ferrari team.
1946 – 1954
Production of automobiles resumed following the conclusion of the Second World War. This was an era of both ongoing sporting success and excellent performance production cars. In 1954, the beautiful Giulietta designed by Franco Scaglione of Bertone was introduced. The 1.3 liter alloy engine was powerful for its size and by the time production ended in 1965, a total of 177,690 Giuliettas had been produced. In the late 1940’s, the quadrifoglio began to be used on production cars as a designation for higher level trim models of the car maker. It can usually be found on the side of the car, just behind the front wheels. Alfa Romeo contested the newly formed Formula One with great success in motor racing. In 1950 and 1951, Alfa Romeo drivers won the newly established World Championship of Drivers using pre-war technology and a very thin budget. Still a state-owned company, Alfa Romeo decided to withdraw from the Grand Prix circuits after the Italian government refused to fund the design of a new car.
1955 – 1970
The Alfa Romeo 1900 (introduced in 1950) continued in production until 1959. During the 1950’s Alfa used the advertising slogan “The family car that wins races” following the 1900 model’s success in the Targa Florio and Stella Alpina competitions. The car was available as a coupe and sedan. It was spacious, sporty and quick. With the success of the Giulietta, Alfa launched a stylish executive sedan in 1962 – the Giulia. This model helped to expand the market beyond it’s strictly performance car customer base. During the 1960s, the completion side of Alfa Romeo concentrated on the use of production-based cars with great success.
1971 – 1990
By the 1970s, Alfa Romeo was again in financial trouble. It introduced a timely car called the Alfasud as way of increasing its overall car sales. This was a front-wheel-drive hatchback. It offered an exceptional driving experience – precise steering, a well-balanced platform and it was intended to introduce the modern day Alfa Romeo to the changing marketplace – a practical car that would provide exceptional performance on an everyday basis. There were two significant problems. The quality of the steel used for the bodies was poor, as was rust-proofing. The Alfasud also suffered from inconsistent build quality. The cars were produced at a new factory outside Naples. This resulting learning curve turned away many buyers and had a negative effect on the resale value of the marque’s automobiles for many years. In 1977, the company introduced the second-generation Giulietta, and introduced it’s first-ever turbo-diesel, the Alfetta 2000 TD in 1979. The 1980’s led to a number of wedge-era executive sedans, such as the 33, 75 and the 164. In particular, the 164 benefitted from improved build quality, thanks to the extensive use of galvanized steel for the frame and various body panels. Throughout this period, the Italian government had the company up for sale. It appeared as though Ford would scoop up Alfa, but Fiat agreed to guarantee auto worker jobs and in 1986 the sale was completed, merging Alfa Rome into Fiat’s Alfa Lancia Industriale S.p.A.
1991 – 2007
Alfa Romeo updated its model range with a number of cutting edge designs. In 1992, the 155 was introduced. It won the Italian Superturismo title that year and the British Touring Car Championship in 1994. In 1995, the GTV and Spiders were introduced. Unfortunately, this was the last year of Alfa Romeo’s presence in the U.S. for almost 20 years. In January 1995, the auto maker announced that after years of losses, it was leaving the U.S. market at the end of that year.
The stunning 166 sedan was introduced in 1998 as was its Car-of-the-Year sibling, the 156 in 1998. Alfa Romeo introduced the GT in 2003 and in 2007 it introduced its most significant car in decades, 8C supercar. This V8 powered car was an instant poster candidate for every teenager’s wall and it had performance to back up its looks, it has reinvigorated Alfa Romeo’s reputation among motorsport enthusiasts.
2007 – Present day
The third generation Giulietta was introduced in 2010. It is a practical, beautifully proportioned five-door hatchback that offers sharp handling. In 2013 the Alfa 4C coupe was launched and has continued the performance car brilliance resurrected by the 8C. In 2014, the company resumed sales in the United States and we can once again experience the soul of an Alfa Romeo. In 2015, La Macchina del tempo – Museo storico Alfa Romeo in Arese opened, celebrating 105 years of automobile manufacturing. The museum offers six floors of history binding the past, present and future of Alfa Romeo’s automobiles, technology and style.