Gears, Guts and Glory : 100 Years of Alfa Romeo
Delving into the heritage , brains, achievements and setbacks of this iconic brand!
To quote Enzo Ferrari, " I still have , for Alfa, the tenderness of a first love. The pure affection of a child, for his mother".
The iconic brand turned 100 this year, and I write this article celebrating its achievements , its dedicated engineers and its setbacks.
Despite Being Regarded Quintessentially Italian, It isn't
Alfa Romeo Traces its roots back to French Car Manufacturer, Alexandre Darracq. He set up a company in order to boost sales in Italy. He set up a factory in the outskirts of Milan, in 1906. The venture failed within four years and was bought by a consortium of Italian investors to form Alfa.
Behind the 'Alfa'
The investors who took over Darracq Italy, named the dead venture Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili, or in short Alfa.
The Romeo name came later , when it was taken over by Italian businessman and senator , Nicola Romeo.
The Darracq Italiana 8/10 HP, also known as the Alfa Romeo Storico
The Reputation Builder
A raging petrolhead was walking the streets of Piacenza, Italy. He worked as a construction supervisor. Shuffling between sites day and night, he checked if the stairs were level.
His name was Giuseppe and he didn't like staring at staircases all day. He called his construction job quits, and moved to Milan. He worked at Fiat for some time. It was here, in Milan , where he designed the first car under the Alfa name.
The Alfa 24 HP, was supposed to churn out 24HP, and it did not. It gave out 42 blue blooded , Italian Horsepower, which was a lot back then. It could hit 60 miles an hour, and challenged the Bugattis with it's sheer speed.
The model's entry in the Targa Florio of 1911, cemented Alfa's sporting intentions.
The Alfa Romeo 24HP with the Castagna body, known as the Castagna Torpedo
He went on to produce higher HP models, and also the Alfa DOHC engine. The 4.5 liter 4 cylinder got Alfa into the Grand Prix, and won them the Targa Florio in the 1920's.
He was one of the first automotive engineers to understand the importance of sportscars , both in terms of engineering and marketing .
The Romeo of Alfa Romeo
After Alfa Romeo made some 'sporty' airplanes for World War 1 , Senator Nicola Romeo took over the brand. The brand was in poor shape after WW1 , Nicola relaunched it under the name of Alfa Romeo.
The State owned decade
Alfa's deep financial troubles got the IRI ( The Italian State Holdings Company) , to buy them. Under the IRI, Alfa concentrated on planes, but wealthy buyers could grab an Alfa Romeo car. Being situated in Milan, Alfa had good connection to quality coachbuilders like Pinin Farina (known as Pininfarina today), and Touring. These coachbuilders transformed Alfa Romeos into breathtaking cars.
The Touring Spider, based on the 1937 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B
The Great Policy of the '50's
After Alfa Romeo's factory was rebuilt and some antiseptic was applied on the wounds of allied bombing, Alfa Romeo cars were ready to hit the road!
It was here, when Alfa Romeo decided to change their brand image. They wanted to stop being the Ferrari contender they used to be.
Gone were the days when Alfa was for the rich. The upper class customer base was now replaced by the middle class.
The Alfa Romeo Giulietta Berlina of 1959
The state backed Alfasud
The state backed Alfasud was created in an effort to reduce unemployment in Southern Italy. The Alfasud ( 'sud' stood for 'south' in French ) , was created in a shiny new factory in Naples, in order to employ some people from Southern Italy.
Alfasud was not the name of a single car, it was a whole brand. The Alfasud Sprint , TI and SE were models under the Alfasud name.
The cheap nature of the Alfasud line-up allowed it to be exported to the third world for cheap.
The 'Sud was technologically advanced for it's type, with first in class features like 4-wheel disc brakes, and Rack and Pinion Steering. The 'Sud also had a better suspension setup than other cars in the class. The Boxer engine design, allowed for a lower bonnet footprint, leading to better aerodynamics.
The Alfasud hatchback had amazing performance , for its engine size. Its levels of road holding and handling that wouldn't be equalled in its class for another 10 years.
Despite sharing the same design ideology as the other Alfasud cars, the hatchback was not part of the range.
Along with its cool features, the Alfasud's also had their fair share of Italian quirks. The main one being the fact that every thing in the car was operated through two stalks in the steering column.
With good looks and great performance , squished into a cheap package, the Alfasud proved to be one of the marques' best selling cars. To celebrate the success, Alfa staged the Trofeo Alfasud, a one model race series , staged from 1975 to 1981.
The Generation 1 Alfasud
The '70's Slump
The 1970's had a severe economic crash. A coup was held on Sporty and unreliable cars. The reliable and economical cars made by the Japanese took the world by storm. Despite making great cars like the Alfasud and the Montreal in the 1970's , Alfa drowned itself in debt.
Alfa Romeo soon found itself in foster-care. The foster parents were the Italian Superpower, Fiat.
The 90's flop
Emissions and safety regulations forced Alfa Romeo to pull out of the largest car market in the entire planet, the United States of America. Alfa sold rather mediocre cars during that period.
The late 90's to 2000's had something else in hand- a few more recessions.
Now that I have come to think of it, each decade is like a level in a video game. As you advance through the decades, the number of enemies increase. Recessions are like the mushrooms in Mario, as you advance through the levels , the number of the mushrooms increase.
This recession forced Alfa Romeo to focus more on economy cars, like the 156, a Volkswagen Jetta competitor. It came to the point where the 156 was awarded the European Car of The Year , an award that has never been handed out to any car that costs more than 50,000 Quid!
The European Car of the year 1998, the Alfa Romeo 156
The 2010's comeback
The flop did not deter Alfa Romeo. They came back with a very well known model, the Giulia. This followed the genes of the original Giulia. It catered to the upper-middle class, not the upper- upper class. It also came with a sports model, known as the Quadrifoglio, and it gave the M3 a run for it's money. If you have 65000 Quid laying around, you should get one of these. Immediately.
The Comeback of the Alfa's
The brand turned 100 this June, and what a journey it has been. I really hope that they go back to their prime, what they were in the 1950's , in the coming decades, in this millennium.