A Decade Ahead of its Time
They say you’re not a true petrolhead until you’ve had the pleasure (and pain) of owning an Alfa Romeo, but despite selling a million cars, the gestation of the Alfasud was so fraught with problems it almost never happened. So perfectly designed but so badly made, this was a car of extremes. How production lasted the best part of two decades is a modern mystery but it made the UKs contribution to early 70s motoring – the Austin Allegro – look like the enclosed skip it was, and for that Alfa, we thank you!
History of the Alfa Romeo Alfasud
Along with Ferrari and Fiat (who now own them), Alfa Romeo is a world-renowned car marque that has been manufacturing cars since the formative years of the industry and have been in and out of public hands for over a century. These were times when it was fine for state-owned companies to produce goods ‘by the people, for the people’ but unfortunately, the people tasked with putting together the new Alfasud had lots of experience producing olive oil but no experience producing cars.
Alfa’s boss Guiseppe Luraghi wanted to build a small car but needed financial help from the Italian government. In return for their cash (the not inconsiderable sum of 360bn Lire), the government, in the interests of redistributing manufacturing into the poorer south of Italy (‘Sud’ is Italian for ‘south’), stipulated that the cars needed to be built in Naples, a deprived region over 300 miles from Alfa’s corporate HQ in Milan.
With no tradition whatsoever of manufacturing cars, 15,000 unskilled workers were taken on to work in the state-sponsored Pomigliano d’Arco factory and amid wild accusations of corporate espionage, theft, poaching and treason, Austrian engineer Rudolf Hruska was taken on to oversee the project. Although Hruska’s appointment was deemed highly controversial – he had previously worked for VW, Porsche and Alfa Romeo – it was seen by many as a masterstroke in the development of what was to become a very important car.
Alfa Romeo had a clear ethos that the very best automobiles are created not by committees of accountants and lawyers but by highly creative and talented individuals and by putting together the dream team of Hruska (engineering and design), Aldo Mantovani and Carlo Chiti (engineering), Carlo Bossaglia (engine development) and Federico Hoffman (suspension), they produced a spectacular car, on time and on budget.
The cherry on top of this particular cake was that the tech was cloaked in a beautiful suit by none other than Georgetto Giugiaro. With a brief to make a cheap small car that was easy to maintain yet still hold true the Alfa spirit and character of fun driving, the team literally re-wrote the Alfa rulebook.
The star of the 1971 Turin Motor Show – no mean feat since the prototype Lamborghini Countach was launched at the same event – the Alfasud was a four-door saloon with a flat-four 1.2-litre Boxer water-cooled engine with 62bhp. Unusual for a car of this size was the addition of elaborate suspension, four-wheel disc brakes and rack and pinion steering. It also had excellent aerodynamic properties thanks to a low centre of gravity resulting in handling and performance that wouldn’t be matched in similar-sized cars for 10 years.
Over the duration of the Alfasud’s lifespan, a number of iterations were produced:
(1973) 1.2-litre with 67bhp and a top speed of 99mph
(1974) called the Alfasud SE in the UK with better spec
(1975) three-door estate
(1976) with a new five-speed gearbox
(1976) new Giugiaro body and more powerful engine up to 75bhp
Alfasud ti 1.3
(1977) two-door saloon
(1977) 1.2 and 1.3-litre options with revised dash and door cards
Alfasud Sprint Veloce
(1979) 1.3 and 1.5-litre versions with double twin-choke carb
From 1980, all Alfasud models got a facelift that included new lights, instruments and bumpers and the ti was given a twin-carb version of the 1.5-litre Sprint engine. In 1982 the four-doors were replaced by five-doors and to compete in the emerging hot hatch market led majestically by the Golf GTi, the last version of the ti was an uprated 1.5-litre named Quadrifoglio Verde (‘Green Cloverleaf’) which came equipped with 14” rims and low-profile tyres.
Although production of the Sprint continued until 1989, in 1983 the saloon versions of the Alfasud were replaced by the boxier Alfa Romeo 33 and it’s no secret that while they are exhilarating drivers’ cars, they were famous for their ability to rust quickly and the craftsmanship left a lot to be desired – presumably since the people employed to make it were far more adept at bottling olive oil than making cars.
Like Diego Maradona, perhaps Napoli’s most famous son, the Alfasud was a flawed genius. Despite moments of sheer brilliance and utter enjoyment, there were serious issues with the car that they never quite overcame. The Alfa-Tifosi are a hardcore group of people and while the Alfasud never quite became the all-conquering triumph of automobile manufacturing the company hoped it would be, they did something exquisitely Italian – they created a generation of people who fell in love with Alfa Romeo.