Prior to World War II, Alfa Romeo was blessed with a mystique that few companies have ever been able to duplicate. Perhaps the easiest way to describe prewar Alfa Romeo is to compare it with postwar Ferrari, a company whose relentless dominance on the racetrack and in the garages of millionaires has become a familiar fact of life. It was, after all, with Alfa Romeo that Enzo Ferrari began in earnest his famous career.
Suggesting that the two brands are entirely analogous is far too simple a conclusion, though. Ferrari did in a sense pick up where prewar Alfa left off, building glorious cars that were created first and foremost to win races. But the Ferrari company was a relative latecomer to auto racing, while Alfa Romeo was involved from nearly the start of the sport. Alfa Romeo built its reputation with some of the finest drivers, finest engineers, and finest automobiles known to the world. An Alfa won every Mille Miglia from 1928 to 1938, with the exception of the 1931 race that was won by a Mercedes-Benz SSK. Alfas won Le Mans in 1931, 1932, 1933, and 1934. It wasn't until just before the outbreak of World War II, when Nazi Germany fed Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz great sums of money to create cars that could dominate auto racing and boost national pride, that Alfas began to slowly slip off the podiums—and even after that the company remained highly competitive.
Alfa Romeos raced in the most grueling, dangerous, frightening, and exciting events that car racing has ever known. The company's road cars, too, used phenomenal engines and chassis, many of which were initially developed for race use and then later detuned and clothed in stunning bodies by Italy's famed carrozzerie. Alfa built supercars before supercars existed. Alfa was, put simply, one of the absolutely superlative prewar marques, a rarefied combination of lust, precision, sophistication, and aesthetic excellence.
After World War II, though, Alfa Romeo boldly entered a market into which it had never before ventured: that of the mass-produced car. Fortunately, these later Alfas did not lose their prewar dignity. Instead, the carmaker's characteristically excellent engineering and styling were translated into smaller, more affordable packages. The 1900 was the first of Alfa's mass-produced cars. An excellent vehicle with monocoque construction and a twin-cam four cylinder with alloy head, the 1900 was a clear departure from Alfa's prewar roots. The car was distinctive, though, and while it was usually ordered as a conservative sedan, it could also be ordered as a coupe or convertible from the same excellent design houses that created some of the finest examples of prewar Alfa style. The real success story of Alfa Romeo's early postwar years, though, was introduced four years after the 1900, and named Giulietta.
Despite what BMW fans might say about their 2002s, the Alfa Romeo Giulietta was the first sports sedan. Admittedly, that assertion might meet with some controversy, but even on paper the Giulietta's sporty demeanor is clear. Even the four-door (or Berlina) Giuliettas were equipped with mechanicals that made many contemporary sports cars jealous. The brakes were excellent finned Alfin drums, the rear axle with its aluminum differential housing was suspended by coils instead of leaves, and the car's compact size and weight of just one ton ensured delightful road manners.
And then you see the engine. Displacing just 1,290cc, it was not particularly powerful. It had a polished sophistication that could not be matched by the engines in many cars with bigger price tags and more impressive performance figures, though. The Giulietta engine was such an inherently excellent and modern unit that its basic design, albeit in 1,962cc form, was in use until the very last of the Alfa Romeo 105- and 115-series Spiders were produced—in 1993.
The Giulietta's engine contained many features usually reserved for prohibitively expensive cars, yet it was made available affordably to the masses. The block and head were both cast in aluminum. An oil capacity to rival the Exxon Valdez ensured cool operation even at sustained high engine speeds. The pistons traveled in cast-iron wet liners that were replaceable, indicating that these engines were designed not just to perform but also to last. Twin, chain-driven camshafts operated two valves per cylinder that opened into hemispherical combustion chambers. This was an engine comparable to those used in some of the very best sports cars of the time—and sure enough, Alfa created successful racing cars using tuned Giulietta running gear coupled with aerodynamic bodies.
Unlike most cars offering more than one body configuration, where the four-door sedan is usually the first style introduced, Alfa Romeo introduced the coupe (or Sprint) version of its Giulietta before the Berlina. The background behind this unusual decision is fascinating.
Alfa intended to release the Giulietta Berlina as the initial Giulietta body style in 1953. In order to raise money and generate interest in their new car, Alfa held a lottery by issuing company securities and giving security-holders the chance to win a Giulietta. Alfa Romeo held this lottery while their latest car was still being developed, though, and by 1953 the Giulietta was not yet ready for production. The randomly-selected lottery winners were getting upset at not having their cars by the originally stated release date, and Alfa knew it had to act quickly to settle the problem before the Giulietta's reputation was tarnished before the model had even been released.
The Giulietta Berlina would not be ready until 1955. Given Alfa Romeo's close relationship with the Italian carrozzerie, though, the company knew that it could order a limited run of cars built quickly to assuage the concerns of angry lottery winners. Alfa Romeo accordingly contacted Bertone to arrange for the production of the Giulietta Sprint in time for a debut at Turin in 1954. Alfa didn't realize just how well its Giulietta would sell in all three standard body configurations (Berlina, Sprint, and Spider), and by the end of production the car had been a success story not only for Alfa but also for Bertone, which went on to produce all Giulietta Sprints.
In addition to the Berlina and Sprint, a two-seat Spider (convertible) version of the Giulietta was also produced. Styled and built by Pinin Farina, this lithe and pretty automobile was proof that the Giulietta running gear was perfectly suited to sports cars. Though the Berlina was the most popular body style by a wide margin, the little sedans are now very rare as they tended to lead rougher lives than the Sprints and Spiders.
From 1956, Giulietta shoppers could choose a Sprint Veloce or Spider Veloce in addition to the standard versions of the three primary body styles. The Veloce models featured, amongst other engine modifications, twin Weber carburetors in place of the standard trims' single Solex units, and they could rev to 8,000rpm. With virtually no external cues giving away the added power, the Veloces were true sleepers that offered tremendous fun in cars that were still relatively affordable and sturdy.
Two other notable, but exclusive, Giulietta body styles were the Sprint Speciale (by Bertone) and the Sprint Zagato. Both of these models added sleek, aerodynamic bodies to an already impressive platform. The cars are highly prized today, the Sprint Speciale for its terrific style and the Sprint Zagato for its racing pedigree.
The Giulietta was produced in two series, retroactively titled 750 and 101 in reference to the beginning digits used for part numbers associated with the vehicles. The early 750 and later 101 were distinguished by several subtle yet important changes (such as the 101's split-case gearbox and longer wheelbase for Spider), but they were not marketed as different cars and there were transitional examples that blurred the distinctions between the series. Despite the detail changes, the Giulietta models were never fully redesigned until the Giulia replacement came in 1962 (some Giulietta models remained in production until 1964). The Giulia continued to cement Alfa Romeo's postwar reputation as the producer of innovative, thoughtfully-engineered, and superbly styled mass-produced sports cars and sedans.
To gain an insightful understanding of the Giulietta, it's helpful to consider the car's name. Giulietta. No one seems to know for sure where that name came from, but there is a popular legend that offers a possible idea. Several of Alfa Romeo's directors, as well as racing driver Jean-Pierre Wimille, ended up in a Paris nightclub at a time near the debut of the Alfa 1900. A clever Russian prince who happened to be in the same nightclub recognized the eight gentlemen and asked, 'You are eight Romeos, without even one Giulietta?' Evidently, the Alfa directors liked the name.
Whether or not this story is true, it gives a clear (if romanticized) picture of what Alfa Romeo was like in the 1950s. This was a clever, stylish brand, run by charismatic enthusiasts who were ready to reformulate the essence of their company. Exciting times, exciting people, exciting cars—Giulietta's birth represented a new chapter in Alfa Romeo's history that has come to be as highly regarded as the tradition of extravagant perfection before it.Sources:
Benson, Joe. Illustrated Alfa Romeo Buyer's Guide . 2nd. Osceola, WI: MBI Publishing Company, 1992. Print.
Goodfellow, Winston. Italian Sports Cars. Osceola, WI: MBI Publishing Company, 2000. Print.
LaChance, David. ''The Italian Girlfriend'.' Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car. Dec 2010: 24-29. Print.By Evan Acuña