Alfa Romeo's Alfetta was, and remains, a misunderstood and undervalued car. Perhaps Alfa's most technically sophisticated product prior to Fiat's takeover of the company in 1987, the Alfetta came from a long line of class-leading automobiles. The Alfetta was something of a last hoorah for pre-Fiat Alfa Romeo. Stylish and engaging, yet tragically flawed, the Alfetta turned out to be something of a metonym for the entire Alfa Romeo brand.
Before its absorption into the Fiat conglomerate, Alfa Romeo wasn't really in the business of making transportation devices—Alfa made cars. Giuseppe Busso, one of the Italian automaker's finest engineers, attested to this in Pat Braden's Alfa Romeo Twin-Cam Companion. Busso explained to Braden that, during the development of the Alfetta, Alfa management requested that Busso develop three different suspension designs for the upcoming car: a low-cost option; a cost-quality compromise, essentially a 'best bang for the buck' design; and a cost-no-object, technically brilliant alternative. Management chose the latter.
Busso stated, 'When the decision was made to proceed with the very best design, I realized I had worked for many decades for the very best automobile manufacturer in the world.' An overstatement? Hardly. While companies like BMW and Mercedes-Benz always maintained healthier postwar images than Alfa Romeo, the fact can't be denied that Alfa was the company that continued to innovate until it essentially ran itself into the ground. A hopeless romantic amongst buttoned-down pragmatists, Alfa Romeo—like other chronic innovators such as Citroen and Lancia—engineered itself to death.
Resisting compromises for as long as possible, Alfa eventually ran into grave financial difficulties. Its cars quickly grew outdated in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, outpaced by competitors and with no money left for improvements. Alfa bled itself dry, until no option remained but absorption into Fiat—a move that radically altered the marque's trajectory and led to a full model lineup of front-wheel-drive cars with no real ties to earlier Alfas aside from their fine styling. Anyone who insists that BMW has always built better cars than Alfa Romeo should be reminded that Alfa endowed its Alfetta with a stupendously advanced suspension system—more on this later—while BMW clung to its relatively primitive McPherson strut front suspension and semi-trailing arm rear suspension.
And so the Alfetta persisted against more straightforward and thoroughly-developed designs, a hot-blooded and hopeful Latin charmer put forth by a loving but underfunded parent company. Like Alfa Romeo as a whole, the Alfetta fought with optimism and with arrogance until it could fight no longer. Lack of development money and an insistence on uncompromising engineering led to a car that could never have been as sorted as, say, the far more conventional BMW 2002.
The Alfetta was a wonderful car—but it wasn't much in the way of transportation. Poor build quality, iffy dealerships, and the unreliability inherent in new technology hurt the Alfetta's reputation. The resulting slow sales perpetuated financial struggles at Alfa, leaving the cash-strapped company without sufficient funding to continue developing the ageing Alfetta. The model soldiered on in various forms until 1986, which, not coincidentally, was the year before Fiat took the reins, brining to an end the period of mass-produced postwar innovation to which Alfisti remain eternally indebted.
It's interesting that the Alfetta signaled Alfa Romeo's transition from innovator to also-ran, because another Alfa product—also called Alfetta—led an earlier but equally momentous transition. This first transformation was from prewar producer of exotic road and racing cars along the lines of Bugatti and Duesenberg, to postwar constructor of mass-produced jewels like the Giulietta and GTV. And the car at the forefront of this movement was the Tipo 158/159 1.5-liter grand prix racer, nicknamed Alfetta, or 'little Alfa.'
The original Alfetta was one of the very finest Alfa Romeos produced. A single-seat, open-wheel racing car with the profile of a missile making no secret of its potent straight-eight, this road-bound rocket surpassed all competition. Beginning its career prior to WWII, the Alfetta realized its full potential when racing resumed after the war's end. The Alfetta took the World Championship in 1950 and 1951, producing 300 horsepower per liter at the height of its development.
Cute nickname aside, the Alfetta was violent and pugnacious. Raw, animalistic, and brutally aggressive, the Alfetta represented the pinnacle of auto racing excitement. Fast, sleek, dangerous—if ever there was a car built to satisfy the ambitions of F.T. Marinetti and his Futurist Manifesto, this was it. 'We declare,' wrote Marinetti, 'that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath ... a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.' The Alfetta was a hyperbolic machine. It represented humankind's triumph over steel and gasoline (well, aluminum and alcohol-blend fuel in this case) to create viscerally expressive—and devastatingly effective—pieces of mechanical sculpture. Absolutely unsuitable for transportation, the Alfetta was nothing but a car. And it was fantastic.
Admittedly, bringing back the Alfetta name and applying it to a mass-produced sedan was something of a pretentious maneuver. Alfa Romeo exploited the supposed connections between the new Alfetta and its historical namesake in advertisements for the new car, though even such flagrant exploitation couldn't inspire much sales success. Apparently, most family car buyers didn't particularly care about whether or not their brand of car took the World Championship in grand prix racing two decades prior.
But while Alfa's application of the Alfetta name was somewhat contrived, it was not entirely baseless. There was in fact a legitimate technological link between the two vehicles—and this brings the story back to the newer Alfetta's insistence on using an advanced suspension system designed by Giuseppe Busso.
Both the Alfetta racing car and Alfetta production car used a deDion rear axle. This unconventional design combined the benefits of both a live axle and an independent rear suspension into a single package. A simplified deDion system consists of a rigid tube that attaches to a car's body at a centrally located pivot point. This minimizes unsprung weight while also preventing the camber changes inherent in primitive independent suspension systems. The deDion rear suspension, coupled with a torsion-bar-sprung front suspension, endowed the Alfetta with crisp handling and superb roadholding capabilities.
The later Alfetta also shared another key feature with its racing ancestor: a rear transaxle. This risky and highly advanced proposition turned the (production) Alfetta into a truly remarkable car. Alfa Romeo had the chutzpa to shoehorn a racing-derived hunk of aluminum exotica beneath the rear seat of a family sedan. In search of impeccable weight distribution, Alfa offered a genuinely exciting solution and created a fine machine that—despite its presumptuous name—proved an understated and subtle automobile.
The transaxle, though, was not without its problems. Alfa mounted the clutch with the transaxle unit itself, instead of leaving its bellhousing coupled to the engine. This greatly increased the mass between engine and clutch. The heavy multi-piece driveshaft, itself a reliability disaster using rubber giubo couplings to absorb driveline shock, spun with the clutch. Accelerated synchro wear resulted, as did a propensity for dropping revs slowly between shifts.
The Alfetta also developed (and rightly so) a reputation for severe rust issues. The cars' problems led first to slow sales, and later to low resale values. Both of those circumstances conspired to ensure that the Alfetta was never a common car on the roadway, particularly in the U.S., and the number of extant examples is declining all the time—a pattern that will hopefully slow as values rise to compensate for increased rarity.
Problems aside, the Alfetta was a remarkably accessible car given its exotic underpinnings. Its advanced suspension design, rear transaxle, inboard rear disc brakes, and all-alloy twin-cam four culminated in a tidy sedan that packed far more technology than bystanders expected. Compare that to the more famous BMW 2002, with its staid suspension, ordinary transmission, rear drum brakes, and SOHC four with an iron block. But the BMW had only two doors, allowing the German to be lighter and more tossable. Luckily, Alfa recognized the great potential of the Alfetta platform and, within two years, a two door version was released to compete more directly with machines like the 2002.
This new coupe featured lithe fastback styling by Giorgetto Giugiaro. With its angular lines, hunkered-down stance, and large greenhouse, this new Alfetta GT had a look more in line with its radical engineering. The coupe (marketed as the GT, then the GTV, and labeled 'Sprint Veloce' in the United States from 1978) suffered from the same problems as the earlier sedan (called the Berlina). The Alfetta coupe, though, brought out the best of the Alfetta package by using the high-tech underpinnings to create a stylish grand touring car for the masses.
The Alfettas underwent many trim changes, which varied across countries. As an example of the haphazard sub-models that characterized the Alfetta range, consider the 'Alfamatic' automatic transaxle introduced in an attempt to boost U.S. sales. Alfa exported scads of these automatic-equipped cars to the U.S., only to find that they proved impossible to sell. Though most Americans preferred not to shift for themselves, the Alfa buyers in America were all driving enthusiasts who were willing to live with Alfa's shoddy quality control and poor dealer network in order to drive an exciting car. Alfa Romeo exhibited a distinct lack of knowledge regarding its U.S. customer base, and ended up alienating more buyers than it converted. So what happened to the unsellable Alfamatics? They went back to Italy, almost comically labeled 'America.' The Alfetta America, with its heavily-optioned spec sheet and automatic transaxle, actually sold so well in the home market that Alfa had to produce more of them in order to satisfy demand.
In addition to the ill-fated Alfamatic, Alfa introduced multiple special editions on the Alfetta platform to spur sales and inject interest in an ageing product. The Berlina became the Sport Sedan in the U.S., just as the GT became the GTV became the Sprint Veloce. The name changes and limited-production specials didn't fool buyers, though. The Alfetta was ageing rapidly, and its parent company lacked the finances to further—or even finish—the car's development.
From 1981 to 1986, Alfa Romeo did build a higher-tech version of the Alfetta coupe, called the GTV-6. This updated Alfetta featured an advanced V6 motor to replace the superb but dated four. The GTV-6 showed the great development potential of the Alfetta platform, but alas Alfa could not afford to develop the car beyond that point. The GTV-6, always a relatively rare machine produced in small numbers, was a glorious last gasp for the Alfetta platform. Fiat took over in 1987, and Alfetta was no more. (As an aside, the exotic, Zagato-built Alfa SZ of 1989-1991 bore a distinct mechanical resemblance to the Alfetta platform, specifically the GTV-6; the SZ showed how truly advanced had been the original Alfetta of 1972.)
The transaxle-equipped Alfas, which included the 75/Milano in addition to the Alfetta and GTV-6, were arguably the last true Alfas. They were some of the very last cars developed prior to the Fiat takeover. They were the last rear-wheel-drive Alfa products for years. And they were some of the tragic heroes within the tale of Alfa Romeo. Here was a company that built a name for itself producing some of the finest and most exotic prewar racing cars in the world; here was a company with a sense of humor, supposedly naming its 'Giulietta' range of cars to exploit a play on words, namely 'Romeo and Giulietta;' here was a company with slapstick managerial antics and a distinct disconnect between different departments; here was a company made by individuals and crippled by bureaucracy; and here was a company that bled itself dry creating cars it thought the world needed, with seemingly little regard for what customers actually wanted.
The Alfetta could have cleared a path for future Alfas to follow. Instead, it became a flawed bookend that stood at the edge of an illustrious automaker's history as a relatively independent company. Alfa has produced some great cars under Fiat, many of which have been more competitive and sold in higher numbers than the Alfetta. But one thing is for sure: the Alfetta will never happen again. Alfa is not dead, but the company's spirit of stubborn optimism and innovation seems to have rusted away with the last of the Alfettas. Sources:
Benson, Joe. Illustrated Alfa Romeo Buyer's Guide. 2nd. Osceola, WI: MBI Publishing Company, 1992. Print.
Braden, Pat. Alfa Romeo All-Alloy Twin Cam Companion: 1954-1994. Cambridge, MA: Bentley Publishers, 2004. Print.By Evan Acuña