Historiography: From Milano, With Love

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All Photos by Randy Stern

One brand with such rich history and aura, it spawned many stories from it.

Obviously, this brand would be Italian. It would well over a hundred years old. And, it is brand that invites enthusiasts to rally around it. It won great races and hearts of drivers since 1910.

There are many stories to tell about Alfa Romeo. Let me start with a “legend”…

Jeremy Clarkson may be a legend to most, but he did state that to be a proper “petrolhead,” you must have an Alfa Romeo. He is right – from a European standpoint. It is sort of true in the USA. We take a slightly different perspective on this. Alfa Romeos had a smaller presence per capita in this country. Yet, it would be the true enthusiasts of this brand who have embraced these temperamental machines.

It did take a movie…or, perhaps a few…to truly bring out the Alfisti is most of us. Remember “The Graduate”? Those scenes with Dustin Hoffman running around in his 1750 Spider Veloce as a college graduate trying to find himself and chasing the girl of his dreams, while another woman tries to seduce him. For those of us in the know, the Spider Veloce is a seductive machine. Some may even favor Anne Bancroft or Katharine Ross, but that’s if you forget about that little red Spider traversing California in the latter part of the movie.

These are my primary contemporary references that pertain to Alfa Romeo. Of course, I have vivid memories of those temperamental machines when they were new. I had the privilege of drooling over these works of Italian machinery for a good chunk of my life. Again, one cannot understand the allure of Alfa Romeo without understanding its history and the reasons for this cult-like following of these Milanese motors.

The origin of Alfa Romeo was indeed Italian, but through building a French car at a plant in Milan. The plant made the Darracq for the Italian market starting in 1906. Four years later, Darracq production was superseded by a line of vehicles designed by an Italian named Giuseppe Merosi. He would be a catalyst in the early days of the new company, as the partnership with Darracq would spawn a line of A.L.F.A. cars. In case you’re wondering, the acronym would stand for “[Societa] Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili.” The name firm would take its place at the Darracq plant in Milan in 1910.

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One thing A.L.F.A. would stake its name in was motorsports. It did not take long for its first effort to run in the Targa Florio, one of the big early races of the automobile era. In fact, it would be the next calendar year – 1911 – when A.L.F.A. would show its 24-horsepower race car and its winning efforts. This would lay down a reputation of its racing prowess that would translate into the allure of the brand itself.

A.L.F.A. was not a financially stable company. It needed more capital to produce both racing and non-racing cars that Meroni was designing to high appeal. As World War I took hold across Europe, they found an investor in Nicola Romeo. By 1915, Romeo would conclude his transaction in the company, while converting production towards military hardware for the Italian and Allied efforts in the war.

The company became Alfa Romeo by 1920. That roaring decade ran on two different speeds. One, it was the company’s renaissance in motorsport. The wins came as fast as the cars were through the next two decades. They won at the Targa Florio and Grands Prix across Europe – including its “home” race at Monza. During this time, a name that would become familiar later in the 20th Century would first drive for Alfa Romeo. That name would be Enzo Ferrari – and, yes, he had wins and podiums while driving Alfa Romeos.

By 1925, Alfa Romeo’s racing cars earned a bigger prize: The Automobile World Championship. This was the forerunner to Formula 1’s Constructor’s Championship. That year would be the first of plenty of championships for Alfa Romeo.

However, it also went through many corporate and financial changes during the 1920s due to bank failures, government ownership stakes and selling off unrelated assets. This was about the time when Benito Mussolini came to power in Italy – a point that will be made when the 1930s roll around. Before then, Nicola Romeo left the company, as government intervention tried to save the company from collapse.

Mussolini led the drive towards state ownership of key enterprises in Italy. Alfa Romeo was already under government control when his government shifted the car company under the IRI – the consolidator of many industrial entities during the Mussolini regime.

Just before the government consolidation scheme took place, Alfa Romeo’s race cars were still winning on the track. They took Le Mans, the Targa Florio, and the Mille Miglia through 1933 – the year Alfa Romeo withdrew from factory racing. Privately run Alfas kept on winning through the 1930s before the onset of World War II. One such privately run team was led by Enzo Ferrari.

Alfa Romeo Heritage

You knew they were winning not just because of their red paint – the national racing color of Italy – but of the four-leafed clover on a small white triangle background. That became a symbol of victory and racing excellence – the Quadrifoglio.

The four-leaf clover and the Alfa Romeo brand was put away as Mussolini hesitantly went into World War II. The Italian government was not ready to take up arms when Hitler’s Germany invaded Poland. The Germans did tip Italy’s hands and the Alfa Romeo factory was put to work to help arm the Axis powers. As with the rest of Europe, Alfa Romeo’s plants were bombed by the Allies.

When the war ended, the company struggled to return to work. They had to rebuild their facilities and decide what to make towards returning to profitability. That meant getting out of the luxury car business, build a small number of race cars and design a series of postwar vehicles that would be more in tune with what the country needed, instead of wanted.

The Typo 158 Alfetta got Alfa Romeo back into racing. It would secure World Championships in 1950 and 1951 with Giuseppe Farina and Juan Manuel Fangio behind the wheel respectively.

A few years later, the road cars would also take the lead to get the company out of the rebuilding phase. They went to a smaller platform, called the Giulietta. In 1954, the Giulietta arrived in five forms. The Sprint and Spider would become icons, as they were exactly what Alfa Romeo needed in the postwar era. They exemplified an accessible way to pay homage to Alfa Romeo’s racing heritage. Their small bodies had exemplary power from a 1.3-liter Twin Cam four-cylinder engine – a unique production engine available to the masses. The Giulietta also came in a practical sedan (Berlina) and a wagon – both necessary for Italian families recovering from the damage of war.

The Giulietta would form the backbone of Alfa Romeo’s recovery and success into the 1960s. Their Twin Cam engine was the link between its racing efforts and its public image through its road cars. These cars would also find Alfistis worldwide – including the USA. The Giulietta Spider would be the focal point in the global rise of the roadster. It was the Italian answer to a wide variety of sporty British two-seat convertibles leading the way for foreign cars in this country.

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Compared to a Triumph TR3, Austin Healey Sprite, or an MGA, the Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider was pure sex appeal. They were sleeker, classical, and just downright alluring. They were also a bit temperamental. It took a lot of care and dedication to keep your Alfa Romeo running during those days – not unlike their British counterparts. In this country, spare parts were on the expensive side. Yet, what would you rather have – a Corvette with a thirsty V8 or the sexier Giulietta Spider?

By 1962, it was time for a new generation of Alfa Romeo road cars. The Giulia arrived first to supersede the Giulietta sedan and wagon. The designs were more modern but retained the 1.3-liter Twin Cam engine initially. As the Giulia sedan continued into the 1970s, larger engines would be offered for more performance and driving dynamics. The 1.6-liter engine pumped up the Giulia sedan and propelled it into some motorsport efforts – mainly on the rally circuit.

The Sprint and Spider would also get modern chassis and bodies in the 1960s. The new platform would be called the Typo 105/115. That platform would spawn one of my favorite Alfa Romeos of all time – the Coupe. In the USA, they would be known as GT Veloce. This love for Alfa began with the 1750 GT Veloce – internally known as Typo 105.51. Our version of the 1,779cc Twin Cam engine began with carburation until the Federal Government mandated new emissions rules to be instituted at the start of the 1970s. Our engines would get fuel injection to meet those rules. What the Federal Government did not do – yet – was to make this beautiful piece of art ugly.

The key to the GT Veloce was its beautiful design. Famed designer Giorgetto Giugiaro was at Bertone at the time. He was tasked to create a 2+2 coupe that had no peers. The new coupe would be larger than the Volkswagen Karmann Ghia inside while maintaining a scaled long hood/short deck body with a lovely roofline. It was a proper notchback with a low profile. If you look at it repeatedly, then you would agree to its beauty in being majestic within the confines of its smaller size.

Wheels of Italy St Paul Block Party

The GT Veloce coupe would continue with a new 2.0-liter version of the Twin Cam engine for 1971. The 2000 GTV coupe received different grille work, yet Alfa Romeo did not work on meeting the imposing bumper safety regulations that needed to be met by 1974. I’m glad they refused to do so. Imagine the 2000 GTV with 5 MPH bumpers…

In 1966, the iconic Spider was introduced. They would follow the same engine conventions in the USA as the GTV. Spiders would also receive fuel injection and 5 MPH bumpers by the mid-1970s. Perhaps it had to do – Spiders were Alfa Romeo’s biggest sellers in the USA. They were also the least expensive Alfa Romeo you could get here.

Meanwhile, American customers also had a four-door sedan that sold along with the Spider and the GTV. Initially called the Berlina, they would be called the Alfetta 2000 by 1977. One small problem for the four-door sedan – they did not sell as well as its competitors. The Alfetta was competent, different, and quite fun – which a few Americans would discover during its time in this market. It would also be the only Alfa Romeo you could get with an automatic transmission at the time.

The Alfetta sedan would be joined by the GTV’s replacement. The fastback coupe arrived by 1975 as something of a curiosity. It had the heart of the old Giugiaro GTV, but a more modern look that may be deemed too contemporary by diehard Alfistis. The new fastback coupe was also designed by Giugiaro. Would that give the new GTV a pass?

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That would depend on which group of Alfistis you would talk to. Some may even let the 1981 GTV-6 – an updated version of the fastback coupe with more plastic trim, beefier bumpers, and a blacked-out grille – get a nod for enthusiasm. Granted, the main attraction to the updated GTV-6 was its 155-horsepower 2.5-liter V6 engine underneath its hood. That engine made the GTV faster and, in turn, would compete against some of the most powerful 2+2 coupes of its time. Think about it: The Alfa Romeo GTV-6 went up against the Toyota Celica Supra, Chevrolet Camaro Z28, Ford Mustang GT 5.0, Porsche 944, Mitsubishi Starion/Chrysler Conquest, and Datsun 280ZX/Nissan 300ZX.

With the demise of the Alfetta sedan came what would be best described as an experiment in American automotive patience – the Milano. Also known as the Alfa Romeo 75, we received the Milano with the 155-horsepower V6, the same transaxle format as we have seen on Alfa Romeos since the 1960s, and the promise of engaging the Alfisti in a modern-styled four-door sedan.

There were a few things about the Milano. First, the Milano/75 would be the last Alfa Romeo developed in-house prior to its acquisition by Fiat S.p.A. There were many stories of Milanos that were unreliable and made with dubious quality. Plus, the Milano looked like it was a piece-meal design effort.

The Spider Veloce kept on soldering on in the states, as they continue to attract customers for Alfa Romeo. Even through some updates, including one where the triangular grille would be replaced by a huge bumper with some emulating form with the badge in the middle, a modern instrument panel, a big airbag cap for the steering wheel, and a completely new rear end that looked slapped on, people still loved the Spider. Perhaps one look at the Milano would get a customer to buy another Spider.

As we go through the various models and machinations of this brand in this country, there is a twist to the story that had not been brought up yet. Today’s Alfa Romeo is seen as a competitor to premium brands in this country. By 1970, the brand has already been positioned as a mid-priced foreign – more specifically, European – entry in this market. Customers in the 1970s were not major cross-shoppers as we are today. Yet, brand loyalty meant a lot to returning customers and inviting new ones to their showrooms.

Newer Alfa Romeo Spider

An Alfa Romeo customer in the 1970s would most likely look at a BMW 2002, a Peugeot 504, a Volvo 142, and/or an Audi 100LS. Then, they’ll laugh and head back to the Alfa Romeo showroom and pick up either 2000 GTV or 2000 Berlina. Most likely, they’ll get a Spider Veloce 2000. That was how the market worked in the early-to-mid 1970s. That was why Alfistis continue to be loyal to the core today.

That loyalty, however, began to erode due to quality and reliability issues in the 1980s. As the decade came to a close, Fiat-owned Alfa Romeo wanted to do one last ditch effort to save the brand in the USA. They sought a partnership with Chrysler and Lee Iacocca to utilize one of their retail channels for this effort. Because they were positioned as a mid-priced import brand, it made sense to introduce the 164 through this new retail agreement. The new executive sedan arrived at Chrysler-Plymouth dealerships with the Spider amid the slew of K-Car derived products.

The 164 itself was a study of platform sharing. Three vehicles came out of this front-drive executive platform – the 164, the Lancia Thema, and the Saab 9000. You wouldn’t know where the similarities began and ended unless you dig deep into the unibody and subframe. Everything else was completely different – including engines and key components underneath. Still, the 164 was a curiosity and a concern due to the brand’s reputation for poor quality. Despite its best efforts, the 164 was doomed all along in North America.

By 1995, it was all over. The last 164 was sold and Alfa Romeo packed up their bags and walked away from North America.

That did not mean that Alfa Romeo ended their existence on the last shipment of 164s. They kept on going with cars that were more desirable, but equally temperamental. Some were simply odd but acceptable to the Alfisitis that had access to these machines elsewhere in the world.

2015 Alfa Romeo 4C

The Global Financial Crisis of 2008 created a twist in this plot. Fiat S.p.A. was in better shape thanks to an Italian-Canadian accountant named Sergio Marchionne. Alfa Romeo weathered the storm, along with Fiat and other units of the company. Their old partner at Chrysler did not fare well, especially under Cerebus. Marchionne expressed interest in partnering with Chrysler again to help the American company out of bankruptcy.

Of course, we all know the rest of the story. Fiat S.p.A. and Chrysler LLC became Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. In turn, Alfa Romeo got a shot of adrenalin with further cooperation from Ferrari on new projects. In turn, Alfa Romeo returned to North America.

The company survived the Mussolini regime, World War II, and its failure to recapture its finest moments by the mid-1990s. Yet, Alfa Romeo has returned to the USA after a 20-year hiatus. Some say that the essence of its triumphant past is still there with every 4C, Giulia, and Stelvio sold today.

It is only the dream of the Alfisti to which a modern Alfa Romeo has captured the essence of the great cars of the past. Could they be as temperamental as their ancestors? That is a loaded question. It is answered by the words of Jeremy Clarkson when he points to the true “petrolhead” in experiencing the joy and the pain of owning an Alfa Romeo.

Yet, we love these cars. Automotive enthusiasts will always have a soft heart for these Milanese machines. This is why we should pass down the story of Alfa Romeo to those who never witnessed or experienced anything prior to a 2017 Giulia Quadrifoglio.

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