All Photos courtesy of Fiat S.p.A.
Alfa Romeo – a great car company once lost to the North American market.
If I ask a group of people what Alfa Romeo means to them, I am almost certain that most of those under the age of 35 will look at me with a blank stare. Those over the age of 35 may bring up cars like the GTV, Giulietta Spider, 164 or the movie "The Graduate." Yet all of this is likely to all change.
In 1961, the first Alfa Romeo landed on the shores of North America. It was a lovely Giulietta Spider at the request of Max Hoffman. Max was an importer of automobiles to the United States, who is also known as being the man behind the idea for the Mercedes 300SL Gullwing, the reason the Porsche 356 speedster was sold in the U.S. and a number of other vehicles that made it to our shores. In 1995, Alfa Romeo exported its last 164 to the United States.
This, however, would not be last of the Alfa Romeos to see the wide open roads of North America. In 2009 with the assistance of Maserati, Alfa Romeo sold a limited number of cars in this country. Only 99 Alfa Romeo 8C Competiziones were sold here in the States. This was a super car and really based around the 4.7litre Maserati V8. That was an experiment that was only known amongst the supercar realm. The mere mortal cars did not have to fear a great intrusion by the Italian company until now.
In about two weeks time, Alfa Romeo will debut their long awaited 4C at the Geneva Auto Show. This will be the car that will mark Alfa Romeo's official return to the North American market.
How will Alfa Romeo be able to come back to the North American Market? Fiat S.p.A., who owns Alfa Romeo, has some true advantages. First of all, Fiat is learning what it takes to bring back a brand that was once defunct in North America with their own name. When Fiat came back to this country, they had a very slow start that, finally, seems to be picking up. They learned a good bit about dealership and distribution networks in this country. Hopefully, those issues do not plague the resurgence of Alfa Romeo on American shores.
Another advantage that Fiat has with respect to Alfa Romeo is the power of Chrysler. Even though Fiat S.p.A. owns Chrysler, in North America, the Alfa Romeo brand will fall under Chrysler like the Fiat brand does. This means that Alfa Romeo will be able to harness the existing infrastructures that Chrysler already has in place, such as dealer networks, manufacturing, distribution and marketing. The question is, will the Alfa Romeo be sold in stand-alone dealerships, in partnership with Fiat dealerships, along side Chryslers, or maybe alongside Maserati? There might be an answer to this by looking at the past.
When Alfa Romeo brought the 164 to the United States, they needed a distribution and dealer network that could handle selling the cars. A partnership between Alfa Romeo and Chrysler was born with the sole purpose of selling the Alfa Romeo 164. The 164 was then sold at Chrysler-Plymouth dealerships. We will have to wait to know for sure how Fiat will decide to distribute and sell Alfa Romeo in the North American market.
Even though Fiat has learned a lot about coming back into the North American market, they still have a number of challenges ahead of themselves with respect to Alfa Romeo. One of the biggest challenges facing Alfa Romeo is similar to the one Fiat faced when they re-entered the North American market. They have to get past the blank stares that the younger generation will have when their name is mentioned. They will also have to move past any negative stereotypes of poor quality that older generations may remember from decades ago. Alfa Romeo has a strong and extensive history that can help them get past both the blank stare and the poor quality stereotypes. Alfa Romeos are definitely not the cars they once were, when they were a prominent site on our roads. They have improved greatly on quality.
I am sure that Alfa will use their extensive race history in marketing their cars in this market. Few companies have the race pedigree that Alfa Romeo possesses. It is said that the great Henry Ford would nod every time an Alfa would drive by. It is also said that when Ford beat Alfa Romeo in racing that Enzo Ferrari cried. Few marquees have had such a strong emotional impact on such great men.
Alfa Romeo will give Fiat Group and Chrysler a premium brand in the North American market. The question is who will be their competition? First off they are going to enter the market with the 4C, a mid-engine sports car. Now where will this car be price wise is something we can only speculate on for now, but we can be sure it will be north of $40,000 and most likely closer to $60,000. At these price points, one would think BMW or Mercedes-Benz. The mid-engine 4C is more in line to compete with the Porsche Cayman and Boxster.
But, wait, the 4C is not the only car they plan on bringing over. There are plans for a sedan and a crossover. I am sure they will compete with Audi in the crossover market. The manufacture that I really think will most likely compete the closest with Alfa Romeo in the long run is probably going to be Acura. I will let you be the judge of who they compete with the most for now. After a few years of sales data we will really know the answer to this question.
The return of Alfa Romeo is a great thing for North American consumers and enthusiasts. It will be a challenging road that I am certain can be handled with great finesse. Maybe, just maybe Henry Ford will once again nod in respect every time he sees an Alfa Romeo drive by, and Enzo may cry if Alfa is beat on the street or in a race by a Ford.
Robert Edwards is a contributing writer to Victory & Reseda, based in the Houston area