March 27, 2009

Alfa Romeo Alfasud

A little history

Automobile manufacturers around the globe didn’t resist the temptation, during the last few years, of invading market segments to which they weren’t familiar. Twenty years ago, I would have laughed aloud if anyone would have suggested that one day Porsche could build a SUV, or that a compact car could bear Mercedes-Benz’s star… This is however not new to one of Italy’s most famous car company. During the Thirties, Alfa Romeo used to capitalize on its successes on the tracks to build hand-made coupes and convertibles which were among the most refined and exclusive cars in the world. Reading the writing on the wall for such manufacturers, Alfa cunningly switched to mass-produced vehicles with its 1900, introduced during the early Fifties. By the end of the following decade, the Milanese company decided to set a foot one step lower by introducing a compact car, which could be considered popular while retaining all the character of its bigger sisters.

The project was placed under the responsibility of an Austrian engineer, Rudolf Hruska. On the recommendation of a former Touring executive, Hruska elected to have the new car drawn by Giorgetto Giugiaro, who had just left Ghia to create his own company Ital Design. It would be the firm’s first major contract.

Daring choices were made by the car’s engineers. Among its most modern features were front-wheel drive, disk brakes on all four wheels activated through a dual circuit system, and independent MacPherson strut suspension at the front. The very aerodynamic body was roomy yet extremely compact, thanks to the choice of an engine in a boxer configuration. Despite all its refinements the new Alfa would not see its building costs rise to unmanageable figures. Even better, Hruska even succeeded in spending noticeably less to design the car than the budget which had been allocated to him.

As early as November 1968, the program had progressed enough to allow prototypes to be test-driven in various conditions. It seemed Alfa Romeo had a winner in its hands. Alas, from this point things went wrong.

The company didn’t have the necessary capitals to mass-produce a popular vehicle, and therefore turned to the Italian government for help. The later agreed, under the provision that the car would be built in the impoverished south, where industrial jobs were scarce. Alfa Romeo had no other choice than to accept. Symbolically, the name Alfasud (Alfa-South) was chosen for the car.

All of Alfa Romeo’s models had been built in Milan up to then, in the midst of the industrial heart of Italy. The company had to tackle important problems of organization to make possible the production at Pomigliano d’Arco, the chosen site for the new factory. The construction of the new plant should have given signs of things to come. It was slowed down by social unrest and the return to the fields of the peasants employed on the building site during the tomato harvest. Most of these under-qualified employees would also reveal themselves to be poor factory workers after the construction was finished, pushing building quality well below Alfa’s expectations. In addition, strikes would prove even more common at Pomigliano d’Arco than in the rest of Italy at a time when unions and large corporations waged a protracted war on each other.

In the meantime, the program could appear right on track for an outsider. The Alfasud had finally been unveiled at the Turin auto show, in November 1971. Production was about to start during the following spring. The first journalists to turn the ignition key were glad to report about the car’s roomy compartment and perky performances – with 63 bhp pumped out of its 1.2-litre engine and its extremely good handling, courtesy of a very low centre of gravity, it was a joy to push the nimble car to its limits. The potential customers flocked to the Alfa Romeo’s dealerships and for a time the company had trouble satisfying the high demand. Unfortunately, the orders would soon be brought down by the poor quality of the car and the discovery of its tendency to rust – actually, some could even get corroded before their completion at Pomigliano d’Arco if yet another strike would delay the production!

There were no easy solutions to the quality issues. Instead, Alfa Romeo capitalized on the acknowledged strong points of its car, launching an Alfasud Ti in October 1973. The sporty version had only two doors, a 5 bhp boost thanks to a twin-barrel Weber carburettor, and a quad-headlight front end. Later 1.3 then 1.5-litre engine would be available, matted to a 5-speed gearbox, and a race series, the Alfasud Trophy, would be promoted. The Alfasud also ventured in the utilitarian field with the Giardinetta, a two-door station wagon, released for 1975, which was among the most refined of its kind. Finally, a coupe, the Sprint, was introduced in 1976 with a totally different body but many common mechanical parts. As the car entered its ninth year of existence, it received a facelift and, shortly before going out of production, finally got the hatchback it lacked since its introduction – up to then the Alfasud had to content itself with a traditional boot lid.

The end came in 1983 for the Alfasud, as the new 33 model was introduced. The sportier model then in production, the Ti 1.5 QV, carried on for a short while before a performance-oriented 33 was released. The final count would bring the Alfasud mark close to 900,000 made over a dozen years.

Alfa Romeo had certainly been bold when it first introduced its Alfasud. The company was equally shy when it drew the curtain. Acknowledging the shortcomings of the car, the company decided to maintain the much different Alfasud Sprint in production – but only after its name had been shorten to Sprint. All memories of this wonderful failure were then wiped out.

Model: Alfa Romeo Alfasud Ti
Year: 1974
Maker: Minichamps
Scale: 1/43
Distributed by: Minichamps ref. 400-120161, limited edition - 1,728 pieces
Acquired: brand new, in February 2006, in Manila, Philippines

Early once morning I wondered, for no particular reason, who would build a die-cast of the Alfasud. Believe it or not, I bought one on the very same day, without having even looked for one. To make my joy complete, I got it with a very generous discount. Minichamps is responsible for the little model, and did quite well. It seems nicely proportioned and, to make things even better, its blue paint perfectly becomes the small car. My rating: 14/20.



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