March 24, 2009

Great Automotive Failures: Alfa Romeo Alfasud.

If you drove an Alfa Romeo in the 1960s, it was a beautifully-designed and technologically-advanced masterpiece of a car that would turn heads whereever you went, even in Italy.

This all changed when the Italian government (who owned Alfa Romeo at the time) decided to open up a factory at Pomigliano d'Arco outside of Naples. The social motivation for that is that while the north of Italy was industrialized, the south was still largely agricultural and accordingly poor. The idea was that by installing a major car factory there would improve the situation and help the south industrialize. Alfa also needed this model to compete with the economy car segment that was dominated by Fiat but growing in size. Put two and two together and you got the Alfasud, a car that was supposed to be economical and help the south industrialize, both in the sense that it would create factory jobs on location and in the sense that unlike a Montreal, families with lower incomes could in theory afford one.

So, imagine you are an Alfa nut at the Turin International Auto Show in 1971 and you see the new Alfasud. First off it looks more like an MG 1100 than, say, a GTV. But you can get past that, it's an economy car after all, not a touring car. And with that mindset, you'll pardon the car for not having a brake booster or a tachometer (the booster was later added.) You pop the hood instead of finding the venerable Alfa four cylinder twin cam, you see a boxer engine - weird but who knows, it could be interesting, you're willing to give it a shot. Closer inspection of the engine bay reveals that it's front wheel drive. So be it, it probably handles qui-- wait, front wheel drive? In an Alfa? Blasphemy!

Actually, Alfa had been experimenting with front wheel drive since the early 1960s but hadn't implemented it into production for various reasons. Nevertheless, a front wheel drive Alfa was met with huge skepticism by a crowd of racing fans who had grown up watching GTAs tear up tracks all over Europe and the U.S. And while the water-cooled 1200cc boxer engine wasn't an orthodox engine choice and was far from fast, it was appreciated for its high-revving nature.

The front wheel drive angered purists (sound familiar?) but the Alfasud had other issues to deal with that didn't come down to personal reference. When production started in 1971, it suffered from quality problems for the same reason as the DeLorean: a new factory staffed with inexperienced workers. Door gaps weren't even, interior bits weren't screwed together very well, etc. And this sometimes poorly trained (if hard working) workforce was assembling often times poorly made materials both inside and out. The Giugiaro-designed body was made of the notoriously bad Russian steel that made Alfettas and Fiat 128s erode so quick you'd think it was part of the design.

Despite this, the initial response to the Alfasud was good and it gathered enough public interest that different variants started popping up. Staying true to Alfa tradition, a sporty version dubbed the Alfasud Ti was introduced in 1973. It had specific headlights, larger wheels and a rear spoiler, amongst other minor differences. The 63hp engine was pushed to 68hp thanks to redesigned cams and it featured a brake booster and a 5-speed gearbox. In 1974 came the Alfasud L, essentially a better equipped and more luxurious Alfasud. This same L model got a 5-speed box in 1975 and saw its name changed to Alfasud 5m. A three door station wagon version called the Giardinetta showed up in 1975 but found few buyers.

The most notable spinoff of the Alfasud was the Alfasud Sprint in 1976. This variant sported a redesigned body that was not unlike an Alfetta GT. The engine selection was essentially the same as the standard Alfasud.

While these cars found their first owners with ease, they had a hard time finding second and third owners. The engines did not age well: my father had the misfortune of buying an early model Sprint new and to this day complains about it whenever the word "Alfa" is brought up. The dealer couldn't keep that car running and it was constantly broken down, it spent more time in the shop than in his garage. By the time they were a couple of years old, the interior imperfections stuck out like sore thumbs when various trim pieces had fallen off or the seats were already torn. And if you happened to drive your Alfasud in the Alps, its second owner may be a junkyard due to rust.

Alfa refreshed the 'Sud lineup regularly until production ceased in 1983. Today, it has a small but active following and its not uncommon to see them restored at car shows. Its replacement was the Alfa 33, a car that took the mediocracy of the Alfasud and drove it to amazing lengths.

What Lies Beneath: Citroën's Hydropneumatique suspension.

Mention the word "Citroën" to someone in the United States and you'll most often get one of two responses: 1) "a what now?" or 2) "are those the cars with the suspension you can raise?" Option two is right - sometimes. In the U.S., only the DS (and what little gray-market CXs found their way here) were sold with the Hydropneumatique suspension that, to quote a Grantsville, Utah resident, "you can raise." This system is so smooth that it can induce motion sickness in certain passengers as it makes the car feel like its floating. For the rest of us, it makes a sometimes fifty year old car more comfortable than a lot of new cars.

The basic system that is found on early cars consists of a pump that is driven by the motor and that creates about 170 bars of pressure. An accumulator then distributes the pressure around the hydraulic system. This obviously includes the suspension but on other models (notably the DS), it also includes the power steering, power brakes and a hydraulic clutch, all significant advances for its time. There are four suspension spheres (pictured below), each of them is hooked up to a suspension arm via a piston that moves up and down as the suspension arm does. The piston pushes liquid into the sphere which contains compressed air and is separated from the liquid by a membrane. The whole lot of it swallows road imperfections effortlessly.

Cars equipped with this system will automatically lower very close to the ground when parked for a long time. This means that when you start them, you have to wait for them to rise up before you can drive them. This system eliminates the need for a conventional jack- if you get a flat tire, set the car to the highest level, put the jack under it and then set the car to a lower level.

Like everything it has its ups and downs (pun not intended.. or was it?) Since the system auto-adjusts the height of the car, you can tow your trailer or load up your trunk and the ground clearance will stay even. The comfort and the road handling are both outstanding. On the other hand, it's obviously a lot more maintenance intensive than a standard suspension system: the spheres can leak, the membrane inside the spheres can break and if the whole system goes haywire (i.e. the pump gives out), the car is undrivable.

It should be worth nothing that later cars such as the current C5 and C6 use a variation of this called Hydractive. While the basics are the same (pump/etc), it's an infinitely more complicated system that relies heavily on computers.

A 1983 GSA at the highest setting:

A 1973 DS at the lowest setting:

March 19, 2009

Great Automotive Failures: The NSU Ro80

NSU pioneered use of the Wankel / rotary engine in production automobiles when it released the Prinz Sport based Spider in 1964. While the rotary was certainly a major advancement in engine technology, NSU hadn’t quite worked all of the proverbial bugs out of it. Therefore, the Spider became one of he most infamous cars the automotive world has known due to the power plant being prone to self-destruction after only a few thousand miles. This did not, however, make NSU give up.

In 1967 NSU released the Ro80 with a new two-rotor engine. This unit was more powerful than the Spider at a very respectable (for the time) 115 horsepower at just under one liter. That’s right, over 100hp per liter – which all things considered is quite amazing. Adding to the sedan’s innovative technologies were a 3-speed, semi-automatic, front-drive gearbox which was very similar in operation to Porsche’s Sportomatic transmission. The Ro80 also sported four-wheel disc brakes, which were mounted inboard (as the later Audi 100 C1 would feature) and power steering, which was relatively rare in the mid-1960s.

The body proved to be ahead of its time as well, in both styling and aerodynamics. It was designed with large glass areas, smoothly integrated headlights, and a drag coefficient of 0.35cd. Claus Luthe, who also styled the NSU Prinz, K70, and a later, VW, and BMW models, penned all of this. (Luthe was also convicted of killing his son in 1990, but that, of course, is another story) Styling remained relatively unchanged throughout the life-span of the model aside from a slight rear-end updating which gave it larger taillights and moved the license plate above the bumper. By then, the drag coefficient had dropped even more to 0.34cd.

Unfortunately, despite initial strong sales, fate struck the Ro80 in much the same was as its rotary predecessor the Spider. Premature rotor seal failure was very common and generally fatal to the power plant at around 30,000 miles. This took a high toll on NSU as the reputation of the cars reliability became increasingly bad. That coupled with the costs of warranty repairs left the company in financially dire straits. Volkswagen purchased NSU in 1969 and merged it with the Auto-Union division that it had acquired earlier from Daimler-Benz. Audi NSU Auto-Union AG continued to produce the Ro80 until 1977 when the brand was finally discontinued, though officially, the division name remained for several years and many of the innovations lived on in Audi models. So ended over 90 years of NSU vehicle manufacture, from bicycles to motorbikes to cars.