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.


Ølholm said...

I am bit surprised by your evaluation of the Alfasud - I agree on several of your points regarding the manufacturing and the quality of the steel/interior/build quality... Hiring an uneducated work force wasn't a great idea, John DeLorean would probably agree.

However, the driving quality of the 'Sud is not a point to make fun of, it is simply splendid. It's a yard stick against which other cars are measured, even today.

I have one myself (surprise!), and it is great. CAR magazine even voted it "Car of the 70s" due to it's qualities.

Love your (otherwise) splendid blog :)

Anonymous said...

I also find it strange that you don't mention the 'Sud's legendary handling, for which it has become a cult classic. A guy I once bought an Alfa from told me that he first got the bug when he was twelve and was caught trying to take his father's 'Sud out onto the street. After a firm talking-to, his father decided that it would be best to give him a supervised outlet for his automania, so he was allowed to drive in circles as long as kept the car within the space of the front yard.