The history of four world-leading Italian motoring brands
From the most emblematic models to the most successful, revolutionary people, and the most significant events, this section illustrates and celebrates the cornerstones of Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Lancia and Abarth.
Alfasud took the Biscione brand into the small to medium-sized car segment for the first time. A project started from scratch to produce a technically innovative model, made at a new plant in Pomigliano d’Arco, southern Italy: a revolutionary bet that would leave its mark in the history of Alfa Romeo and beyond.
It could be suggested that the history of the Alfasud began between late 1959 and 1961, when Alfa Romeo management came up with the idea of a small car with limited displacement.
The “Tipo 103” prototype was a three-volume sedan slightly more than 3.6 metres long; it anticipated what would become the styling cues for the upcoming Giulia. The other revolutionary factors in terms of the history of Biscione-brand cars were the transverse placement of the small twin-cam engine and the front-wheel drive.
Although the Giulia was winning over more and more customers and professionals from the ’60s onwards, the Tipo 103 prototype was largely overlooked. Alfa Romeo had a much more comprehensive and complex revolution in store: establishing a new plant in southern Italy, to build a car for the people. The project was more than ambitious but while on the one hand it appeared to distance itself from the distinguishing features of Alfa cars to date, on the other it proposed the great challenge of joining a segment of the car market to which all the biggest automakers had already committed themselves.
For the design, a team of brilliant minds and draughtsmen was brought together, made up of: Rudolf Hruska, who had previously worked for Alfa in the days of the Giulietta; Domenico Chirico, head of the Alfasud project from 1966; the designers Giorgetto Giugiaro and Aldo Mantovani, from the up-and-coming Italdesign.
The foundation stone of the Pomigliano d’Arco plant was laid in April 1968; at the ceremony, the Chairman of Alfa Romeo Giuseppe Luraghi would explain to Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro the packed schedule leading up to the start of production by 1971.
The timing was tight, but Chirico managed to build a young, close-knit team, which would already be testing individual components, then the car, well before the plant had been completed. The same engineer would be there for the major milestones: the engine would be bench tested for the first time on 14 July 1968, followed by the earliest prototype’s first run on the Balocco testing track one evening in November that year.
There is a fascinating anecdote of a camouflaged car used for road testing, if of course not the same one that would become the final version. Chirico tells the story that, to check comfort over time, endless miles needed to be run on everyday roads. A car was therefore made to be used by Hruska himself to drive home to Turin in the weekends, as well as for the testers. For months on end, the “special edition” would go unnoticed, but was one day picked up on as it left the Portello plant in Milan. An article then came out with photos of a mysterious, seemingly 2.5-volume car, i.e. one with a small boot in a shortened rear, the piece entitled “the Alfa subcompact”. Other than the hidden body, the only other components that would later be used for real were the doors, the windscreen and the rear window. Curiously, if with differing stylistic cues, the small three-volume with a shortened rear – the Alfa Romeo 33 – would then be based on the Alfasud.
The Alfasud was unveiled to the public in November 1971 at the Turin Motor Show.
The car was innovative in terms of both its technical specifications and its aesthetics and functionality.
Under the bonnet was a compact four-cylinder boxer engine, with front-wheel drive, four disc brakes, adjustable steering wheel, pseudo-MacPherson autonomous front suspension and a rigid beam with spiral springs in the rear. The engine with opposing cylinders and front-wheel drive allowed for the design of a two-volume four-door five-seater, featuring a low bonnet that continued on with rather sleek, sporty lines, yet simultaneously offered a surprising amount of interior space, more than the average in fact.
Alfasud - 1971
Alfasud - 1971
flat-4, front, longitudinal, OHC on each cylinder head 1186 cm³
63 HP @ 6000 rpm
TYPE OF BODY
As per the initial project, different body configurations were developed on the same platform: the four-door sedan was juxtaposed by the two-“ti” sports car, the Giardinetta, the three- and five-door hatchbacks and the Sprint coupé, which would remain in production until 1989. The sporty connotation was boosted by planned growth in the engine displacement and output.
As seen in the Lancia Flavia the decade before, a boxer engine and front-wheel drive enabled the lowering of the centre of gravity, to achieve excellent road holding. These technical specifications may not have seemed to be in line with Alfa Romeo tradition, but they ensured a quality of driving worthy of the brand’s DNA. Output and displacement rose, resulting in a significant increase in performance and the creation of new models that drew on Alfa Romeo enthusiasts’ favourites. In 1973, two-door “ti” (Turismo Internazionale, “international touring”) version was released. With its 1.2-litre engine and Weber double body carburettor, it could achieve 68 hp, but it was most of all in July 1977 when the 76-hp 1300 came that the Alfasud ti would feel quite so sporty.
The Alfasud project was developed on a large scale: bit by bit, the original two-volume, four-door version would be juxtaposed first by the three-door Giardinetta with vertical tailgate and a record-breaking goods compartment, later followed by the Sprint coupé. The Alfasud Sprint was wedge-shaped, reminiscent of the Alfetta GT. Like its elder sister, under the sporty, tapered lines was a car with a spacious, roomy interior. The bonnet was even lower than the sedan's and the driving position was more expansive and sporty.
Even in the sedan itself, with the advent of the tailgate in 1981 and the creation of the three- and five-door versions, the usability and load capacity of the boot were significantly improved. At the same time, the on-board specifications, the sheet metal processing and painting techniques and the overall quality of the model also improved. The 1.3-litre engine was joined by a 1.5 version, taking the “ti” all the way to the glorious Quadrifoglio Verde model.
From a commercial point of view, the Alfasud covered a broader cross-section of the market than Alfa Romeo had to date, offering a product that was then considered more down-to-earth.
This was replicated among the sports cars with the creation of the Trofeo Alfasud, enabling many drivers to make in-roads into motorsport at a much more affordable price. Not only in the Touring Classes, but also with preparatory activities for single-seaters, via the establishment of the Alfa boxer single-brand championships, aimed at discovering new young talent.
The last sedan was produced in 1984, when the baton was passed to the Alfa Romeo 33. But the Sprint would continue until 1989: in 1983, the latter would give up the “Alfasud” in its name, and it would eventually benefit from a final increase in displacement – the compact boxer in the version with two double body carburettors would rise to 1.7 litres/114 hp.
From the perspective of the hybrid cars of the 21st century, a mention must be made that – using the Alfasud platform as a starting point – in 1986 Alfa Romeo trialled a prototype based on the 33 Sport Wagon. In this model, the 1.5-litre boxer was joined by a three-phase electric motor made by Ansaldo in Genoa. What we now think of as the present with one foot in the future shows to what extent Italian manufacturers’ research centres of 35 years ago really were looking ahead.
Despite respecting none of Alfa Romeo's canons, from the twin-cam engine to rear-wheel drive, the Alfasud was both the most technically advanced car in its class and a great commercial success, selling a total of more than one million units. Having been created from scratch, the project enabled engineers and designers to develop a comprehensive range of cars suitable for a variety of uses, making the most of the sharing of components.
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