In 1972, Alfa Romeo unveiled a remarkably sophisticated, modern sedan: from a technical perspective, in terms of the adoption of the transaxle layout and the De Dion tube rear suspension; from a design perspective, for its minimalistic lines (courtesy of the brand's Centro Stile), tapering into a “notable” tail. The Biscione brand vehemently believed in this new model, so much so it took the name of Alfetta from the F1 World Champions in 1950 and ’51: Fangio’s 159 (1951) had De Dion tube rear suspension, hence the name of the new sports sedan.
In the late sixties, Alfa Romeo was deciding how to follow up on the success of the Giulia and especially on its successor, the 1750. What was needed was a medium- to high-end sedan with as sporty a flair as always, to improve on what had come before; this was definitely not an easy feat. New technical solutions were looked into to achieve objectives of performance – a sine qua non for an Alfa Romeo – and to meet requirements for comfort and spaciousness, features that were already expected by the customer base at the time.
The mechanical architecture of the Alfetta revolutionised the technical solution seen in the Giulia, with the exception of the engine, the widely praised four-cylinder twin-shaft, the powertrain in the 1750, with improvements and more power: the gearbox was placed in the rear, together with the clutch, according to the “transaxle” layout, plus the adoption of a “De Dion” tube rear suspension with a “Watt’s” parallelogram linkage. The rear brake discs were placed "on-board", to reduce the unsprung mass. As such, the dynamics of the Alfetta benefited from a perfectly balanced weight distribution, 50% on each axle. The front had independent suspension with flexible torsion bar components and a rack steering system with adjustable steering wheel.
Automotive styling was changing in the early seventies: instead of curves and grooves as if blown by the wind like the Giulia’s, there was a quest for cleaner lines and marked edges. The interior also came into line with the rest of the body, with more pronounced inclines in the pillars of the sedans too. On the one hand, this resulted in a bolder appearance; on the other, more efficient aerodynamics.
The Alfetta followed, or rather launched, this stylistic trend: minimalistic, compact, assertive lines: the nose was highly tapered, with a very small overhang – seen from in front, it looked like the wheels were an extension of the body. The waistrail was a smooth continuation, with an increased volume in the rear, connected to the interior by a “C” pillar that reinvigorated the entire car, giving an impression of power and robustness. Such a design provided space for five and just as roomy a luggage compartment.
This decision – a stylistic innovation that was taken up widely – was not so much and not only down to the designers’ creativity, more so to the firm belief of Rudolf Hruska, an Austrian engineer called upon to Alfa Romeo by its President Giuseppe Luraghi, for the Alfasud project. It was Giuseppe Chirico himself, commissioned by Hruska to direct the Alfasud project, who would set it out in detail. Hruska believed that four medium-sized suitcases – with dimensions of 720x430x230 mm each, to be precise – should fit into a car’s luggage compartment. The Alfasud’s spacious boot was designed around this idea.
Towards the end of 1969, the first Alfetta and Alfasud prototypes were presented to Alfa Romeo’s top management. As the meeting drew to a close, Hruska pointed out that the Alfetta could not have a less spacious boot than the Alfasud’s. At that point, it became clear that the vaunted four medium-sized suitcases would not all fit into the boot of the Alfetta prototype. It wasn’t high enough; the spare wheel and fuel tank were there, underneath the loading platform. Next time round, the new Alfetta prototype came with a much higher boot, enough for Hruska’s by-then infamous four suitcases.
The positive consequences of the design did not end with capacity: the form of the raised boot and the new connection to the rear window, the incline of which had to be sharper, made a major improvement to aerodynamics.
Made from 1972 to 1984, the Alfetta was equipped with “milleotto” (1800-cc) engines at first, followed by a 1.6 and finally with a 2.0-litre; the Arese sports sedan was also the first Italian car with a turbocharged diesel engine (Alfetta 2.0 Turbo D, 1979). The cutting edge of mechanical sophistication was witnessed at the launch of the “Quadrifoglio Oro” version in 1983: the twin-shaft “duemila” (2000-cc) was equipped with cam phasing (patented by Alfa Romeo) built into the electronic injection, a world first.
The new Alfa Romeo Alfetta took up the glorious moniker of the Grand Prix-winning Alfa Romeo 158 and 159, the victors in the first two Formula One World Championships in 1950 and 1951.
Initially planned for the 1971 Turin Motor Show, the official reveal was postponed to avoid stealing the thunder of the Alfasud, which was given plenty of room on the Biscione brand’s stand. The launch took place in May 1972 near Trieste, at the elegant marina in Grignano. The specialist press made positive noises about both the technical and stylistic innovations.
A few months later, at the 1972 Turin Motor Show, Pininfarina unveiled the Alfetta Spider-Coupé. To do so, the designer had overcome the passive safety issues with convertibles by designing a “targa” (hardtop) body with a striking wedge-shaped line, featuring bold black bumpers to follow up on the trend started by the experimental prototypes that aimed to comply with the E.S.V. safety rules. The removable roof was made of a material of variable transparency: black when installed as the roof, transparent if overlaid onto the rear window, where the latches to fasten it were located. Two years later, the project evolved into the Eagle concept.
From 1975, an entry-level version was launched: the Alfetta range, equipped with a 1.6-litre engine and marked out by a grille with single headlights, while the 1.8 benefited from a restyling of the front and interior details. In 1977, the Milan sedan made the leap into the two-litre class with the Alfetta 2.0: the nose had changed, with square headlamps; the bumpers took on rubber accents; the finishes made a qualitative leap. The Alfetta broadened its leadership in the segment and the 2.0 became the go-to car for the Establishment.
To the last Giulia models, which remained in production until 1977, Alfa added the Perkins petrol engine, long used in the F12 van, but it was the Alfetta that would become the first Italian sedan with a turbo diesel engine, in autumn 1979. The four-cylinder 2.0-litre diesel with turbocharger was made by VM Motori in Cento, Ferrara province, and delivered the Alfetta’s 82 hp at a top speed of 160 km/h, a record at the time for a diesel car.
The pinnacle of the Alfetta’s evolution came with the new range in 1983, featuring large side panels linked to the even more pronounced extension of the bumpers. A single structure on the tail wrapped around the light clusters and the licence plate holder. The interior upholstery, the seats and the entire dashboard were also redesigned, with new instruments and a modern check panel standing out in the latter. The top of the range was the Alfetta “2.0 Quadrifoglio Oro injection”, with electronic injection and cam phasing. This model was also recognisable for its sporty dual round headlights, resulting in an assertive nose.
The advances in automotive electronics and the need to experiment with innovative solutions led Alfa Romeo to introduce the CEM programme, standing for “Controllo Elettronico del Motore” (‘Electronic Engine Control’). An Italian National Research Council project, it was developed by the Milan brand in conjunction with the University of Genoa. With an aim of reducing consumption and increasing engine efficiency, experiments were conducted on a modular logic for engine operations, involving the deactivation of two cylinders (the second and fourth) to partial load. The 1981 experiments were initially conducted by a few taxi drivers in Milan, then in 1983 around 1,000 selected customers were sold an evolution: the Alfetta 2.0 CEM, where the cylinders were not deactivated but it took on the sophisticated electronics management tested two years earlier.
In parallel with the Alfetta sedan, 1974 saw the start of production of the innovative Giugiaro-designed Alfetta GT. Equipped with the same transaxle layout in a coupé body that could offer generous interior space, it soon became the spearhead of Alfa Romeo sportiness. The advances partly followed those made with the sedan, including the GTV designation as of the arrival of the 2.0-litre engine and the take-up of more powerful engines. These steps forward were also made possible by technical expertise at Autodelta: from the GTV 2.0 Turbodelta (the first mass-production Italian car with a turbo engine) to the GTV 6 with the 6-cylinder 2.5-litre V engine from the flagship Alfa 6.
In 1984, after more than 475,000 units had been produced, the Alfetta passed the baton to the Bertone-designed Alfa 90. The Museo Storico Alfa Romeo in Arese has on display a model from the first series; Pininfarina’s unquestionably original Alfetta Spider-Coupé is one of the unique prototypes forming part of the collection, exhibited during special retrospectives.
Since the early seventies, Alfa Romeo has frequently shuffled the deck of cards that makes up tradition: with the Biscione brand’s first front-wheel drive, launched in the Alfasud, and with the innovative transaxle layout in the Alfetta. These two cars marked a new era for Alfa Romeo.