This year Italian car maker Alfa Romeo turned 100, and the city of Milan where the company started will celebrate the event by a four day tour involving the City Council, Fiera Milano Expo, Monza Race Track and the Alfa Romeo Museum. Alfa Romeo is the most passionate car maker of them all. Their cars are not the best in the world, but they are full of soul, and you don’t understand it unless you get to drive one! So let’s review the great history of this brand and see what makes them so special.
Get yourself some coffee and hit the jump to read the story…
Alfa Romeo was officially established in Milan on 24 June 1910. That year, a group of entrepreneurs and businessmen acquired Società Italiana Automobili Darracq, the Italian branch of the French car maker, and its Portello workshops on the city outskirts, and established A.L.F.A. (Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili- “Lombard Automobile Factory, Public Company”). The company’s emblem underlined the new ties to the city of Milan: a red cross from the city’s banner and the Visconti family grass snake (Biscione, in Italian). The first car to carry this badge was the 24 HP, a model that stood out from the very beginning for its advanced engineering, performance and driving pleasure – features which would become by-words for the brand.
The outbreak of World War I and limited resources created trouble for the company, which was acquired on 2 December 1915 by Neapolitan engineer and entrepreneur Nicola Romeo. The name was changed to Alfa-Romeo. The Portello plant, with a workforce of 2500, was expanded and converted to war production. The plant made engine compressors, ammunition, aircraft engines and – starting in 1917 – trains. The company went back to making cars at the end of the war.
Alfa Romeo made a first important step in establishing its competition credentials by winning the Targa Florio in 1923 (the brand’s first of 10 wins) with the RL TF, which also marked the first appearance of the four-leaf clover (Quadrifoglio, in Italian) racing emblem, and then in 1925 with the P2 Gran Premio that won the first Automobile World Championship in history, the first of Alfa Romeo’s five victories.
In the meantime, Romeo had replaced Alfa Chief Engineer Giuseppe Merosi, who had created the first models and joined the company back in 1910. He made way for VittorioJano, who became the technical creator of the great Alfas of the 1930s. His debut model was the P2, which was followed by the 6C 1500 (1928), 6C 1750 (1930), 8C 2300 (1931) and the Gran Premio Tipo B-P3 (1932), all models which greatly contributed to increasing the Quadrifoglio prize record and dramatically elevated the technical prestige of cars made at the Portello plant. Jano was also responsible for the legendary 8C eight cylinder in-line engine with supercharger.
The 1930s were the years in which the Alfa Romeo legend took shape. Engine reliability was undisputed and the names of famous drivers – Antonio Ascari, Gastone Brilli Peri, Giuseppe Campari, Enzo Ferrari, Tazio Nuvolari, Achille Varzi- were on everybody’s lips. They won many legendary races: Mille Miglia (11 wins, an undefeated record), Le Mans 24 Hours (four consecutive wins), Targa Florio, and a very long list of international Grands Prix. In addition, the valuable technical lessons learnt from racing were transferred to standard production models.
The worldwide recession that followed the Wall Street Crash of 1929 had repercussions for Alfa’s expansion: the company was taken over in 1933 by IRI (Istituto per la RicostruzioneIndustriale- Industrial Reconstruction Institute). Ugo Gobbato was appointed Managing Director. He rationalised and reorganised production, focusing on the core business of aircraft engines, industrial vehicles and touring and racing cars.
The company withdrew from motorsport at this time and its 8C2300B cars were given to Scuderia Ferrari. Results were brilliant: Alfa won more races than any other manufacturer in 1934, and racing even outshone standard production in 1936. Aeronautical production reached nearly 80 percent of the entire annual revenue. New orders came in, and a new plant was opened in Pomigliano d’Arco (Naples) at the end of the decade.
However, the outbreak of World War II quashed the company’s ambitious plans. As with most Italian industries, Alfa converted to war production and its plants were bombed by the Allies; (the Portello plant ceased operations entirely following damage sustained on 20 October 1944). Work resumed the following April after the peace treaty was signed, but the workshops had been damaged and there were no components for making aircraft engines, coaches or cars. So the 8000 Portello plant workers made electric cookers, metal furniture, doors, windows and shutters – in other words, the materials needed to rebuild a broken country.
Auto manufacturing was resumed only in 1946. Pre-war 6C 2500s rolled out of the factory and 158s salvaged from the war debris raced on tracks. New versions (Freccia d’oro and Villa d’Este), and the fitment of an innovative steering wheel-mounted gear shift, soon arrived. The 1900, the first Alfa with a monocoque bodyshell, was designed by Orazio Satta Puliga (who had joined the company in 1938) in 1950, and the first assembly line was opened at the Portello plant.
Racing wins multiplied. The supremacy of the Alfa 158 in Grands Prix was absolute, and Nino Farina won the Formula One World Championship in 1950. The following year was legendary Juan Manuel Fangio’s turn: he won the second Championship behind the wheel of an Alfa Romeo 159 fitted with the most powerful 1500 engine ever made, which delivered 425 HP and a top speed of over 300 km/h.
Immediately afterwards, Alfa took the decision to retire from Grand Prix competition but kept on competing in the Sport category with the 1900 Disco Volante, a flying-saucer shaped car capable of reaching a top speed of 225 km/h.
Meanwhile, the company concentrated on the production of standard cars, industrial vehicles, aircraft and naval engines, and diesel engines for industrial applications. Following the IRI reorganisation in 1948, Alfa became a Finmeccanica sub-holding.
The Giulietta Sprint was introduced in 1954. This car – along with a Spider (1955) and a berlina (1955) – would be crucial, and not only for the history of Alfa: it established new parameters (this was the first mass production car with a twin overhead camshaft engine made entirely of aluminium), and embodied Italy’s willingness to emerge from the dark years of the war. Furthermore, it consolidated Alfa Romeo’s vocation as a major auto maker.
The 1960s started with the success of the Giulia (1962), which developed the philosophy of the earlier Giulietta with new proportions. This success forced Alfa Romeo to expand the shop floor and open a new plant in Arese near Milan.
At the end of its long career, the Giulia and its derivatives – the Giulia Sprint GT (1964), the 1600 Spider Duetto (1966) and the 1750 – reached the outstanding goal of one million units produced. Racing activities continued throughout the decade. The Autodelta racing team was established and Alfa Romeo won on tracks worldwide with the Giulia TZ (1963), TZ 2 (1965), Giulia GTA (1965) and 33 (from ’69-’71).
As a result of the forward-thinking managerial skills of Giuseppe Luraghi, CEO until 1974, and the remarkable engineering skills of Orazio Satta Puliga, Alfa Chief Engineer, who was responsible for all the models up to the Alfetta, Alfa Romeo reached the peak of its development in the 1960s. The Portello plant, by now incorporated into the growing city of Milan, was insufficient. Production was gradually transferred to the new plant in Arese (with an area of over 2.5 million square metres), and a prototype test track was opened at Balocco (Vercelli).
The rapid increase in customer demand, led Alfa Romeo to plan the opening of another new plant in Pomigliano d’Arco (Naples): the foundation stone was laid on 29 April 1968. Engineer Rudolf Hruska was nominated to design a new Alfa: the Alfasud, a compact entry-level car equipped with a number of sophisticated mechanical solutions, (flat-4 boxer engine with front-wheel drive), which was introduced in 1971.
Production of the Alfetta started in Arese the following year. This sporty saloon with sophisticated mechanicals (front engine, rear-wheel drive, De Dion rear axle and transaxle) was a leader in its segment for many years. The Alfetta GT(1974), followed by the lower segment New Giulietta (1977) saloon, were the backbone of production at the Arese plant.
In the meantime Alfa Romeo won two World Championship titles: in 1975 with the 33 TT 12 (Manufacturers’ Championship), and in 1977 with the 33 SC 12 (Prototype Championship).
Troubles deriving from the social unrest of the Seventies were felt across Italy, and by Alfa Romeo. Despite this, the company continued to prepare models and strategies for the forthcoming decade: the Alfa 33 replaced the Alfasud in 1983; the remarkable Alfetta was replaced by the Alfa 90 (1984), and the Alfa 75 (1985), the last of the Alfetta family, was introduced to celebrate the brand’s 75th anniversary.
The company changed hands again in 1986, for the third time in its history. This time, Fiat Group acquired Alfa Romeo, which was producing the brand new 164 saloon (1987). The car’s success would revive Alfa Romeo and the Arese plant. 1992 was the year of the 155, which was remarkably successful in competition. The 145 was introduced to replace the 33 in 1994 and the sporty GTV and Spider were launched the following year.
At the core of Alfa’s 1990s revival was the 156 (1997). This sporty saloon featured cutting edge technical contents (like high double-wishbone front suspension and common-rail diesel engines). It was sensationally successful on the market – was awarded Car of the Year in 1998 – and on international race tracks scored many wins in the Touring Car category. The 166 replaced the 164 in 1998, and in 2000 the 147 (also Car of the Year) replaced the 145. The Alfa GT, a four-seat coupe, with a style concept reminiscent of the Giulietta Sprint, was introduced in the Autumn of 2003, while the 159 replaced the 156 in 2005, evolving its style and implementing new proportions, engine versions and body configurations. The Brera coupe was introduced in the same year, followed by the new Spider in 2006.
Alfa Romeo also introduced the long-awaited 8C Competizione that year, a very high performance coupe with a remarkable design that made it an instant classic. With only 500 units produced, this supercar was for collectors and a handful of lucky owners. It was joined by the 8C Spider in 2008, which maintained the same mechanical features and performance as the coupe. The Alfa Romeo MiTo, a compact sporty car, was introduced the same year.
Now it is the turn of the brand-new Giulietta to re-invigorate the brand in one of the most important European market segments. In Alfa’s centenary year, the name is a tribute to an automotive legend which was crucial in the history of Alfa Romeo: the original Giulietta caught the imagination of generations of car enthusiasts, making the dream of owning an Alfa Romeo and enjoying its high level of comfort and technical excellence, accessible for the first time.
The Alfa Romeo Style Centre has designed the new Giulietta, a five-door hatchback with an unmistakable Alfa Romeo look, capable of expressing both great agility on the most demanding routes and providing a high degree of comfort on everyday roads.
This is the merit of Alfa’s new Compact platform. Using sophisticated suspension solutions, dual pinion active steering, top-quality materials and state-of-the-art manufacturing technologies, the Giulietta achieves excellent levels of on-board comfort, dynamic features and safety (both active and passive).