Theme : Benchmarks – The Alfa Romeo Giulia Berlina

Is this really the progenitor of the modern sports saloon?

Alfa Giulia 6

In the early 1960s, the average British driver on an average income would have ended up with a leaf-sprung wheezer, comfortable maybe, but hard-pushed cruising above 70 on expanding and unrestricted motorways, a handful in a panic stop and an entertainment-free and potentially scare-laden prospect on corners.

If you had a bit more to spend, and fancied something with sporting pretentions, then pretentions were certainly on offer with bits of real wood, a bigger carburettor, a rev counter and oil pressure gauge, fog and driving lamps and maybe a chrome strip up the side.

In the UK, an affordable, mass-produced car, offering five seater bodywork on a coil sprung, rear-drive chassis, a free-revving, light alloy, twin-cam engine, a 5 speed gear box and disc brakes all round would have been a dream template for a future sports saloon, maybe for the 1980s, even the 90s. But not in Italy, where all this was available in the 105 Series Alfa Giulia Berlina.

Alfa Mille Miglia
8C 2900 Mille Miglia (Touring). Image: The author.
Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 Castagna Coachwork 1939
6C 2500 (Castagna). Image: The author.

In 1932 Alfa Romeo faced bankruptcy and came under government control. Hitler dreamed of a People’s Car but, although the financial situation in the 1930s severely affected European manufacturers of prestigious vehicles, Mussolini’s pet car company specialised in coachbuilt and costly vehicles for the very rich, including himself. The government might have been contemptible, but the engineering was sublime, culminating in one of the undisputed greats, the 8C 2900. Following the trauma of the Second World War, Alfa Romeo was still under government control, but by no means the same government.

The Italian Republic was formed in 1946 and, from 1950 until the late sixties, Italy saw enormous economic growth. Politically, although the Christian Democrats became the dominant party, the Socialists and, crucially, the Communists still remained influential forces, particularly in local government.

Thus, although there was no populist incentive for an overall swing to the Left during this boom period, there was also a strong disincentive to divide the country again by alienating large sections of society. Therefore, here was a car company with a glorious engineering history, whose past products might be admired, but many of whose past clients were despised, still owned by the state and with a chequered history. The world had changed radically. What should it make?

The 1900
The 1900. Image:

The new Alfa Romeos of the early 50s look quite ordinary now, but beneath the skin they did justice to Alfa’s exotic heritage. They wanted to be something special, but Alfa was still finding its feet. First came the 1900 in 1950, Alfa’s first true production line model, a well-styled but rather heavy looking large saloon whose most distinctive feature was an entirely new twin-cam engine.

This was joined in 1954 by the smaller Giulietta which, although more convincing, retained the rather staid styling. This car, designed under Orazio Satta Puliga, introduced, in 1290cc form, a smaller twin-cam engine that would remain in production in various forms for 40 years, even finding its way into Alfa’s commercial vehicles.

Comparing it with the heavy, asthmatic units then found in most of Europe’s vehicles, one must conclude that only the parochial car-buying loyalties of the time prevented buyers in the showrooms from being outraged at being presented with such half-hearted innovations as Ford’s ‘Cross Flow’ overhead valve technology of the mid-sixties, this coming from a manufacturer that only got rid of their last sidevalve engine the year that the Giulietta’s ultimate successor was introduced.

Giulia 3
Giulia 1300. Image: Bloomberg
Image: The author

That successor was the Giulia, again designed under Satta Puliga. Launched in 1962 in 1600cc form, it went on to be available throughout its life with various twin-cam petrol power outputs, from the 77bhp of the basic 1300, to the 97 bhp of the 1600 Super, as well as the 110 bhp of the early and rare Ti Super homologation special.

It spawned more popularly endearing and enduring variants, the Giugiaro designed Sprint GT and the Spider that remained in production until 1993, but the saloon is really the most interesting and admirable version. The 105 Berlina followed the artless three box style that Italian builders developed in the early 1960s, with a practical, near vertical side glasshouse ensuring comfortable accommodation in a relatively short body.

Fiat had launched their 1300/1500 the year before and Lancia their Fulvia Berlina the year after, Fiat probably had the most conventionally attractive cars of the three manufacturers, with a slight American influence. Lancia and Alfa both applied their own logic to the designs, coming up with cars that were distinctive, but are seldom described as elegant. The Giulia is handsome enough from the front, but uncompromisingly practical at the rear where boot space and aerodynamics were the priority.

Alfa 1300 Twin Cam
Simple but Sophisticated

Technically, except in the engine, it does not stand out like Citroen’s DS of 1955 and, on paper, it does not even compare well with the car the DS inspired, the Rover 2000 introduced a year after the Giulia. Its engineering was not truly radical but it employed generous, well-considered solutions and was devoid of any cynicism.

The Alfa was denied an independent rear, making do with a well-engineered, well-located, coil sprung, lightweight live axle. Looking back, this might seem to go against its position as an innovator, but it was a car that was designed to be driven quickly and safely. Discounting Jaguar’s magisterial twin coil rear suspension, introduced on the E-Type and Mk 10 at the start of the 60s, the other independent set-ups seen on rear-driven saloons of the time were variable, to say the least.

Both Mercedes swing axle and BMW’s semi-trailing wishbones could be quite unpredictable at the limit. The Rover 2000 had a De Dion set-up that was effective, but was designed for comfort with good roadholding but a lot of body roll, in the style of the DS. The Triumph 2000’s independent rear was commendable, especially bearing in mind its selling price, but it too was primarily there for comfort. Viewed in the context of the time, Alfa’s choice seems prudent both financially and practically.

Giulia Interior
Simple but inviting – The Classic Interior. Uncredited
The Original Interior
The Original Interior. Uncredited.

The Giulia’s distinctive tail-up position when unladen, as well as relatively high roll angles when cornering, testify to its long-travel suspension since, although good handling was a priority, comfort was not a distant second. One can argue that Europe’s roads were generally rougher than today’s and that this was just a necessity, but one can also argue that to produce a car that could be inhabited by the family, but would not cosset the family, would have been anathema to Alfa’s designers.

Its original intentions are further testified by the fact that the first models had a column gearchange and a bench front seat. Quite soon the front seats were separated and a floor mounted gearstick appeared as an option, becoming standard soon after. The sensible strip speedometer with a tiny rev counter next to it lasted a bit longer until both these instruments became two large round dials in the 1600 models then, later, across the range.

Only the clumsy under-dash handbrake remained for many more years as testament to the original layout. Thus, the Giulia’s everyman ambitions are most obvious on early versions where maximum capacity as family transport was a priority.

Alfa Giulia 1.3As we write history with the benefit of hindsight, this still underappreciated car can be presented as the prime forerunner of today’s performance saloons and hatchbacks. If you want to take that view, it’s hard to argue. True, the BMW 1500 was released at the same time and you could also point out that the Giulietta, laid much of the groundwork but, although we can identify much in the Neue Klasse BMW that evolved into the 3 and 5 Series we know today, the single-cam engined, 80 bhp 1500 still had a way to go. Likewise the Giulietta, though first to feature Alfa’s small twin-cam engine, its rather staid styling and an equally staid driving position were at odds with twitchy steering – somehow the balance still wasn’t quite right.

Today we would readily label it a sports saloon and, indeed, if you are looking for a nice Giulia, it might take a while to find one that hasn’t had its suspension lowered to suit that image. But the car at the very top of this piece, a highly modified example of a rare 1963 TI Super, though looking every inch the racer and undoubtedly part of the Giulia’s identity, is not what the Giulia was really about. When current, the Giulia didn’t fit into an easy contemporary niche, so who was it made for? Who were the Giulia’s target customers, their personas in today’s marketing terms?

Basically they were whoever wanted one which, fortunately for Alfa, was 600,000 people. The Giulia wasn’t the product of marketeers and, for all their praiseworthy attributes, Satta Puliga and his immediate successors seemed to lack the focus to produce a coherent Alfa Romeo range to both complement and succeed the Giulia.  Sadly that problem has never been solved.

If we consider the company that, deservedly enough, took over Alfa’s crown as a maker of saloon cars for the enthusiastic driver, probably around the 1972 launch of the Alfetta, a worthy but flawed car, and the first 5 Series, a remarkably similar vehicle in both conception and competently styled anonymity, the trajectories of Alfa Romeo and BMW crossed; one ascending, one descending.

The Giulia actually continued in production until 1978, too long of course, but, quality issues notwithstanding and, unless you bought the awful Perkins diesel engined fuel-crisis special, ownership of a Giulia was never a bad thing. It was a car that you could move up to from a Fiat 600, and it was a car you could keep in the garage next to your Ferrari 250GT. It was far more than the inspiration for today’s self-centered sports saloons. It was a car that was good enough for anyone.

Giulia 3
Image: The author.

25 thoughts on “Theme : Benchmarks – The Alfa Romeo Giulia Berlina”

  1. “It was a car that was good enough for anyone” is an interesting sentiment. One wonders what cars embody that ideal now? A diesel BMW 3 or 5 Series Touring from a few years ago, perhaps. I struggle to think of any contemporary examples.

  2. The dull answer is VW Golf. That´s why they sell so many. Like I say, it´s the median car and unless you are being obtuse, is actually a very good product. I don´t like them much but I can see why others do and they are not mad.
    Nice to see you back, Chris!

  3. The Giula had terrific rear seats. Some versions were even more buckety and they had an armrest too. I used to really want to own one of these but then realised what a chore the mechanics were. I worked on one with an engineer. We were trying to remove the gearbox and this meant using a socket attached to a right angled ratchet that had to go up and then turn left to access the bolt. I don´t remember how we solved it but the one bolt took an hour to remove. Imagine that at today´s hourly rates….

  4. The closest that Alfa Romeo ever came to reclaiming the Giulia’s mantle was the 156. Handsome inside and out, with a slinky (if not particularly capacious) estate, excellent road manners and a number of good drive trains, it was a car that required no excuses. Styling apart, the 156 was everything that its 159 replacement was not. It even mustered a semblance of reliability unheard of from contemporary Italian machines.

  5. The current Mazda range is rapidly becoming a benchmark. I was in their dealership the other week (the wife wants to buy a CX5) and it dawned on me that that every car in their range could be recommended without undue reservation to at least one person I know. An extraordinary turnaround from the Mazda of ten years ago.

    1. How do you find Car´s new website?
      What´s nice about Mazda is the utter lack of baggage. Honda have the same advantage but their range is much more of a mixed bag. They are doing well in the US as are Mazda.

    2. I agree with Chris too. I don’t think much about Mazda generally, since I don’t need any of the sort of cars they make, but I realise that my unconscious opinion of them has subtly changed to being very positive and, as you say Richard, no baggage. Except for the swirly bits down the Mazda5 which are silly.

    3. I find Car’s update to be a vast improvement. The lack of community features is sad, but at least it is no longer hobbled by mid 2000s technology. Car and Driver’s website still knocks it into a cocked hat, mind.

      I find that my interest in magazines has wained in recent years, largely mirroring Car’s decline. Their “malaise era” kicked in after Jason Barlow was ousted from the top seat. Everything after has been done before, and better.

    4. I admire Mazda’s clarity of vision. A while ago I argued on Car’s website that Mazda appear to have undertaken a commitment to becoming an Alfa Romeo for our times, without the flakiness. Their focus on styling and growing reputation for driving dynamics, plus a predilection for dark metallic red, suggests that they are getting there.

  6. Like some people know where they were when Kurt Cobain died
    (I was stuck in a five hour traffic jam in suburban Maryland) I have my first sighting of a real 156 engraved on my memory. I’d have one of those. It’s neat and tidy but graced with design flourishes. Was it retro? No. Was it “Modern”? No. It was quite beautiful and yet androgynous.

  7. One difference between the Giulia and the 156 is that the Giulia exceeded visual expectations in its performance and handling, whereas the 156 looked so good that it could only disappoint slightly. But the fact that 18 years later the 156 still attracts good comment makes Fiat’s inability to replace it inexplicable, even if it is true to the Alfa tradition of lousy product planning.

    ‘A Sporty Cortina’ is going a bit far. The contemporary Cortina was a cynical car and, in standard form, a very poor car. In Britain and the USA, the Alfa was certainly a niche vehicle for the enthusiast, but the point I was trying to make was that, in Italy at the time, it was a far more everyday sort of car, in the very best sense.

    In terms of being a car that was classless, that gave no-one preconceptions about you when you stepped out of it, the Golf is a contender as a modern comparison, except Golfs always attract rather unfair criticism for being ‘boring’. Likewise a 3 Series BMW is found everywhere, but still carries that slight implication that its driver has a contempt for his fellow road users. I don’t think there is a direct comparison these days, there are so many niches, each with their subtle social nuance.

    As a kid, I actually thought the Giulia was ugly and had a good laugh at the Carabinieri making arses of themselves in the Italian Job. I hope the above makes amends.

    My desire to own one is hampered by where I could keep it in London, but I imagine I will go on looking at the pages of and from time to time. The maroon 1600 in the photo in the article is one I looked at last year. I understand the appeal of the lowered Giulia with fat rubber, they do look very good (I also considered the one below too), but I incline to the original really – why compromise an all-rounder?

  8. By Italian Cortina I meant it was a car for everyday use rather than a car as crummy as the Cortina. I imagine that Ford´s engineers did try their best to make the Cortina useful within the limits set by the management. My ideal Giulia is probably one with the grey or mustard cloth interior and whatever exterior colours go with that. I´d have to take the 1600 engine rather than the littler ones. As original as possible would be my preference.
    You call the design of these cars “artless”. Are you quite sure about that? Don´t these cars all show correct detailing and worked over design solutions? Or by artless do you mean uncontrived, in a positive sense?

  9. I certainly meant ‘artless’ in a knowing and positive sense. It was certainly designed by people who knew what they were doing. Personally I’d avoid red, though it looks well enough – there’s a light grey which is good and there is a nice blue (not the one in the photo). It’s also a car that looks good in both white and black.

    I realised the point you were making about the Cortina though, regarding the engineering, a recent article I read mentioned a BMC engineer who recalls them putting the original Dagenham Dustbin though some tests – presumably stung by the idea that it showed the Mini how things should be done commercially – and were horrified at the lack of torsional stiffness.

    I just feel that Italians would not have accepted a car as crap as the Cortina. One of the first cars I drove legally on public roads was a Fiat 124, a car launched in 1966 and certainly influenced by the Giulia, and it was so much better that its Ford contemporary, though a fast ticking rust timebomb.

  10. Ubiquity makes it easy to condemn the Cortina, but one must remember that the nameplate spanned 20 years and five generations. The mark 1 was actually rather handy, with the Lotus twin cam showing what the car was capable of. The rot really set in (in every sense) with marks 3-5, which were essentially lightly re-engineered versions one to the next. That said, I will always have a place in my heart for the coke bottle mark 3, which for me was a styling (if not engineering) high point.

    1. Chris. I have to admit that, for a short period after it was launched, I tried to persuade my Mum to get a red 2000GXL Mark 3. It’s strange what hormones do to a teenager. But subsequently I drove too many Mark 3s to ever have any fondness for them.

      As for the Mark 1, the Lotus Cortina was indeed handy, outclassing the Giulia on the tracks. But subtracting Chapman’s cleverness and looking at a car in its most basic form shows how good it really is and a standard 1200 with a painted grille was a pretty horrid car in a way that a BMC 1100 (also ubiquitous) wasn’t.

  11. The Giulia was benchmarked by Jaguar in 1967 for a model line to replace the Mark 2. It was to feature a well-located live rear axle with a BMC-sourced IFS and either the 2.5 Daimler V8 or a 1.5 litre Coventry Climax unit. Styling reportedly bore a resemblance to the Giulia Sprint coupé. Once Stokes took over in 1968, it was canned – that was Triumph’s market.

  12. Chris: I’d buy Car & Driver if it was sold here (I should sub). I have fled Car’s new site – I post at TTAC now (I ignore the political comments) and read Automotive News if I want news. Have you tried that? Also, despite my hard-left politics, I find the Telegraph’s car section quite good. Car magazine lost its mojo some time between 2000 and 2004. That means for 11 years I have been buying out of habit. Amazing.

  13. An interesting website quite unlike any I’ve seen before. Had to read almost every post to see where you’re coming from, because I first read the Archie Vicar test on the Renault 16 and presumed you were all refugees from Sniff Petrol. Ahem. Having the comments section primarily populated by the founders themselves is original. Obviously mass popularity is not what you’re seeking!

    Having been transplanted from Oxford to Canada at age 11 (1959) when the family emigrated was the beginning of my education that cars cannot be fully judged from the temperate perch of the British Isles. The average UK, French and Italian car was really not up to the task of mastering the conditions here. Simple observation. In fact, they were running jokes – people had bought them starting in the fifties when exports were high, and soon found they were about as durable as wet cardboard boxes, and not likely to start in winter. VW Beetles? Well they rusted too, just not quite as quickly, and appealed to people with a streak of masochism who could drive with frosted up windscreens, no petrol gauge and the clattering engine. Renaults? Please! Peugeots existed somewhere. The only two good European cars were the Ford Consul/Zephyr and Volvos.

    At least the Volvos all had coil-sprung rear axles and were pretty nippy for the time. They were all equipped with twin SUs here, which by dint of some Swedish magic never seemed to go out of adjustment like the ones on BMC sports cars did. Nor did the valves need to be constantly adjusted. The cars just didn’t need to be fussed with. Of course the fun ended abruptly in 1967 when the Grandpa-special 144S was introduced with 150 kgs of extra weight.

    I wish they all had DOHC engines like Alfa, but by way of compensation you could rally these cars on awful gravel roads which were then common, hose the car off afterwards, and get on with life. A particular memory of mine as navigator is watching the owner holding full-throttle and 5800rpm through deep mud for ten miles in second gear, over 50 mph, while hoping for the best. Those were the days!

    So, I’d advocate those old 544s and 122S’s with the twin SUs as being progenitors of the tin box GTs made to a price, as much as the Alfas were. Today, virtually everyone forgets them, but in the 60’s they were the only European cars that seem to have been designed with any thought to pride of purchase five years down the road, yet could get a move on when needed. There was Mercedes of course, but virtually nobody could afford them. Nobody laughed at Volvos for being a silly little foreign car, and they assembled them right here in Nova Scotia as well.

    Anyway, my thoughts.

    1. Hello Bruce and thanks for your comments. I’ve always admired the PV544 and Amazon series and your point about them being early sports saloons is well made. In fact, I’d say that Volvo’s intentions are clear, since the styling of the Alfa 1900 is reflected in the later Amazon. But, had I found myself in a challenging climate, with service stations few and far between in the Sixties, the Volvo would certainly have been my choice over the Alfa. In fairness to the 144, when it first appeared it seemed a fair successor to the Amazon but, unfortunately, having previously put safety on a par with driver appeal, they developed it and managed to forget the latter, creating a stodgy image that they still have trouble escaping entirely.

      Back then, Peugeot’s image as sturdy cars that were fine to drive vied with Volvo’s, even besting them in the tough East African Safari Rally. Mean minded cost-cutting ruined that and, even though it’s now generally undeserved, you’ll always come across the ‘they all fall apart’ comment on other websites. Bad images are far more difficult to lose than good ones.

      Aah, the UK industry. It’s a grim obsession of ours on these pages – a litany of missed chances, well summed up by the World War One maxim ‘Lions Led By Donkeys’ – both arrogant and complacent. Thinking that it could rely on the postwar ‘captive’ Commonwealth market did it no favours at all. Interesting, though, that the Ford Consul/Zephyr series had a good reputation.

      The common ground of the Founders is in a (sometimes too rosy maybe) nostalgia for the golden days of Car Magazine, where writing wasn’t endlessly concerned with figures and could often go off piste. Our viewing figures have been building steadily over the past year, but it’s only in the last few weeks that more people seem to have started joining us to comment. We hope it will continue. As you suggest, our primary interest is not to get into a position where we can furnish our motor houses with the proceeds of advertiser’s clicks, but it is good to find we’re not alone out there.

  14. Hello Bruce and thanks for taking a look. I am glad you have enjoyed the site. I liked your comments on the Volvos. That is a new bit of information for me. Volvo did keep bashing at the sporting side of things with their 240 GLT cars of the 80s which have a certain perverse charm to them. They never managed to put a proper engine in them so the pretensions of speed were never followed through.
    In general, European cars have the most appaling reputation in N America. I read the comments at TTAC with amazemet; cars that are a by-word for quality are routinely hammered by writers. I wonder if this is as much to do with expectation as the differences in driving conditions. Speaking of which, Saabs are surely as well made as Volvos (the 60s and 70s ones). How do you rate cars like the 90, 99 and 900 which I note seem to survive very well in Ireland where bad roads and damp kill Alfas, Peugeots and Renaults as surely as they do in northern North America?

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