Missing Links and lost causes – in search of Alfa Romeo’s elusive estate.
The recent announcement by Alfa Romeo’s Harald Wester that the Italian manufacturer has no plans to introduce an estate version of its latest Giulia saloon was hardly a shock, given that the forthcoming Stelvio crossover will henceforth fulfil that role, being to all intents and purposes a jacked up Giulia hatch. As we know, the European market for upmarket estate cars is shrinking to the crossover contagion and what is left of it is dominated by the German hegemonic trio and Volvo, so it probably makes little sense now for FCA to throw good money after bad.
For a company not particularly associated with wagons, Alfa Romeo estates have been around in surprisingly fecund variety at various times since the company’s post-war redirection into the mass market. A number of Giulietta and Giulia wagons were built in the ’50s and ’60s, but none in serious volume nor by Alfa themselves. The first official Alfa Romeo estate car was the Neapolitan 1975 Alfasud Giardinetta.
In 1978, Moretti produced a speculative Giulietta wagon which didn’t see production. 1983 saw the Pininfarina designed and built 33 Sportwagon. Interestingly, an unlovely estate version of the contemporary Alfa 90 was produced in 1985 by carrozzeria Marazzi. Depending on who you speak to, either one or two were made. Despite also being reputedly considered for production by Alfa management, it came to nothing.
However, best known and certainly best loved of Alfa’s estates was the comely 156 Sportwagon of 2000, which was succeeded by the equally handsome 159 in 2004.
The missing link in this tale however is the 75 Sportwagon, revealed at Geneva in the spring of 1986. Created under Ermanno Cressoni at centro stile and produced by Rayton Fissore, it was intended to enter production as a fully fledged 75 variant for the 1987 model year.
The conversion to estate car was a thorough one, necessitating considerable body in white changes. Most noticeable being the removal of the pronounced kink at the rear three quarters, the Sportwagen featuring a more linear shoulder and waistline – more akin to that of its 33 stablemate. Additionally, the ugly plastic strakes were removed from the base of the side glass, giving the car a less cluttered look. Alterations were made to the roof gutters and one assumes, a good deal of structural work was required to allow for the rear hatch to open to bumper level.
Overall then, it was a cleaner, neater conversion of an awkward looking car and if it lost a little of the berlina’s character, it benefited from being a good deal more harmonious.
However Fiat Auto’s takeover of Alfa Romeo later that year saw the project being cancelled with apparently a mere seven examples built. Despite the 75 being more sporting in character, with Alfa now twinned with Lancia, it’s possible the announcement of the Pininfarina designed and built Thema estate the same year was deemed sufficient. Politics too could have played a factor, but perhaps more likely, the business case for the 75 Sportwagon simply didn’t stack up.
The remaining Sportwagen prototypes were retained as service tenders at the Arese factory – two of which it seems have been preserved for Alfa’s museum. While hardly a tragedy, it’s increasingly likely we’ve seen the last of the Alfa Romeo estate car. By the time FCA get their fingers out to produce a large saloon to complement the Giulia – (projections are for 2020, although cynics may feel the necessity to add to that) – the market for such cars is likely to have contracted too far.
But while the storied Milanese marque cannot be said to have been synonymous with the format, could an argument be made for them to have put the ‘sport’ into Sportwagon?