Transalpine Hightail

Disappointingly uneven, despite occasional flashes of brilliance, the 1977 Giulietta personifies Alfa Romeo’s 1970’s wilderness years.

Image: wheelsage

The much-loved 105-Series Giulia was the model line that put Alfa Romeo back on a World stage. This compact sporting saloon was a concentrated blend of Portello engineering knowhow wrapped in a highly aerodynamic, if superficially four-square package. Belying it’s ‘boxy’ appearance however, the 105 drove beautifully becoming a firm favourite from its 1962 inception until its ultimate demise 15-years on.

Replacing a car of its stature was no job of a moment, so Alfa not only took their time, but elected to do so in a manner as convoluted as it was perplexing. 1977 however saw the Giulia’s replacement. Using a variant of the 1972 Alfetta’s floorpan and mechanical hardware over a freshly minted bodyshell, the Nuova Giulietta was a more compact vehicle, if only by dint of its shorter overhangs.

Sharing no skin panels with its 116-series sibling, Alfa Romeo styling chief, Ermanno Cressoni oversaw a wedge-shaped sporting saloon with a visual character diametrically opposed not only to the more conservatively styled Alfetta, but also to just about every other sporting saloon in contemporary production.

Image: autoweek.nl

Designed with one eye on the design heritage of its more stylistically assured predecessor, and the other on aerodynamic theory – (if not practice), centro stile’s solution was startling by mid-’70s standards, most particularly the high and abruptly truncated boot area. In what would become a Cressoni trademark, the surfacing was unyielding, the canopy upright and angular – the entirety a formal rejection of contemporary norms for a blunt, almost industrial modernism.

Like the Giulia before it, Giulietta was a design that didn’t particularly tolerate a seat on the fence, but unlike its Kamm-tailed predecessor, Giulietta lacked its’ forebear’s subtlety and delicate sculptural form. It was however, striking – UK weekly, Motor telling readers, “familiarity has done little to improve the Giulietta’s ungainly angularity in our eyes, though there is no disputing the car’s distinctiveness.” Motor weren’t alone, monthly rival, Car pulling their punches slightly but suggesting the car’s styling was “not harmonious”.

Image: coolcarswallpaper

The press were happier with the driving experience however, but with some quite significant reservations. With an on-paper specification of the Gods, the Giulietta’s technicalities wanted for nothing. Both it and its Alfetta brother should have offered a driving experience hewn from Mount Olympus itself. Inconsistencies however dampened critics’ ardour. Firstly, the Giulietta was heavier than its putative rivals owing both to more sophisticated underpinnings and that the body itself probably weighed as much as its larger sibling.

The Giulietta’s handling qualities required some acclimatisation as well, the car being almost vintage in its road manners. Prone to exhibiting a good deal of initial roll in addition to a curious sensation of free play in the steering during fast cornering, the ideal method was to apply a modest amount of steering input, before encouraging the tail to complete the manoeuvre by sensitive use of the throttle – (using the floor or hand throttles provided). Novice drivers were advised to tread more warily however.

Complicating the issue further was that some cars were not correctly set up at the factory, being fitted with inconsistent dampers which led to a noticeably diminished driving experience. Car magazine extolled the Giulietta’s virtues in 1979 – (with the above proviso), telling readers, “It consumes the road in a succession of smooth, rhythmical movements that are sparing of the road but very, very quick.”

Image: favcars

Nobody had a good word to say about the Giulietta’s gearchange, which was vague and baulky, especially when cold – (a trait shared with all transaxle Alfas). Motor discovered the car’s ride proved unsettled in urban conditions and in the absorption of sudden road shocks at speed. Better received was the interior, which was spacious, comfortable and well furnished, although Motor also found the contra-rotating speedo and tachometer a bit of a gimmick.

Overall finish was judged to be good, although both organs noted unsecured wiring dangling from under the dash, carpets that bunched up in use, stray screws appearing in the footwells and inconsistent paintwork. Both lauded it from a driving perspective, but in truth, Lancia’s rival Beta probably offered a more consistent, better rounded, if less pure-bred product – (although not necessarily a better wrought one).

By 1980, 1.8 litre and 2.0 litre versions were made available, which seemed to belie Alfa’s attempts at model stratification. In 1981, the Giulietta received a mild facelift, followed by a more comprehensive reworking two years later. In addition, European customers could choose a 2.0 litre turbo by Alfa’s Autodelta tuning arm while on the other side of the coin, a VM Motori powered turbodiesel was offered to the parsimonious. In 1985, with more than 350,000 sold, the model line was superseded by the reskinned Alfa 75.

Image: autowp.ru

The Giulietta was a decent car and a good seller for Alfa Romeo, but it illustrated a lack of focus that pervaded at Arese during this period. Too many similarly configured models competing for scarce development resources, coupled with insufficient rigour in the manner in which they were assembled. Both Alfetta and Giulietta were essentially the same car chasing similar customers. Even Alfisti’s couldn’t quite fathom why both were offered.

It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that a more gimlet-eyed focus on a single mid-sized model would have allowed it to be honed into something more akin to the transalpine 3-Series it was so clearly on the cusp of becoming.

The 116-Giulietta then? File under missed opportunities.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

6 thoughts on “Transalpine Hightail”

  1. This is a difficult car to like (says the pre-facelift Ritmo/Strada enthusiast).

    Of course, this is still a ‘good Alfa’ by Harald Wester, Tripp Hardcrotch and Big Reidland’s definition, but I’d choose a 164 or 156 over the lard-arsed wedge any day, thanks very much. Not to mention a bechromed Alfetta.

  2. I remember that I had a soft spot for this car when it was new and I was a little boy – most probably because it was unlike anything else. I already liked quirky cars back then. The face(?)lift with the dark plastic inserts at the back is awful, by the way. It might have been intended to make the back look sleeker, but it only accentuates its height.

    Regarding the proximity of Alfetta and Giulietta (or also later 90 and 75, which both were essentially reskins of their predecessors), I think it’s not the smaller car’s fault, but actually the Alfetta was just too small with its 2.51 m wheelbase to really compete in an upmarket sector. Generally Italian cars were smaller in these days than comparable European offers, and in the process of slowly adapting to the norm, awkward situations like the one described here could appear.

    1. Like you Simon, I really liked these as a youngster – they certainly cut a dash in the late ’70s. I saw one fairly recently and was genuinely shocked by how tall, narrow and dainty it looked in a modern context. They really would have been a wieldy device. Such a pity the build integrity (and overall execution) was so patchy.

      Like Fiat, centro stile Alfa Romeo were masters of the ham-fisted facelift. The poor Alfetta in particular was soundly ruined, but no contemporary Alfa model escaped defilement.

      Regarding the 116-series, tune in tomorrow, when we delve further into the many derivations it inspired.

  3. It´s pretty strict Italian modernism. The biggest let down is probably not where one might think: paint.
    These cars never exuded the slick shininess of the 2002 and 316 and the lack of brightwork may have been morally commendable but reduced the car´s visual appeal for no real gain. I still like them though, probably because they are so uncompromising. I had a chance to ride in one a few months back and had a lot of charm. I suppose one can work around the gearchange. The new Alfas are way to heavy and big. That´s not really Alfa´s fault though. However, in moving with the herd all these too-big smaller cars have lost part of their purpose.

  4. I found the Autodelta version quite fascinating. Metallic black exterior, fancy rosy-red interior, that exhaust pipe reminiscent of a chopped gun barrel. Was it just 300+ produced before being axed by the 75 for racing? Have no idea what sort of a drive it was and what ownership may have been for that eccentric version. Would have loved to know. I find its’ quirky underdog image quite appealing.

  5. I agree with the comments, but after some modifications it is street rebel.

    I still own (over 30 years) a engine swapped version of this 116 Giulietta, started with a 2.1 savali engine (1985), changed later to a 2.0 (1989) overhauled in 1995 and swapped to a 3.0V6 Busso engine (including al mechanical parts), 2010 exchanged for a 3.3 Savali Busso, driving solely LPG (no petrol system) 2017 waiting for restauration again

    Jurgen Prinsen (Netherlands)

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