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