Anniversary Waltz 2017 : A History of Lessons

A decade ago, Alfa Romeo wowed the faithful with the 8C Competizione, a car which ultimately amounted to less than the sum of its parts. But weren’t we here before?

8C Competizione. Image: autocar

The philosopher, Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás once essayed the line, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Following this logic, amnesia clearly runs as deeply within Alfa Romeo as blind optimism. The perennially crisis-ridden Italian car brand seems locked into a habitual cycle of hope and despair, with each new dawn promising that this time all will be different.

In 2002, Alfa were experiencing one of their all-too frequent crises, the business allegedly losing the Euro equivalent of £3m a day. Worse still, Alfa’s spiritual home and technical nerve centre of Arese in the outskirts of Milan was shuttered in a bid to stem the losses.

The same year, Alfa displayed the 8C Competizione concept at the Frankfurt Motor show and the serried ranks of grizzled press corps openly wept with gratitude. An almost wanton tug on the heartstrings, the centro stile styled 8C, overseen by Wolfgang Egger was an unabashed recasting of the stylistic tropes of the latter 1960s – particularly the Zagato bodied TZ and the T33 Stradale. Alfa Romeo, hitherto unremittingly modernist in style had rather belatedly entered the retro business.

In 2007, the 8C entered limited production, with 500 being built with another 500 Spider versions to follow. Based on Maserati underpinnings (chassis from the 3200 GT and suspensions from the GranTurismo) and with a 4.7 litre 450 bhp version of the Quattroporte’s Ferrari-derived quad-cam V8 under its sinuous bonnet, the 8C was intended to mark the beginning of Alfa’s fightback and the Biscione’s return to the US market.

For the 8C’s apparent chassis sophistication and carbon fibre body panels, it appears to have been something of an unsophisticated brute, as Autocar’s Matt Saunders discovered in 2007. “The chassis is at its best on smooth surfaces; over broken ones it’s much more foreboding. There’s plenty of traction, but a compromised ride leaves little room for bump absorption. At the limit, the 8C’s balance is a bit erratic too. You’re never 100 percent sure whether you’ll get understeer or razor-sharp turn-in at any given corner – it’s usually the former if bumps are involved, but not always.”

A case of tunnel vision? Image: carsbase

Fast, pretty and very quick, the Alfa nevertheless proved a thoroughly uneven proposition. Pondering whether it was worth the cost of an equivalent Ferrari, Saunders concluded; “As a piece of automotive artifice, yes. As a properly exciting supercar, maybe. As a thoroughbred machine for fast road driving, unfortunately not.”

The 8C appears to have amounted to something of a curate’s egg then, an accusation which has equally been levelled at its 50-year old ancestor, the 1967 Montreal. Another heart-stopping confection of a race-bred quad-cam V8 (Alfa’s own this time), a glamorous body shape, courtesy of carrozzeria Bertone, mated to the chassis / underpinnings of the 105 Giulia-series.

And therein lay the rub. The promise of those staggering Gandini lines and that thoroughbred power unit was betrayed by a chassis utterly under-qualified for the role. In 1997, auto-journalist, Andrew Frankel drove a well-fettled example for Autosport and found it sorely wanting. Frankel’s elegant prose deserves to be quoted in its entirety, but we’ll have to confine ourselves to a few choice nuggets. Equating the combination of body and engine to the theoretical marriage of Linford and Julie Christie, Frankel discovered Alfa’s V8 to be both thrilling yet tractable, but at the first sight of a corner, the Montreal’s ‘veneer of composure’ took flight.

“The first impression is that of a car with no front end grip at all. Right at the point when you need the front tyres to bite into the corner, they shy away, kicking your heart into your mouth as they do.” Not to put too fine a point on matters, the big Alfa’s dynamics were an inept combination of pitch, wallow, roll and the unsettled hip-hop of the Giulia-based live rear axle.

“It is a shame”, Frankel continued, “albeit not an entirely unexpected one, to note that the Montreal, is in the end, tripped and sent sprawling by its inadequate chassis. The Montreal”, he concluded, “would have served Alfa better if its shape had stayed in the exhibition hall, its engine in a racing car. It’s not as if the two weren’t meant for one another as I had previously thought, but rather that they were forced to live with an unworthy and unruly third party.”

It’s highly unlikely that Sergio Marchionne is a man with much time for the lessons of history; his slash and burn approach to brand management suggesting a disdain for such matters. This may explain why 2007’s 8C Competizione proved somewhat half-baked, if nowhere near as undercooked as its 1967 forebear. The 8C’s emotive (if creatively stagnant) styling however does suggest that Sergio’s cuore is not as flint-like as one might be tempted to imagine.

But there is another ghost at the wake. The same year the 8C was first shown to an enraptured public, Ital Design displayed the Brera concept at Geneva, a fabulously realised meditation on contemporary Alfa Romeo coupe style. Also featuring a Maserati engine and running gear, if ever a car deserved to see production as shown it was this – perhaps Giugiaro’s most accomplished piece of auto-styling in decades.

Produced it was of course, but like the Montreal, it was shoehorned onto a smaller and somewhat inappropriate platform, ruining Giorgetto’s exquisite proportions and compromising the car’s dynamics. And despite Brera acting as Alfa’s stylistic talisman for a few short years, (also informing the handsome 159 berlina), it was Egger’s tear stained homage to past glories that would become the scudetto’s face for a generation.

The lessons of the past stare what’s left of the Italian motor industry in the face for those who choose to face them. It’s going some to repeat the bitter reversals of history, not once but twice in rapid succession. But while Alfa’s lords and masters carry on as if they never happened, they’ll keep repeating the same errors indefinitely.

File under missed opportunity. Image: autoblog

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

9 thoughts on “Anniversary Waltz 2017 : A History of Lessons”

  1. At a sensory experience for someone not in the car, the 8C was extraordinary. I recall being at Beaulieu one summer and suddenly being aware of this wicked engine and exhaust note, turning my head round and seeing a black 8C being driven through the grounds, parking up outside the main exhibit areas. I spent the next 20 minutes just pacing around the car, listen to it ping and click as it cooled down a bit. There, in that setting, in that sunlight

    1. … it seemed pretty perfect to me. It could have driven like a Corvair and not cared a jot. I know it was creatively bereft in terms of concept and originality, but as a tribute to Alfa’s most voluptuous past, I thought (and still think) it magnificent. I still go s bit weak seeing one. Only the Touring Disco Volante makes me go even more wobbly ….

    2. I am with you on this. It is easy to criticise the 8C for its shamelessly retro approach and under-cooked dynamics, but sometimes a car is so beautiful that it can deflect all criticism.

      The 8C looks simply sensational.

  2. SV, I take it you’re referring to the first series Corvair. The second series replaced the first’s swing axles with a version of the Corvette’s IRS. The result was the best-handling US series production car of its time. Don Yenko, a Chevrolet dealer, sold second series coupes with slightly touched up cosmetics as Yenko Stingers. Like the Corvair, Stingers had high drag and power limited top speeds. Not much power,either, but on slow courses race-prepared Stingers trounced 911s.

    I once asked Yenko how he modified the chassis for racing. “Koni shocks, semi-metallic brake shoes.” That was it. Don’t malign the second series Corvair.

    I once took a colleague who was the proud owner of a new 2002 for a short drive in my ’66 Turbo Corsa convertible. He turned green, remarked that his car couldn’t go through those twisties at that speed.

    To get back on topic, the Alfas discussed here were all surface. Very Italian. I know, a low blow, possibly below the belt, but not completely wrong.

    1. Attempting a balanced approach, being smitten by the 8C’s appearance is entirely understandable; after all, my own initial reaction to the car was a similar one. However, there is something unsatisfying about it – a feeling of artifice and a somewhat cynical manipulation of one’s emotions. It feels dishonest. Untrue. Over time, my opinion of the car has hardened. I see it as a regressive influence – one which is still being felt in stylistic terms.

      The Montreal, for all its faults was a forward looking shape, as indeed was Giugiaro’s lovely (original) Brera. (Well in the latter’s case, it was at least contemporary). For many years, Alfa Romeo and the Italian industry as a whole successfully (and commendably) resisted outright nostalgia.

      ‘Pretty Vacant’ is how I’d sum up the 8C – (an alternative title I did consider), so yes, I suppose the ‘all surface’ comment could very well apply. It certainly seems a fair description for the Marchionne era cars.

    2. Hi Fred, sorry, yes I was referring to the ‘infamous’ Corvair, and, thus, the Series 1. I apologise, it was a bit loose of me. Thanks for putting me on my toes.

  3. I’m obviously in a minority regarding the 8C, for the car doesn’t tickle my fancy at all. The Scaglione tropes mean it obviously isn’t ugly, but I find it utterly uninspiring. It does produce a nice sound though.

    The original Brera is a great loss to me though. I love both its forms and semi-shooting brake concept. When I brought the topic to Giugiaro himself, he just raised his eyebrows, sighed and explained that ‘this one was a victim of politics’. What a shame.

    1. Agree with you, Kris, the 8C doesn’t do anything for me either. I like the tail lights but the shape is generic; a bit Alfa, a bit Maserati, a bit Ferrari, a bit Aston.

      The Montreal though has always been a thing of beauty to me. Gorgeous stance, seductive curves, I don’t think the driving experience could ever live up to the promise. It’s a good job I can’t afford one and find out.

  4. I have to agree some of the previous writers here, the 8C is like a beauty queen. Wonderful proportions and absolutely perfect, but a little bit boring with not really much personality too. And a bit too feminine for a sportscar. Its interior is – especially for an italian sportscar – surprisingly dull.

    For me, the real successor of the Montreal was the Maserati 3200 GT, a latin lover on wheels. And currently, in 2017, my favourite car in this class is the lovely brutal Lexus LF, i really want to see this car in metal.

    Italian sports car design is not climbing to new heights at the moment…

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