When it comes to facelifts, it’s best to know when to stop.
Assuming one was in possession of the requisite grasp of Italian, it would have been fascinating to have sat in on the product planning meetings at Portello, when Alfa Romeo’s strategists were initially scoping the 1972 Alfetta saloon. Because, looking at it from the distance of close to half a century, it’s difficult to ascertain where this model was intended to fit into the existing model hierarchy. Sitting above the by then rather elderly 105-Series Giulia, but below the latter’s closely related 1750/2000 Berlina sibling, the Alfetta was an entirely new model, with the potential to cannibalise sales of both.
One assumes the intention was for the Alfetta to gradually supplant the older models, a matter which appears somewhat counter-intuitive, given that the more modern, and similarly dimensioned debutant was a good deal more sophisticated below the skin than its more exclusive 2000 sibling, featuring an elegantly engineered, expensively wrought rear transaxle arrangement, with a de Dion rear suspension arrangement – something a good deal more à la Lancia, than contemporary Portello.
Alfa Romeo’s eccentric product planning notwithstanding, the Alfetta was a thoroughly Italian blend of contemporary design, served with dash of classicism. Generally believed to be the work of centro stile, some have also suggested the hand of carrozzeria Bertone. Either way, it was an elegant, well proportioned shape, melding conservatism and modernism in a broadly pleasing manner.
Slotting between the cheaper 1.3 and 1.6 litre Giulia models, and the range-topping 2000 Berlina, the Alfetta was first offered as a single model, available solely with the 1779cc version of the Alfa-Nord in-line twin cam four. In 1975, a 1.6 litre model was added, differentiated from its larger engined sibling with a single headlamp arrangement instead of the 1.8’s dual setup. This would prove short lived – two years later, both models would gain the four headlamp nose.
Perhaps the most significant product upheaval in Alfa Nord’s latterday history took place in 1977, marking not only the cessation of 105-series (Giulia and 2000 Berlina) production, the introduction of the commercially significant 116-series Giulietta, but also the most comprehensive facelift to be visited upon the Alfetta model line over its lengthy production run. Overseen, it’s believed by engineer, Rudolf Hruska, who had been (quite unfairly) scapegoated for the Alfa Sud debacle, this was to mark his rehabilitation within Portello.
Coinciding with the introduction of the Alfetta 2000, the new Alfa Romeo saloon flagship, (the 119-series Alfa Sei being still some way off), received, in addition to a revised cabin, new nose and tail treatments – the front end in particular being in receipt of a more modernist, rectilinear theme, necessitating a longer frontal overhang, and employing bolt-on front wings instead of the welded originals. The door skins were also altered. These changes were seamlessly executed, the proportional shift, lending the car a more contemporary, balanced, more sophisticated appearance, but would be confined to the range topper until 1981, when the Alfetta range was rationalised under the revised bodyshell.
The following year saw further changes, with a new, more upmarket Quadrifoglio Oro model being introduced. This Alfetta range-topper saw the return of the twin circular headlamp arrangement, which seemed a retrograde step; one more redolent not only of the original car, but also the BMW models which were by now, eating away at Alfa Romeo’s customer base, especially in export markets.
Eclipsed in sales terms by the cheaper Giulietta, the Alfetta would go under the knife one final time in 1983, gaining lower bodyside cladding, revised bumper units, front and rear, while at the tail, the rear lamps were set within a grey plastic panel. One curious feature was an unsightly horizontal plastic trim-strip fitted on the upper C-pillar. Closer inspection illustrates that the rear ventilation outlet had been resited as part of the changes, (now alongside the rear screen) necessitating one imagines, this rather unsightly body-in-white solution.
This aside, the alterations were mystifyingly comprehensive and one imagines, quite costly for a model with literally a year to live. Furthermore, they had the effect of overloading the now quite dated looking design with an over-abundance of moulded plastic cladding, somewhat to its detriment. The end when it came the following year was therefore something of a mercy – the Bertone designed, but clearly 116-derived, Alfa 90 supplanting it in 1984.
The Alfetta bookended what was perhaps Alfa Romeo’s most troubled era. Hobbled by financial woes, labour unrest (especially in their Neapolitan arm) and a difficult commercial environment, Portello, through necessity, had to make a little stretch a long way. The Alfetta not only lived longer than it ought, it also underpinned the bulk of the Alfa Romeo product range for the best part of two decades.
That it survived so long was testament to a series of mostly intelligent improvements – the one exception, while not the worst of its kind, being mercifully short-lived.