Under the Knife – When You Should Just Let Things Be

When it comes to facelifts, it’s best to know when to stop. 

(c) autoevolution

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.

(c) autoevolution

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.

Post ’77 facelift. (c) stubs-auto.fr

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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

24 thoughts on “Under the Knife – When You Should Just Let Things Be”

  1. Alfa never considered the 105 Berlina as anything but a stop gap solution and they knew they had to deliver something better to be on level terms with the competition. Francesco Ferrari’s book on the Alfetta shows drawings for a 105 Berlina reskin bearing a striking similarity to the later Alfetta. These drawings are from around 1967/68 and are signed ‘centro stile Alfa Romeo’.
    Conceptual work on the Alfetta actually started before the Berlina was launched.

    The Alfetta represented a string of tragical design wrong decisions making it one of those if-only cars that Alfa had mastered like nobody else. The most far reaching of them surely was the decision for a DeDion rear suspension instead of the originally planned double wishbone setup on Consalvo Sanesi’s insistence, preventing Alfa from fully exploiting the quantum leap in tyre technology in the late Seventie. The next was the independent mounting of engine and gearbox instead of using a rigid connecting tube like Ferrari’s Daytona or Porsche’s transaxle models, leading to those notoriously troublesome Guibo couplings and the terrible gearchange. The decision to move the gearbox to the rear was made relatively late in the conceptual phase and once taken the wheelbase was shortened because without a gearbox tunnel up front there was enough room in the footwell with the shorter wheelbase.

    If the fuel crisis and accompanying disastrous economic downturn in Italy hadn’t happened we would have seen a wide range of models around the Alfetta. What we know as the Alfetta would have been the base model, there would have been six cylinder versions and top of the range versions would have had engines based on the Montreal V8. Just imagine a car similar to the Sei but with a seriously powerful V8 taking the BMW E21 and E28 M535i/M5 head on.

    1. The gearchange of the Alfetta was surely much less satisfying than that of the Giulia, 1750 or 2000.
      It was however more or less useable, the only real big problem being the insertion of first gear when stationary, leading some drivers to start in second gear.
      The incredible thing is that, apparently, this first gear defect could be traced down to a flaw which could be easily obviated with a little modification: something which never happened in twenty years of production.
      At the end of the Eighties my father bought a brand new 75 T.S., lured mainly by the standard 25% limited slip differential and of course without driving it before, and at the time of the first inspection complained to the mechanic that insertion of first gear was the same *** of the Alfetta: the answer was “don’t worry, we know, I’ll make a little modification”.
      Apparently this was a trick well-known to the Alfa maintenance people, involving a lathe and the removal of material from some linkage/ bushing/whatever.
      After the passage of the mechanic, in fact, first gear could finally be always inserted, with a bit of difficulty but ways better that before.
      And this leads me to the question: it was easy to improve and possibly solve it definitively, but it was never done in twenty years.
      I suppose this little episode in some way may help to understand why in 1986 Fiat took over Alfa Romeo.

    2. Agree on your what-if ideal for Alfa Romeo, would have also been great if the Montreal V8 was capable of growing to 3.5-4-litres+.

      The only other what-ifs would add would be the Spider (or its Alfetta-based replacement) receiving the V6 and 2-seater coupe bodystyle, along with the Alfasud featuring (if feasible) a three-box saloon bodystyle in place of the 2/4-door two-box saloon.

      alfa sud sedan

    3. The 75’s ‘isostatic’ gearchange mechanism was completely different and a lot more complicated than the Alfetta’s. When it was new it was clearly better but if it went out of adjustment it was even worse than the old mechanism. The new mechanism can’t be retrofitted because it needs modifications to the floorpan to fit.

    4. I can’t see the purpose of a 4 litre Montreal engine.
      The Montreal engine was good for 300 PS in 2.6 litre guise and the marine versions for speed boats with 3.0 litres had in excess of 350 PS. At the time of the Alfetta such an engine would have been plenty enough to see off any competition.
      Fitting the V6 into the spider doesn’t make sense because the gearbox can’t cope with the torque. It isn’t even possible to use Twin Spark engines without risking the gearbox. There are enough people converting their spiders to V6 engines, nevertheless.
      The two seater coupé based on the spider’s wheelbase was called Junior Z.

    5. Essentially envision the growth of the Montreal V8 beyond 3-litres overtime roughly corresponding to the projected growth in displacement of the smaller V6 beyond 2.5-litres (that potentially comes much earlier) in this what-if scenario.

      It is possible the larger versions of the V6 eventually the replace the Montreal V8 (if limited in capacity) or the latter is in turn replaced by an all-new larger V8 (possibly very loosely derived from the Alfa Romeo Tipo 1035 V10 or another engine) to maintain a distance between it and the V6 (as well as foreshadowing the E39 M5 and the W124/W210 V8s).

      Had a fixed-head Coupe (or fixed-hardtop coupe?) version of the Spider in mind like on the original Lotus Elan so as to retain the proportions of the Spider roadster.

    6. Not wanting to be (too) uncharitable about the proposed (virtual) three volume Alfasud, but its author is no Giugiaro, is he? Might I respectfully suggest a quick perusal of the title of this article…?

  2. Good morning Eóin. I well remember the Alfetta from my teenage years. There is a tendency for young people to think newer is always better, so I regarded the 1977 first facelift very positively when I first saw it. With the benefit of (many) more years experience, I now have a more nuanced view and regard both pre and post-facelift models as equally successful, though quite different looking, designs. The earlier car has a delicacy that was replaced by a bolder, more rectilinear style that was handsome and highly contemporary.

    It’s actually difficult to think of examples of facelifts that substantially altered the appearance of a car, but were neither a big improvement nor disimprovement. Jaguar XJ Series 2 to Series 3, perhaps?

    I hadn’t been aware of the 1983 second facelift before this morning, so thank you for spoiling my breakfast!

    That revised C-pillar treatment really is shocking. The nasty capping across the top of the pillar is presumably concealing a joint that was previously lower down and hidden behind the vent. How anyone could have thought that was an improvement is beyond me. The crude plastic moulding surrounding the rear lights and number plate looks like it came from a commercial vehicle. Actually, the plastic cladding along the flanks is innocuous by comparison.

    Incidentally, isn’t that single-headlamp nose on the 1975 1.6 litre model rather nice, in an understated way?

    1. I agree, the 1.6 litre model with single headlamp was the most beautiful.
      A year or two ago one of this very rare pieces (from Italy in good condition) was for sale and we almost bought it. I regret it, but you can’t have everything.

      I never actually saw the 90 as a “new” model, but always as another heavy facelift for the Alfetta.

    2. I also think that brightwork fillet hides a joint on the final version that was lead sealed on earlier cars. I’ve got a body contour diagram that shows a joint up by the roof but no joint down by the air vent.

    3. Ah, that’s interesting, Richard. So it was just a nasty bit of cost-cutting on Alfa’s part, even more indefensible. I know this might seem extreme, but that one detail would have been a deal-breaker for me. My eye would be drawn to it every time I looked at the car , spoiling the view!

    4. Here’s a picture of a spare part for the Alfetta’s rear side panel.

      The welding seam is between roof and side panel and the fillet seems to be a solution parallel to the one of the Alfasud which used stickers first and plastic badges later to cover a seam that was meant to be lead filled.
      At least in the case of the ‘Sud it was no cust cutting but workers’ unions forced Alfa to abandon the use of lead on the production line.

    5. None of which explains what possessed Alfa Romeo to move the air extractor vents from the base of C-pillar to either side of the rear screen so late in the day. This surely required a sheet metal change, which wouldn’t have been an inexpensive one to have made a year from production’s end. I wonder if perhaps it was carried out to facilitate the arrangement adopted for the 90, which was in its final pre-production form by 1983, I’d imagine? Otherwise, why do it at all?

  3. Ah the Alfetta, in original form- I think Alfisti refer to them as shortnose/ narrow shield or just silver door handle cars- is a visual favourite. Daniel O’ is spot on the 1.6 looks especially lovely. A silver one with impractical dove grey cloth upholstery would be a fantastic car to own and to hell with the gear change; we’ve just endured a Kia Picanto hire car that loved jumping out of gear and could hardly engage neutral, how much worse would an Alfetta really be?

    I think both Alfetta saloon and GT are object lessons in how to design a visually engaging car by ignoring conventions. The saloon had a really short front overhang, compare it with the BMW E12 launched the same year which looks almost FWD in comparison, that is almost anti-wedge shaped despite it being regarded as one of the first saloons in this genre. The wheels barely fill the arches and make it look downright bouncy whilst both cars have tail lights that differ to what you expect to find judging by the rest of the car. The GT is a hunchback and one reader recently described it as an Ant Eater on this site- which is quite correct- but it still looks fantastic.

    As an aside we have been thinking of buying a Fiat Tipo estate and are amused by how even a budget car gets tarty alloy wheels now. Online reviews slate the ride quality, the only owners who don’t grumble about this aspect all seem to have the entry spec version with 15 inch steel wheels. Painted black and hidden by trims naturally. It makes me wonder why car makers won’t cleave to the Alfetta style and have unadorned perforated silver steel wheels as an option, vans still have them, so what gives.

    1. Here’s a narrow shield Alfetta

      and a wide shield ersion

      You can see tbe unchanged tinwork behind the wide scudetto.
      Both are known as First Series Alfettas.
      The facelifted version with alligator-type bonnet and rectangular lamps is called Second Series and the one with all the supposedly black (and all too soon grey in reality) plastic is the Third Series.

    2. I prfer the narrow shield version because I like seeing it surrounded by bodywork and the two halves of the grille positively separated. If I owned a wide shield model I’d have to paint the two spars now covered by it black to conceal them properly, as has been done here:

    3. You make a good point about designers ignoring conventions, and ending up with something quite incredible. I was sitting looking at an Espada the other day, and thinking to myself “this should never have worked”. The proportions of the thing are (to my eye, at least) all wrong. And yet – what an amazing looking car it ended up to be. The Italians seem to be especially good at pulling off this trick.

  4. To continue- responses don’t seem to display as clearly on my phone as the original text, so I’m breaking my response into two chunks- I have the British launch brochure, it is a lovely slightly eccentric document that may give a few clues to the car’s intend place in the Alfa hierarchy.

    From memory it is a sniff larger than the 2000 in a couple of dimensions but is very much a 4 seater, rather than a 5 seater like the 2000. Rear passengers have less headroom as the transaxle forces them to seat higher than front seat occupants (A quirk shared with that other DeDion icon the Volvo 300), whilst no amount of artful photography can hide the enormous transmission hump (Or minging looking carpets). The Alfetta isn’t even a carriage made for 4, as the text mentions massive front leg room and a roll centre tuned towards the rear (Rear seats?) of the car, suggesting to me it was very much a driver and one passenger car with occasional rear seat passengers gritting their teeth.

    A quirk of 1970s Alfa brochures seems to be the fully itemised dashboard photo, more like something from an owners manual- hand throttle has a choke symbol on it, choke has something completely abstract on it- it’s almost as if Alfa believed ordering a brochure was the first step to inevitably buying a car, so they might as well save time by introducing you to the controls now.

    1. The lack of rear seat room is the consequence of one of the Alfetta’s design faults, in this case of placing the clutch at the gearbox instead of at the engine like Ferrari or Porsche did. Because of the DeDion tube there was no possibility to push the gearbox between the rear wheels (924 had it under the boot floor, creating an ‘overhead boot’ space) and it had to go under the rear bench completely. Having the clutch there forced the gearbox up to avoid ground contact between bell housing and tarmac and still made a small diameter clutch a must (eearly GTV6s had a twin plate clutch because there was no room for a bigger diameter) and to keep the torque converter housing of the ZF automatic ‘box off the ground Alfettas with such gearboxes needed self levelling rear shock absorbers. That clutch housing forced the knees of the rear seat occupants high up and still robbed them of space for their feet.
      Had they used a double wishbone rear suspension as originally intended by Giuseppe Busso (but vetoed by Consalvo Sanesi) with a gearbox further back between the wheels and a rigid tube connecting engine and gearbox the Alfetta would have had a lot less trouble.

  5. Good afternoon and once again, a great and very well researched article by Eoin.

    The tipo-116 Alfetta was conceptualized to be the tipo-105/115 1750/2000 “Berlina” (never officially named Berlina by ALFA) replacement, creating a confusion that still lasts today among alfisti. While the Giulia lasted in Nuova Super 1.3/1.6 form with hideous plastic cladding until 1976 (some sources indicate unsold cars as late as 1978), the 2000 was rather quickly and quietly phased out in 1975/6, only 4 years after its introduction. As a previous commenter mentioned, the Berlina was a stop-gap for the range. The true Giulia replacement came in the form of the Nuova Giulietta in 1977, adding to the range confusion. Also, the Giulietta was replaced with the 75/Milano, while most buyers at the time believed that the 75 was a pure Alfetta redesign.

    Indeed, the 75 technical project emerged from the long-nosed Alfetta chassis, redesigned to fit the Busso V6 in inline configuration, retaining the doors and wheelbase of previous models, adding structural reinforcements and box sections necessary for the US specification Milano.

    Indifferent QC and really poor quality plastic mouldings for the interior plagued Alfetta models from the outset, with the facelifted versions unable to provide any solutions to build quality. As mentioned above, ALFA was in dire financial straits during the end of the ’70s, and with IRI gradually pulling the plug and favouring Finnmeccanica (mostly run by FIAT execs), had little hope of receiving funds for a thorough reengineering of a replacement. Technically, the Alfetta mechanical concept stayed in production until 1992, almost unchanged.

    Today, surviving Alfettas in good condition are a rare sight, even more than 105 Giulias, because of the disposable construction philosophy at Arese at the time. Their scarcity doesn’t command a higher price than a well-documented Giulia Super though. A silver lining in the Alfetta’s legacy is that the 1.8 AR01608 engine and -mainly- crankshaft is of much higher quality in alloy and construction than the older 1750 AR00548, with nitrated main bearings and 6 crankshaft bolts instead of 8 in the older design, which opted many classic 105/115 owners to swap the original engines with the later Alfetta units. Not so good in originality, but a much more reliable and robust power plant, capable of higher revving and greater tunability, especially using the ubiquitous Weber 40DCOE carbs.

  6. Alfettas are indeed rare nowadays, although oddly enough I spotted an ochre series 1 in nice cosmetic condition recently, when I was heading to my garage to pick up my own car after a sevice. Hadn’t see one in years…

  7. Five things you didn’t know about the Alfetta from Matteo Licata:

    I think the design and (most of) the facelifts were done well. Flush door handles again, I see.

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