A trio of Italian oddities.
Alfa Spider Niki Lauda Special Edition
Double F1 world champion Niki Lauda switched from Ferrari to Brabham-Alfa Romeo for the 1978 season, and this highly publicised move was of course a prime publicity opportunity for Alfa’s marketing department. Although Lauda’s results in 1978 were certainly not bad (two victories and five podium appearances) the great expectations of bringing the Alfa Romeo name back to the top were never met: Lauda did not even finish the 1979 season, announcing his immediate retirement at the Canadian Grand Prix with three races to go. He would rejoin the grid in 1982 with McLaren and win a third world title.
But let’s go back to 1978 when things still looked so promising: Alfa Romeo decided to celebrate the joyous occasion by launching a limited edition run of 350 Spiders – the Niki Lauda Special Edition. It was launched at the 1978 US Grand Prix at Long Beach, Niki doing a few laps around the circuit in one himself.
The Niki Lauda Spider was available only in Carmen red and wore eyecatching dark blue and white tapestripes on its body in an effort to emulate the colour scheme on the Brabham BT46 F1 car. At the back a wraparound rear spoiler somewhat previewed the one that the regular Spider would be fitted with some years later.
To make sure nobody missed that this was a special edition, there were also round badges on both front wings, unique exhaust tips, matte-black tornado rear view mirrors and a numbered dash plaque with Lauda’s autograph. Whether all this extra tinsel added up to an improvement in terms of visual attractiveness is a matter of personal taste of course. But whatever one might think of its looks, it is among the more rare and interesting variations of Alfa’s perennially popular convertible.
Alfa Romeo / Pontiac Coupé
In 1985, a design contest between Centro Stile Alfa Romeo, Bertone and I.D.E.A. took place with the brief of producing a design for a sporty coupé in collaboration with GM that would be introduced near the end of the decade. To be powered by V6 Alfa Romeo engines and four-cylinder powerplants from the Lancia Thema, the plan was to produce 20,000 cars annually, all in Italy.
Presumably (there is very little available information about this abandoned project) the coupé would be badged as a Pontiac for the US market, or perhaps even as an Alfa-Romeo Pontiac or vice versa. The photo shows the proposal delivered by I.D.E.A., but it was Bertone’s design that was ultimately selected.
However, Romano Prodi – then president of the Institute for Industrial Reconstruction (IRI) – was in the process of selling off several large Italian companies in this period in an effort to get the country out of the financial hole through large scale restructuring and privatisation. Alfa Romeo was one of the companies that were privatised which nipped this planned joint venture with GM in the bud, so this coupé never came to be.
Fiat 127 Rustica
What was the first SUV produced and sold by Lamborghini? It’s not the Urus of course, as many will now mention the LM002, but they too would be wrong. Admittedly it was not graced with the famous raging bull badge, but the 1979 Fiat 127 Rustica was the first. By the end of 1978, Lamborghini was not exactly in good shape and put under judicial administration.
The initially promising deal with BMW to build the M1 for them had collapsed, and the Urraco had failed to create a viable beachhead in the junior supercar league – its production would be halted soon. Only the Countach was being made, the LM002 still years away. Sales of the scissor-doored supercar generated not nearly enough money to keep the venture afloat, let alone allow investment in new product development.
New investors were sought but to keep Lamborghini going until that time Giulio Alfieri, then consultant to the company, came up with an unusual idea: build and sell a compact and cheap crossover through their domestic dealership network. Alfieri was somehow able to convince the judge then in charge of the company, as well as Fiat, to endorse the initiative. Alfieri’s idea was to make an inexpensive compact car with increased ground clearance and reinforced suspension, suited to the Italians that lived in the mountainous rural areas of Italy – the same clientele that would later flock to the Panda 4×4.
Interestingly, Lamborghini did not use an Italian Fiat as a base for their creation but its Brazilian sister, the 147. The reason for this was that the 147 already had a higher ground clearance as well as reinforced suspension elements to cope with the harsher South American road conditions.
The 1050cc, 50 bhp engine was left unmodified, but a Fiat 128 gearbox was fitted because of its shorter gearing. Christened 127 Rustica the car was fitted with a roof rack, mesh wire protection for the headlights and taillights, black metal bumpers and black steel wheels without hubcaps. Only one colour was offered, a sand-like beige. Inside the atmosphere was very functional as well with simple brown vinyl upholstery.
By producing 5000 Rustica’s in 1979 and 1980 alongside a few dozen Countachs, Lamborghini stayed afloat long enough to attract new investors in the form of the French Mimram brothers. It must have been a strange sight to see a lineup of two cars that could almost not have been more different come off the production line of Sant’Agata Bolognese but the end justified the means, and Fiat undoubtedly took note of the 127 Rustica, witness the arrival of the Panda 4×4 some years later.
* Set sail when the winds are fair.