Going South (Part One)

More than merely a car, a state-sponsored project in political and social engineering. Celebrating the Alfa Romeo Alfasud on its 50th anniversary.

1971 Alfasud. Image: classicandsportscar.com

In the years that followed the end of the Second World War, successive Italian governments faced a seemingly intractable problem. Northern Italy had become increasingly urbanised, industrialised and prosperous, but the south remained largely a rural backwater. By 1950, income per capita in the south was roughly half that in the north, and the gap was widening. Much of the south’s agricultural land remained in the hands of large landowners and was poorly managed and often unproductive. Many unemployed young people simply migrated north, robbing the south of much of its potential labour force.

Acknowledging this economic and social divide, the Italian government established the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno (Southern Development Fund) in 1950. Its initial purpose was to provide funding for desperately needed infrastructure such as roads, water and electrical supplies, land reclamation, and new schools and colleges. This was followed in the late 1950s by an effort to encourage existing state and privately-owned industries to expand into the south by offering generous grants and tax breaks.

This endeavour was only partly successful. Many of the recipients of the financial incentives were large state-owned companies that built highly automated plants, the so-called ‘Cathedrals in the Desert’ that did not offer much in the way of local employment. Little money was made available for local start-ups. Many infrastructure projects were poorly conceived and badly managed, and there was a distinct stench of corruption regarding the distribution of funds.

Italdesign render. Image: classiccarcatalogue.com

Alfa Romeo had been state-owned since it was rescued by the Italian government in 1933. After the war, it leveraged its success in the newly established Formula One motor racing championship to position itself as a manufacturer of desirable, upmarket saloons, coupés and convertibles. The company experimented with smaller transverse-engined FWD prototypes in the 1950’s, Project 13-61 and the Tipo 103, but these never made it to production.

By the mid-1960’s, Alfa Romeo was again considering entering the flourishing small car market and approached the Italian government to help fund the project. The government agreed to provide loans in a total of 360 billion Lira ($576m), but only on condition that the car would be built, not in Milan, but 775km (480 miles) to the south, near Naples. In January 1968 it established a subsidiary company, Industria Napoletana Costruzioni Autoveicoli Alfa Romeo-Alfasud S.p.A. A government industrial holding company, Finmeccanica S.p.A., held a 10% minority stake in the subsidiary. A site in Pomigliano d’Arco near Naples was identified for a new manufacturing plant and construction began in April 1968.

The development team for the new model was led by Rudolf Hruska. Born in Vienna in 1915, Hruska was an Austrian engineer who had worked for Porsche during the war and was involved with the Kdf-Wagen project, which became the VW Type 1. After the war, and a brief period of internment by the Allied Forces, he moved to Merano in northern Italy where he established a Porsche dealership with Carlo Abarth, working with the ill-fated Cisitalia motor racing team.

Rudolf Hruska

Hruska joined Finmeccanica in 1951 where he became involved with Alfa Romeo as a consultant. He joined the Milanese automaker in 1954, but left after five years, then worked for Simca (on the 1000) and Fiat (on the 124 and 128) before returning to Milan in 1967(1). Hruska was tempted back by the opportunity to oversee a ‘clean-sheet’ new design that would owe nothing to existing models. This very much appealed to his fundamentalist, first-principles approach to automotive design. In this regard at least, the comparison with his contemporary, BMC’s Alec Issigonis, is striking.

In a 1990 interview with an Australian motoring journalist, Peter Robinson(2), Hruska described his process as follows: “When you set out to make a new product, you should start from fundamental principles. You need to decide exactly [what] it is you want to achieve. Only then should you establish the basic concepts: whether the car should have front or rear drive, where the engine is located, what [engine] layout should you adopt, how big the car should be. Today, cars are bigger, heavier and more complicated. They are contrary to what we need. Cars are for people.”

Alfasud technical layout. Image: Alfa Romeo

Hruska spent five months setting out the design principles for the new model. He specified that it should be no more than four metres long, the body-in-white should weigh no more than 200kg. It should carry four adults and their luggage in comfort. It would take advantage of the packaging benefits of a compact FWD drivetrain with a flat-four engine. The platform design should be flexible enough to facilitate the subsequent development of estate, coupé and roadster derivatives.

Once agreed by Alfa Romeo’s senior management, the specification was passed to Giorgetto Giugiaro’s ItalDesign studio, which had been commissioned to style the new model. Hruska and Giugiaro apparently worked well together. Allegedly, the only point of conflict concerned the boot space. Throughout his working life, Hruska habitually travelled with a bag large enough to carry ten days’ supply of fresh clothes and insisted that the new model’s boot should accommodate four such travel bags, even supplying examples to Ital Design for measurement.

Giugiaro initially complained that this was incompatible with the four-metre overall length limit, but then offered Hruska a choice between a small loss of rear legroom or space-saving (if makeshift looking) external boot hinges. True to his principles, Hruska chose the latter and called Giugiaro’s bluff, much to his dismay. Giugiaro quickly came up with three proposals, one of which was selected as the definitive design.

Technically, the new Alfa left almost nothing to be desired. The new flat-four ‘boxer’ engine, a 1,186cc 62bhp (46kW) unit was water-cooled with belt-driven overhead camshafts. It was mounted ahead of the front axle line and drove the front wheels through a four-speed manual gearbox (a five-speed came later) and equal length drive shafts. Suspension was by inclined MacPherson struts at the front and a clever torsion-beam axle with Watts linkages and a Panhard rod at the rear. The Alfasud also featured rack and pinion steering and four-wheel disc brakes, the front pair being mounted inboard.

Thanks to the talent, commitment and hard work of its designers and engineers, the Alfasud went from concept to production-ready in just three years, roughly half the normal development time for new models. It was a car of great promise for its maker, and confidence was high in both Pomigliano d’Arco and Portello for its 1971 Turin motor show launch.

Part Two follows shortly.

(1) In light of Hruska’s close involvment with the 128, Fiat was, allegedly, infuriated by his return to Alfa Romeo and tried to apply political pressure to disrupt the Alfasud project.

(2) Source: http://www.australianmotorheritagefoundation.org/rudolf-hruska-mister-alfasud

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

50 thoughts on “Going South (Part One)”

  1. The infamous Alfasud. Conceptually brilliant, but so poorly executed it hurt Alfa’s reputation ever since. Trigger warning: I adore this car, but I never drove it. I was into cars from a very early age and Alfas were quite rare where I lived.

    I remember my dad telling on a couple of occasions he looked for a Sud back in the seventies, but he and the Alfa dealer couldn’t agree. Later in Kindergarten one of the teachers (not mine) swapped her pristine blue metallic Volkswagen Beetle for a Bright green Alfasud 1.5 Ti with Cromodora CD30 wheels. I stared at the car all the time when I walked passed it. The younger version of me thought it was the coolest thing ever: It had a rear spoiler, it was bright green, it had lovely wheels, inside was a rev counter and it had gauges that read Acqua, Benzina and Olio and the engine sounded so different. My love for this car and Alfa Romeo started here.

    As I got older I went to I went to primary school and the kindergarten teacher retired, but she kept the Sud, which I only saw every now and then. Hers always looked immaculate. No rust what so ever.

    Later my mum’s first car was a bright red Alfa Romeo 33 1.3. Not a Sud, but it had that lovely boxer engine. I drove it most of the time instead of her and I washed, waxed and polished until it to the best of my abilities.

    In my university days I somehow managed to get the Haynes manual for the Sud. When I had my first job and a female colleague offered me a ride. She stopped in the carpark and excused herself for her humble car. It was a Sud. I told her pretty much all I’ve written here above and she borrowed the Haynes manual as well. We kept seeing each other for a period, but right now I have no idea what became of her or the Sud.

  2. Ah, finally, the Alfasud It’s one of my all time favourites of which we had more than half a dozen in our family.
    My sister bought one of the very first ‘Suds complete with straight exhaust tailpipe and corresponding cut-out in the rear valence like shown in the drawing here and with cambelts running at fresh air without any covers. These early ‘Suds had no rev counter, rubber floor mats and only four gears.
    This particular early example had a gear lever knob with a five speed pattern nevertheless, despite of the five speed boxes appearing only two years later. So far for production quality in Pomigliano.

    Pomigliano by the way was a location that wasn’t unknown to Alfa Romeo. Their old aero engine factory had been there and the ‘Sud factory replaced and expanded the old facilities there.
    Here’s one of the aero engines built in Pomigliano – a 28 cylinder radial:

    1. That Italdesign rendering looks very good but I’m amused by the Allegro-like decoration between the taillights:

  3. Ah, the Allegro. No better car to demonstrate the design brilliance of the Alfasud!

    Good morning all.

    1. Are there any two cars that could be more different than the Allegro and Alfasud?
      Donkey and race horse, if that hadn’t already been used for Maxi and Fiat 128.

    2. Indeed, though a sleeker Allegro, as per the initial sketches, wouldn’t be that far in terms of styling – after all, the Allegro is a reworked ADO16 and that car should have at least a subliminal influence on the Alfasud’s shape!

    3. Moreover, Issigonis and Hruska were both ‘clean sheet’ designers who were able to start at first principles on the 1100 and Alfasud, unencumbered by the baggage of history or precedence.

    4. From an mid-70s British perspective, the Allegro wasn’t an implausible alternative to the Alfasud. In September 1974 a ‘sud SE cost £1472, an Allegro 1750 Sport cost £19 more, was quite a bit faster and had cinque marche from the start. The Austin had front wheel drive and sophisticated suspension[1], relatively rare commodities in the class, which differentiated it from Ford, Hillman, and Vauxhall’s “working class heroes”.

      Both were blighted with poor build quality, the Austin’s styling lacked grace, and both rapidly became devalued currencies.

      [1] ‘Value engineering’ by ex-Ford engineers prevented the potential of the new Hydragas system being fully exploited. A.A.C.Issigonis had no involvement, and Dr. Moulton’s ideas were diluted – subframes were eliminated in a simplistic way which compromised the front suspension geometry. If the Maxi platform had been carried over, the Allegro could have been up with the class leaders on handling and ride, even as introduced it was well above average.

  4. Thanks for starting this series, Daniel!
    The Alfasud has been one of my secret favourites since childhood (it was already around when I was born, but still being built when I became aware of individual cars, and sold through a large dealer a few hundred metres from our home. So there was always enough material to look at.

    As a Citroën GS owner, I think it would be very interesting to experience this car, so similar in design, but presumably of a very different character. Alas, I’ve never had the opportunity so far. Who knows, it might be an interesting acquisition, once I’ve finished my current GS project…

  5. First the Beta, now the Alfasud. Two of my favourite motoring guilty pleasures!
    Looking forward to read the following parts. Thanks a lot, Daniel.

  6. Just one example for the quality and thoroughness of the Alfasud’s engineering: look at the drawings of the suspension systems and you see that the shock absorbers are mounted upside down and the front struts in particular are very expensively made similar to an upside down fork of a motorcycle. This in turn means the shock absorbers are gas filled – an expensive rarity at that time.

  7. In addition to my earlier post: I just spoke to my mum and she told me she loved her 33. She also remembered something that I didn’t, but it’s coming back to me now. On her way to work the kindergarden teacher would pass our house driving her Alfasud. Apparently I refused to leave for school until she drove past. This habit continued when I went to primary school and until she retired. The love for the Sud runs deep, even back then.

    1. that’s a lovely story Freerk-made me smile on a cold monday morning..

    2. A friend of my parents had a driving school. As learner cars he had two Giulia Super, one white and one dark green first and mustard yellow and Alfa red later. One day he bought an Alfasud in a pale pink very similar to the colour at the top of this article. The first thing he did was to replace the exhaust with an Ansa item because he didn’t like the ‘Sud’s exhaust sound. It took him (and me) years to appreciate the characteristic hiss.

  8. Freerk, your last comment really made me laugh – I vividly recall having similar important rituals as a child. I wonder what drives them.

    Here’s a period road test featuring both the ‘Sud and the Allegro (and a GS). It looks funny to me, now, to see that one of the test categories is ‘tuning potential’, which implies a much closer interest in / knowledge of vehicles than is generally the case, today.

    https://www.flickriver.com/photos/triggerscarstuff/sets/72157628456365721/

    1. To get an impression of what you can do with a ‘Sud look no further than this video:

      That guy is incredible and when you consider what he is able to overtake the brave little ‘Sud is punching far beyond its weight…

    2. Wow, that driver really knew what he was doing. The Sud seemed pretty neutral in the corners as well. What a car! Nice to see the Giulietta with the Dutch number plates as well. Thanks for sharing, Dave.

    3. That CAR Magazine Giant Test (dating from the month I was born!) is an interesting read and doesn’t reflect the Allegro being the complete no-hoper that we now think of it as. Also, the crude line drawings on the last page are hopeless! The GS is shown with an inline four and outboard front brakes.

    4. That guy uses an annual ticket, yours for 2,200 EUR, and he seems to make proper use of it.

  9. Great to see such love for the Alfasud here. Weren’t we blessed back in the 1970s, having the opportunity to buy genuinely interesting and innovative small cars like the Alfasud and GS? The C-segment today is bereft of such cars.

    1. I’ve never had as much pure driving fun as with our Alfasuds. The early ones were better than those with a hatchback, not just because they were lighter (the original ‘Sud weighed just 770 kgs and the later three-doors 930 kgs) they had their centre of gravity much lower than the later cars with all their sound deadening and body stiffening, additional equipment and the hatchback anchor points at the roof.

      As all good Italian cars the ‘Sud encouraged you to drive it hard and you could do this without any adverse reaction from the car because they were so forgiving. You could throw the ‘Sud around on twisty back roads because the laser sharp steering allowed you to place it within fractions of a centimetre at the cost of straight line stability, which was more or less absent. And you could keep your right foot far down around corners astonishingly long, enabling you to keep up with nominally much faster cars.

    2. Thank you Daniel for this wonderful series of articles. First Lancia Beta and now Alfasud. Great.
      I’m looking forward to part two (or three? and four?).

      What Dave said about the handling I can only confirm. I have never driven our Alfasud around the Nordschleife – I don’t need to travel hundreds of kilometres and then pay a lot of money for the entrance fee to prove my driving incompetence – but when there has been a small opportunity to let the car gallop I have always had a very confident and safe feeling far away from the limits of the car. The steering never leaves you guessing, the brakes speak a clear language. You always have a feeling of being in good hands.

      Rudolf Hruska made good use of the white sheet of paper back then and developed a very good product. The subsequent malaise had other fathers.

  10. I owned an Alfasud 1.2Ti in the early 80’s. It was a great drivers car, my first with a sports 5 speed gearbox. It was white with orange front and rear spoilers. I loved it. Had its issues though. As mentioned above, the twin timing belts were exposed to the elements behind the radiator. One snapped at 70mph when the tension pulley seized. However, the engine was a delight to work on, beautifully engineered and all the big end bearing housings were numbered. The biggest downfall was terminal rust. Wheel arches and wings were repairable, sadly the bulkhead was not. Think it was only 7 years old when I had to scrap it. 😢

    1. One of our ‘Suds was an example of the rarest version, a non-Ti three door 1.5 of which only a very small number were made. When this car was four years old the headlights fell out and there was nothing left where they could have been attached. The mounting flanges for the front wheels also were gone as were the rear side panels and the hatchback. One weekend of welding and some paint in Marrone Testa di Moro later the car was sold.
      This car also was by far the most badly made of our bunch of ‘Suds. The differential had been so badly shimmed that it was impossible to fit two of the four brake pads in the inboard calipers without grinding away half of the pad’s thickness to make it fit the brake discs sitting on the maladjusted stub axles.

  11. Early in the 1970s, Alfa Romeo considered building the Alfasud in Brazil, but never went ahead with it, nor brought the Sud as an import, so I have no fond memories of it to share here, like Freerk’s.

    Anyway, Ayrton Senna had two Alfasuds, so it can’t be so bad:

    https://drivetribe.com/p/ayrton-senna-an-alfa-romeo-enthusiast-cYb2YhqnSrKvGUdwxWFUWA?iid=S5Xg-tUwQ3ebsgpAWJs02A

    Also, I just want to say that Pomigliano d’Arco is the best sounding name for a town I have ever heard. Clarkson and almost all British car journalists love to mention how good “Quattroporte” sounds, but Pomigliano d’Arco sounds even better.

    1. Pretty much everything sounds more evocative and romantic in Italian…

    2. Well indeed Daniel. Alfasud sounds so much better than Austin South, Fiat Strada better than Ford Road.

    3. I remember that I loved Italian car names (Alfasud! Alfetta! Trevi! Supermirafiori! And well, even Allegro and Cortina) even when I was too little to know anything about their meaning- or about Italy…

    4. There’s only one country with names like Ferruccio Lamborghini, Giotto Bizzarrini or Giuseppe Campari.
      Regarding the latter, there is only one country where Campari could not decide whether he wanted to be a grand prix driver or an opera singer. In the end, Campari went from Alfa’s race team to opera, not Paul Potts style, but real grand.

  12. What an enjoyable read Daniel and a great video too Dave. Thanks to you both. I wonder what speeds the Alfa achieved there? Sounded good to me.

    1. Here’s the speedo dial of a comparable car. In the video the needle regularly sits at the 4 or 5’o clock position. A 1.5 Ti should reach 180 to 190 kph and won’t go that much faster because as every proper Italian car from that era top speed is achieved near the rev limit. Cars for the German market got rev limiters from a certain point to prevent engine damate from their autobahn driving habits.

  13. Here’s what I think is a beautifully-written article from Car magazine – knowledgeable, with a smattering of well-judged, interesting technical detail. Easy to read, too. It’s one of those pieces which has real ‘time machine’ qualities. Speaking of dials, the author says they’re easy to read, as long as you wear a dark-coloured shirt.

    https://www.carmagazine.co.uk/car-news/motoring-issues/2015/would-be-car-of-the-year-1971-the-alfasud-car-archive-july-1972/

  14. One strange thing about the Alfasud would be the fact that despite all models possessing brilliant handling, the 105 hp Alfasud Ti Green Cloverleaf was never really on the radar during the rise of the Hot Hatches nor did the Alfasud play a role in establishing the popularity of the segment as one would have expected like the original Volkswagen Golf GTi did.

    1. That’s an interesting observation, Bob. I wonder if the lack of fuel injection, which became the hallmark of hot hatches, put the Ti out of contention, despite its dynamic prowess?

    2. Nor indeed another ‘Ti’ – the Simca 1100 Ti (with 2, double-barrelled carbs). I guess it took the death of the sports car (of the MG / Triumph, etc, type) to get the hot hatch going.

      Things like hot Ford Escorts, Minis (and Alfas) had to compete with ‘proper’ sports cars – including those in Alfa’s own range, so they didn’t get the attention they otherwise would have, had they been launched later. Plus, there was the fact that the GTI was a revelation from a firm which a few years before had been producing some of the world’s least sporty cars. Finally, the GTI wasn’t ‘specialist’ in the way an earlier hot Escort could be (an uncompromising drive, in other words).

    3. And the first sporting Mk3 Escort, the XR3, was derided until it gained the magic letter (and a five-speed gearbox) two years after launch.

    4. Firstly, the Alfasud ti QV was relatively late to market, arriving in 1983, well after the likes of the Golf and Escort (for example) had gained a firm toehold. With 105 bhp it had power parity, but from reports at the time, the chassis didn’t take all that well to to the low profile rubber and the amount of power being fed through them. The earlier cars’ fluency had been diluted and the car itself had become rather dated. The Sud was discontinued entirely (apart from the Sprint) by the following year.

      Prior to the QV, it was considerably down on power against its putative rivals – and for most of its life, couldn’t claim to be a ‘hatch’.

    5. Daniel

      It is likely as Eóin have said. The fuel-crisis and Alfa Romeo’s problems including the issues with the Alfa Romeo also probably made an early Alfasud hot hatch a low priority for the company.

      What would be interesting is finding out if Alfa Romeo originally schemed 1.6-1.7-litre+ versions of the Alfasud Flat-Four for a much earlier introduction, only to be instead finally be launched in the 33 and Alfasud Sprint from the mid/late-1980s. Basically did the larger 1.5-litre+ versions of the Alfasud Flat-Four (and any other stillborn bodystyles) receive the Alfa 6 treatment in being pushed back for a number of years.

      Outside of a slightly more moderately tuned Wainer Turbo kit, the Alfasud IMHO should have received an earlier iteration of the 116 hp 1.7 Flat-Four as featured in the Alfasud Sprint 1.7 QV. A 116 hp Alfasud 1.7 QV Hot Hatch being to the 105 hp 1.5 QV / Green Cloverleaf, what the later 112 hp Golf 1.8 GTi was to the initial 108 hp Golf 1.6 GTi.

      https://ranwhenparked.net/2012/09/02/sunday-classic-alfa-romeo-alfasud-ti-turbo-wainer/

    6. At the time the 1.5 Ti QV arrived the Alfasud’s image was terminally damaged and there were no great sales numbers to be expected. In the end they made just 9,000 (that’s even less than the numbers of the quadrifoglio oro which already is a rarity) of them which can’t have been economically sensible when considering the QV was the only Alfasud with different camshafts and a different/larger bore exhaust system. The QV was an act of desperation like so many of Alfa’s actions at that time.
      For all of its life the Alfasud’s chassis cried for more power and in the QV it finally got more than it could handle. Somewhere during the model life Alfa had lost the plot and didn’t know how to properly set up the ‘Sud’s chassis. The standard models got ever softer which in combination with the centre of gravity moving continually upwards did nothing for the handling and the Tis got ever harder in a vain attempt to preserve the handling qualities.
      That late in the Alfasud’s life build quality of the engines was so incredibly bad that nearly no engine ever reached its on-paper power – there were enough engines with nominal 95 PS that had no more than 72 in reality. The QV never was as fast as it should have been considering it had 105 PS.

    7. Thanks for the additional background Dave.

      Was not aware that things got so bad in general for the Alfasud from the badly setup chassis that diluted the car’s handling qualities to engines that rarely reached their claimed power ratings, to the point it seems one could almost equate the Alfasud QV to the Allegro Equipe.

  15. Not much to comment, except that the ‘Sud is one of my favourite cars (despite it having pretty much disappeared by the time I started appreciating cars). I just wanted to add my appreciation of recent articles on lovely Italian cars. Thoroughly enjoying it. Thanks Daniel and gang!

    The driver from the Nurburgring video is quite amazing: minimal, assured inputs.

  16. I think everything that could ever be written about the difference between the potential of the Sud and how badly it was executed has been written. However, I must note here that the narrative about the production car’s failings is riddled with factual inaccuracies (the “Soviet steel” myth) and ideologically-charged allegations that seek to denigrate factory workers in general (this is a recurring theme in automotive “journalism”, where the writer invariably blames the “lazy” workers and their union action, conveniently absolving the top-ranking managers of all responsibility for their decisions, strategic and otherwise) and, even worse, portray the people of Naples (and the Italian south in general) as inherently indifferent, lazy, corrupt etc.

    1. Good morning Konstantinos. We will deal (fairly, I hope) with the issues of Russian steel and labour relations at the Pomigliano d’Arco factory in Part Two.

  17. I can not forget the Alfasud. Not a specific Alfasud, a neighbor owned one, a friendly family also, a distant friend somewhere else had one…There is always somehow an Alfasud coming by, discreetly, in the images of the streets of Athens in my mind. The shape is distinctive and memorable. Usually, they are white or beige, brown or blue. I recall them as soon as I see a Seat Leon Mk1, there are many. Therefore, seeing a Leon makes me feel happy and optimistic.

    1. Agreed, gpant, the Leon Mk1 was one of VW Group’s most distinctive and well resolved designs:

      Stylistically, it would have made a great Alfasud Mk2.

  18. Daniel, I like very much the rear light clusters, the way they blend in the rear door curvature, and the shape of the rear glass. My objections are at the front grille. An Alfa Mk2 surely, a Delta perhaps?

    1. Those details are indeed lovely, but I also really like the front end and can easily imagine a deep Alfa Romeo shield grille in the centre and an offset number plate:

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