The Alfasud lands to great acclaim. But trouble is just around the corner.
The Alfasud was launched at the 1971 Turin motor show and was greeted with widespread praise. The compact mechanical package allowed for a low bonnet line and a spacious interior. Despite appearances, the Alfasud, like many contemporaries, was not a hatchback, but a four-door saloon with a conventional boot. The exposed boot hinges were just a minor visual flaw in what was a notably modern, attractive and aerodynamic design.
The front end featured integrated headlamp/indicator units framing a simple horizontal grille that contained the traditional Alfa Romeo shield. Eagle-eyed observers would note that the Alfa Romeo badge had been altered to omit the word Milano from its script. To the disappointment of many Alfisti, this would become the norm for all future Alfa Romeo models, irrespective of where they were built.
What did not disappoint were the Alfasud’s dynamic qualities. Despite the relatively small-capacity engine, the car’s light weight, just 810kg (1,782lbs) low centre of gravity and sophisticated suspension resulted in excellent performance, with a top speed of almost 150km/h (93mph), superb steering and beautifully balanced, neutral handling. At a stroke, it raised the dynamic benchmark for FWD cars and was hardly bettered throughout its production life. Alfa Romeo, by all accounts, had a winner on its hands.
Despite some delays caused by strikes, production began in April 1972 at the Pomigliano d’Arco plant, where Hruska had been appointed managing director. Unfortunately, the plant was beset by many problems, the inevitable consequence of its poorly trained workforce of 15,000 being almost wholly unskilled in automotive (or any) manufacturing work. Early cars suffered many quality issues, a product of poor quality control and uneven assembly.
The atmosphere in the plant was tainted by mistrust between workers and management which resulted in high levels of militancy and absenteeism. Production volumes rarely exceeded half the plant’s theoretical capacity of 1,000 cars per day. Whatever his undoubted talents as an engineer, Hruska was temperamentally unsuited to managing the complex and often toxic relationships between workers, unions, Alfa Romeo senior management and the government.
An even more serious problem with the Alfasud emerged before long, that of corrosion. Early cars rusted prematurely because of poor working practices at the Pomigliano plant, primarily at the factory’s electrophoresis baths(1). This was attributed to the workforce’s lack of experience and training, and was exacerbated by strikes interrupting production and allowing moisture to settle on unpainted bodies.
Consequently, the Alfasud was prone to rust alarmingly quickly, particularly in the damp climate of northern Europe. A ‘quick and dirty’ fix of injecting the A-pillar box sections with expanding foam actually trapped moisture and exacerbated the problem; the Alfasud perpetuating Italy’s by now well-founded reputation for producing fragile and rust-prone cars.(2)
Alfa Romeo’s worsening financial position and ongoing issues at the Naples plant delayed further developments to the Alfasud family, which arrived very slowly. In November 1973, the company introduced the two-door ti model that featured an uprated 67bhp (50kW) engine coupled to a five-speed gearbox. Externally, apart from the absence of rear doors, and the fitment of front and rear spoilers, the ti was mainly distinguished by the adoption of twin circular headlamps, although this forced the relocation of the front indicators into slightly makeshift looking enclosures sitting atop the corners of the front bumper.
In May 1975, the Giardinetta three-door estate version was introduced. Although undoubtedly more practical, the boxy, upright rear end and rigidly geometric rear side window sat uncomfortably with the smooth curves elsewhere, so much so that Giugiaro allegedly disowned it, insisting that it was not his work, but centro stile’s own.
The long-awaited Sprint coupé version finally debuted in September 1976. This sharply geometric three-door model shared no external body panels or fittings with the saloon and, although both models were supposed to have been designed by Giugiaro concurrently, the Sprint looked much more a product of the mid-1970’s than the previous decade.
The Sprint featured an enlarged 1,286cc 75bhp (56kW) engine that was also offered in the ti from July 1977. An oddity of the Sprint’s design was that the rear seat back was fixed, limiting the versatility of its hatchback design. Perhaps there was a school of thought within Alfa Romeo that assumed its customers had ‘people’ to lug their chattels about and they did not themselves undertake such tasks? Joking aside, it is more likely that the bulkhead was retained to aid body rigidity. In any event, the Sprint was intended to be a fun car, so practicality was unlikely to be high on potential owners’ list of priorities.
That same year, the berlina range was topped by a new derivation. The 5M offered a similar specification to the outgoing Lusso model, but with the addition of the ti’s five-speed transmission. In late 1977, the Alfasud received a minor facelift, most noticeably deeper chrome bumpers with thick plastic inserts. Inside, a new dashboard moulding and improved soft furnishings lifted the cabin ambience. Technically, larger 1,350cc and 1,490cc engines would be offered in addition to the existing 1,186cc and 1,286cc units.
1980 brought the most significant facelift to the Alfasud range. The metal bumpers were replaced with rather cumbersome looking grey plastic items. Enlarged front indicators were no longer incorporated behind the headlamp glasses and looked less tidy as a result. An unfortunately placed side rubbing strip at bumper height interrupted the formerly smooth flanks. Wider tail lights bookended a new recess for a rectangular (rather than square, as previously) number plate. The revisions were certainly fashionable at the time, but they served to rob the Alfasud of much of its delicacy and elegance.
The hatchback that the Alfasud appeared to be designed for finally appeared in 1981 as a three-door and a year later a five-door. Unfortunately, this was too late to move the sales dial; the car’s reputation never having recovered from the early (and ongoing) build quality and corrosion problems. It limped on until 1983, very much as an also-ran outside its home market, before the more upmarket models were replaced by the new Alfa 33.
A year later the Arna, a rather poorly executed Nissan Cherry-based bodyshell with Alfasud running gear marked the new entry-point. The more modern looking Alfasud Sprint, actually closer in style to the 33 than the Alfasud, was renamed Alfa Romeo Sprint, remaining on sale until 1989. Despite retaining much of the hardware of the Alfasud(3), the 33 was a larger, heavier and more expensive car, never recapturing the verve and charm of its delightful predecessor.
Notwithstanding its exceptionally difficult birth, and tarnished reputation, the Alfasud sold a respectable 893,719 units over its twelve-year lifespan. The Sprint coupé sold an additional 121,434 units over thirteen years. One can only wonder how much more successful the model might have been, had it been built in Milan by properly trained people who loved Alfa Romeo and knew what they were doing.
There is little doubt that the Alfasud was a brilliant conceptual design that marked the pinnacle of Rudolf Hruska’s long and distinguished career. His reward for this achievement was six years grappling with the multitude of problems at the Pomigliano plant, a period in his life that he later described simply as “terrible”. Hruska left Alfa Romeo in 1973 and returned to the calmer waters of the design world in Milan and Turin, joining the I.DE.A Institute in 1980. He died at the age of eighty in Turin on 4th December 1995.
A further meditation on the Alfasud will follow this article. (ED)
(1) The problem of premature corrosion has frequently been attributed to the supply of allegedly poor quality Russian steel, but this notion has been debunked by automotive historian (and DTW contributor), Matteo Licata. As published in The Road Rat magazine, Matteo shared the recollections of Achille Moroni, the Alfa Romeo production engineer sent from Milan to investigate the problem. (ED)
(2) Early Alfasuds had both front and rear screens bonded in place, which aided body rigidity, but this too was the cause of many problems with water ingress, further exacerbating the cars’ propensity to rust. Later in the Alfasud’s production life (around 1980), they admitted defeat, reverting to the more conventional rubber seal arrangement. (ED)
(3) Although technically near-identical to the Alfasud, the 33 model eschewed the former’s inboard-mounted front brakes – also reverting to drums at the rear – for ease of servicing and cost. The Sprint models which followed were similarly decontented. Late-era Sprints were fitted with a 1.7 litre version of the flat-four engine. (ED)
Author’s note: My thanks to DTW editor Eóin Doyle for his contributions to this series.