The 1971 Alfasud was a game-changing car, not only for what we would now call the C-segment, but for Alfa Romeo itself. Unfortunately, while the ‘Sud was to become the conceptual template for an entire generation of similarly sized (if not as technically ambitious) cars from rival manufacturers, it was something of a disaster for il Biscione. Not a brand-killer by any stretch, but nevertheless the case against the ‘Sud is not inconsiderable.
By re-orientating the carmaker’s centre of gravity to the crowded and heavily contested free-for-all of the compact C-segment the Alfa Sud programme placed the Milanese carmaker squarely in the gunsights of the mighty Fiat Auto group. It also had the effect of lowering Alfa Romeo’s average transaction prices, driving down its image as the builder of superior motor cars – a matter its subsequent reputation for slapdash build and premature corrosion would only serve to amplify.
By the early 1970s, the Italian economic miracle was unravelling in a spiral of politically-motivated industrial unrest and violence amid growing inequalities between affluence and economic stagnation. Terrorist atrocities, assassinations, strikes and stoppages became the daily news headlines as Italy’s position as posterchild for post-war reconstruction and prosperity faded.
Its much-vaunted motor industry too was struggling to adapt to new realities within a changing Europe: The rising economic power of their German neighbours, the increasing reach and ambition of the EEC, which was nibbling away at Italy’s once protected car market and the distant but real threat from Japan. Consolidation and diversification was the order of play, but for Alfa Romeo, under state control since the 1950s, ongoing viability in this new paradigm was the primary issue.
Some fifty years after the event, it’s difficult to be sure what precisely Alfa Romeo’s intentions were for their small car line, because they must have realised that taking on Mirafiori was a fight they simply couldn’t win, no matter how brilliantly realised their offering might be. Fiat Auto simply had too much scale, experience, not to mention outright guile for the outcome to have been anything but foregone. Add to this the 1968 advent of the 128 model – a thoroughly modern and rationalised front-drive Fiat, pitched and costed to near perfection at the heart of the home and export markets and the mountain Alfa Romeo faced in rivalling them really was of Gavia proportions.
Yet commercially, a compact Alfa Romeo made sense – there being a market gap for an entry-level, yet upmarket car – especially in Italy. Lancia had already demonstrated that. But small cars traditionally equal small profits and the more expensively conceived the car is, the more elusive that break-even point becomes. Therefore, the business case needed to be rock-solid.
The Alfasud was an expensively conceived car, quickly becoming the darling of those who appreciated fine engineering and elegantly wrought technical solutions wrapped in a modernist, aerodynamic and highly space efficient package. Yes, the ‘Sud was very, very clever – a tribute to Rudolf Hruska’s visionary team of engineers and the design skills of Giorgetto Giugiaro and his Ital Design cohorts. But unlike the Citroën GS with which it bears close comparison, the solutions applied at Portello were rooted in simplicity, ease of servicing and repair.
A full run-through of thoughtful design solutions would double the word count here, but amongst them included inclined front struts, which allowed for a lower bonnet line, a double bulkhead, which not only aided refinement and boosted body rigidity, but provided a protected, segregated space for the heater unit, wiper motor, brake master cylinder/ servo and battery. Removal of the (inboard) brake pads took minutes thanks to Allen-headed adjusters which retracted the pistons. The only really awkward repair was that of the handbrake cable (acting upon the front wheels and therefore not very effective), which was a real bind to replace.
Even the much criticised horn placement (you pulled the right-hand column stalk toward you) proved perfectly logical in practice, especially since the headlamp flash function was mirrored on the left-hand stalk. One notable irritant was the boot release, which was mounted next to the nearside doorsill – not relocated on right hand drive cars – a real pain on wet Saturday evenings when you were juggling an armful of groceries.
Even the manner in which the bootlid rested against the rear screen (the boot emblem protected the paintwork) was clever, even if the exposed hinges were not terribly attractive. For such a compact car, the cabin was spacious and airy, with a deep and unimpeded boot compartment. However, the early Alfasuds were starkly furnished in the extreme: rubber floormats, plastic upholstery, four speeds and no rev-counter.
Later models gained some niceties – the Alfasud Lusso had cloth seats, headrests and carpets for instance, and the revised Super models gained further interior refinements, but until the 1980 facelift, all ‘Suds were saddled with cheap and flimsy interior fittings, with a vast array of visible self tapping screws to remind all and sundry just how cheapskate it all looked. Poorly wrought as well – interiors disintegrating with even greater alacrity than the exterior.
There really is no getting away from the rust issue. As much as the concurrent Lancia Beta’s scandal might be said to have been overplayed, the Alfasud’s was by contrast somewhat underplayed – such was the media’s ongoing affection for the little Neapolitan giant-killer (many motor journalists putting their own money where their mouths were). Life with a ‘Sud would prove an endless and futile battle against those dreaded ferrous pustulations. Sadly, even the most fastidious owner without recourse to full rust-proofing from new would lose the battle against the oxidising onslaught. Matters improved throughout the car’s lifespan, but the corrosion issues were never eradicated and remains the primary reason so few have survived.
But it was a dynamic paragon; even well into its second decade, there was little that could hold a candle to a well driven Alfasud on an undulating stretch of road. Its surefooted roadholding, suppression of body roll, superbly modulated steering and supple, well-damped ride made for higher than average speeds – even if the little 1186 cc boxer-motor lacked ultimate firepower, it was smooth as silk and made a marvellous noise about its business – the crackle of its exhaust being utterly infectious as you went quickly by never going slowly. Bigger engines brought more power and torque, but none were as delightfully elastic as the little 1200.
But over time, the Alfasud suffered a protracted death by stealth and bitter expediency as its specification became diluted; seemingly every technical change further undermining the essential purity of the original. Larger, lower profile tyres robbed the steering of its fluency and response. Wheel fight became a factor as power outputs grew. Ugly plastic addenda sullied the elegant Giugiaro lines. It seemed as though Alfa Romeo engineers had forgotten the art of chassis dynamics. Sadly, by its 1984 demise the Alfasud had become rather ordinary – less so owing to the relentless pace of development across the industry, but as Alfa Romeo elected to primarily chase sales volume, management appeared content to diminish it, either through neglect or ill-considered change.
Was the Alfasud therefore a case of pearls before swine? It is certainly likely that a sizeable swathe of customers neither knew nor cared about the elegance and subtlety of their cars’ technical layout or the cleverness of its body and engineering. It was simply an inexpensive car. But even allowing for the perceived (and laudable) necessity to create a thoroughbred Alfa Romeo in miniature, the decision to place the car squarely in price and specification against mainstream offerings seems in retrospect to have been asking for trouble.
But even ignoring the (not inconsiderable) labour and build-related problems which beset the Milanese carmaker, it is difficult to see how the Alfasud programme as it evolved could have broken even, given the sophisticated technical solutions employed, the fixed costs associated with the Naples plant, not to mention the costs of lost production as Pomigliano d’Arco’s problems multiplied.
Was the original Alfasud’s austere specification and placement in the market a factor of its semi-state nature or was it Hruska’s own beliefs and orthodoxies being followed? Would a better specified, better finished and more expensive product (à la Fulvia) have proven a more financially rewarding option in the longer run, allowing the carmaker to focus upon quality, rather than chasing volume (which failed to materialise) and then being forced to sell on price? After all, given its technical sophistication and dynamic superiority, it was worth a lot more than most of its putative rivals. But it is probably a little late in the day to be speculating on all of that now.
The Alfasud ought to be remembered as one of the finest compact cars ever made. A technically brilliant synthesis of logic and pure unalloyed inspiration wrapped in a pert, well proportioned shape. This side of a Citroën GS at least, the Alfasud was the compact car everyone who cared about driving aspired to own in the 1970s and well into the following decade. But instead it is recalled primarily for its unparalleled ability to disintegrate.
That a car with such immense promise should be holed below the waterline by a series of largely avoidable factors is no less than a tragedy. But if the Alfasud underlines anything, it is that governments, while quite adept at certain matters, are mostly hopeless at the business of fast moving consumer goods – like motor cars for instance. The Alfa Sud experiment, intended to bring much needed employment and opportunity to an impoverished area was a highly laudatory one in principle, but foundered on a combination of naivety, arrogance, politics and a fundamental lack of meaningful dialogue between the relevant parties.
Yet despite its tarnished reputation, most owners adored their cars, broadly consequent of its effervescent personality. Many would become repeat owners, despite the level of depreciation, often high-maintenance nature and less than stellar service from Alfa Romeo agents. The Alfasud then was a car of immense character – one for which many (this former owner included) would make repeated excuses for, despite the ongoing pain.
Brilliant, if fatally flawed. On balance, the Alfa Sud programme probably did more harm than good for the carmaker’s fortunes. In cold business terms at least, it is quite difficult to envisage what positives can really be drawn from the Biscione’s Southern experiment. But when the rural collides with the urban, it rarely ends well.
Alfa Romeo was struggling for relevance and viability in 1971. Fifty years on, how much really has changed?
 Not that Alfa Romeo’s contemporary Arese-manufactured models would be paragons in the arena of rust-protection or bullet-proof build either. But the problems at Pomigliano d’Arco were of an altogether greater order of magnitude.
 Rudolf Hruska was one of the senior engineers working alongside Dante Giacosa on the Fiat 128 programme, prior to his recruitment by Alfa Romeo to design the Alfasud.
 The ‘Sud was reputed to be Ital Design’s first major commission and the one which put them on a sound commercial footing. Curiously, according to author, Marc Stàbel’s Citroën sources (for his impressive history of the GS), Ital Design proposed the Alfasud design (or a close approximation of it) to Quai de Javel prior to Alfa Romeo taking up the option.
 The handbrake cable allegedly required a special tool to replace, making it a high labour cost, dealer-only job. But ingenuity and some decent fabrication skills could rustle up a workable substitute in a reasonably short time – as this author can attest.
 The Alfasud had no exterior boot lock or release – it being actuated by a floor-mounted lever inside the cabin.
 The Alfasud’s door cards were precisely that. They quickly warped and distended through water ingress (endemic) and the effects of age and sunlight. The series of self-tapping screws which visibly held them in place made (the necessarily frequent) repairs relatively straightforward. The door pulls – a cheap piece of looped plastic – were similarly prone to failure.
 Such was the diminution of AR’s capabilities, one is tempted to ponder whether there had been a flight of the more accomplished dynamics engineers by the latter portion of the decade?
 As Alfa Romeo’s financial woes deepened and problems at the Naples plant intensified, the Alfasud was steadily ‘normalised’ both to reduce cost and to ensure it appealed to the widest possible market – largely to its detriment.
 The Pomigliano d’Arco plant weathered the Alfasud issues, continuing to build Alfa Romeos, and subsequently Fiat Auto products. Now part of the Stellantis group, it’s currently allegedly being repurposed to build the forthcoming Alfa Romeo Tonale CUV.
 It’s unlikely that Rudolf Hruska was the ideal candidate to manage the Pomigliano d’Arco facility – after all, not only do engineers rarely combine the necessary skills required to run a car plant and all it entails, but given the socio-political situation in Italy at the time, it’s possible that knowledge of Hruska’s pre-war background might not have eased potential tensions with the local workforce.
Author’s note: The title of this article alludes to the opening track of Scott Walker’s 1995 LP, Tilt. Farmer in the City makes allegorical reference to the murder of political writer, poet and film-maker, Pier Paolo Pasolini near Ostia in November 1975. Told in a series of fragments, employing scraps of Pasolini’s poetry, the haunting piece alludes to his final moments as his killers beat him to death. By odd coincidence, Pasolini was driving an Alfa Romeo that night.