Under the Knife – Southern Belle

The rise and fall of the Alfasud Sprint. 

Alfasud Sprint. favcars

It has been said before, but bears repeating: no single European car designer has done more to shape the modern everyday motor car than Giorgetto Giugiaro, either during his time working for Bertone, Ghia or later for himself at ItalDesign.

The design for the 1971 Alfasud berlina was not only formative for the design consultancy founded by him and Aldo Mantovani in 1968, but something of a transitional one for the designer, who would later become synonymous with knife-edged surfacing and angular silhouettes throughout the 1970s. The Alfasud with its soft radii and delicate rounded nose treatment was more redolent of the outgoing decade, whereas its coupé sibling, designed immediately afterwards, would herald a fresher approach.

Or would have, had the Alfasud Sprint followed the berlina onto the market as planned. By the time it did make its debut in November 1976, much had occurred, not just globally, but also in the ItalDesign orbit, so the Sprint didn’t perhaps have the impact it ought. Because if the timeline is correct, and the Sud Sprint the first such design from Giugiaro to leave the drawing table, its place in the stylistic pantheon ought to be more feted.

alfasudsprint.com

For instead of 1973’s Asso di Picche (Ace of Spades) concept being the stylistic basis for a whole generation of production and conceptual designs, it was instead this car, seemingly designed before the end of the previous decade which marked the shift. Not that this theme was immediate – initial Giugiaro proposals being closer to the berlina in style, before he abandoned them entirely for something altogether more angular.

Angular it may have been, but owing to finely judged proportions a foursquare stance (borrowed from its saloon sibling) and well-chosen, delicately executed detailing, the abruptly truncated shape was pitched to near-perfection. There really isn’t a line out of place on the Sprint, nor an ill-considered detail. Had it debuted around 1973 it may well have created more of a ripple.

As it was, the Sprint was very well received indeed, journalistic provisos notwithstanding – most of which being the usual gripes about the driving position, pedal placement, ergonomics and the fact that the more than willing chassis was capable of handling more power than the 75 bhp 1286 cc boxer motor could reasonably dole out. And price of course, for the Sprint was not a cheap car by any means – but given its dynamic capabilities and its obvious visual appeal, nor should it have been.

Minor changes to specification were the order of play throughout the remainder of the 1970s: trim changes, the debut of the enlarged 85 bhp 1490 cc litre engine in 1978, and the 95 bhp Sprint Veloce model in 1979. There were also a raft of questionable special-edition models at this time as well, not to mention importer-approved but distinctly aftermarket looking bodykits for those who had left their discernment at home.

Ah yes, the 1980s. Sprint QV. motoimg

In 1983, the Sprint received its first significant facelift and in true Alfa Romeo fashion, it involved a rather large amount of plastic surgery. This was a centro stile Alfa Romeo speciality under the leadership of Ermanno Cressoni, and while the ‘Sud berlina had been similarly defaced in 1980, the Sprint’s delicate lines were even more afflicted by the overbearing plastic bumpers, chunky rubbing strakes along the flanks and more imposing plastic grille. It certainly gave the car a more up to date appearance, but to call it heavy-handed is to put things mildly.

Heavy footed too, as the low-profile tyres fitted to the 105 bhp Quadrifoglio Verde model had a similarly deleterious effect upon steering sensitivity and overall dynamics as it did to the concurrent saloon-based ti QV. That particular pairing didn’t last very long, the berlina, along with the Alfasud name itself was gone by the close of 1984, the Sprint remaining as sole flagbearer – now shorn not only of its original nomenclature, but its inboard front brakes and rear discs – rationalised with the new for ’84 Alfa 33.

athenscarblog

There matters rested until 1987, when the Sprint received a final set of technical and visual tweaks to see it out to retirement. A larger capacity 1712 cc engine developing 116 bhp was the sole powerplant offered in the UK market and in top-range Quadrifoglio Verde specification only. For other European markets, the home market especially, the 1351 cc engine also remained available.

Visually, the front and rear bumpers were again revised, losing the so-very 1980s stripes. At the front, another modified grille and aft, a body-colour spoiler sat above the integrated one it had been originally designed with. Mercifully however, the side planks were shorn – the Sprint’s flanks restored to prelapsarian bliss.

In 1989, the Sprint was discontinued. By now rather old and rather feeling it, the car having been developed with as much care and sensitivity as its Alfasud sibling, so while its demise was received with a certain level of tearful eulogies by the automotive press – particularly given the knowledge that it was not to be replaced – but its demise was less a matter of inevitability, rather the result of neglect and poor judgement on the part of Alfa Romeo’s market strategists.

The sweet-spot. alfasudsprint.com

In 1986, Pininfarina showed Vivace, a promising pair of (allegedly Diego Ottina-penned) conceptual Alfa Romeos – coupé and Spider – which were, as was painfully obvious at the time, a compelling opening gambit for a putative Sprint replacement. But Alfa Romeo, now under the stewardship of Fiat Auto, had more pressing concerns that didn’t involve low-volume image-raisers and Fiat’s bean counters said a firm and definitive no.

The Sprint, the last truly affordable Alfa Romeo coupé, was a car which traded entirely upon the pleasure of the senses. Flags ought to have flown at half mast at its axing, but in truth the Sprint had already died several times by then: official cause of death – apathy.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

23 thoughts on “Under the Knife – Southern Belle”

  1. Good morning Eóin and thanks for a fitting tribute to a delightful car. The original design was indeed perfect and impossible to improve upon, which made the heavy plastic side cladding and clumsy bumpers all the more egregious. I think the worst example of many was the poor Fiat 127, which went from this:

    To this Frankenstinian horror:

    That period for Fiat group cars was very grim, perhaps not so much at the time, when the cladding added an element if modernity to ageing models, but certainly in hindsight. At least the Sprint had a partial redemption at the end of its life (which had passed me by). Here’s the original and best:

    1. Daniel – the in-production design evolution of the 127 is a particularly grim example of The Fiat Charter in action. The end-of-days applied plastics facelift is an insult to the blessed memory of Pio Manzù.

      The final Brazilian Fiat 147 re-work is easier to stomach, if a bit ‘Ital’:

    2. Hi Robertas. I think you’re being a bit unkind to the 147 in mentioning the misbegotten Ital in the same sentence! I think it’s actually a highly competent facelift, unlike the dreadful 127 effort.

  2. The disfigurement of the Sprint in the later years of its life should be covered by silence.
    I do not want to make anyone envious (at least not more envious than necessary), which is why I refrain from posting another picture of our Sprint , Bj. 1978. 🙂

    Yes, every line on the Sprint is just right. You can see that clearly if you compare the Sprint (1st series of course) with the Scirocco – same time, same pencil, same lines (similarly).

    As for the statement that the Sprint was the last affordable coupe from Alfa Romeo, I would like to say that it was the penultimate. The (secret) successor of the Sprint was actually the MiTo. This is mistakenly put in the “small car” category, but was actually intended to be the little brother of the 8C. Well, not particularly well executed in the end, but the will counts. And with regard to “a good idea, badly executed”, Alfa Romeo has a tradition to uphold.

    1. “And with regard to “a good idea, badly executed”, Alfa Romeo has a tradition to uphold”.

      That, Fred, is a statement for the ages.

  3. The sprint was a wonderful car and initially at least one rung above the saloon with a dashboard made from much better material and with a full set of gauges. You even got a HVAC panel with a slider to control the direction of the air flow when in the saloon you had to bend down and open a flap onm the heater box to direct warm air towards your feet.
    Here’s a collection of the tasteless special editions of the poor sprint, from ‘trofeo’ to ‘Balocco’ or ‘Grand Prix’ with full aftermarket bodykit.

    1. My, my, my… Why am I instantly reminded of Volkswagen when I see these pictures?

      I’m thoroughly enjoying DTW’s Italian sojourn but cannot help but notice that in the comments, thoughts often turn to a more general discussion about the decline of the Italian car industry. Maybe worthy of a DTW investigation that has a more general overview than the (hugely enjoyable) stories about individual cars?

      Secret confession: plastic clad ‘eighties versions of ‘seventies designs are something of a guilty pleasure as these were current when I started to appreciate cars. The Sprint, Mk 1.5 Golf cabrio models and post-1975 Porsche 911s are all dear to me out of pure nostalgia.

  4. I thought a bit on our current favorite subject the last few days and would comment on the whole AlfaSud venture being Alfa Romeo‘s – and consequently- the whole Italian car industry’s prime Deadly Sin (as the people over at Curbside Classics call it).

    Why, you ask? Because while a great car, conceived with the best of intentions, it ultimately was the wrong direction for Alfa to take. Instead of chasing volume and go head-on with Fiat (and nearly any other major car manufacturer) – which was already said on DTW to be a bad idea from the start – they needed to take their brand and their products upmarket. Sell
    less for more. Alfa certainly had the cachet to do so. In fact, even today, they are still exploiting that 1960’s flair the brand had enjoyed.

    And while chasing volume is not a bad thing in itself, one has to consider the side-effects of the Sud-Programme: it robbed the already highly over-strechted company of resources that were badly needed elsewhere.

    I always considered Alfa Romeo to be a one-hit wonder: the Tipo 105 Platform was that one hit. No wonder the Giulia was popular all over Europe and positively ubiquitous in Italy (if only for being the Carabineri’s favorite mode of transport). By the time the Sud was in gestation, Alfa was in dire need to answer the question with what to follow up the Giulia. And instead of putting their money where their mouth was, they spent massive amounts on the Sud – thereby flubbing the Tipo 116 platform, postponing the Sei flagship until it was not more than laughing stock and, ultimately, failing completely in building anything worthwhile on the success of the Tipo 105. Or does anyone think the cut-down Tipo 116 Giulietta was even remotely as attractive or a good performer as the Giulia?

    Why do I think the Sud is also the Deadly Sin of the Italian car industry as a whole? As said, I think it was the core reason Alfa Romeo failed. By the early eighties, the company should have been put out of its misery – the only reason it didn’t happen was that it was state owned. It is mystifying why – after having had the „empty drawer“ experience with the Lancia take-over – FIAT bought Alfa. There really was no industrial sense whatsoever in picking up Alfa, at least this side of an „expansion défensive“ thinking (which lead to Peugeot buying Chrysler Europe). Was it hybris or just one-upmanship of the Agnellis?

    By buying Alfa, ultimately, FIAT themselves stretched themselves too thin. Instead of putting their money where their mouth was, they had to invest big in a dead man walking. What’s more, FIAT hardly knew what to make of Lancia. How anything Alfa might fit in Gruppo FIATs non-existent strategy and the portfolio of platforms was as much a mystery in the 1980s as it is today. We all know where the longtime lack of investment lead to: I remember touring Italy in 2004 – the vast majority of cars was Italian (though my rental was a Renault Clio). Fast-forward to my last visit of Milan in 2018, the only Italian brand car visible was the Cinquecento. What a tragedy, what a failure.

    So, yes, I think the Sud sunk not only Alfa, but also the Italian car industry as a whole.

    1. CX.GTi: I would go along with the contention that Alfa Romeo ought to have been focused upon replacing the 105-series Giulia instead of entering an entirely new market. By the time the ‘Sud made its debut, the Giulia was virtually a decade old and would end up soldering on until 1977, by which time it was ancient and looked it. Whether it would have made much difference to Alfa Romeo’s eventual fortunes however, is perhaps debatable.

      One thing I’ve often wondered about is what kind of fist Ford would have made of Alfa Romeo had they been permitted to buy them, and how the other dominoes would have fallen in its wake? (Jaguar/ Saab… etc…)

  5. Controversial stuff. I can see that the Alfasud could have permanently hobbled Alfa but I don’t believe Alfa sunk the Italian car industry- by which we mean Fiat. Fiat were quite capable of doing that on their own…
    Even if the Alfasud had been a paragon of rust free, strike free, virtue it would have still been a danger for them. The risk for an expensive car maker building a cheap one is that their customers may trade down, taking sales from their more profitable cars, not their rivals. Alfa reached down just as their contemporary rivals reached up; no more sub-one-litre BMW’s, no more Triumph Heralds (I’m not including Lancia here as circa 1970, there was no indication that they’d survive even with Fiat paying the bills).

    Why did Fiat buy Alfa? Who really knows but Ford’s interest may have spurred them on. At the time it was considered anathema that foreign money should have a stake in the Italian motor industry (Although no one seems to have made a fuss about noted humanitarian Col. Gaddafi buying into Fiat some years earlier…). Hence Fiat’s emergence as a “White knight” bidder.

    Could Alfa have survived as an independent marque- state owned or otherwise? The type 4 project predated privatisation plans as did the Arna. I suspect the Arna was the last straw; even with a safe pair of hands technology partner Alfa couldn’t make a reliable car. As soon as Nissan anounced their Sunderland factory, it was clear that there would be no future alliance for Alfa.

    I don’t know the dates but Italy had a single market opt out from the E.C as was, which lasted a set number of years and so maintained protection for their car industry. After that melted away it was only a couple of car lifecycles before Italian carparks became as homogenised as the rest of Europe.

    1. Hi Tim and Richard. I wonder if the villian of this story wasn’t the Italian government, interfering in what should have been purely commercial decisions? That’s not to say that corporate misjudgement and hubris on Fiat’s part wasn’t a factor, but it never ends well when politicians try to micro-manage industries.

      How much political pressure was exerted on Fiat to ‘rescue’ Alfa Romeo when it was still struggling to make sense of Lancia? There’s little doubt that Fiat’s management was stretched way too thin, but we are just not sure quite why this happened.

  6. Let’s not forget that the Alfasud’s 33 successor, also a product of Pomigliano d’Arco was produced in bigger numbers than the ‘sud, over a slightly shorter model lifespan.

    The 33 number is stated as just under a million, the non-Sprint ‘sud 893,719. 121,432 Sprints were produced. Which was the best-selling Alfa of all time? Depends on how you manipulate the numbers…

    I can’t find the 33 in the least desirable or inspiring, but durability and build quality were no longer headline news, suggesting lessons had been learnt by the designers and those in charge of the production process. Sales were helped by strong economic growth in its domestic market.

    Until the 940 Giulietta – still selling healthily – was peremptorily dropped last year, Alfa had been represented in the C-segment for nearly five decades – customers expected it, and the marque’s overall sales would have looked rather sorry had the ‘sud and ’33 gone without heirs. Sergio M’s successors recognised the need to fill the void – hence the imminent Toenail.

  7. Prefer the later Alfasud Sprints as not a fan of the location of the reverse tail-lights on the original, as for the idea that later versions of most Italian cars grew increasingly bland / ugly compared to the originals, while there is some merit cannot agree the likes of the original 127 and Ritmo for example were perfect compared to later models though do concede that integrated body coloured bumpers for the latter would have been an improvement.

    BTW is it known what platform underpinned the Vivace concepts or were they just styling models?

    On the subject of the Alfa Romeo 33, actually prefer the Giugiaro/Ital Design proposal over what entered production since to my mind it has some visual continuity with the Alfasud despite being considered a bit bland by some.

    There was also an alternative 1980 Alfasud facelift proposal by Pininfarina.

    1. Um… .the ItalDesign alternatives might well have sold better but they are rather bland Golfy things. The actual car is no looker and yet I still find them more appealing. I liked Alfa´s sub-ugly styling rather as I liked Subaru´s “I don´t care” approach. Goodness, but didn´t they sell tonnes of those and they were unremarkable in many way.

    2. A phenomenal avoidance!

      These look like the never-produced three-door Maestro, mashed up with similarly unrealised Axe-era Maestro facelifts.

    3. Richard

      The ItalDesign alternative could have carried over some elements of the approved Cressoni proposal, perhaps the 5-door liftback could have instead evolved into an Orion/Belmont-style 4-door booted saloon to complement the 5-door ItalDesign hatchback.

      Robertas

      Cannot say the angle and black bumpers of the Pininfarina facelift proposal places the alternate 1980 Alfasud in its best light (perhaps the styling bucks would have been an improvement had it reached that stage), certainly looks better than the Arna IMHO and would be a suitable stop-gap between the pre-1980 Alfasud and an alternate production ItalDesign 33 proposal (with some Cressoni flair) .

      As far as 3-door Maestros go, am partial to this sketch had it reached production (combined with a Montego-esque lower bonnet line) though do wonder how Pininfarina would have styled both the Maestro and Montego (with Peugeot’s styling themes as a starting point).
      https://i0.wp.com/www.aronline.co.uk/images/lm10dev_09.jpg?resize=600%2C343

  8. Always thought of the Sprint as a draft for the 116 GTV, one of which is in my garage awaiting revival. I briefly owned a Sprint because my 33 needed the gearbox and a few other items … and then got caught because the speedo drive was mechanical rather than electronic. Spent a few months gauging my speed using the rev counter, which was fortunately pretty easy with the evenly spaced ratios.

  9. May be that without Alfasud in the picture, the buying public might not ever grasp the Alfa Romeo experience, the other cars being expensive. The Alfasud and its replacement the Alfa 33, were the ones to be seen in numbers.

  10. There was an offshoot of the Sprint in Australia in the form of the Giocattolo, based on the bodyshell as it was easier than designing everything from scratch. It was originally intended to have an Alfa V6 but Alfa Romeo was not interested, so a Holden V8 was put in front of the ZF transaxle (midmounted) and they had to buy complete cars to strip down. 15 were built.

    1. “…but Alfa Romeo was not interested…and they had to buy complete cars to strip down”. Why am I not surprised?

      Giocattolo may also have been inspired by the Sprint 6C.
      Why Alfa Romeo sunk time and money into two prototypes that turned out to be exaclty nothing is beyond me.

    2. The bodywork of the 6C strikes me as being quite tasteful and understated. There were four Group B classes, so the Busso engined 6C would have been intended for a different class than the Giocattolo. Incedentally, I’ve learned that Walkinshaw was involved with the Giocattolo.

      I suspect that had Alfa been serious about this proposition that more sophistication in terms of both cabin and engine compartment ventilation/temperature regulation/protection from accumulated moisture would have been implemented. Notice the unusually discrete grille on the top surface of the rear spoiler. I do find the designers’ efforts to avoid crass wings, vents, skirting, etc. to be laudable, but perhaps the brief called for a bit more applied science?

    3. Fred you are 100% correct, the initial idea was to build the 6C. With local import duties the Holden V8 ended up being cheaper than the Alfa V6, and I don’t have exact figures for comparison but the ZF gearbox cost something like AU$30k landed which was a lot more than a Sprint. At least some of the cars where sourced from NZ.

      They weren’t messing around, bodywork was carbon/kevlar, and there were plans on the drawing board to build a bespoke car from scratch as a follow-up. Unfortunately the recession, and reality, got in the way!

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