The rise and fall of the Alfasud Sprint.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.