Is this really the progenitor of the modern sports saloon?
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Driven to Write in March 2015 as part of the Benchmarks theme.
In the early 1960s, the average British driver on an average income would have ended up with a leaf-sprung wheezer, comfortable maybe, but hard-pushed cruising above 70 on expanding and unrestricted motorways, a handful in a panic stop and an entertainment-free and potentially scare-laden prospect on corners.
If you had a bit more to spend, and fancied something with sporting pretentions, then pretentions were certainly on offer with bits of real wood, a bigger carburettor, a rev counter and oil pressure gauge, fog and driving lamps and maybe a chrome strip up the side.
In the UK, an affordable, mass-produced car, offering five seater bodywork on a coil sprung, rear-drive chassis, a free-revving, light alloy, twin-cam engine, a 5 speed gear box and disc brakes all round would have been a dream template for a future sports saloon, maybe for the 1980s, even the ’90s. But not in Italy, where all this was available in the 105 Series Alfa Giulia Berlina.
In 1932 Alfa Romeo faced bankruptcy and came under government control. Hitler dreamed of a People’s Car but, although the financial situation in the 1930s severely affected European manufacturers of prestigious vehicles, Mussolini’s pet car company specialised in coachbuilt and costly vehicles for the very rich, including himself. The government might have been contemptible, but the engineering was sublime, culminating in one of the undisputed greats, the 8C 2900. Following the trauma of the Second World War, Alfa Romeo was still under government control, but by no means the same government.
The Italian Republic was formed in 1946 and, from 1950 until the late sixties, Italy saw enormous economic growth. Politically, although the Christian Democrats became the dominant party, the Socialists and, crucially, the Communists still remained influential forces, particularly in local government. Thus, although there was no populist incentive for an overall swing to the Left during this boom period, there was also a strong disincentive to divide the country again by alienating large sections of society. Therefore, here was a car company with a glorious engineering history, whose past products might be admired, but many of whose past clients were despised, still owned by the state and with a chequered history. The world had changed radically. What should it make?
The new Alfa Romeos of the early 50s look quite ordinary now, but beneath the skin they did justice to Alfa’s exotic heritage. They wanted to be something special, but Alfa was still finding its feet. First came the 1900 in 1950, Alfa’s first true production line model, a well-styled but rather heavy looking large saloon whose most distinctive feature was an entirely new twin-cam engine.
This was joined in 1954 by the smaller Giulietta which, although more convincing, retained the rather staid styling. This car, designed under Orazio Satta Puliga, introduced, in 1290cc form, a smaller twin-cam engine that would remain in production in various forms for 40 years, even finding its way into Alfa’s commercial vehicles.
Comparing it with the heavy, asthmatic units then found in most of Europe’s vehicles, one must conclude that only the parochial car-buying loyalties of the time prevented buyers in the showrooms from being outraged at being presented with such half-hearted innovations as Ford’s ‘Cross Flow’ overhead valve technology of the mid-sixties, this coming from a manufacturer that only got rid of their last sidevalve engine the year that the Giulietta’s ultimate successor was introduced.
That successor was the Giulia, again designed under Satta Puliga. Launched in 1962 in 1600cc form, it went on to be available throughout its life with various twin-cam petrol power outputs, from the 77bhp of the basic 1300, to the 97 bhp of the 1600 Super, as well as the 110 bhp of the early and rare Ti Super homologation special.
It spawned more popularly endearing and enduring variants, the Giugiaro designed Sprint GT and the Spider that remained in production until 1993, but the saloon is really the most interesting and admirable version. The 105 Berlina followed the artless three box style that Italian builders developed in the early 1960s, with a practical, near vertical side glasshouse ensuring comfortable accommodation in a relatively short body.
Fiat had launched their 1300/1500 the year before and Lancia their Fulvia Berlina the year after, Fiat probably had the most conventionally attractive cars of the three manufacturers, with a slight American influence. Lancia and Alfa both applied their own logic to the designs, coming up with cars that were distinctive, but are seldom described as elegant. The Giulia is handsome enough from the front, but uncompromisingly practical at the rear where boot space and aerodynamics were the priority.
Technically, except in the engine, it does not stand out like Citroen’s DS of 1955 and, on paper, it does not even compare well with the car the DS inspired, the Rover 2000 introduced a year after the Giulia. Its engineering was not truly radical but it employed generous, well-considered solutions and was devoid of any cynicism.
The Alfa was denied an independent rear, making do with a well-engineered, well-located, coil sprung, lighweight live axle. Looking back, this might seem to go against its position as an innovator, but it was a car that was designed to be driven quickly and safely. Discounting Jaguar’s magisterial twin coil rear suspension, introduced on the E-Type and Mk 10 at the start of the 60s, the other independent set-ups seen on rear-driven saloons of the time were variable, to say the least.
Both Mercedes swing axle and BMW’s semi-trailing wishbones could be quite unpredictable at the limit. The Rover 2000 had a De Dion set-up that was effective, but was designed for comfort with good roadholding but a lot of body roll, in the style of the DS. The Triumph 2000’s independent rear was commendable, especially bearing in mind its selling price, but it too was primarily there for comfort. Viewed in the context of the time, Alfa’s choice seems prudent both financially and practically.
The Giulia’s distinctive tail-up position when unladen, as well as relatively high roll angles when cornering, testify to its long-travel suspension since, although good handling was a priority, comfort was not a distant second. One can argue that Europe’s roads were generally rougher than today’s and that this was just a necessity, but one can also argue that to produce a car that could be inhabited by the family, but would not cosset the family, would have been anathema to Alfa’s designers.
Its original intentions are further testified by the fact that the first models had a column gearchange and a bench front seat. Quite soon the front seats were separated and a floor mounted gearstick appeared as an option, becoming standard soon after. The sensible strip speedometer with a tiny rev counter next to it lasted a bit longer until both these instruments became two large round dials in the 1600 models then, later, across the range. Only the clumsy under-dash handbrake remained for many more years as testament to the original layout. Thus, the Giulia’s everyman ambitions are most obvious on early versions where maximum capacity as family transport was a priority.
As we write history with the benefit of hindsight, this still underappreciated car can be presented as the prime forerunner of today’s performance saloons and hatchbacks. If you want to take that view, it’s hard to argue. True, the BMW 1500 was released at the same time and you could also point out that the Giulietta, laid much of the groundwork but, although we can identify much in the Neue Klasse BMW that evolved into the 3 and 5 Series we know today, the single-cam engined, 80 bhp 1500 still had a way to go. Likewise the Giulietta, though first to feature Alfa’s small twin-cam engine, its rather staid styling and an equally staid driving position were at odds with twitchy steering – somehow the balance still wasn’t quite right.
Today we would readily label it a sports saloon and, indeed, if you are looking for a nice Giulia, it might take a while to find one that hasn’t had its suspension lowered to suit that image. But the example shown above, a highly modified example of a rare 1963 TI Super, though looking every inch the racer and undoubtedly part of the Giulia’s identity, is not what the Giulia was really about. When current, the Giulia didn’t fit into an easy contemporary niche, so who was it made for? Who were the Giulia’s target customers, their personas in today’s marketing terms?
Basically they were whoever wanted one which, fortunately for Alfa, was 600,000 people. The Giulia wasn’t the product of marketeers and, for all their praiseworthy attributes, Satta Puliga and his immediate successors seemed to lack the focus to produce a coherent Alfa Romeo range to both complement and succeed the Giulia. Sadly that problem has never been solved.
If we consider the company that, deservedly enough, took over Alfa’s crown as a maker of saloon cars for the enthusiastic driver, probably around the 1972 launch of the Alfetta, a worthy but flawed car, and the first 5 Series, a remarkably similar vehicle in both conception and competently styled anonymity, the trajectories of Alfa Romeo and BMW crossed; one ascending, one descending.
The Giulia actually continued in production until 1978, too long of course, but, quality issues notwithstanding, and unless you bought the awful Perkins diesel engined fuel-crisis special, ownership of a Giulia was never a bad thing. It was a car that you could move up to from a Fiat 600, and it was a car you could keep in the garage next to your Ferrari 250GT. It was far more than the inspiration for today’s self-centered sports saloons. It was a car that was good enough for anyone.