More lessons in Italian.
The Bel Paese has been described as the only workshop in the world that can turn out both Botticellis and Berlusconis. Likewise, Italy’s automotive track record is marked by both triumphs and tragedies. Between these two extremes lies a wide, fertile area in which little known curiosities can be found, a selection of which we feature today.
Gigliato Aerosa GTS, 1997
Regurgitated in 1994, seven years after being swallowed up by Chrysler Corporation and prior to becoming part of the Volkswagen empire in 1998, Lamborghini was temporarily owned by the Indonesian company Megatech(1), in which Indonesian president Suharto’s son was a major shareholder. More than a whiff of corruption and questionable sourcing of capital surrounded the deal, but at least it kept Lamborghini alive(2) to fight another day.
Farther east of Indonesia, Japanese designer Nobuo Nakamura(3), who had established his own design company named Gigliato Design in 1987, was convinced a market existed for a junior supercar that was neither Italian or German. Nakamura started work on a mid-engined design in 1991, and the first prototype of the Gigliato Aerosa, powered by a 220bhp V6 Yamaha-designed engine as used in the first Ford Taurus SHO, was completed in 1995.
Producing the car as a domestic car manufacturer in Japan, however, would have entailed numerous and onerous legal hurdles, resulting in Nakamura looking for a party elsewhere on the globe to build his car, as most of these legal barriers would not apply to imported vehicles. Initially, the would-be car manufacturer considered England, a country that was already home to numerous small-scale specialty carmakers. A meeting with Walter Wolf, then the representative for Lamborghini in Germany, would change Nakamura’s mind however.
The wealthy Canadian businessman(4) had warm relations with Lamborghini, liked what Nakamura had created so far and sensed a business opportunity that might help the struggling Italian supercar manufacturer. Upon inspecting the Aerosa, Lamborghini agreed to assist in refining the design concept and to produce the car(5).
Lamborghini executive Luigi Marmiroli (formerly of Ferrari and AutoDelta) was tasked with leading the projected joint venture between Italy and Japan. A disused workshop where previously Lamborghini had produced its Formula 1 engines became the headquarters for the new project. Five Japanese engineers with extensive experience in Computer Aided Design assisted Lamborghini’s stylists and craftsmen, and soon a substantially enhanced body design emerged.
The ‘new’ Aerosa was also more powerful: it was felt nothing less than at least a V8 would do but, as the only engines Lamborghini built at the time had twelve cylinders, another Ford engine was chosen to replace the V6, the 4.6-litre V8 with 310bhp that was normally found in the Ford Mustang SVT Cobra. The actual planned production Aerosa would not be powered by this engine however, but rather the 420bhp twin-turbocharged type 918 Lotus V8 engine for which Marmiroli had signed a supply agreement with the Hethel based manufacturer.
At the 1997 Geneva Motor Show, the Gigliato Aerosa (now with GTS suffix) was proudly put on display — Gigliato and Lamborghini officially announcing that the two companies had reached an agreement to jointly produce the brand new junior supercar in the near future.
However, things remained quiet after Geneva had closed its doors and the crowds had gone home. Two factors beyond either Nakamura’s or Lamborghini’s control intervened. Megatech found itself in a precarious financial situation as the effects of the Asian economic crisis were starting to take hold and, by 1998, it had sold Lamborghini to the Volkswagen group.
The German giant had other ideas concerning a junior supercar to be made by Lamborghini and cancelled the well advanced Aerosa project with immediate effect. It is not known if Nobuo Nakamura was in any way compensated but, whatever ensued, the Japanese designer has not attempted to revive his automotive dream since.
Like any true Alfa Romeo, the AlfaSud is not without its faults and idiosyncrasies. Its bodywork may have lasted about as long as the origami display at a Sumo wrestlers’ chili eating competition, but most would agree it was a great drive and that, as far as its styling is concerned, the end result was quite accomplished — except for one detail that jars and can not be unseen after one has spotted it: two clumsy bootlid hinges sticking out from what is otherwise a beautiful and smoothly rounded rump.
The hinges are on show because of the hard-nosedness of Rudolf Hruska. The seasoned Austrian engineer was put at the head of the ambitious AlfaSud project which entailed not only a new car, but also a new factory: the Pomigliano d’Arco plant near Naples.
For styling the car, Hruska enlisted Giorgetto Giugiaro whom he knew from his time at Fiat and Bertone; Giugiaro had recently started his own design company and was elated to receive the design contract for Alfa Romeo’s important new addition to its range. However, all his undisputed talent notwithstanding, Rudolf Hruska was extremely fastidious down to the tiniest details but, more importantly, not open to suggestions for compromise, as Giugiaro would find out.
The brief Giugiaro received from Hruska described in minute detail all the dimensions to which Giugiaro had to adhere, and this included the size of the boot. Specifically, the boot had to be able to contain a luggage set designed by Hruska, for which he also provided the exact dimensions. The young Giorgetto duly set to work and produced a very pleasing shape — modern, aerodynamic and distinctive, and perfect apart from one problem: with Hruska’s luggage set inside the bootlid wouldn’t close. The AlfaSud project leader’s conclusion: nein.
As Giugiaro’s design otherwise met with the approval of Hruska, and the extra room needed was minimal, a somewhat crude solution was agreed: externally mounted hinges were fitted, which allowed the bootlid to be closed with the dreaded luggage set inside, but they stuck out like two sore thumbs. Even now, Giorgetto Giugiaro still remembers it: “Whenever I am at an airport and see a luggage set in a display window, the AlfaSud briefly crosses my mind”.
The Thai Alfa Romeo 156
In the very same Pomigliano d’Arco plant built for the AlfaSud, other Alfa Romeos subsequently rolled off the assembly line, including the 156. Alfas are of course quintessentially Italian, and the vast majority of them were and are indeed produced in Italy but some have been made in South Africa, Portugal, Zimbabwe and, in the case of the 156, Thailand.
“This initiative is important because it forms part of our strategy for strengthening Fiat Auto’s presence in markets with high growth potential in the automobile sector,” said Pietro Sighicelli, Vice President, Overseas Operations, of Fiat Auto S.p.A. at the agreement signing ceremony in Bangkok. “We want to bank upon and fully exploit the high prestige of the Alfa Romeo brand and especially of the Alfa 156, which has won many awards including the Car of the Year Award, Europe’s most prestigious accolade.”(6)
The contract signed in 2001 to assemble the 156 from CKD(7) kits was a further step in strengthening the strategic alliance between troubled-at-the-time Fiat and GM that dated back to the year 2000: GM took 20% of Fiat while the Italian carmaker got just 6% of GM. The recently opened GM car factory in Rayong on Thailand’s eastern seaboard(8) had a capacity for 130,000 vehicles per year and was already producing the Zafira minivan badged as an Opel, Chevrolet, Holden or Subaru according to the market, as well as Isuzu pickup trucks.
Over 90% of the plant’s output was destined for export to global markets. Nearly 12 million US Dollars was invested in setting up the Alfa Romeo 156 operation, with a target of producing 4,000 cars per annum. It was hoped the 156 would expand its European sales success to South-East Asian markets such as Brunei, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Indonesia but, in reality, demand for Alfa’s sedan would fall well short of expectations.
Assembly of the Thai Alfa Romeo 156s started in March 2002 but was halted in mid-2004 after less than 1,000 cars had been assembled, ending a brief and unsuccessful episode in Alfa Romeos built outside of their motherland. The alliance with GM ground to a halt not much later. General Motors continued to operate the plant to produce various GM vehicles, but sold it to the Chinese manufacturer, Great Wall Motors, in 2020.
(1) Megatech also owned the American supercar manufacturer Vector at the time.
(2) While under control of Megatech, Lamborghini also sold the rights to manufacture cars under their name to a South American company: see Ferdinand’s Mexican standoff for the story.
(3) Nakamura worked for Suzuki before starting Gigliato and is currently a designer at Toyota where he was responsible for the current Supra.
(4) Walter Wolf also had his own Formula 1 team between 1977 and 1979, shocking the established teams by winning the first race of the 1977 season, followed by two more victories during that same year.
(5) For completeness’ sake: some sources claim the Aerosa was to have been produced in Germany; this seems both unlikely and illogical to your author however.
(6) Quotes from the Bangkok Post newspaper.
(7) Completely Knocked Down.
(8) Sometimes referred to as the Detroit of South-East Asia.
19 thoughts on “Il Secondo”
It’s strange that an engineer such as Hruska should encourage such a shoddy solution for the Alfasud. I always guessed it saved space in the boot, but I had assumed that was secondary to a cost saving. Or as a helpful aid to people who needed to break into your boot to steal your exquisite fitted luggage. My own idea of a luggage set is more like this – far more flexible.
The al fresco boot hinges seem a bit crude (although they aren´t too visible), but what about the boot lid resting against the rear window when opened? I´ve just learned the lid AR badge was surrounded in rubber to protect the glass.
The black plastic surround of the Alfa badge was resting on the glass.
Over enthusiastic opening of the boot lid made the glass produce strange noises.
The only disadvantage of the external hinges was that they had to be lubricated on a regular basis. Otherwise they’d rust shut and when you then tried to open the boot they would simply come off the boot lid. That’s what happened to one of our first ‘Suds and then we had to drill several holes through the boot lid and hinge and use hex bolts to attach the hinge – not an attractive looking solution…
Good morning Bruno and thank you for uncovering some more automotive truffles for us. A would-be supercar designed in Japan and built in Italy? Surely that should, optimally, have been the other way round?
I never found the Alfasud’s exposed boot hinges to be particularly unsightly. If it had to have external hinges to satisfy the parameters laid down by Hruska, then at least they were as neat and unobtrusive as they could possibly be, exposed and not shrouded with some plastic covers that would have been more noticeable.
Later post-facelift Alfasuds did get concealed boot hinges, albeit it with a black plastic trim strip beneath the rear window:
The ultimate solution was, of course, to give the Alfasud a tailgate:
When Alfa introduced the Alfasud L (rev counter, cloth seats, carpets and a chrome strip around the boot lid) it provided covers for the hinges as dealer fit parts. They came in a plastic pouch in the boot and would have required the drilling of a hole to fit them and because the drilling could not be done on the production line it was left to the dealers. These covers were dropped very quickly.
Thanks, Dave. I think I’d have preferred to live with the unadorned hinges. Imagine supplying am accessory that required the dealers to drill holes in the bodywork to fit. Still, I suppose those covers would hide the resulting corrosion, for a while at least!
Regarding drilling holes by dealers.
For a long tine Alfas came without external mirrors which were not mandatory in Italy. Dealers had to fit them in markets where they were mandatory. As a result there are many different mirrors (round, rectangular, egg shaped but always with a Serpent logo) in many different locations.
An ultra rare picture of an Alfasud with hinge covers fitted
Certainly no improvement, it merely draws attention to the hinges.
These covers were specific to the short lived Alfasud L, the ti that was presented shortly afterwards didn’t have them and the 5m (basically an L with five speed gearbox from the ti) also came without them.
The L marked the ‘Sud’s progress from downright primitive to merely spartan. We had both and the non-L was really an acquired taste without rev counter (in an Alfa!), no glovebox lid, rubber floor mats and plastic leather seat covers. Against this the L with bumper overriders (different from the ones of the later ti) was pure indulgence
The only luxury our first series ‘Sud had was a gear lever knob with five speed pattern for a four speed gearbox when the five speed box arrived several years later with the ti. That’s quality in production!
I agree with you Daniel about the hinges. They never really bothered me all that much, but it would have been nicer if they were out of sight. Still, what a lovely design the Sud was.
Surely I’m not the only one to think the Gigliato screams NSX
Hi Mr Incognito, the NSX itself was criticized for being unoriginal. Some obvious influences are the NSX and the Ferrari 348, but I noticed the surfacing reminded me of the 1988 ItalDesign Aspid and Aztek concepts.
That said, I find the Aerosa quite attractive, embodying the intersection of classic curves and technical modernism, however I quite dislike the updated 1997 vintage elements (yet another ill advised facelift).
I think I would’ve made Hruska’s luggage ‘fit’ instead, possibly by reversing over it. Of course, this is where a superior product like the Allegro shines – a bigger boot and with proper hinges, too. Ahem.
Seriously, those plastic dealer-fit covers really are odd – they look as though they make the hinges much more obvious, like the ones on the Kadett D. I also wonder why Opel adopted what looked like a somewhat crude solution.
On a different topic, I’m surprised at the failure of the 156, as I think of it as an obviously attractive car (without a body kit). Perhaps it just wasn’t to the market’s taste.
Hi Charles. I’ve often wondered if the decision to produce a booted version of the Kadett D / Astra Mk1 was made late in the design process, prompted by worries about how receptive more conservative potential customers would be to the new hatchback format. The saloon version offered no more boot space than the hatchback (unlike subsequent booted versions of the Kadett / Astra) and the exposed hinges looked like an afterthought.
But of course the booted Kadett offered a more rigid shell, and no cold necks for back-seat passengers when you were loading luggage.
I’m not familiar with the superior Allegro’s boot hinges, but its ADO16 predecessor had a very clever arrangement with tubular ‘swan-necks’ pre-tensioned by torsion bars underneath the rear shelf.
The springing medium took up hardly any space, but the swan necks encroached into the width of the luggage space. That was a theoretical rather than actual problem. Even with the 1100/1300’s meagre boot space, people less fastidious than Rodolfo managed to work round the mechanism’s intrusion.
The Allegro had swan-neck hinges, too.
Re the Kadett / Astra, according to the (excellent) Vauxpedia website, it was planned as both a saloon and hatch from the start. It was a pretty pointless exercise, though and Vauxpedia makes the reasonable point that if you’re going to offer a saloon, you should at least make it look like one.
Before gas struts became ubiquitous torsion bars a common solution as springs for boot lids.
I remember a special tool needed for dismantling of the hatch of a Peugeot 204 Break (with exposed chromed hinges, by the way) to keep the springs tensioned while the lid was undone. These springs were really powerful and according to the workshop manual there was serious risk of personal damage when tinkering with them without that tool.