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|Alfa Romeo, The First 100 Years, Part Two: Mass Production|
|Written by Sam Fiorani|
|Thursday, 08 April 2010 17:24|
The company's post-War transition to mass production and wider appeal, especially in the United States
After 40 years and two wars of ups and downs, Alfa Romeo decided to change its focus and eliminate truck and marine engine production. Still under government ownership, the carmaker also shifted from low-volume, high-end models to much more accessible sporty cars in order to cater to the post-War need in Europe for family cars. Chairman Giuseppe Laragia, who took over in 1948, led this shift. The first of this new generation of models was the 1900.
Compared to the then-current $10,000 6C 2500, the 1900 was a relative bargain at $4,500. To expand the brand's appeal further, the 1900 was the first model offered with left-hand drive. Sales took off.
Alfa Romeo's all-new engine featured a cast-iron block topped by a cast-aluminum head. Two chain-driven camshafts operated eight valves over 1,884-cubic-centimeter capacity to push 100 horsepower to the rear wheels. Later models sported a longer stroke version of the engine, displacing 1,975 cubic centimeters and producing 115 horsepower. Not only was the 1900 the company's first model to use a unibody design, it was also the first built on an assembly line. When the 1900's run ended in 1959, Alfa Romeo had produced more than 21,300 units.
To accompany the 1900 in Alfa Romeo showrooms, the company introduced the Giulietta at the 1954 Turin Auto Show. Powered by an even smaller, 1,290-cubic-centimeter, twin-cam four cylinder (standard 50-horsepower and Sprint 65-horsepower versions), the little Giulietta offered two-door, four-door, and the famous Spider body styles. So smitten with this car was the automotive press that Road and Track said this "Juliet" could "win the heart of any motor-minded Romeo before he even gets out of second gear."
Other members of the motoring public also saw the appeal of the new Alfa Romeos. One of them was American Max Hoffman, who had made his name by importing European cars into the United States. In the mid-1950s, the lineup with the junior Giulietta and senior 1900 (and later 2000) won Hoffman's heart enough for him to bring Alfa Romeo to the States. While not the grand success of Volkswagen, American sales of Alfa Romeo were strong through the small dealer network set up by Hoffman.
Popularity of the new Alfa Romeo required expansion. Production in 1960 exceeded the total production of Alfa Romeo from 1910 through World War II, so the little Portello plant needed some assistance. To help out, a new plant in Arese opened in 1963.
With the six-cylinder 2600 replacing the 1900/2000 series and the popular Giulietta as the entry-level model, the 1962 model year saw the addition of the middle child, Giulia. And then the famous Duetto roadster took over for the Giulietta starting in late 1965.
First shown at the 1961 Turin show, production of the Alfa Romeo roadster was postponed due to local economic conditions and the popularity of the Giulietta Spider, but the concept never died. The Pininfarina-designed two-seater was officially unveiled at the 1966 Geneva show after entering production just a few months earlier. Pininfarina also took on the task of production at their Grugliasco plant.
Initially advertised as the 1600 Spider, the roadster has been known as the Duetto, Spider Veloce, and simply the Spider over its lifetime. Based on the Giulia, the Spider four-cylinder engines ranged from 1.3L to 2.0L mated to a five-speed manual transmission (a few models in the final years came with automatic transmission).
Styling evolved through four generations, while the basic structure of the car remained the same. Tapered at the front and rear, the first-generation Spider sported smooth lines from its nearly grille-less nose through the raked windshield to the almost Mercedes-Benz SL-like tail end. The rounded rear end was lopped off for the second-generation, giving the car a shorter appearance compared to the long and low first-generation style. To integrate modern safety regulations such as bumpers and, eventually, CHMSLs, a third-generation model was released in 1982. Wrapping up a nearly 20-year lifecycle, the Spider received one more revamp in 1990 with a new tail end and even more homogenous bumpers.
While the Spider may be the most iconic of Alfa Romeo models, especially after being featured in the Dustin Hoffman classic The Graduate, it was another model that set the course for the Italian automaker's future.
Development of the program known as Tipo 103 started in 1960 for this all-new model. Featuring a front-mounted, transverse four-cylinder engine, the small car sported front-wheel drive, which was part of the concept from the aborted Project 13-61 of eight years earlier. Due to a gentleman's agreement with Fiat, Alfa Romeo could not produce a model below the Giulietta.
With the necessary government authorities convinced, approval was given for the new small car. As part of the deal, the model needed to be built in southern Italy to ease the labor drain caused by the northern migration. Alfa Romeo opened a new plant in Pomigliano d'Arco, on the site of its earlier aircraft engine plant, to produce the brand's most radical model yet.
Like the plant where it was built, the new model gained the name Alfasud (sud meaning south in Italian). Introduced at the 1971 Turin show, the ItalDesign-styled Alfasud was powered by a new horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine and, for the first time in a production Alfa Romeo, powering the front wheels. Production started in April 1972 and continued through 1984.
Quality and labor issues hindered the success of the little Alfasud. When the call went out for assembly workers, more than 130,000 showed up for the 16,000 available positions. A lack of experience among the locals meant that few people had the ability to handle the new technology involved in the assembly of the car. Add in the suppliers who had previously only worked in the northern part of Italy and poor-quality body panels, and the Alfasud was less of a success than the long production run would reflect.
The northern plant still produced the other Alfa Romeo models. At the top of the line was the 1967-1972 1750/2000 Berlina sedan, which was replaced by the Alfetta sedan and coupe built from 1972 through 1987. And then there were the special models.
Harking back to the rare and exotic models of the company's first 40 years, Alfa Romeo has occasionally released models far more exclusive than the popular Giulia and economical Alfasud. Bertone- and Zagato-bodied versions of the Giulietta are among the most collectible of the series. The street-legal version of the racing Alfa Romeo 33 was produced in extremely limited numbers from 1967 to 1969 and sold as the Stradale. One of the most distinct special editions was introduced at the 1967 Montreal Expo.
Wowing the crowds at the Expo was a Bertone-bodied Alfa Romeo. Although initially unnamed, the swoopy 2+2 became known simply as the Montreal. Based on the Giulia's chassis and powered by the 1,600-cubic-centimeter four-cylinder from the Giulia Ti, the concept, of which two were built, entered production three years later.
Riding on the Giulia GTV chassis, the production Montreal came to life with a road-going version of the 2,593-cubic-centimeter V8 racing engine. Sales were slow; it took about seven years to sell all 3,917 built. But difficulty moving the expensive Montreal was just one more of the cracks in Alfa's foundation.
Which led to Alfa Romeo's search for partners.
Since he learned to speak, Sam Fiorani has been talking non-stop about cars. Just try to stop him.