1910 – 2010: Alfa Romeo celebrates a century

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WORDS & PHOTOS BY JARLATH SWEENEY

Celebrating Alfa Romeo’s centenary means browsing some of the most important pages in automotive history. It means remembering cars and engineers, races and engines that put their mark on twentieth century technological progress and car racing.

Alfa Romeo was officially established in Milan on 24 June 1910. That year, a group of entrepreneurs and businessmen acquired Società Italiana Automobili Darracq, the Italian branch of the French car-maker, and its Portello workshops on the city outskirts, and established A.L.F.A. (Antonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili – “Lombard Automobile Factory, Public Company”). The emblem underlined the new company’s ties to the city of Milan: a red cross from the city’s banner and the Visconti family “grass snake” (“Biscione” in Italian). The first car to sport it was the “24 HP”, a model that stood out from the very beginning for its mechanics, performance and driving pleasure – features which will become by-words for the brand.

The outbreak of World War I and limited resources created financial problems for the company, which was acquired in 1915 by Neapolitan engineer and entrepreneur Nicola Romeo. The name was then changed to “Alfa-Romeo” and the Portello plant, with a workforce of 2,500 was expanded and converted to War production. Engine compressors, ammunition, aircraft engines and trains were made here. Car production returned at the end of the War.

Alfa Romeo made first steps to race track success winning Targa Florio in 1923 (the brand’s first of ten wins) with the “RL TF”, which was also the first appearance of the four-leaf clover (quadrifoglio” in Italian) racing emblem, and then in 1925 with the “P2 Gran Premio”, that won the first Automobile World Championship in history. It was the first of Alfa Romeo’s five victories.

In the meantime, Romeo replaced Alfa Chief Engineer Giuseppe Merosi, who had created the first models and joined the company back in 1910, with Vittorio Jano, Technical Creator of the great Alfas of the 1930s. His debut model was the “P2”, which was followed by the “6C 1500” (1928), “6C 1750” (1930), “8C 2300 (1931) and the “Gran Premio Tipo B-P3” (1932), all models which greatly contributed to increasing the “Quadrifoglio” prize record and elevated the technical prestige of cars made at the Portello plant. Jano was responsible for the legendary “8C” eight cylinder in-line engine with supercharger.

The 1930s was the decade in which the Alfa Romeo racing pedigree took shape. Engine reliability was undisputed and the names of valorous drivers – Antonio Ascari, Gastone Brilli Peri, Giuseppe Campari, Enzo Ferrari, Tazio Nuvolari, Achille Varzi – were on everybody’s lips. They won many legendary races: Mille Miglia (11 wins, an undefeated record), Le Mans 24 Hours (four consecutive editions), Targa Florio, and a very long list of international Grand Prix.

The worldwide recession that followed the Wall Street Crash of 1929 had repercussions on Alfa’s expansion: the company was taken over in 1933 by IRI (Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale – Industrial Reconstruction Institute). Under Ugo Gobbato, rationalisation brought increased production as the focus centred on aircraft engines, industrial vehicles and motorsport. A new plant was opened in Pomigliano d’Arco (Naples) at the end of the decade.

The outbreak of World War II on 10 June 1940 unsettled the company’s ambitious plans. As most Italian industries, Alfa converted to war production and its plants were bombed by the Allies. Work resumed after the peace treaty was signed but the workshops had been damaged and there were no components for making aircraft engines, coaches or cars. So the eight thousand workers of the Portello plants made electric cooking ranges, metallic furniture, doors, windows and shutters – in other words, the objects needed to rebuild a country.

Car building was resumed in 1946. New versions (Freccia d’oro and Villa d’Este), fitted with an innovative steering wheel mounted gear shift, soon arrived. The 1900, the first Alfa with monocoque body shell, was designed by Orazio Satta Puliga (who had joined the company in 1938) in 1950, and the first assembly chain was opened at the Portello plant. The supremacy of the Alfa 158 in Grand Prix then began with Nino Farina winning the Formula 1 World Championship in 1950. The following year legendary Juan Manuel Fangio won the second Championship behind the wheel of an Alfa Romeo 159 fitted with the most powerful 1500 engine ever made delivering 425 HP at over 300 km/h. Immediately afterwards, Alfa decided to retire from Grand Prix competitions but kept on competing in the Sport category with the “1900 Disco Volante”, a flying-saucer shaped car capable of reaching a top speed of 225 km/h. In the meanwhile, the company concentrated on the production of standard cars, industrial vehicles, aircraft and naval engines, and diesel engines for industrial applications. Following the IRI reorganisation in 1948, Alfa passed into the Finmeccanica sub-holding.

“Giulietta Sprint” was introduced in 1954, then the “Spider” (1955) and the “Berlina” (1955). Alfa Romeo’s elevation to “major auto maker” began in the 1960s started with the success of the “Giulia” (1962), which developed the philosophy of the earlier “Giulietta” with new proportions, forcing Alfa Romeo to expand the shop floor and open a new plant in Arese near Milan. At the end of its long, honoured career, “Giulia” and its spinoffs – the “Giulia Sprint GT” (1964), the “1600 Spider Duetto” (1966) and the “1750” in saloon, coupé and spider versions – reached the outstanding goal of one million units made. Racing activities continued throughout the decade. The Autodelta racing team was established and Alfa Romeo won on tracks worldwide with the “Giulia TZ” (1963), “TZ 2” (1965), “Giulia GTA” (1965) and “33” (from ’69 to ’71).

The 1960s were boom years for the company: cars were sold worldwide and ties with the United States market – due for incarnation today – were consolidated. Alfa Romeo reached the peak of its development. The Portello plant, by now incorporated in the spreading city of Milan, was insufficient. Production was gradually transferred to the new plant (with an area of over two million and a half square metres), which was opened in Arese and a prototype test track was opened in Balocco (Vercelli).

Following the high increase in demand, Alfa Romeo planned the opening of a new plant in Pomigliano d’Arco (Naples): the foundation stone was laid on 29 April 1968. Engineer Rudolf Hruska was called to design a new car: the “Alfasud”, a compact entry-level car equipped with a flat-4 “boxer” overhanging front engine was introduced in 1971. Production of the “Alfetta” started in Arese the following year followed by the “Alfetta GT” (1974) then the lower segment “New Giulietta” (1977) saloon was introduced which were the backbone of production at the Arese plant. In the meantime Alfa Romeo took two World Championship titles: in 1975 with the 33TT 12 (Manufacturers Championship), and in 1977 with the 33 SC 12 (Prototype Championship).

Despite social unrest in Italy, the company forged ahead preparing models and strategies for the forthcoming decade: the “Alfa 33”, replaced the “Alfasud” in 1983, then came the “Alfa 90” (1984) and the “Alfa 75” (1985).

The company changed hands again in 1986, for the third time in its history. Fiat Group acquired Alfa Romeo, at that time producing the brand-new top-range saloon “164” (1987). The car’s success would revive Alfa Romeo and the Arese plant. 1992 was the year of the “155”, remarkably successful in races. The “145” was introduced to replace the “33” in 1994 and the sporty “GTV” and “Spider” were launched the following year. The model of the 1990s revival was the “156” (1997). The sporty saloon was sensationally successful on the market – awarded “Car of the Year” in 1998 – and on international race tracks taking many wins in the Touring category. The “166” replaced the “164” in 1998, and in 2000 “147” (also “Car of the Year”) replaced the “145” and was even more successful than its ‘big sister’ the “156”, that in the meantime had complemented the range: the “GT”, a four-seat coupé, with a style concept reminiscent of the “Giulietta Sprint”, was introduced in the Autumn of 2003. In the “159” replaced the “156” in 2005, evolving its style and implementing new proportions, engine versions and body configurations: the “Brera” coupé was introduced in the same year, followed by the new “Spider” in 2006.

Also in 2006, Alfa Romeo introduced the long-awaited “8C Competizione”, a very high performance coupé with a remarkable design that made it an ‘instant classic’. With only 500 units made, this supercar was for collectors mostly. It was joined by the “8C Spider” in 2008, which maintained the same mechanical features and performance as the coupé. The Alfa Romeo MiTo, a compact car with a sporty look, for young motorists and everyone who want a distinctive, performing car, was introduced the same year.

Now is the turn of the brand-new “Giulietta” with the aim of reviving the brand in one of the most important segments in Europe. In the centenary year, the name is a tribute to an automotive legend which was key in the history of Alfa Romeo: the Giulietta is a car that, in the fifties, caught the imagination of generations of car enthusiasts, making the dream of owning an Alfa Romeo and enjoying the high levels of styling, technical excellence and handling for the first time.

 

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