The development story of Alfa Romeo’s ground-breaking small family car of the 1970s. How differently would history have judged the Alfa Romeo Alfasud, had its rustproofing been better and it had a hatchback from launch?
Here’s its story…
Alfa Romeo Alfasud: the champ that never was
The major players in the car industry were making giant strides in 1971. In the mid-market, Ford had been doing all the running with its ultra-successful Cortina and Escort – conservative cars produced to meet the demands of fleet buyers. Mechanical straightforwardness was seen as a positive advantage. Fleet managers had been scared off front-wheel-drive cars because of the intensive servicing regime demanded by BMC’s Mini and 1100, and that resulted in Ford producing simple and cheap to service cars. The motoring equivalent of bangers and mash, if you like…
However, in Europe, the shape of the market was still very much driven by the demands of the private motorist – someone who ploughed their own money into their car, and funded it out of their own pocket. Company cars didn’t exist in Europe as such – if you needed to drive your car for your job, you’d claim back the petrol…
Big demand for small cars sparks new Alfa
Alfa Romeo was one of the manufacturers which wanted to capitalise on the ballooning demand for lower-priced cars in the late 1960s, as more people became well-off enough to afford to start driving. The company may have enjoyed past successes in racing and, in the 1960s, boasted a range of beautiful sporting coupes and saloons, but in order to survive and prosper into the 1970s, expansion was the key – and that meant it needed a small car in the range.
The Italian company had previously dabbled with small car projects – back in 1952, it created a prototype 750cc car known as Project 13-61. The twin-cylinder, transverse-engined Mini competitor would have hit the market spot on in time for the 1956 Fuel Crisis. Sadly, the company wasn’t blessed with clairvoyants for strategists, and the plug was pulled on the grounds of costs – leaving the booming Italian small car market completely to Fiat.
Eight years later, the idea of a small Alfa was revisited with the Tipo 103 prototype. The scaled-down Giulia saloon featured an advanced 1.0-litre DOHC power unit and a 85mph top speed – but, again, the promising project was abandoned on the back of Alfa Romeo and Renault’s short-lived co-operative deal, which involved selling R4s and Dauphines in Italy.
The ‘Sud begins to take shape
Alfa Romeo didn’t abandon the idea of a small car, though, and as the need for one increased, so did the desire to develop something new and a bit special.
In 1967, Alfa Romeo’s Chief Executive, Giuseppe Luraghi, once again revisited the idea of the company building a new small car. Little did he know of the political storm he was about to create. Because Alfa Romeo needed financial assistance with the new car’s creation, Luraghi, approached the Italian Government for help.
However, in the interests of developing the poorer southern region of the country, there was a stipulation attached to the loan: the new car needed to be built in the deprived Naples region – 300 miles from the company’s base in Milan.
The company heads south
Alfa Romeo agreed to build the new car at its little-used Avio facility in Pomigliano d’Arco near Naples, and the entire project (factory and car) became known as Alfa Sud. The Government loan ran to 360 billion Lire but, needless to say, it wasn’t a happy situation, as the area had no tradition of car manufacturing, and that led to 15,000 unskilled workers being taken on to build the new car.
That aside, Fiat management was furious when details of the Alfa Sud project become common knowledge. The bad blood between the two companies started because Alfa’s Torinese saw it as a break in the gentleman’s agreement, despite Fiat’s earlier introduction of the Alfa-rivalling 130 and Dino models.
Accusations of poaching, theft and treason were trumped up by the Torinese company, seriously delaying the ‘Sud’s eventual release. The conflict was deepened when Alfa managed to persuade Austrian Fiat (and ex-Volkswagen, Porsche, Cistilia and Alfa Romeo – yes, he’d been there before) Engineer, Rudolf Hruska, along with several colleagues, to oversee the design of the new car – especially as Fiat was in the throes of developing its next generation of small front-driven family cars…
Starting from scratch
The hiring of Hruska – no matter how controversial – was a stroke of genius. His masterminding of the Alfa Romeo Alfasud, and tight control of its remarkable technical package was a perfect example of the theory that history’s greatest cars were created by talented individuals, rather than committees.
The team assembled had true class: Aldo Mantovani was in charge of engineering, assisted by Carlo Chiti (the former head of Autodelta); Carlo Bossaglia was responsible for engine development; and Federico Hoffmann devised the suspension.
Aside from devising one of the greatest handling cars of the 1970s, Hruska’s team’s most impressive achievement with the Alfa Sud project was to keep it within budget and deliver it on time. He and his talented team created Alfasud – a clean sheet car – and got it onto the market within four short years. The industry average back then was nearer six.
Quick off the mark, and in budget
The ‘Sud might well have enjoyed a controversial gestation, but the end result was still a technical tour de force. From his bureau in Milan, Hruska pieced together a fascinating technical package and clothed it in a smart Georgetto Giugiaro suit. The main goals for the project were that the new small car should be cheap and easily maintained, but retain the typical fun-to-drive Alfa character. To achieve this, everything the company had done before was thrown out of the window.
Given Hruska’s VW/Porsche background, it’s unsurprising that he decided to choose a flat-four engine to power the Alfa Romeo Alfasud. This engine configuration combined with water-cooling and front-wheel drive resulted in a low scuttle for good visibility, a low centre of gravity and near-Issigonis-levels of interior space efficiency (Hruska’s experience gained on the Fiat 128 project proved invaluable here).
The short-stroke, free revving engine (which used a pair of identical cylinder heads) was longitudinally mounted, and was treated to a pair of equal-length driveshafts. Engine capacity was 1186cc, maximum power was 63bhp, and it was developed for ease of maintenance as much as anything else.
Great body engineering
Although the kerbweight had been well controlled, the aerodynamic body was structurally rigid thanks to deep box sections front and rear. The suspension was conventional independent MacPherson struts at the front but clever, innovative beam axle with Watts linkage at the rear – and it was this rear set-up that led to beautifully neutral handling.
Final performance figures were impressive – the top speed of this 1.2-litre car was 92mph, well ahead of similarly sized opposition. The design was competed by the end of 1967 and, by November 1968, prototype engine and body were married for the first time, and Hruska took his first test drive – this was a quick development programme.
Less than three years later the Alfasud became the sensation of the 1971 Turin Car Expo – a great achievement considering the Lamborghini Countach prototype was also unveiled at the show. However, due to the last phase of Pomigliano d’Arco’s development into a production facility, as well as a series of strikes and set-backs, production didn’t actually get started until April 1972.
As soon as the testers got their hands on the Alfasud, they knew the company had struck gold with its first small car. Autocar magazine was unstinting in its praise, concluding in its first road test: ‘The ‘Sud with front-drive, flat-four engine and roomy four-door body offers truly incredible handling, a comfortable and quiet ride and easy cruising.
‘Working in combination with the high-revving, exceptionally smooth and quiet engine, the crisp gearbox and light but effective brakes, it is a dynamic masterstroke.’
It continued: ‘That the car offers remarkable economy and reasonable running costs shows how comprehensively engineered the Alfa Romeo Alfasud is, and just how practical an inspirational driver’s car like the ’Sud can be when executed properly.’
A revelation on the road
Compared with the year’s other debutantes, the Morris Marina and Cortina MkIII, it was on a different planet dynamically. However, its high list price of £1399 – for the 1.2-litre model – compared badly to the £923 it cost to get you into a Morris Marina 1.3.
And that mattered in an era when £4000 would buy you a perfectly respectable semi in the West Midlands. Despite the price, demand for the ‘Sud was high. However, car strikes were a massive problem, and waiting lists built as Alfa struggled to keep the production lines rolling. Production volumes of 1000 per day were planned, but in the height of strike season, the actual number rarely bettered 70.
…but a rotter in the garage
Once customers got hold of their cars, the horrible truth soon emerged. The low quality steel used in its production, and scant rustproofing meant the gifted little car had become infamous for tinworm – owners were finding their new cars would develop widespread corrosion, which could strike anywhere, within a matter of months.
In the end, the problem became so well-known within the trade, that it irrevocably damaged Alfa Romeo’s reputation for a generation to come. Engineers devised a quick-fix – an extra step in production saw all box-sections filled with special synthetic foam, which it hoped would keep the rust at bay.
Instead, moisture was trapped in it, and the corrosion process was accelerated. However, thanks to lamentable industrial relations and an indifferently skilled workforce, the ‘Sud’s troubles were far from over. Just like BL, Alfa Romeo suffered horribly from strikes during the 1970s, and, during its life, the ‘Sud’s production line suffered from 700 stoppages.
But the testers loved it
Despite being known as one of the rustiest cars ever made, the Alfasud remained a perennial favourite with motoring journalists and enthusiastic drivers. Throughout its life, the ‘Sud was praised to the hilt for its flat roll-free cornering, tactile steering and rasping exhaust note – and that meant all manner of failings could be forgiven.
Rivals emerged – and the Alfasud saw them all off. Austin’s brave new Allegro of 1973 should have given the ‘Sud a run for its money dynamically, but poor final development and shoddy body engineering meant the final product came a poor second. Even 1974’s much-vaunted Volkswagen Golf couldn’t match the ‘Sud on a twisting road, even if it did highlight two major shortcomings – it’s lack of a hatchback and compromised driving position.
Alfa Romeo Alfasud power upgrades
The sporting Ti (for tourismo internazionale) version was launched in 1973, pre-dating the Golf GTI by three years, and added a little spice to the range. Performance was boosted by by the addition of a Weber twin-choke downdraft carburettor, upping the power of the 1186cc flat-four to 68bhp.
It was just the beginning. Then the Giardinetta estate car version the following year, but even these was eclipsed by 1976’s addition, the gorgeous Alfasud Sprint. It was this model that heralded the arrival of the uprated 75bhp 1286cc engine – finally pushing the top speed of the baby Alfa to over 100mph.
Like the saloon, the three-door coupe was styled by Giorgetto Giugiaro, and its scaled-down GTV style was handsome enough to win plenty of admirers, even if it wasn’t the most practical proposition in the world, thanks to its fixed rear seat backrests.
In 1978, the wishes of keen drivers who begged for more power were partially met with the arrival of an upgunned 1.5-litre engine with up to 85bhp. While they were at it, the 1286cc engine was upgraded once again – to 1351cc (with developed 79bhp in twin Weber form, and 71bhp with a single Solex). But these changes signalled the ‘Sud’s gradual move upmarket. The 1.5-litre four-door was now available in Super form, while the Ti benefited from its first facelift, to become the Series 2.
Car of the Decade
By the turn of 1980, the ‘Sud was still seen as the dynamic class leader. CAR Magazine declared it the ‘Car of the Decade’ and Ford used it as a benchmark for its front-wheel-drive Escort MkIII. Imagine how things would have been had it not been rusty? A facelift in the same year tidied things up, and the ‘Sud became the Series 3.
Dropping the chrome bumpers spoiled the clean-cut styling for many purists, but it kept the ‘Sud looking fresh, and highlighted the brilliance of Giugiaro’s original design.
The following year, the ‘Sud gained a hatchback rear end (1981 for the three-door; ’82 for the five-door), answering the car’s main (non-rust related) criticism. The car put on an additional 25kg due to extra body stiffening, which slightly dented the performance…
Out with a whimper
In 1983, the Alfa Romeo Alfasud was replaced by the new and rather wedgy 33 – it looked good, and retained much of the ‘Sud’s technical feature – and yet it failed to capture the hearts and minds of buyers. The new car’s high price was also a problem – and that meant those fans of the entry-level ‘Sud were left with no choice in the Alfasud range…
That situation was rectified when the ARNA was launched, the bastard off-spring of the ill-fated Alfa Romeo-Nissan tie-up – but even fewer people found themselves turned on by the idea of buying a Japanese-styled car built in Italy.
The ‘Sud Sprint lived on until 1989, thanks to its commonality with the 33, but even that glorious looking car struggled as the decade progressed – somehow ’80s styling details and a delicate looking ’70s wedge just don’t mix.
Despite being an engineering marvel, and a delightful driver’s car, the Alfasud was a undoubted failure for its maker – it made a loss from day one, and its poor reputation tarnished the Alfa Romeo name so badly, the company ended up being bailed out by the Italian Government.
In reality, the Sud’s excellence benefited the opposition more than its maker – as rivals worked hard on their own alternatives.
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