Keith Adams has always been fascinated by the Alfa Romeo Arna, and its UK-only Nissan Cherry Europe equivalent – so it was good to be able to grab a quick spin in Eddie Rattley’s show-winning GTI.
Was it really as bad as all of those ‘Worst Cars’ lists say it is?
Alfa Romeo Arna: such promise, unfulfilled
Ah, the Alfa Romeo Arna. So long lambasted by those who’d never seen one, let alone been behind the wheel, but now recognised as an award-winning classic car by the more inclusive among us. It was the result of Alfa Romeo and Nissan joining forces and, although it was the perfect example of how to get a new car on to the market in a hurry, there’s a real sense of unfulfilled potential here.
Back in the late 1970s, Government-owned Alfa Romeo was in dire straits. As a relatively small player on the European market, it had been squeezed by several factors – the industrial disaster that beset the Italian economy, the dogmatic workforce of its Naples workforce, sustained underinvestment and the increasingly poor reputation of its biggest-selling product, the Alfasud.
Rather like British Leyland, strikes and unreliability were rife – and profitability an unachievable dream. And in that background, the firm sought a joint venture partner, and inevitably looked east.
A little history lesson
Hot of the heels of BL’s deal struck with Honda on Boxing Day 1979, the world sat up and took notice when Alfa Romeo announced its forthcoming partnership with Nissan in October 1980. Called Alfa Romeo Nissan Autoveicoli) it would be a pairing of two carmakers that had the potential to build something special.
It’s easy to forget that in the late 1970s and into the ’80s, just how fearful the European car industry was of the ramifications of the Japanese ‘invasion’. In the UK for instance, Datsun and Toyota had grown from almost nothing at the start of the decade to a position of strength, challenging traditional importers, such as Fiat, Renault and Volkswagen. So much so, that the SMMT persuaded the Japanese importers to stick to a 11% slice of the UK market in 1976, which became known as the ‘gentleman’s agreement’. You can read more about that in our feature on Octav Botnar.
In Europe, similar arrangements were struck, with the French car industry in particular railing against the Japanese. When news of BL’s deal with Honda to create the Triumph Acclaim, PSA and Renault tried via the courts to stop it being imported, accusing it of being a ‘Japanese Trojan Horse’ – a way of circumventing import tariffs, and creating a climate of unfair competition. It was, of course, nonsense –which was, in the fullness of time, rendered obsolete as Honda, Nissan and Toyota et al set-up manufacturing bases in Europe.
What is the Alfa Romeo Arna?
What rival manufacturers feared was that the Italian Government-sponsored partnership between Alfa Romeo and Nissan was about to start making Italian-designed cars built to Japanese production tolerances. But in reality, the deal was more about Nissan circumventing European import restrictions, and Alfa Romeo servicing its dire need for a new small car. The Arna would be built at a new factory in Pratola Serra, Italy – and this deal was all about upping Alfa’s production volumes for the lowest possible investment.
The Arna made its world debut at the 1983 Frankfurt Motor Show in September 1983 and, although it looked like a Nissan N12 Cherry/Pulsar on the outside and from behind the driver’s seat, there were extensive modifications under the skin to become an Alfa Romeo. These were needed in order to use as much Alfa Romeo content as possible to placate legislators demanding a high percentage of local content. It was a straight replacement for the lower end of the Alfasud range priced for supermini money, as the recently-launched 33 had gone upmarket to take a more ‘premium’ slot in the marketplace.
Under the bonnet, it featured a range of 1.2-, 1.3- and 1.5-litre ex-Alfasud flat-four engines and, as can be seen in the image above, the front end engineering was pure Alfa Romeo, with the familiar second bulkhead as seen in the ‘Sud. The suspension set-up was a combination of the ‘Sud’s front struts and the Cherry/Pulsar’s independent rear set-up, with some modifications to the camber angles. Up-front, the anti-roll bar was deleted, presumably to equalise the stiff Alfa front and softer Nissan rear.
The body and dashboard were also Japanese and, alongside the tidy Ermanno Cressoni-designed 33, it was a disappointment visually. The decision to keep the bodywork almost pure Nissan was a cost-based decision by Alfa Romeo – the front underpinnings were all new, and could have accommodated new styling, but instead, the Italian-designed set-up was reverse engineered to accept Nissan’s body panels, with the main visual differentiators between the N12 and Arna being the front and rear lamp clusters.
The Arna arrived in the UK in November 1983 but, after Alfa Romeo GB initially rejected the car, it ended up being sold by Nissan UK – the only European market to do so. Marketed as the Nissan Cherry Europe here, the Arna failed to pick up sales, as Nissan dealers weren’t exactly enamoured with the prospect of selling the car. After a little over a year, the car switched to the Alfa Romeo dealer network, but proved equally to be hard to shift, despite genuinely bargain basement pricing and decent magazine reviews.
In Europe, it fared slightly better and, in its four-year run, the Arna sold 53,047 examples. The deal was put to bed following Fiat Group’s buy-out of one-time rival Alfa Romeo in 1986.
What’s it like inside?
It’s an interesting mix of Alfa Romeo and Nissan, as you’d expect. The dashboard gives off Nissan vibes as you’d expect, but the steering wheel and left-hand ignition barrel inject some pleasurable Italian brio. I like the oval instruments as they remind me of the Citroën SM, while all the minor controls work infinitely better than an Alfasud’s. Remember, the Milanese designers thought it was a good idea to put the ‘Sud’s fan controls on the column stalks!
The seats and trim have an Italian feel to them and the driving position poses no issues for me – although with the proviso that I like to sit high and a long way back. Taller drivers may struggle, but room for me was absolutely fine.
What’s it like to drive?
In a nutshell, it’s pretty good, really. I was lucky enough to bag a drive in this Nissan Cherry Europe GTI, owned by Eddie Rattley, the brains behind the Ratdat website. It’s an immaculate 1984-registered example, and has been a labour of love for Eddie. As you’d expect from a twin-carb Alfa, it’s a little lumpy when cold but, once warmed up, that jewel-like flat four hums away nicely from idle, possessing excellent throttle response.
Underway, and there’s a slight disappointment that there’s not more Alfasud rasp from the exhaust, but the engine makes up for it in eagerness, pulling willingly up to 6000rpm, egging you on to drive it faster and harder as only an Italian would. With 90bhp developed at 5800rpm, acceleration isn’t quite in hot hatch territory even for the class of 1984. The 0-60mph time is 10.6 seconds and a maximum speed of 109mph, but today, it feels lively enough away from the lights, while settling down to a relaxed cruise thanks to surprisingly long-striding gearing.
Handling is also quite unlike the ‘Sud. It’s softer for a start, with a reasonably well damped and compliant ride, aided in no small part by a refreshingly rattle-free interior. I sampled it on some pretty rough roads, and it displayed no vices, sharing the Alfasud’s resistance to understeer, tracking very nicely through challenging corners. There is some bodyroll, and more than you’d get from a (much more expensive) Ford Escort XR3 or Volkswagen Golf GTI, but it’s well controlled and never feels sloppy.
The gearchange is better than any ‘Sud I can remember, too, feeling reasonably precise, never once baulking a shift. As for the brakes, they work well with more than enough feel to inspire confidence on a sunny, dry day. Overall, not the dynamic disaster you’d expect from one of the ‘World’s Worst Cars’, and actually a good deal of fun.
Alfa Romeo Arna shock! It’s not a bad car at all. As an Alfa Romeo fan, I should of course be offended by this car, but I am not. I quite like its angular styling and interior, which loses some of the fussiness of the Cherry N12 thanks to those new lights and bumpers.
On the road, it’s hard not to love the way the engine pulls and sounds and, although it’s no 1980s hot hatch rocketship, it’s more than entertaining enough to keep you interested beyond a trundle to the odd classic car show. But its rarity places it in an odd position – this one is genuinely unique in the UK, which means it’s potentially worth more than some far more capable cars.
Mind you, I doubt Eddie would ever sell this car – if he does, though, consider me at or very near the top of the list of eager buyers. Assuming I’ve come into some money…
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