Meet The Alfa Romeo 1900 M ‘Matta,’ A Mix Of Military Utility And Italian Mechanical Excellence
Photography by Marco Annunziata
The Alfa Romeo 1900 M, or “Matta,” is sort of like an Italian Jeep (albeit one powered by a twin-cam motor with aluminum heads), and unlike the rest of the Alfa Romeo 1900 models it shares componentry with. Built for military use in the early 1950s and adapted for civilian duties shortly after, the Matta is one of the odder Alfas to collect, but the little 4×4 has built a following amongst collectors.
For this story, I took a ride in a cherry example of the Matta with its owner, Beppe, one of the foremost connoisseurs of this unusual Alfa Romeo. What I found was a wealth of knowledge from the man, and an excellent little off-roader of a vehicle.
“I think that both the Alfa Romeo Stelvio and the new Land Rover off-road vehicles are excellent machines, but unsuitable for a real off-road duty, where without a shadow of a doubt, seventy years after its design, the Matta would still excel today.” I’m not sure how many Stelvio drivers are subjecting their SUVs to anything more “all-terrain” than a snowy ski village or a gravel driveway, but Beppe’s point stands. The modern set of vehicles aimed at overland fans often miss the point, building competent but often overly padded and detached automobiles.
Beppe’s passion for the Alfa Romeo Matta began during his childhood, when you didn’t need to pack your truck with roof tents and other pricey outdoorsman accoutrement to even think about leaving the asphalt.
“My family owns an estate in the countryside of Florence, where as a child I used to spend part of the summer holidays. Here, in an old garage, my first Alfa Matta had been lying helpless for many years, purchased by my father in 1970, and then abandoned shortly after following poorly executed repairs. I spent long hours with it, playing and daydreaming with friends and cousins.”
Since his adolescence, Beppe has always had a great passion for restoration and repair, no doubt aided by his active imagination for the outcome of the work. After the first attempts to convince his father to have that old Alfa Romeo restored, he began to try it himself, with poor results.
“I was so determined to resurrect that heirloom that was so dear to me. Hence my decision to completely disassemble the car in order to be able to recover it in a garage, considering that the wheels and engine were blocked.” The Matta has always attracted Beppe with the type of fervor that only rare or beloved things can elicit, but it’s still natural to ask the question, why not the Willys or the Land Rover 80 instead?
“The fact that so few Mattas were produced, in an essentially artisanal way, together with its glorious past made up of raids and heroic expeditions fascinated me. Foreign cars, net of my great respect for Willys, have never attracted me like those produced in Italy. Opening the hood and seeing the Matta’s beautiful 2000cc engine comes with an emotional feeling that is difficult to match,” Beppe answers.
And moreover, it is a little-known fact that the Matta was actually highly esteemed in Anglo-Saxon countries as well. While talking about the Land Rover Series, Beppe tells me something I didn’t know. Great Britain tried to buy a group of 15,000 of these Alfas to be allocated to its armed forces stationed in the colonies, an operation that was abandoned only because of the unavailability of Alfa Romeo to activate scale production.
Moving on from the topic of classic British-built off-road vehicles, it was inevitable to talk about another Italian classic, the Matta’s de facto replacement, the Fiat Campagnola.
“The Fiat Campagnola is definitely a project that made history. More than for its qualities in terms of performance and innovation, it is certainly to be remembered for being able to equip our police forces and our army with a reliable off-road vehicle of Italian production. But there is little to be compared to the Matta’s performance,” Beppe tells me.
The first Matta Beppe bought was used to fill in the parts gaps needed to restore the family’s Matta, which became Beppe’s on his 18 birthday. As he recalls, “Finding spare parts for this car was and is in fact often very complex and expensive, so having a personal supply is certainly an optimal solution if one plans to drive these.”
Beppe is one of the today’s experts on the Matta, but nothing is created out of nothing, and he couldn’t have made the journey alone. “A big thank you is necessary to my great ‘Maestro’ Franco Melotti, who can without a doubt be called the greatest living expert in regard to the Matta. I can also say that for twenty years now my experience has focused mainly on the restoration of these special cars, and on the study of the countless details that distinguish them.
“Restorations can be done in many ways, and with different sensibilities. What I can say about the cars I have restored is that more than a restoration, what I do is a complete regeneration. The car, whatever the cost, must go back to being equipped with every accessory and every original detail. To do this, over the years I have spent a lot of time researching and reconstructing the original details in order to achieve a very high level of fidelity to the original.”
Beppe always keeps an eye on the vintage off-road market, and then buys the cars in the best condition to restore them, either for his own collection, or for his customers’. He estimates that there are less than 100 well restored and properly running Mattas today, a meager number due to the modest quantity of units originally produced by Alfa Romeo at just over 2000. Combined with their hard-use lives, it makes sense that they aren’t many good ones left. The strong examples known today are mainly to be found in Italy, although there are some Mattas in Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, and Greece, Beppe informs me. “Most of the existing cars have been registered by now, and I’d say the ones I don’t know about are very few in number.”
The Matta we see in the photos was one of the cars produced by Alfa Romeo in 1954 to be destined for the Ministry of Internal affairs, and subsequently for the Polizia Celere department. Beppe tells me how it came to his attention:
“Immediately after the summer of 2015, alongside my lifelong friend Count Silvio Piccinelli, I began to search for a car to be restored and added to his collection. In fact, when attending my wedding in the summer of the same year, he was bewitched by the Matta in which my wife and I left the church where we were married. In particular, he told me that the certainty that he wanted to own a Matta was made concrete once he realized that his girlfriend was also fascinated by that particular and unusual choice for a wedding car!”
Beppe and Silvio found an interesting already-restored example based in the Romagna countryside. The color was wrong, and, alas, many original details had been removed, but the engine was running and healthy, so they decided to take it home.
The ensuing restoration to correct the older one started with stripping the chassis, which has since been returned to its former glory by rebuilding and reconditioning the original suspension and every single bracket designed to support the body. A comprehensive restoration of all the sheet metal, mechanics, and fixtures was then carried out, after which the body was returned to its original color, Amaranto Red.
“Everything else is history with my friend Silvio, and since his Matta came back to life we have crossed national borders several times, and taken the Matta where it has probably never been before! This made me think of all the adventures people must have done with Mattas in history, and in particular, the raid on the North Pole, participating in such an unthinkable undertaking in a harsh environment with the Matta would have had an incomparable flavor!”
The car was definitely superior, but it cost much more, required more maintenance, and consumed much more. Who was this Alfa Romeo car for? Perhaps Pope John Paul II who, however, chose a white Campagnola?
“The Alfa Romeo Matta was never seen as a car that should have excelled in a possible competition, but rather as a demonstration of the technical superiority of Alfa Romeo and its design department in comparison to its then-rival Fiat. Just think for example of the Houdaille shock absorbers with which the Matta was equipped, mounted at the time on cars of the Ferrari and Maserati groups, and certainly not on off-road vehicles.
“It would have been nice if a car as revolutionary as the Matta had been more accessible for the civilian market, thus giving it the possibility of transforming itself from a dream reserved for a select few, into a reality that, given the great possibilities of the first project, would probably still excel today.
“The ideal itineraries for the Matta are panoramic. In my opinion, in an era when we are once again appreciating slow food and such, the Matta is perfect for slow traveling, or rather a travel model where the car is not only the fastest or most comfortable means of point A to point B, but the means to breathe in the air and environment that surrounds us, looking at the horizon from an incomparable point of view.
“Driving a Matta is a test with oneself, and often a triumphal journey. The challenge of driving a vehicle devoid of modern comforts is rewarded by the beauty of being more connected to your adventure. For me, the only preparation that I undertake before embarking on a long trip—in addition to a summary check of the fluid levels—consists of a good dusting off. The Matta is meant to drive in the places where a car will get dirty, but there’s no reason to start a new journey without presenting this fine lady in her best, most splendid condition.”