Playing On Catalonia’s Dusty Back Roads In A Rally-Prepped Alfa Romeo Sprint
Photography by Virgiliu Andone
At the mention of classic Italian rally cars, your mind might flood like mine, with images of angry, not always beautiful beasts tearing up the special stages in the WRC, rooster-tailing gravel into the air as they blitz across any surface they happen to be sliding across. There is a distinct chance that the cars you picture doing this are made by Lancia or Fiat, with the angry Abarth scorpions often riding on their fiberglass flanks. There’s probably quite of few of these machines to work your way through before you think of anything from Alfa.
It’s not that the biscione-adorned cars from Milan are complete strangers to this part of the motorsport world—the Giulietta Sprint never shied away from the dirty stuff, not to mention all the pre war antics of the 6C or 8C legends, all too keen to take on their competition on any road, at any time—yet for all Alfa Romeo’s competence and the potential of their racing programs, the marque never entirely committed itself to rallying, it was just never the thing that they invested the bulk of their sporting budget into. But some have taken it upon themselves to do just that, and while the example featured here is no 037-rivaling car, the first sight of this rally-prepped Sprint made my heartbeat quicken all the same.
This is a model that started life as an Alfasud initially, until that naming convention was dropped and it was simply called an Alfa Romeo by the time it got to the second series (to which the pictured car belongs). The story of the Alfasud is more intricate than one might think, with heroes and villains mixed in controversy, the sudden emergence of technical prestige, but only to be followed by the sad spectacle of seeing it crumble into a pile of old rust.
The project began as a very advanced front-wheel drive platform, with inboard disc brakes on all four wheels and a ridiculously low center of gravity. On the production side, the Alfasud managers were intent on re-industrializing a part of Italy that was part of Alfa Romeo’s heritage since back in the very early years with Nicola Romeo at the helm. Unfortunately it ended with a second series that was in many ways a step backwards, a disappointment born from an overwhelmingly frustrating time characterized by a seemingly endless series of strikes during the spell of darker times at the Pomigliano d’Arco plant in the outskirts of Naples. All that drama—worthy of a city nested in the shadow of a massive active volcano—did well to taint the legacy of what are arguably extremely competent cars.
If only the company had not tried to blame the rust issues on communist steel, but had spent half the time they invested into designing the car in putting together a less absurd production process… Among many unbelievable blunders, bare metal bodies were left outside as part of the normal assembly sequence, rain or shine.
Penned by Giorgetto Giugiaro, fresh from having nailed the Golf look just a few years earlier, the Alfasud Sprint, introduced in 1976, bears an uncanny resemblance to the other VW that the legendary designer brought to life at about the same time, the Scirocco. I see the Alfa as a little bit more “exotic,” though, and with details that are a little more rewarding to take in, but I am in no position to claim objectivity. It’s a jacked up pocket wedge for the masses, closely related to other designs of the era. Other than the aforementioned Scirocco, the other car that I instantly think of must be the two-door Alfetta, her much more famous cousin from the north.
Alfasud had a completely independent management from the rest of Alfa Romeo that even resulted in the Milanese operations temporarily being renamed Alfanord. While the northern project went for a rear wheel drive, V6 Busso-powered transaxle car, the south placed its bet on the Alfasud, a front-wheel drive powered by a flat-four boxer. In the gallery of special Alfa Romeo engines, this one has a very special place. It’s a characterful thumper, with bags of torque and a very distinctive sound, an engine that was massively commercially successful and one that proved, beyond any doubt, that a small engine can deliver true driving pleasure, even for cars at the lower end of the price range.
Not as exotic as the Busso, not as eternal as the twin-cam, yet you cannot help but fall in love with this ever keen, eager terrier of an engine. The guys at APT Performance just finished rebuilding the 1.5-liter in this 1988 Quadrifoglio Verde at the owner’s request. It’s now got a Colombo and Bariani camshaft, forged CPS pistons, and it breathes through a pair of freshly rebuilt Dellorto carbs, with the air fed via K&N filters and a Mocal oil cooler keeping the heat under control.
Elsewhere, suspension is provided by coilovers all round, the brakes lines have been beefed up, and the chassis strengthened by a strut brace, with a roll cage on the docket to be installed soon. Inside is all business, with OMP FIA-approved seats and four-point restraints, as well as an OMP steering wheel. Kike Garcia, the mastermind behind APT Performance, tells me they will bolt on a few more higher performance pieces in the coming weeks, but it’s already a riotously playful build. As the car will spend the next chapter of its life as a regularity rally contender, we decided we should take it for a—admittedly mild— shakedown for the photoshoot.
The backroads of Catalunya are a very visually rewarding stone’s throw away from the cookie cutter urbanization projects where most of the population clusters. You find yourself in the middle of truly idyllic nature out here, with narrow and oftentimes ancient roads meandering around centuries-old farms, still in graceful use. The daisy-lined dirt roads can easily be called trails out here, and they are just the right catalyst to bring out the beauty of this understated classic design, to say nothing of the fun of playing rally driver.
The Alfa looks at home covered in a film of the dirt we spent the afternoon kicking up—a punchy and chuck-able car that provides honest fun. The only critique I can muster would be that I prefer the metal bumpers from the first series Alfasud, but given the punishment that these plastic ones are in for, I can just about reconcile with the idea of keeping them on.
Seeing the Sprint doing its thing in the more forested areas of our route later on, I couldn’t help but think of it as a cousin of the Lancia Integrale, one that chases the fun of it all more than the scratch times. It’s no champion, but I think that this understated southerner of an Alfa still deserves a seat at the table. If anything, it was the ultimate achievement of the company’s post-war goal to bring fun to their customers, no matter the price they are capable of paying for it. And that also means that, today, as a classic, you can get one for not much money. There’s a reason that a Stratos will cost you more than an Alfasud if you intend on doing some vintage rallying events in 2021, but choose the everyman option and I’m willing to bet you’ll be duly rewarded and charmed by it.