Taking A Look Back At 110 Years Of Alfa Romeo’s Automotive Artistry
Archival photography courtesy of Centro Documentazione Alfa Romeo – Arese
One hundred and ten years ago today, A.L.F.A. (Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili) was founded and began operations in the Portello district on the outskirts of Milan, beginning of one of the most compelling stories in the world of racing and road cars. It is one that mixes entrepreneurial drive and ingenious innovation, state-owned perseverance in the face of economic and militaristic adversity, beauty that transcends hyperbole, and motorsport triumph that spans every discipline of sports and formula racing and genuinely brought that knowledge to the street.
The company evolved out of the Italian arm of the French automaker Darracq, and was officially formed in 1910 by a group of investors headed by Darracq’s Italian manager, Cavaliere Ugo Stella. The very next year, they went racing at the Targa Florio with the first vehicle produced with the A.L.F.A. name on its nose, the 24 HP.
In 1915, a Neapolitan engineer and businessman, Nicola Romeo, joined the company and subsequently shifted its efforts from automobile production to military hardware for the Allies during the First World War. Soon after the war, and with more capital because of it, the company expanded its facilities and slowly began to build cars again under a new name, Alfa Romeo.
Thanks to achievements in motorsport, namely the company’s first overall win at the Targa Florio (in 1923 with a race-prepared Alfa Romeo RL TF driven by Ugo Sivocci, an example of which is pictured above), and aided by nascent talents like those of Enzo Ferrari behind the wheel and Giuseppe Merosi at the drafting table, Alfa Romeo became a strong draw for mechanical minds like that of Vittorio Jano, who would become instrumental in Alfa Romeo’s grand prix racing program during the inter-war years.
A year after that first victory at the Targa Florio, the Jano-designed, supercharged straight-eight Alfa Romeo P2 (shown above) would win its first race in 1924, and would go on to bring the brand an overall victory in the Automobile World Championship in 1925, the very first time a championship title was awarded in the series that is a distant relative to today’s Formula 1.
In the 1930s, Alfa Romeo came under new state-appointed management and turned its racing team management over to Ferrari, who fielded such efforts as the advanced Bimotore (a dual-motor grand prix car with over 500hp, with each motor driving its own pair of fore and aft wheels on one side of the car, shown above). But it was the 8C models which earned the most acclaim for Alfa Romeo in the run-up to the Second World War, a line of grand prix and sports racers that dominated the Mille Miglia and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and inspired some of the most technologically advanced and downright gorgeous road cars of the period, like the Touring-bodied 8C 2900B Berlinetta shown below.
During the war, Alfa Romeo endured the fate of just about every car company in Europe, with production being entirely in service of the state while also sustaining the damage of aerial bombing. To add to the gruesomeness, the head of company, Ugo Gobbato, was assassinated in the spring of 1945.
When Grand Prix racing began in earnest again after the Second World War—racing resumed in 1946, and the first drivers’ championship title was awarded in 1950—Alfa Romeo would again mark its name at the top, with Giuseppe Farina winning the 1950 season handily with an updated version of the pre-war-designed 158, called the Alfetta, or “Little Alfa.” The following year, Juan Fangio would win the first of his five titles driving the evolution of the 158, the aptly-named 159, securing the 158/159’s legacy as one of the most potent racing machines of the budding post-war era; between the two models and the variants therein, the 158/159 won 47 out of the 54 grands prix it contested.
Though it seemed an unbeatable marque at the outset of the new decade, the Alfa Romeo factory team backed out of the Grand Prix circuit after 1951, and Ferrari—now on his own—took over podium duty at the Mille Miglia in the 1950s until the race’s end, while Lancia and Porsche defined the Targa Florio winner’s circle, but despite the lapse in top-tier motorsport participation and acclaim in the 1950s—though the company still produced the utterly alien Disco Volante sports racing prototypes soon after pulling out of major racing championships (pictured below under the Giuliettas, in both spider and coupé bodywork), and did well in terms of production-based privateer racing—the Milanese automaker would release a car that is arguably its most important and defining to date, the road-going Giulietta.
Produced in almost every body variant sans cargo truck—with spider, coupe, sedan, extremely rare estates, and special models like the Sprint Zagatos and Sprint Speciales offered at some point along the course of the Giulietta’s 1954-to-1965 production run—the Giulietta brought forth a new era of Alfa Romeo, and defined the company’s modern image as a maker of sprightly, sporting, and gorgeous road cars that offered relatively affordable entry into the world of technologically advanced European twin-cam driving. While the preceding 1900 line of post-war cars marked the first in-house assembly line Alfa Romeo project, the Giulietta was an even more substantial piece of history that set the tone for the brand for decades afterwards. It was also the first Alfa Romeo to have a model name that wasn’t a number.
The Giulietta saw Alfa Romeo partnering with noted coachbuilders Pininfarina for Spiders, Zagato for lightweights, and Bertone for Sprints, and while all of these design teams—including the in-house one that penned the Berlina (sedan)—produced pulchritude in their own way, the contributions of Bertone’s Franco Scaglione are arguably the most significant in terms of stylistic impact. The extroverted and supremely talented artist was responsible for the debut Sprint model as well as the more extreme, swept-back form of the Sprint Speciale—which was informed by Franco Scaglione’s dramatic Berlinetta Aerodinamica Tecnica (BAT) designs, which you can read more about here.
Heartbreakingly pretty sports cars don’t come to life without management, and Alfa Romeo’s president during the heady years of the Giulietta and its successor, the Giulia, was at least as instrumental in turning the pencil sketches into three-dimensional alloy. Giuseppe Luraghi was a fascinating individual in more regards than one, but the fact that he was a poet and novelist in addition to the president of Alfa Romeo should go some ways in explaining his sensibilities. By many accounts he was an expert delegator and a taker of no shit, and in the 1960s he was keen to bring Alfa Romeo back into the forefront of the racing fold. Enter the age of Autodelta and Carlo Chiti.
Alfa Romeo’s timeline is littered with talented engineers with a mind for high performance—Vittorio Jano, Wilfredo Ricart, Orazio Satta Puliga, Giuseppe Busso, and of course Chiti, to name just a handful of the countless individuals who created all this mechanical art—and in the 1960s Luraghi put them all to work, but the Autodelta arm was firmly focused on racing. The decade also birthed the Tubulare Zagatos and the Giulia Sprint-based, ultra-lightweight GTA models from the competition department, but the Alfa’s premiere motorsport effort during the 1960s and 1970s was the Autodelta-developed Tipo 33 line of race cars. What unofficially began as a promising hillclimb winner, the Tipo 33 “Fleron,” would rapidly evolve into world championship-commanding sports prototypes that ran away with the World Championship for Makes in 1975 and 1977, in the form of the flat-twelve-powered 33TT12 and the 33SC12, respectively.
You can read a bit more about the timeline and variations of the Alfa Romeo Tipo 33 race cars here, and the history of Autodelta and its boss Carlo Chiti warrants a separate story, but the Tipo 33 was more than just a means to an expanded trophy collection. Luraghi enlisted the services of Franco Scaglione to design a sports car for the road based on the early Tipo 33 competition chassis, with the result being arguably the best looking automobile of all time, the 33 Stradale.
Built on a race-bred tube frame chassis design just mildly tweaked from the race cars’, the Stradale bodywork is a display of such faultless grace and elegance that you’d wonder why anyone tried to draw a good-looking car ever again. The definition of curvaceous comeliness, the Stradale is a compact amalgamation of the perfect radii wrapped around an insanely high-revving mid-mounted two-liter V8 and a chassis rife with magnesium alloy and competition pedigree. If you can’t tell, we like to dollop the praise onto this vehicle, but the 33 lineage had even more to give to the world.
Five of the Stradale chassis were given to Italy’s preeminent coachbuilding houses, whose work turned out six (one chassis was used twice) influential concept cars. Italdesign penned the Iguana (shown below in heavily flaked metallic silver), Pininfarina turned out the P33 Roadster which was later turned into the visually similar Cuneo (shown below in white and orange) as well as the Ferrari P3/4-esque 33/2 Coupé Speciale (shown below in pale yellow), while Bertone begat the Carabo (shown below in green), and later the spacefaring doorstop called the Navajo (we’ll let you figure out which one that is). All of these concepts were impactful—and a few of the designs are easily identifiable in production sports and super cars built by other marques—but the Carabo was a true paradigm shift.
Drawn by Marcelo Gandini at Bertone during the same decade that he created the swooping forms of the Lamborghini Miura, the 1968 Carabo’s geometric wedge aesthetic brought forth the 1970s’ and early 1980s’ infatuation with straight lines, hard angles, and flatly raked windshields. The Countach (also a Gandini car, no coincidence) is often credited with doing that, but the Carabo predates it, and, in our humble opinion, does it better.
As these 33-based concepts were being conceived and unveiled in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Alfa Romeo was also playing to the less-exotic end of the automotive spectrum with the Alfasud economy car. “Economy” is misleading though, for while it was positioned firmly at the entry-level end of the Alfa Romeo product range and was the first front-wheel drive car from the marque, the Alfasud still carried the tradition of past Alfa Romeos in its design and technological package. Giugiaro—who would go on to design the Volkswagen Golf—handled the looks of the compact Alfasud, while Alfa Romeo’s engineers led by Rudolf Hruska saw to it that the car would include four-wheel disc brakes, a MacPherson strut design, rack-and-pinion steering, and an overhead-cam boxer four-cylinder that seemingly everyone who’s driven one simply describes as, “sweet.”
Nearly a million units of the Alfasud were sold over its lifespan, supporting the car’s reputation as the Alfa for the everyman. In contrast to the iconic Spiders and the svelte Miura-esque Montreal, the Alfasud provided the joys of Alfa Romeo engineering and styling without the need to shell out for a two-seater.
Despite the Alfasud’s high sales volume, the 1980s saw hard economic times for Alfa Romeo—and though they had some success supplying engines for the Brabham team’s F1 cars in the late 1970s, the racing efforts of Alfa Romeo and Autodelta didn’t carry the success into the 1980s—and when the ailing company was bought by FIAT right smack in the middle of the decade, Luraghi and Chiti both left, and Autodelta was disbanded before the 1986 racing season. But still, FIAT realized the motorsport provenance of the brand could be added to in order to market the company, and so Alfa Romeo attempted to return to motorsport on the basis of its sports sedans and an outright sports prototype program was even considered, but besides the quickly aborted Alfa Romeo 164 ProCar project with Brabham—which you can read more about here—not much came of this during the second half of the 1980s.
In the early 1990s however, Alfa Romeo took the touring car world to school with its 155-based race cars. The GTA name returned for the FIA Class 2, Supertouring 155s, which claimed championships from Spain to Great Britain (and of course on the home field in Italy), but the real monster was the Class 1 155 V6 TI built to take on the might of the Germans on their home turf in everyone’s favorite 1980s/1990s touring car championship, the Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft (DTM).
Conversations about prolific DTM cars generally swirl down into the BMW E30 M3 versus the Mercedes-Benz 190E Evolutions, with a mention of the Audi V8 Quattros and Ford RS500s if you’re lucky, but none of these cars were as successful as the 155 V6 TI, which to this day holds the record for most wins in a single DTM season (11), and most overall wins in the DTM (an astounding 38).
Alfa Romeo has since returned to Formula 1 racing with Sauber, and between the 8C Competizione and 4C, it has produced some of the most unique modern sports and GT cars on the market. In another example of continued Alfa Romeo tradition, the current range of offerings is crowned by a beautiful sports sedan, the Giulia, which in its Quadrifoglio, GTA, and GTAm trims, carries forth the reputation of what is arguably the world’s first true sports sedan, the original Giulia TI Super.
We at Petrolicious make no effort to hide our adoration for Alfa Romeo, and though this is just a condensed, product-focused celebration of 110 years of exciting history, we hope our fellow Alfisti will continue to dig into the legends and passed-down anecdotes that have made this marque’s car enthusiast gravity so great. We’ll also be spotlighting a few more specific Alfa Romeo stories in the coming weeks; we hope you enjoy them!