A Life in Alfas
This week Alfa Romeo celebrates 110 years in business.
According to the unofficial law of motoring, you're not a car enthusiast until you've owned an Alfa. Fans of Ford and Jaguar and even Peugeot might baulk at this, but there is something quite special and certainly unique about the car company from Milan.
It's certainly not its illustrious history of great cars. Because while there have been some notable highs like the Giulia, GTV, Montreal and Alfasud, there have also been quite a lot of duds. Like the Arna and 90. And yet more not-great-but-alrights. Perhaps too many of them too mention.
So what is it about Alfa that persists? Well, something unites the firm's motoring high points and lows, an unassailable Alfaness that means that a car could only be made by that company. And even when that car isn't actually great, it's still somehow something special, distinctive and worth owning.
Despite Alfa's reputation for producing cars not entirely suited to long lives, an Alfa is actually the longest serving car on our fleet. Our 1992 Alfa Spider has covered 100,000 kms on hire and its maintenance record is better than most of the other cars we run.
Alongside the Alfa we've owned several of the firm's cars. Here's our Alfa history, warts and all.
No Alfa Romeo quite sums up the rollercoaster ride that is owning one of the firm's cars quite like the little Alfasud. On paper it is brilliant: well packaged and pretty with great engines and excellent engineering. On the road it's also brilliant: flat, roll-free handling and peppy Boxer engines.
On the driveway, however, and in the garage, things are less fine. Because, of course, the Alfasud rusted. Very, very badly. So badly that new cars were rusty before they reached their owners.
I've owned several Alfasuds and currently own the low mileage Ti in the photo. Today they're a rare sight and, as a result, often overlooked when magazines are rating the best hot hatches of all time. Not least, perhaps, because the Alfasud was actually quite late to the hot hatch game (it wasn't an actual hatchback until 1982).
That's a shame because the Alfasud really does handle very, very well. A Golf may be quicker and better screwed together but an Alfasud delivers its drive with much more verve and character. Which is why it carries the badge.
Before I bought this car my experience of Alfasud ownership was characterised by stress. Although reliable, you could literally watch them rust before your eyes. It was painful and depressing to see. Luckily this car has been different - it's one of the last made so perhaps Alfa finally perfected the task after a decade.
Alfa 156 V6 Sportwagon
The 156 was Alfa's return to form, a strikingly beautiful saloon car to take the fight to BMW.
Of course, it didn't. And it didn't do it for very Alfa Romeo reasons: it was unreliable. It was badly built.
And yet, just look at it. From the offset numberplate to the hidden rear door handles, it looks great and could only be an Alfa Romeo.
I've owned a couple of 156s, including a 156 V6 with the revered 'Busso' engine. I really wanted to love them but I really didn't. Not even the V6.
The Alfa V6 is a thing of beauty and, ordinarily, a motoring delight: silky smooth, very quick and possessed of the best engine note this side of a Ferrari. So mated to the stylish 156 it should have been perfect for me.
My problem with the 156 was the inside. It's cramped, the seats aren't very comfortable and it's not so much built as thrown together. The boot and rear seat space are tiny. The 2.5 V6 also isn't particularly quick. And it's heavy, so the car doesn't handle very well. In fact, it handles very badly.
I sold both cars quickly. I haven't ever regretted it.
Alfa Romeo GTV V6
The 916 GTV was part of Alfa Romeo's late 90s renaissance, a totally new car to re-establish the firm's sporting credentials. Although it used a lot of shared Fiat Group parts under the skin, Alfa's engineers had worked hard to ensure it carried proper Alfa DNA.
And it did. The styling was spot on: the distinctive clamshell bonnet hid a pair of lights that shone through four holes like quad lamps while at the back the aggressively cut off tail recalled the Kamm Tail Spiders of the 1970s. The GTV and its sister car the Spider looked absolutely great.
They drove well too, thanks to all that work put in by the Alfa engineers. Nimble and engaging they signalled Alfa's return to form. Unlike the 156, the 916 proved to be pretty reliable and won new customers across Europe.
My 1999 Alfa GTV has perhaps Alfa's greatest ever engine - the 3 litre 24V V6 Busso. And, unlike in the 156, it really works in the car. Smooth, powerful and raspy, it makes driving the GTV a real treat. The car's styling and distinctive interior also add to the experience. An Audi TT may be better built and a VW Corrado might shred it round a track, but the Alfa has a charisma and style that could only be from Alfa Romeo.
For many, the Alfa 33 is where the rot really set in for Alfa. Literally and metaphorically.
Where its predecessor the Alfasud had been a wholly Alfa design, the 33 was developed under Fiat ownership and, for some, the influence showed.
The 33 was, despite appearances, an Alfasud in a fancy new coat. Recycling the older car's running gear was a cost-saving measure to give Alfa a new model without the expense. This should have been a good idea, except by the time of the 33's launch the Alfasud was over a decade old. Competitors from VW, Ford and Vauxhall had all overtaken it.
From this ignominious start, the 33 faced an uphill battle. It was bigger and heavier than the Alfasud, which meant all that fancy running gear had to work harder. And then it had to face constant comparisons with the car it replaced.
I owned a 1.5 Ti 33 for a year in 1998. I loved it. More comfortable, more grown up and better built than the Alfasud, it was a car you could easily drive a few hundred miles and get out at the end pretty unruffled. Not something you could say of the Alfasud.
The 33 was Alfa's valiant attempt to dial down the Sud's quirkiness and dial up the normal attributes of a 80s family hatchback. I think it did the job pretty well. Buyers didn't seem to agree. Particularly when the 33 proved to be as rust prone as its predecessor. Oh Alfa...
The Alfa 166 was the answer to a question nobody asked when it was new and nobody has ever asked since. Namely, can we have a big Alfa Romeo that thinks it's a BMW?
The car had a strangulated birth. Designed before the 156, its launch was successively delayed, meaning it was launched after the smaller car. This also required a hasty redesign to establish a family look, resulting in the slightly awkward styling you see in the photo.
With the 166 Alfa wanted a low volume, high quality executive car that could take the fight to BMW. This wasn't such a mad idea because the car it replaced, the 164, had made a decent fist of being a reliable, big executive car.
I owned a 166 3 litre V6 for a couple of years. I bought it for £500 and sold it for more after 40,000 miles. I still wish I'd kept it. Big, comfy and quick, it was well built - for an Alfa - and full of character. Doors that thunked and electrics that worked in unison were both things to revel in after years of Alfas bereft of both.
The 166 received a facelift in the early 00s but I grew to love its original doe-eyed styling. The 166 was once Britain's fastest depreciating car - it's not hard to see why since few executives wanted a big, unreliable Alfa. Even though it was actually a big, reliable one.
Alfa Romeo Spider
I bought the Great Driving Days Alfa Spider on a whim in 2006. And I'm glad I did because it's become the longest serving car I've ever owned.
I don't think it's hard to see why. The Series 4 Spider, of which this is one of the last, was Alfa's last throw of the 105-Series Spider dice, a car that had been in production since 1966 through various different versions. The Series 4 updated the styling from the awkward be-spoilered, very-1980s looks of the Series 3 and added power steering and fuel injection to create a stylish, easy-to-drive classic convertible.
The car launched straight into the 1990s Millennium-driven obsession with all things retro, a trend that also saw MG revisit the B with the RV8.
What makes the Alfa Spider so good to drive and own is its spirit. It's more beautiful and more characterful than a MGB. It's a true Alfa with rear wheel drive and the classic 2 litre engine that can trace its roots back to those first Alfa Spiders.
Put simply, it puts a simple on your face. And in these difficult times, isn't that something to celebrate?
The Alfa Spider's effect on your face muscles is something that unites most, if not all Alfas through the ages. Certainly all the ones I've owned, even the 156s. It speaks of the character and heart that suffuses every Alfa Romeo. They're cars built with passion, not simply as a means of getting from A to B.
Congratulations Alfa, here's to another 110 years.
Graham Eason, Great Driving Days