Alfa’s Many Missed Opportunities
Many people with fuel in their veins harbour a secret desire for an Alfa.
Do they buy one? Mostly, resoundingly, no.
There are many reasons why Alfa’s sales don‘t match its brand value but the firm’s habit of launching great cars with even greater flaws, or okish cars with deep flaws, certainly plays a central role.
We’ve picked our five favourite Alfa misses: the cars that could have been great but somehow snatched defeat from the gaping jaws of victory. To be fair, we could’ve picked virtually any Alfa of the last 30 or even 40 years, since they all somehow just failed to meet expectations, but these are the ones we remember most fondly.
Oh heck. In the annals of exceptional motoring misses the Alfasud has to be top of any list. By almost every car buying criteria it was brilliant.
It was designed by Giugiaro so it looked great: low, squat and curvaceous. It had clever boxer engines. It was engineered by a former Porsche luminary, so it rode well, was extremely well packaged and of course handled like nothing in its class.
The Alfasud should have been launched as a hatchback but in every other respect it was miles better than the car that has become the sector’s benchmark: the VW Golf. Better to drive, more spacious, better handling and ride and better packaging.
The elephant in the room, the noisy, boisterous elephant, was rust. Oh did it rust. If your brand new Alfasud wasn’t rusty when you picked it up, you could be sure it would be by the time you got it home.
The Alfasud also wasn’t put together very well. This was because Alfa decided to build it near Naples and then recruit unskilled farm labourers to man the factory. Every harvest they would disappear to manage their smallholdings.
Alfa, somewhat belatedly, tried to address the problems. Quality improved, albeit in the way that ‘not as bad’ is better than ‘bad.’ The firm also tackled the rust issues in a way only Alfa could dream up: foam was injected into the cavities. Foam that got wet over time and rotted the car from the inside out. Where it quickly met the rot travelling in the opposite direction.
The Alfasud was a really good car. It should have catapulted Alfa into a rosy VW shaped future. But it didn’t.
At the end of the 70s Alfa and Nissan wanted a car that could take on the Golf. That Alfa could have done this by simply making the Alfasud, its existing Golf beater, better, seems to have been the obvious solution missed by everyone at HQ in Milan.
Instead they created the Arna. It was, on paper, a very good idea. Take Nissan, which made boring cars very well, and Alfa, which made interesting cars badly, and cherry pick the best bits to create perhaps the perfect car.
It didn’t work out like that. At all. The resulting Arna was essentially a Nissan nee Datsun Cherry with Alfasud engines, gearboxes, steering and suspension. On paper then, it sort of was the best of both worlds because it meant Alfa had little or no involvement in the bits that rusted, typically fell off or required electricity.
The trouble is that while the Arna ought to have been quite good, the project was beset with certain major problems.
The first of these was money: there wasn't enough so corners were cut.
Nothing about the Arna was actually new, it was just that the old Alfa bits and the old Nissan bits had never met before. Nissan and Alfa had effectively swept up around their store cupboards and built a car out of what they found.
Nissan badged and Alfa badged versions of the ‘new’ car were developed. The job of actually building cars was presumably allocated on a coin toss. Because Alfa won. Nobody in Milan or Yokohama seemed to think this was a bad idea. For the avoidance of doubt, it was a bad idea.
Having made such a good job of setting up a brand new factory to build the brand new Alfasud, Alfa decided to do it again with the Arna. Perhaps there are good reasons for this. Certainly none of them are obvious. Alfa already ‘built’ a really good car badly. Quite how they thought a not as good car built badly could be more successful is anyone’s guess.
Then there were the customers, or lack of them. What seemed like a great idea in marketing strategy meetings was, not for the first time, utterly pointless in reality. Alfa customers saw a car that looked like a Nissan, a car they would never buy, a car that was still built by Alfa Romeo so still served with a main course of shoddiness.
Nissan customers wanted a reliable set of wheels to get from A to B. The Arna, with all its questionable Alfa bits, effectively took what they wanted - a Nissan Cherry - and made it less of what they wanted. The fact that the Alfa bits added character to a dull car didn’t interest them. For the very few customers to whom ‘an Alfa that looks like a Nissan’ was the answer to their new car dilemma, reality was about to come crashing in. The Arna and its Cherry Europa cousin were built by Alfa very, very badly.
The whole silly project lasted until 1986 when Alfa decided to focus on the other would-be Golf beater it had built using leftover Alfasud bits, the far superior 33.
In the late 90s Alfa experienced a mini renaissance spearheaded by the 156. The firm set its sights on BMW and Audi, aiming to offer quality cars with more style and verve.
The 156 was designed to be the car to do exactly that. Where the 3 Series BMW was boxy and dull, the 156 was utterly beautiful, from its offset number plate, past its cleverly hidden rear door handles to its razor sharp rear lights. Although it shared its underpinnings with humble Fiats, Alfa’s engineers had created a front drive saloon that was genuinely entertaining to drive. There was a proper range of engines and trim options including an elegant estate and even a fire breathing GTA.
The 156 amazed motoring journalists who acclaimed it the best Alfa since the Alfasud. Buyers bombarded dealerships. Executives in Wolfsburg and Munich quaked in their finely tooled brogues and plotted how to bring down this new usurper.
Of course it was Alfa, who else, that brought this whole shebang crashing down. Buyers quickly discovered that the 156 had a nasty habit of self destructing. Trim fell off. Electrics stopped conveying electricity to vital components, quite often different components on different days. Alfa dealers adopted a characteristic Italian shrug when asked to honour warranty claims.
Alfa got Bertone to revamp the car in the early 00s with a new front and rear but the rot had literally set in. The 156 joined a long line of Alfas that were wonderful to look at and lovely to drive but horrible to own.
In the 1980s Alfa struggled. Newly under Fiat ownership it faced competing and mutually exclusive demands: to sell more cars but without spending much or any money.
The 6 was one way Alfa tried to square this circle. Essentially a stretched Alfetta with a nose and tail job, it aimed to push the firm back into the executive market that it had vacated since the 60s. Extending an old model to create a new upmarket one wasn’t a new idea. Around the same time Saab did exactly the same thing turning the 99 into the 900.
While this simple idea definitely worked for the moose-dodging bods in Sweden, it definitely didn’t work for the somewhat less moose orientated chaps in Milan. Where the 900 still looked stylish, the 6 just looked like what it was: a smaller car that has been put on the rack and stretched. Making it bigger and longer and heavier also didn’t do much for the handling.
Rather than indicating Alfa's sales target for the car, the 6's name actually referred to the gorgeous Busso V6 beneath its less than gorgeous bonnet. And for sober suited briefcase botherers, it had a built in one of those.
These things aside the 6 was a half hearted final roll of the dice by a company seemingly being egged on from the sidelines by the chaps at Fiat.
The 4C should have been brilliant. Alfa, purveyor of beautifully handling cars like the Giulia, Alfasud and GTV, looked at what Lotus had done with the Elise, rolled up its sleeves and knuckled down.
The result was the 4C, a small two seater coupe designed to be a low volume, ‘hero’ model spearheading the firm’s renaissance.
It looked really good. Very Alfa and very distinctive. It was even quite well made. It handled well, with a decent chassis. There is a but however. In fact two. Although it went round bends well, the 4C was very fidgety to drive, lacking the flow and fluidity of an Elise or 911. Then there was the engine, a turbocharged 1.7. It felt a little uncouth and out of place in a model billed as a supercar-bating sports car. The clever dual-shift gearbox also wasn’t much cop either.
The 4C is not a bad car. It’s actually a good one - it’s got distinctive looks, it handles well and it’s quick. It’s just not great. Or as good as an Elise or Cayman. And, for a hero model, that matters. For a hero car from Alfa Romeo it matters a lot.
After the 4C Alfa went on to create the astonishingly good Giulia. There is still hope for the pride of Milan.
Graham Eason, Great Driving Days, 01527 893733