On the 30th of June, 2015, Alfa Romeo reopened the doors of its Museo Storico Alfa Romeo in Arese, just outside of the manufacturer’s homebase of Milan. A morning’s walk through this sizeable complex makes it clear that Alfa Romeo is all about its past. A caveat on account of this statement: Alfa Romeo is expressly concerned with its racing heritage and emphasis on aesthetic innovation, which goes hand in hand with a dormant philosophy to separate form and function.
Alfa’s golden age of racing in the 1920s and 1930s, never truly matched afterward, is established as a focal point in the brand’s history and philosophy. Interestingly, this peak of car design and performance arose out of a politically and economically turbulent Italy. A.L.F.A. (Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili) separated from the French Darracq (struggling to gain traction on the Italian markt) in 1910. Designer Giuseppe Merosi produced Alfa’s 24HP model with its 4-liter, 100 km/h engine aimed at an affluent demographic with it’s 12,000 lires price tag for the rolling chassis (as was customary at this time, the buyer was to have his or her body tailor made elsewhere). (Tabucchi, 10–24)
Choices had to be made amidst crises. The Neapolitan engineer and businessman Nicola Romeo lent a financial hand during the First World War, giving his name to the company, ceasing its car production, and embarking on wartime production instead. Afterward, Merosi only partially succeeded in affirming the validity of the car as a commercial product. Vittorio Jano, poached from Fiat, would distinguish the 1920s, creating the 6C 1500 that won the Mille Miglia (a thousand (Roman) mile race from Brescia to Rome and back) in 1928 (Tabucchi, 54-8). Faced with severe competition (namely from Mercedes-Benz and Maserati), the 8C 2300 was produced that proved tremendously successful, winning the 1932, 1933, 1934, 1936, and 1947 editions of the Mille Miglia.
Indeed, a by now antiquated 8C participated and won in the post-war race on account of changing regulations: superchargers were prohibited. The postwar world proved different, indeed. A $5 million USD impulse from the Marshall Plan, intended for tooling and equipment, failed to offer the required amount of financial substance (Tabucchi, 134). An economical car was needed (Tabucchi, 154). It was the 1950s Giulietta that would meet these demands, helping Alfa’s sales to surge from 341 cars in 1950 to 51,890 in 1960. Once again, Alfa claimed the Mille Miglia in 1956 with the Giulietta Sprint Veloce. Further intensification of this market was obtained through the Giulia model, presented at Monza in 1962 (Tabucchi, 172). Alfa’s long-time strategy of producing racing and road varieties of the same model persisted with the homologated ‘TZ’, Tubolare Zagato, a tubular steel framed car for the Grand Touring Category (Tabucchi, 174). The Giulia received the Quadrifoglio, the four leaf clover – Alfa’s racing symbol – with the T.I. Super in 1963.
Alfa took a decisive turn back to its foundations in the 1990s. Centro Stile, an R&D department headed by Walter de Silva (who would later be involved in the design of various Seats and Audis) shaped the turn of the millennium. An influential design was the Nuvola concept, presented at the Mondial de l’Automobile in Paris in 1996, which the company calls the forebear of a new generation. Translating to Cloud, the Novula features a polyester body to a tubular frame, a 2.5l twin turbo v6 engine mated to a six-speed manual transmission, delivering the power of 296 horses to all of its wheels. It envisioned the rebirth of the coachbuilt automobile.
Even though the coachbuilt principle has yet to materialize, the Nuvola has stood at the center of Alfa Romeo’s reorientation to successful business strategies of the past with the Giulietta, Giulia, and 8C. Once more, economical cars with racing trims and dedicated sports cars coexist to cater to a variety of markets. Seventy years after Alfa’s 1933 Mille Miglia victory with the 8C, a new 8C concept was presented at the 2003 Frankfurt Motor Show. In 2007 the production model went on sale in very limited numbers, totalling about 1,000 units across both the coupe and the spider models.
The 8C aims to be a proper hommage to its 1930s namesake and in order to live up to this heritage it was built at the assembly line in Modena of the once fierce rival Maserati, sharing its chassis with the GranTurismo and sporting the F136 Ferrari-Maserati engine (dry sump, 4.7L v8 with 444 hp) (Tabucchi, 310). A few years later, the Giulietta name was relaunched at the 2010 Geneva Motor Show (Tabucchi, 314) including a Quadrifoglio trim level to refer back to the company’s racing heritage, featuring a 1750TBi 4-cylinder 235 hp engine. This engine would also be used in the more accessible 4C (thus referring to its four-cylinder engine), the 8C’s smaller brother with a carbon fiber monocoque, offering a light-weight (c. 900kg), relatively high-power (240 hp) rear-engined two-seater also produced in Modena. Finally, after 53 years, on Alfa’s 105th anniversary, the Giulia Quadrifoglio was presented at Arese, offering another high-performance model of a regular production car. This sedan features a 50/50 weight distribution and harbors a 2.9 6-cylinder turbocharged engine with 510 hp.
Alfa Romeo thus reflects on its own history as an upstream battle, glorifying its racing heritage of the interwar period and its financial successes of the post-WWII period. By bringing back to life the names of its successful models, Alfa Romeo falls back on existing formulas, catering to both racing crowds and regular customers, and places its models in an ongoing stream of nostalgia. The new models are placed in a tradition in which they are rooted in the success of the old models, trying to bring back to life a past of relentless racing which is irrevocably dead.
Maurizio Tabucchi, Alfa Romeo: From 1910 to the Present (Milan: Giorgio Nada Editore, 2017).