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Alfa Romeo Alfasud and Sprint (1972 - 1989)

Last updated 18 May 2018

 
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Model Timeline

January 1967
Alfa Romeo decided to built a small car in Southern Italy


Alfa Romeo’s chief-executive, Giuseppe Luraghi revisited the idea of the company building a new small car. Little did he know of the political storm he was about to create. Because Alfa Romeo needed financial assistance with the new car’s creation, Luraghi, approached the Italian Government for help. However, in the interests of developing the poorer southern region of the country, there was a stipulation attached to the loan: the new car needed to be built in the deprived Naples region – 300 miles from the company’s base in Milan.

Alfa Romeo agreed to build the new car at its little-used Avio facility in Pomigliano d’Arco near Naples, and the entire project (factory and car) became known as Alfa Sud. The government loan ran to 360 billion Lire, but needless to say it wasn’t a happy situation, as the area had no tradition for car manufacture, and that led to 15,000 unskilled workers being taken on to build the new car. That aside, Fiat management was furious when details of the Alfa Sud project become common knowledge. The bad blood between the two companies started because Alfa’s Torinese saw it as a break in the gentleman’s agreement, despite Fiat’s earlier introduction of the Alfa-rivalling 130 and Dino models.

August 1967
Rudolf Hruska was hired to oversee the Alfa Sud project

Accusations of poaching, theft and treason were trumped up by the Torinese company, seriously delaying the ‘Sud’s eventual release. The conflict was deepened when Alfa managed to persuade Austrian Fiat (and ex-Volkswagen, Porsche, Cistilia and Alfa Romeo – yes, he’d been there before) engineer, Rudolf Hruska along with several colleagues, to oversee the design of the new car – especially as Fiat was in the throes of developing its next generation of small front-driven family cars…

Alfasud factory in Naples

Alfa Romeo's Pomigliano d'Arco factory was not without its issues...

The hiring of Hruska – no matter how controversial – was a stroke of genius. His masterminding of the Alfasud, and tight control of its remarkable technical package was a perfect example of the theory that history’s greatest cars were created by talented individuals, rather than committees. The team assembled had true class: Aldo Mantovani was in charge of engineering, assisted by Carlo Chiti (the former head of Autodelta); Carlo Bossaglia was responsible for engine development; and Federico Hoffmann devised the suspension.

Aside from devising one of the greatest handling cars of the ’70s, Hruska’s team’s most impressive achievement with the Alfa Sud project was to keep it within budget and deliver it on time. He and his talented team created Alfasud – a clean sheet car – and got it onto the market within four short years. The industry average back then was nearer six.

The ‘Sud might well have enjoyed a controversial gestation, but the end result was still a technical tour de force. From his bureau in Milan, Hruska pieced together a fascinating technical package and clothed it in a smart Georgetto Giugiaro suit. The main goals for the project were that the new small car should be cheap and easily maintained, but retain the typical fun-to-drive Alfa character. To achieve this, everything the company had done before was thrown out of the window.

Alfasud laid bare

Exceptionally space-efficient layout of the Alfasud in all its glory.

Given Hruska’s VW/Porsche background, it’s unsurprising that he decided to choose a flat-four engine to power the Alfasud. This engine configuration combined with water-cooling and front wheel drive resulted in a low scuttle for good visibility, a low centre of gravity and near-Issigonis-levels of interior space efficiency (Hruska’s experience gained on the Fiat 128 project proved invaluable here). The long-stroke, free revving engine (which used a pair of identical cylinder heads) was longitudinally mounted, and was treated to a pair of equal-length driveshafts. Engine capacity was 1186cc, maximum power was 63bhp, and it was developed for ease of maintenace as much as anything else.

Although the kerbweight had been well controlled, the aerodynamic body was structurally rigid thanks to deep box sections front and rear. The suspension was conventional independent MacPherson struts at the front but clever, innovative beam axle with Watts linkage at the rear – and it was this rear set-up that led to beautifully neutral handling. Final performance figures were impressive – the top speed of this 1.2-litre car was 92mph, well ahead of similarly sized opposition.

September 1971
Alfasud was launched at the Turin Motor Show

The design was competed by the end of 1967, and by November 1968, prototype engine and body were married for the first time, and Hruska took his first test drive – this was a quick development programme. Less than three years later the Alfasud became the sensation of the 1971 Turin Car Expo – a great achievement considering the Lamborghini Countach prototype was also unveiled at the show.

April 1972
Alfasud production started

However due to the last phase of Pomigliano d’Arco’s development into a production facility, as well as a series of strikes and set-backs, production didn’t actually get started until April 1972.

Alfa Romeo Alfasud

'Sud was a revelation when it arrived on the scene in 1972...

As soon as the testers got their hands on the Alfasud, they knew the company had struck gold with its first small car. Autocar magazine was unstinting in its praise, concluding in its first road test: ‘The ‘Sud with front-drive, flat-four engine and roomy four-door body offers truly incredible handling, a comfortable and quiet ride and easy cruising. Working in combination with the high-revving, exceptionally smooth and quiet engine, the crisp gearbox and light but effective brakes, it is a dynamic masterstroke.’

Once customers got hold of their cars, the horrible truth soon emerged. The low quality steel used in its production, and scant rustproofing meant the gifted little car had become infamous for tinworm – and owners were finding their new cars would develop widespread corrosion – that could strike anywhere – within a matter of months. In the end, the problem became so well-known within the trade, that it irrevocably damaged Alfa Romeo’s reputation for a generation to come.

Engineers devised a quick-fix – an extra step in production saw all box-sections filled with special synthetic foam, which it hoped would keep the rust at bay. Instead, moisture was trapped in it, and the corrosion process was accelerated. But the ‘Sud’s troubles were far from over, thanks to lamentable industrial relations, and an indifferently skilled workforce. Just like BL, Alfa Romeo suffered horribly from strikes during the ’70s, and during its life, the ‘Sud’s production line suffered from 700 stoppages.

January 1973
Alfasud Ti introduced

Alfa Romeo Alfasud ti

Alfasud's amazing chassis was tested a little more with the arrival of the sporting Ti version…

Alfasud estate version, the Giardinetta

The Alfasud Giardinetta becomes the company's first mass-produced estate car, as previous efforts were coachbuilt.

The sporting Ti (for tourismo internazionale) version was launched in 1973, pre-dating the Golf GTI by three years, and added a little spice to the range. Performance was boosted by by the addition of a Weber twin-choke downdraft carburettor, upping the power of the 1186cc flat-four to 68bhp.

It was just the beginning. Then the Giardinetta estate car version the following year, but even these was eclipsed by 1976’s addition, the gorgeous Alfasud Sprint. It was this model that heralded the arrival of the uprated 75bhp 1286cc engine – finally pushing the top speed of the baby Alfa to over 100mph. Like the saloon, the three-door coupe was styled by Giorgetto Giugiaro, and its scaled-down GTV style was handsome enough to win plenty of admirers, even if it wasn’t the most practical proposition in the world, thanks to its fixed rear seat backrests.

January 1978
Alfasud engine expanded to 1.5-litres

In 1978, the wishes of keen drivers who begged for more power were partially met with the arrival of an upgunned 1.5-litre engine with up to 85bhp. While they were at it, the 1286cc engine was upgraded once again – to 1351cc (with developed 79bhp in Twin Weber form, and 71bhp with a single Solex). But these changes signalled the ‘Sud’s gradual moove upmarket. The 1.5-litre four door was now available in Super form, while the Ti benefited from its first facelift, to become the Series 2.

January 1980
Series 3 introduced, with new interior and plastic bumpers

By the turn of 1980, the ‘Sud was still seen as the dynamic class leader. CAR magazine declared it the ‘Car of The Decade’ and Ford used it as a benchmark for its front-wheel drive Escort MkIII. Imagine how things would have been had it not been rusty? A facelift in the same year tidied things up, and the ‘Sud became the Series 3. Dropping the chrome bumpers spoiled the clean-cut styling for many purists, but it kept the ‘Sud looking fresh, and highlighted the brilliance of Giugiaro’s original design.

July 1981
Alfasud hatchback went on sale

The following year, the ‘Sud gained a hatchback rear end (1981 for the three-door; ’82 for the five-door), answering the car’s main (non-rust related) criticism. The car put on an additional 25kg due to extra body stiffening, which slightly dented the performance…

Alfa Romeo Alfasud hatchback

Alfasud finally realised its potential in 1981 when it received the hatchback rear it had been crying out for since 1971...

In 1983, the Alfasud was replaced by the new and rather wedgy 33 – it looked good, and retained much of the ‘Sud’s technical feature – and yet it failed to capture the hearts and minds of buyers. The new car’s high price was also a problem – and that meant those fans of the entry-level ‘Sud were left with no choice in the Alfasud range…

March 1983
Alfasud saloon production ended

That situation was rectified when the ARNA was launched, the bastard off-spring of the ill-fated Alfa Romeo-Nissan tie-up – but even fewer people found themselves turned on by the idea of buying a Japanese-styled car built in Italy.

June 1989
Alfasud Sprint production ended

The ‘Sud Sprint lived on until 1989, thanks to its commonality with the 33, but even that glorious looking car struggled as the decade progressed – somehow ’80s styling details and a delicate looking ’70s wedge just don’t mix.

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