Car Show Classic: 1978 Alfa Romeo 2300 Rio – Doing A World Car, The Alfa Romeo Way

You probably know the feeling. Wandering through a car show field, you glimpse a familiar but rarely seen profile. Your antennae react and your brain starts to process the data. So, when I saw the front of this car in the distance at the recent Festival of the Unexceptional, the little grey cells started whirring, my Curbivore-Alfa databank proffered suggestions on the identity and I changed direction like an alert basketball player. And the immediate identity response was, in fact, inaccurate.

As was the second. It was not an Alfetta. Nor was it an Alfa Romeo Alfa 6, the 2.5 litre V6 engined longer nose and tail Alfetta derivative.

Getting closer, you realise that this is a larger car, albeit with a similar theme to the styling to the Alfetta but clearly a different architecture underneath. You see the badges. Alfa Romeo 2300 Rio. And not in a familiar script. It’s an unfamiliar name but a favourite Alfa Romeo engine size, albeit one not seen for many years. The need to find out more quickly takes precedence to lunch. Obviously.

Even by Alfa standards, the 2300 Rio has a complex history and bloodline. This, to the registration authorities, this is a 1978 car, but it was likely first registered around 1981 or 1982, and for this example, which is now on UK plates, in Germany. The 2300 Rio was built in Brazil, hence the name, from 1974,  by FNM the Brazilian truck builder bought by Alfa in 1968.

FNM had been licence building Alfa designed trucks for the local market since 1952, as well as a version of Alfa Romeo 2000 saloon known as the FNM 2000, and later a Brazilian market specific variant sold as the FNM 2150. Rubens tells the full story of Alfa Romeo and FNM here.

In 1974, FNM introduced the 2300, switching from FNM to Alfa branding, with the styling we have seen that aped the then new Alfetta saloon. But the car was based not on the Alfetta or even the preceding Alfa Romeo 1750 and 2000, or even the FNM 2000, but on the 1950-59 Alfa Romeo 1900 saloon, Alfa’s first monocoque (unibody) car and a car that looked perfectly at home with a contemporary Mercedes Benz 190, Rover P4, Morris Oxford or Fiat 1900.

Power for the 1900 came from a 1.9 litre or 2.0 litre straight four, with the twin overhead cams. A valid, even adventurous, 1950 specification, but looking more than a little behind the times by 1974. The 2300 was developed in Italy, though specifically for the Brazilian market and production.

Size wise the car was a 107 inch wheelbase and was 185 inches, so it was a class size bigger than the Alfetta and close the Mercedes-Benz W123 and larger than a contemporary BMW 520. Transmission was a five speed manual with no automatic option, and Brazilian market cars had no heater.

The car came to market in 1974, at a time when Brazil was entering a boom of ethanol fuel, and of course, an oil crisis. Sales were not what was hoped, and Alfa Romeo determined that the car could be sold in Europe, though not Italy or the UK, to absorb some of the volume.

In 1978, between 600 and 1000 cars (records differ) were shipped to Holland for distribution through the Dutch, German and Swiss importers as the Alfa Romeo 2300 Rio, linking to its origin, and fitted with a heater. However, at a price of 28000 Dutch guilders, they were up against some stiff competition from the established premium manufacturers and indeed non-premium manufacturers, and sales were slow to say the least.  After three years, hundreds of cars were still sitting, on the dockside, taking the sea air.

By 1981, the importer’s patience ahead reached its limits. The cars were sold on to the intermediate trade at huge discounts (figures of 10000 Dutch guilders or 35% of the original price are quoted) and without the onerous warranty commitments. In some countries, the importers bought back or exchanged a Rio for a new Alfetta 2000, with few questions asked. Coming soon after the Alfasud rust debacle and the Lancia Beta rust scandal, the reputational damage for Alfa and Italian cars generally can only be imagined.

The 2300 is not a classic Alfa of the period in many ways. The engine, at 2310cc, is relatively large for a four cylinder engine and unlike other 1970s rear drive Alfas the gearbox was not mounted in a rear transaxle and the rear suspension was much simpler, losing the Alfetta’s de Dion system, inboard rear brakes and Watts linkage. The engine, although still from the same family, had 132 bhp, compared with the 122 bhp from the 1750cc Alfetta. And the Alfetta was faster. You can start to see why the Rio was a tough sell in Europe, even if it was more spacious and with a bigger boot. The owner of this car described it as driving like a Land Rover.

This car is probably unique in the UK. The owner bought the car from Germany, unseen, as he had memories of the car his father had driven in Brazil when he was growing up, which is a good reason for choosing your classic  Some accounts suggest that the main purpose now of the 2300 Rio is to provide spares for the earlier 1900; that’s probably dismissive and misses the point about the car’s place in the market in Brazil. But it cannot be classed as one of Alfa’s hits.

It is a Curbviore hit though. I’m sure that’s what Emerson Fittipaldi is saying here.