I could not quite make this one fit into the Convertible Week we just had, but I’m hoping there’s still room for one more. There should be, when it’s this tasty-looking. Besides, this is the start of summer (for those of us in the northern hemisphere, at least) and nothing says Dolce Vita, short sleeves and sunshine like the classic Alfa roadster par excellence.
Is it the archetypal classic Alfa though? Should that role not be filled by something a bit more contemporary now that the Giulietta is fast approaching its 70th birthday? Maybe so, but on the other hand, this model is of such importance in Alfa and in PininFarina’s history that it just had to be acknowledged. Plus, that thing is just drop-head goregeous…
Alfa’s pre-war cars were sporty and bespoke 6- and 8-cyl. for the élite, as well as grand-prix racers. After the war, Alfa saw their niche was diminishing, so they needed to go down market. Step one was the 1900, Alfa’s first unit body design built on a production line. Launched in 1950, its lower price, 4-cyl., live rear axle and LHD signaled that Alfa transitioned to the mass market. This did not mean that smaller Alfas would be any less sporty: engines maintained the high performance twin-cam design of the pre-war era, albeit in a smaller package.
Then the package shrank again with the 1.3 litre Giulietta, launched in 1954. This was the smallest car in Alfa Romeo’s history, and one of the most ambitious, as Alfa projected to manufacture these by the thousands per month – a scale the firm had never really attempted before. It took over a year for production to really get started, but the car was so brilliant that the clientele was willing to wait.
Alfa Romeo built the saloon in-house, but lacked the capacity to make other body variants. Bertone were roped in early to make the coupé – which was the launch model, but their drop-top proposal was not met with unanimous enthusiasm. One notable critic was Alfa’s US distributor, Max Hoffman.
Hoffman’s influence in creating some of the most iconic European cars of the ‘50s was outstanding and would make for a fascinating CC post on its own. This is not the purpose of the present text, so let’s keep it short. Suffice to say he was a man of some import (ha ha), and when he essentially said “Make your car like so and I’ll sell thousands,” people listened. Not just Alfa, but Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and many others. In the Giulietta spider’s case, Hoffman insisted that the car needed a proper soft top, roll-up windows and a heater.
Bertone had a prototype roadster made for Alfa Romeo’s consideration, but it seems neither the firm’s bigwigs nor Max Hoffman were very keen on it, as it lacked the refinement that was seen as key to the model’s success in the US market. PininFarina’s proposal, on the other hand, was met with for more favourable noises on both sides of the Atlantic. There were several factor as play: the design was in some ways less daring that Bertone’s, but also more glamorous. PF had more name recognition in the US than Bertone, due to their collaboration with Nash. Finally, although Bertone could handle coupé production, depending on one carrozzeria for both of the platform’s main derivatives was a risky move.
But tasking PininFarina with manufacturing the Giulietta spider was also quite a gamble: the Turin-based coachbuilder had never undertaken anything on this scale. Though it had been in operation since 1930, Carrozzeria Pinin Farina had never produced more than a couple hundred units of any particular design, but company founder Battista “Pinin” Farina pounced on the occasion to transition his business from artisanal coachbuilding to industrial designer and car body-maker.
Around the same time as the Giulietta spider contract was negotiated, Battista Farina started buying land in Grugliasco, on the outskirts of Turin. By 1958, a completely new PininFarina factory was up and running, churning out Giulietta spiders by the dozen. PF produced just over 1000 Alfa convertibles in 1956; by 1959, they could make over 4000 in a year. Battista was gradually letting go of the reins at that point, his designated heirs being his son Sergio and his son-in-law Renzo Carli. He formally stepped down in 1961, just as he changed his family name (and the company’s official denomination) to Pininfarina.
Launched in the summer of 1955, the Giulietta Spider was an instant classic. In 1959, the chassis was given an extra 5cm in wheelbase, ushering in a number of gradual changes over the next couple of years (5-speed gearbox for all versions, larger taillights, closing glovebox, new grille, fixed quarterlights), some of which are seen on our feature car.
The success of the Giulietta Spider was instrumental in turning PF into a world-class player, but it was similarly groundbreaking for Alfa Romeo: they made under 30,000 of their first “small” car, the 1900/2000, in 12 years. The Giulietta, however, clocked at over 130,000 units over a decade – a significant achievement, similar to what BMW did with the Neue Klasse.
For its part, the spider was made in over 17,000 units, counting both the standard and Veloce (twin carb) versions, until 1962. That year, the 1.6 litre engine came in and the name became Giulia, but little else really changed. The spider carried on until 1965 and was eventually replaced by the equally famous Duetto.
A large majority of the 130,000-plus Giuliettas made were of the four-door saloon variety. Aside from the PF spider and Bertone coupé (a.k.a. Sprint coupé), there were a few other notable variants, notably the slippery Zagato SZ specials, the outlandish Super Sprint (also by Bertone) and the exceedingly rare wagons made by Colli (pictured above) and Boneschi.
It’s very hard to pick a favourite within the Giulietta family. The berlina is a bit dowdy, but still kicks posteriors, especially in twin-carb guise. The Zagato, the wagons and the Super Sprint are probably nigh on impossible to find in the wild (though Jim Klein did just that while in Tokyo, so let’s not jinx anything), so it’s really a question of choosing between the Bertone coupé and the PininFarina Spider. And it’s a very tough choice. I’m just going to have to reserve judgment until I find a coupé sitting curbside like this spider. In the meantime, this particular one will quench my thirst for Italian rolling art pieces.
In Motion Outtake. 1959-65 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider., by Don Andreina