Curbside Classic: 1972 Alfa Romeo Montreal – The Masterpiece

It is said that geniuses tend to hit their peak in their twenties. Doesn’t matter much in what field – mathematics, music or automotive design. To wit, Marcello Gandini (1938-2024) was 28 years old when he designed this car. He had authored the Lamborghini Miura a year before. Then he started getting obsessed with wedges. Some of those were stunners too, but let’s be real: Gandini never really topped the Montreal.

I’ve personally always preferred the Alfa over the Lambo. They share a number of similarities, but also some key differences. One it the front end, which is more aggressive in the Montreal. And the fact that it’s front-engined gives the Alfa a longer, more substantial and altogether better-balanced shape.

I’m also not a fan of louvred back ends. A nice, clean backlight is always preferable to a bunch of black venetian blinds. Don’t get me wrong, the Miura is an incredibly beautiful machine. But it’s just a little less gorgeous than the Alfa Romeo Montreal, in my opinion.

The Montreal’s birth was quite unlike that of the majority of models, be they Milanese or otherwise. In October of 1966, Alfa Romeo received an unusual request. It was addressed by the organizing committee of Expo 67, which was to take place in April in Québec. One of the pavilions, to be called “Man the Producer” and focusing on technology, would welcome a contribution from the automotive world, and the committee felt that Alfa would be the best firm to take on the challenge. And so they did.

There wasn’t time to develop a new chassis, of course, so Alfa Romeo just proposed the Giulia 105 platform – in its shorter GTV form. Bertone tailored two chassis with Gandini’s sculptural and dynamic design and the specials were shipped off to Canada in time for the universal exposition’s opening. There they sat for six months, admired by throngs of visitors, before sailing back to their point of origin.

After having had such publicity, Alfa figured that the Expo 67 car, which was explicitly designed to be quasi production-ready, might well be integrated into the range. But there was already a Bertone-bodied Giulia derivative on offer. What novel feature, aesthetics aside, would the new model be able to bring to the table?

The show-stopper was to be a brand new, race-pedigreed, fuel-injected 2.6 litre DOHC V8, good for 200hp (DIN) and mated to a sturdy ZF 5-speed manual. The general reaction was: Mamma mia! An 8-cyl. Alfa with show car styling. Gimme!

But the Montreal, when it was launched at the 1970 Geneva Motor Show, was not a gift. It was for sale – and at quite a hefty price. And it was not really available yet, either. Alfa’s engineers were struggling to get the car right, even after a couple of years in development. This was compounded by industrial action at Alfa Romeo, as well as the firm’s focus on finalizing the Alfasud project. About a year after the “launch” – in early 1971 – the first production Montreals started trickling out of the Arese factory.

As good as it was to sit in (in front only), on paper and in photographs, the Montreal was a flawed diamond in reality. The V8 was not without its foibles, requiring careful operation and monitoring (especially the oil temperature) before attempting anything approaching high rpms. Failure to observe these precautions often led to costly breakdowns – sometimes with less than 30,000km on the clock.

The SPICA mechanical fuel injection was also a known source of problems, so much so that some owners devised a Weber carb conversion. For cost reasons, the Giulia’s live axle setup was used pretty much without modifications, when the plan initially called for a de Dion axle more commensurate with the model’s lofty ambitions. As such, some critics felt the chassis was not up to snuff for such a powerful engine…

Marketing the Montreal also proved challenging. Alfa Romeo looked into a federalized version, but gave up pretty quickly due to the added headache of the 5mph bumper implementation. So there would never be a Montreal prowling the streets of Montréal. The irony was strong with this one.

Elsewhere, the Montreal was cheaper than true supercars, but still a very costly proposition. It cost more than a Porsche 911S in Germany, more than a Citroën SM in France and more than a Jaguar E-Type in the UK, so it took a serious case of Italianophilia for folks in those important export markets to consider the Alfa.

Then came the coup de grâce: the V8 was a thirsty little engine, and the 1973 Oil Shock caused the Montreal’s sales to plummet. It’s no coincidence that this is a ’72 car: over half of all Montreals made were produced that year.

A token run of 180 RHD cars were also made (strangely enough, those came out of the Iso Rivolta factory in 1973), but it was clear by 1974 that the car was doomed. It is said that the line was stopped at the end of 1975 and Alfa took over two years to sell the few dozen Montreals they still had in stock.

Alfa badly fumbled the whole deal with this car, unfortunately. But the issue is much more to do with the chassis and engine than the body: according to many sources, Bertone did an outstanding job putting those together and protecting them from rust. And Gandini, who authored such a flawless design for the 1967 prototypes, managed to make the production version 99% as good as the original. Great way to end Gandini Week on, I feel.


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Cohort Classic: 1970-77 Alfa Romeo Montreal – An Alfa With a Racing Heart, by Roger Carr