Curbivores like Alfas, especially older Alfas. That is a fact. You will probably have opinions about aspects of more recent examples; you will certainly have opinions about the engines of older cars, of the priortisation of driving pleasure, of sharing a great heritage and of the actual (often perfectly competitive) comfort and practicality of the cars of the last sixty or more years. But to many of us, the most desirable Alfas on the Curbivore Scale are the rear drive cars. And the last one, with a great engine and classically awful ergonomics, was the Alfa Romeo 75 3.0 V6, sold in North America as the Alfa Romeo Milano.
The 75 range was built from 1985 to 1992; there are just 28 of the V6 version left on the roads of the UK, but it comes with a much longer back story, back to 1972 and to the 1950s in parts. Let’s take a journey through it, with a couple of diversions, and some contempraneous impressions. After all, it’s an Alfa and we’re here to enjoy the journey.
(Many of the photos, including this one, are from that great source of Curbivore goodness, the Curbside Cohort; contributors are named at the end)
The 75 story starts in 1972, with a car named after a winner of over 50 Grand Prix and equivalent races from 1938 to 1953, and which had pioneered the use of the rear transaxle, with the gearbox and clutch combined with the differential, linked with a de Dion rear suspension. Enzo Ferrari featured in its gestation, too. The 1972 car was the Alfa Romeo Alfetta, or Tipo 116 in Alfa code, the successor to the 1750 Berlina, a Giulia derivative with a longer tail, smoothed sides and cleaner front end. Perfectly pleasant visually, if a little characterless after the Giulia.
The Alfetta signalled something different, in retrospect. Alfa were looking to create something closer to an Italian BMW 1800 or 2000, Audi 100, Lancia 2000 or Rover 2000TC – a car that was credible in the sports executive class, with strong driving dynamics, practical in terms of space and comfort, but with no explanation needed for its selection – indeed, perhaps a recognition that to be able to make that selection was an aspiration. Arguably, the closest rival to the first Alfetta 1750 was the BMW 520. Both cars came in 1972, and the choice now does not look easy.
Or perhaps it does if you “get” Alfas more than you do the more strongly rational, almost clinical, German car. In place of the accomplished and smooth BMW six cylinder, there was the Alfa twin cam four cylinder, probably one of the greatest and most charismatic four cylinder engines ever to grace a regular automobile. Paul covered it here in some detail, but in summary it was a four cylinder, twin overhead camshaft 8 valve engine.
It dated from, originally, 1954, and was designed by Giuseppe Busso. Make a note of that name – he will crop up again in this tale.
In 1954, practically all European four cylinder engines were overhead valve, or even still side valve, designs. To have an overhead camshaft, never mind two of them, was something out of the ordinary; for a British motorist the preserve of of the six cylinder Jaguar XK engine. Add to that the racing and sport heritage of Alfa Romeo – think of the success of the cars run by the Scuderia Ferrari from 1929 to 1939, for example, or of the image of 1930s 6C and 8C cars for example – and the unmatchable position of Alfa Romeo starts to form.
For the first Alfetta, the engine was 1779cc (or 1750, an important and storied number to Alfa and still used today in model designations) with 119 bhp at 5500rpm and 123 lbft at 4400rpm. This was good for 112mph and 9.7sec to 60 mph, figures that outpaced the BMW 520, never mind the 518.
The Alfetta added these to another novelty – a five speed gearbox. Such a transmission in 1972 was still the preserve of an overtly sports car; to a British understanding, a Continental sports car or sports saloon. And, that gearbox and the clutch were combined with the differential to create the rear transaxle, giving near perfect 50/50 weight distribution and great traction. The rear suspension, partly to reduce the unsprung weight at the back, was by de Dion tube.
Whilst this is not an independent suspension, it does eliminate any camber changes and thereby helps maintain traction but it is not a cheap solution. Universal joints (two on each side) are required between the transaxle and the wheels and also a lateral link, such as a Watts linkage, to help keep things in line. Coil springs and an anti roll completed a relatively complex and overall bulky arrangement.
At the front, there was a classic double wishbone arrangement suspended by longitudinal torsion bars and an anti-roll bar. All round disc brakes, inboard at the rear adding another twist of novelty, complexity or thoroughness depending on your persuasion, and rack and pinion steering completed the mix.
And there was the Busso engine. In fact, all the mechanical design had been led by Giuseppe Busso, and whilst some might think parts of it awkward and overly complex, to some it was innovative but thorough. That probably measured if you “got” the Alfetta or not.
Rumour has it Busso was asked to devise three suspension options – a cheap option, a good quality-cost compromise and a cost-no-object solution. Alfa, presumably under the leadership of Alfa enthusiasts rather than business minded people, chose the third option. Obviously.
Size wise, the car was compact compared with the competition. The wheelbase was 98.8 inches – an important number to remember as we go through this tale – compared with 104 inches for the BMW 520 and 103 inches for the Rover 2000, perhaps Britain’s closest competitor in the semi-premium market.
The Triumph Dolomite Sprint, although slightly smaller, was also a competitor with its innovative 16 valve engine; the larger Triumph 2000 was closer to the Ford Granada and Opel Rekord in reality. Elsewhere, the Lancia Beta, SAAB 99, Peugeot 504 and Volvo 244 offered competition, each with a different emphasis.
Reviews were good. Most reviewers seemed to “get” the Alfetta, and Motor Sport summed it up as “beating most competitors into a cocked hat” and being “an Alfa Romeo into the bargain”, even if the unconventional layout didn’t seem to deliver all it might have done. Still, that’d have done it for me. CAR was short, sharp and to the point, summing up the Alfetta as an “All time great.”
The car came to market in 1972; it was supposed to be 1971 but delays caused by vibration issues with the prop shaft, solved by adding in another joint, delayed the launch.
The range was expanded in 1975 to include the 1.6 litre version of the Busso engine, creating the Alfetta 1.6. The original car became the Alfetta 1.8, as the Giulia was finally prepared for retirement, with full honours.
By 1981, the car had been gently evolved. There was a longer front end, gaining a more contemporary set of big rectangular lights and a bit of anonymity in place of the four round lights and more prominent scudetto. Trim changes were inevitably also made, with considerable changes to the interior, mostly around adding a contemporary luxury feel.
And adding a truly Alfa touch of a speedometer that read clockwise from 10 o’clock alongside a rev counter that read from 5 o’clock. Every great human being has at least one odd, but endearing, characteristic, and so do all classic Alfas.
The Alfetta, for all its quirks and complicated engineering, successfully replaced the larger, Giulia derived 1750 and 2000 saloons, which were withdrawn by 1977. But the smaller Giulia was also in need of replacement, and the chosen method of doing so may surprise. Or maybe not – remember, we’re talking about Alfa here, not VW.
Sharing the floorpan or drivetrain of one car to build another, either newer, or larger or smaller, or differently configured, is not a new or unique practice, of course. Think about the Ford Falcon for perhaps the most varied case, but every maker will have something in the archives of this nature, varying perhaps the wheelbase, engines fitted and styling. And Alfa Romeo is no exception.
The 1977 Giulietta was a more compact derivative of the Alfetta, but remember that 98.8 inches I mentioned earlier? It may have looked smaller, but the Giulietta was directly based on the Alfetta floorpan, suspension and drivetrain. Like, it had a wheelbase of 98.8 inches.
This was a shorter Alfetta – shorter by 3 inches (based on the 1972 car), mostly at the rear. The consequent reduction in boot volume was alleviated by having a taller tail in the openly contemporary wedge shape styling.
The Giulietta replaced the Giulia, using a name that has more history at Alfa than almost any other. The original Giulietta of 1954 was the first compact saloon that the company had produced and thereby the first Alfa anywhere near affordable for many Italians, and the first saloon car use of the Busso engine. To re-use the name was significant, as significant as Mercedes-Benz re-using the 190 moniker a few years later.
The first cars came with smaller versions of the Busso engine, of 1357cc and 1570cc, from the Alfetta 1.6, reflecting their place in the Alfa Romeo hierarchy as the infill between the Alfetta and the Alfasud. Even so, the Giulietta 1.3 has 95bhp and would get to over 100mph. the 108 bhp 1.6 brought a significant performance boost, and the later 1.8 and 2.0 versions were faster still, reaching 115 mph. These were strong figures for the late 1970s.
Visually, there were strong differences to the Alfetta, with no shared visible components except the windscreen – the door skins, roof and C pillars were all different as was the waistline of the very wedge shape, but with the same wheelbase and door apertures there is a limit to the variety you can conjure in the passenger experience.
The Giulietta’s interior style was very much of its time too (that is not a criticism, at least in my book), with a distinctly different vibe to the more staid Alfetta. The instruments showed a compact car feel, even if the contra-rotating dials were not everyone’s ideal. Alfa have a consistent history of showing that evocative and emotionally appealing cars do not need to be retro-styled, a practice many other manufacturers either missed or messed up. But it was fairly polarising with it, much more so than the Alfetta.
This car was also gently evolved over the next few years, with additional plastic cladding being a regular way of updating (or maybe trying to tone down) the distinctive style. But the biggest event in the car’s evolution centred on the engine. In 1982, Alfa gave us the Giulietta Turbodelta, a 2 litre version with a KKK turbocharger and twin Weber carburettors and a quite striking 170bhp, developed by the company’s racing arm Autodelta, largely as a homologation exercise. In the event, just 361 cars were built, all black with red interiors, and this was the last car badged as Autodelta. With a name and history like Alfa Romeo, the need for anything else as a suffix is relatively small, I suggest.
Alfa also fitted a VM diesel engine in 1983, primarily for home market consumption. This was the era of diesel for economy, with no performance pretensions. With 81bhp, they were precious few of those.
Perhaps surprisingly, press reviews of the Giulietta were mixed. Yes, it was an Alfa, with a wonderful engine, and a technically complex and well balanced layout, but against were the polarising styling, an awkward baulky gearchange, especially when cold and during the long warming period and, even, disappointing handing usually reported as surprisingly dominant understeer. Likewise, for later Alfettas, where there was a slightly softer nature than you might have expected. There were also apparent variations between cars, often centring on damper settings which seemed variable on cars of any age, from brand new on. CAR magazine summarised it as “You’ll love a good one, if you get one”. Doing so was not always predictable.
The Giulietta’s key competitors were arguably the BMW 3 series, Lancia Beta, Triumph Dolomite and Audi 80 range, all cars offering something distinctive and a step up the premium ladder from many others. All had their issues – the BMW had only two doors at this time, the Lancia was about to be engulfed in the rust saga, the Triumph was almost as old as the popular image of its owners and Audi was still building its premium reputation. Other discerning petrolheads might have opted for a Citroen CX or a SAAB if funds permitted, and it is to Alfa’s credit that they sold almost 400,000 Giuliettas, alongside nearly 450,000 Alfettas by 1985.
And there is one Alfetta version we must consider. Just to look at the Alfa Romeo Alfetta GT is, arguably, to want one.