Curbside Classic: 1984-1987 Alfa Romeo Sprint 1.3 – “When I See An Alfa Romeo Go By, I Tip My Hat”

CC has covered many cars in depth, often with a keen eye for the unremarked details and with some thoughtful context, personal recollection and connection, always remembering that every car can tell a story. Although the Alfasud has featured, it has not had the full CC history, and although its impact and abilities have been recognised here, that remains an omission. Now, having found some lost photos of an example seen curbside in France, it’s time to make amends, and offer a CC post on the one of the greatest family cars of its era, and a car that is considered by many to be an icon, perhaps a masterpiece or a landmark. In 1939, Henry Ford said “When I see an Alfa Romeo go by, I tip my hat”, and I don’t disagree; when I see an Alfasud, I’d tip my hat if I had one, and hope you’ll concur with me.

First, some context to Alfa Romeo and to the Alfasud’s place in the Alfa history. Back when Henry was saying what he did, Alfa Romeo was a very different company to the one that developed the Alfasud in the late 1960s.

Prior to 1939,  it had been producing just hundreds of cars each year, at a place in the market that maybe could be considered equivalent to that held now by Ferrari., or Maserati in the 1950s.  ALFA stood for Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili, translating literally as the Factory of the Automotive Company of Lombardy, Lombardy being the region of Italy covering Milan. ALFA came under the control of entrepreneur Nicola Romeo in 1915 and the name was changed in 1920 to Alfa Romeo; the first Alfa Romeo was the 20-30hp Torpedo (above).  In 1921, Alfa Romeo’s backers failed and the company was taken into government ownership.

Ferrari is an important name in Alfa Romeo’s history, as Enzo Ferrari managed the Alfa Romeo grand prix team. Ferrari initially joined Alfa in 1920 as a driver and had some success, and he progressively transitioned from driver to team management. By 1932 (above, at Monza), he was team manager of the Scuderia Ferrari, formally linked to Alfa Romeo and which campaigned cars including the Alfa Romeo P3 with drivers such as Antonio Ascari, Tazio Nuvolari and Rudolf Caracciola.

During the mid 1930s, by now under government ownership, Alfa Romeo continued racing, partly being used and indirectly funded by Mussolini’s fascist government in an effort to keep up with the dominant German Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union teams.

There were some moments of genuine glory though – perhaps none more so than Nuvolari’s victories at the 1935 German Grand Prix (above) and the P3’s first race, the 1932 Italian Grand Prix.

In 1930, the 6C 1750 with the 1752cc supercharged twin overhead camshaft engine and Zagato coachwork took the first four places (and eight of the top eleven) in Mille Miglia at a then record average speed. No wonder 1750  remained an important model designation for Alfa Romeo for many, many years.

1934 8C2300

Meanwhile, the road cars were treated to engines by Vittorio Jano, which eschewed the contemporary trends of side vales for light alloy construction, hemispherical combustion chambers, centrally located plugs, two rows of overhead valves per cylinder bank and dual overhead camshafts.

1934 8C2900 B, a competitor and race leader at Le Mans

Production remained in the hundreds per year, but the impact and image were disproportionate, to say the least, to the volume.

It wasn’t all sports cars – this is a 1939 6C Turismo Ministeriale used not by a government minister but by a scion of the Medici banking family.

In the after war period, the Alfa Romeo 158 Alfetta, first seen in 1937, continued where the pre-war Grand Prix cars had left off, winning the inaugural Grand Prix Drivers’ Championship in 1950,  with Guiseppe Farina taking the first title. Juan Manuel Fangio took the first of his five titles in the Alfetta the next year. Seen in this context, cars like the Alfa Romeo Montreal, 4C and 8C (and this year’s imminent 33 supercar) seem part of a continuation, not attention seeking commercially challenging indulgences.  Probably still commercially challenging though.

Inevitably, Alfa Romeo’s factories were turned over to munitions for the period of WW2, principally aero-engines. Alfa Romeo had first supplied an aero-engine in 1910, and in the 1930s built engines designed specifically for aircraft use. In 1938, Alfa Romeo built a large aircraft engine factory at Pomigliano d’Arco close to Naples, latterly under the Alfa Romeo Avio name.

This evolved into a substantial business and employer building versions of aero-engines from de Havilland, Bristol and Daimler-Benz under licence. After the war, Alfa Romeo and Fiat collaborated on aero-engine design and building, and in the 1960s moved into jet aircraft maintenance and repair. In between all this, Pomigliano d’Arco produced some vehicles, including trucks, buses and trolley buses, and diesel engines for generators and marine use in the 1950s. To cut a long story short, Alfa Romeo’s aviation activities were eventually bundled with those of several other Italian enterprises and are now held by the splendidly named Leonardo S.p.A., Italy’s national champion in aerospace, defence and electronics and the heir to the IRI.

Some other equipment was made as well, some of which might surprise.

Alfa Romeo entered the 1950s needing and aiming for higher automotive volumes. It had what we’d now call a terrific brand, but also a government owner that had an interest in creating a plurality in the motor industry to compete with Fiat. From 1950, with the 1900 saloon, Alfa Romeo started the process of bringing some of their Italian sports car glamour to the daily drive.

The first compact car was the 1954 Giulietta, and then the 1962 Giulia saloon (Tipo 105), which begat the wondrous Bertone Sprint coupes and Spider. These cars all used versions of the famous (immortal?) twin cam four cylinder engine, designed by Giuseppe Busso, used in Alfa Romeo saloons from the first Giulietta to the 1992 Alfa Romeo 155, manufactured in Milan at the famous Alfa Romeo plants in Portello and later Arese.

Many of these cars are still considered as contemporary greats and classics, but they did not address the full range of the challenge presented to Alfa Romeo by the Italian government – the development of an Italian competitor to challenge Fiat’s hegemony within the Italian market, and the potential dependency of the country on it. Alfa Romeo’s small car ambitions started at this time; they ultimately succeeded with the Alfasud.

The first attempt was, as you’d expect from Alfa Romeo, something a bit different to those of many others. Details are few, but the overall picture of a transverse engined front wheel drive car, based around a twin cylinder version of the Alfa Romeo twin cam four cylinder engine. Even in 1952, Alfa Romeo were thinking about inboard disc brakes. All this was seven years before the Mini, albeit Issigonis used four cylinders.

Alfa Romeo developed another proposal, the Tipo 103, in 1960, with a layout based on a four cylinder engine again mounted transversely.

This time, the engine was 896cc, again based on the familiar twin cam, and driving the front wheels. Fully independent suspension, front disc brakes and styling that influenced either the Alfa Romeo Giulia or Renault 8 (or both – discuss) featured.

In the event, the car did not enter production, Alfa Romeo electing to licence build the Renault Dauphine and later the Renault 8  and even the Renault 4, instead.

But the appeal of a smaller Alfa Romeo had not gone away, and outside pressure now started to tell. As noted above, Alfa Romeo’s car manufacturing business in the mid 1960s was strongly rooted in northern Italy, notably Milan, to the extent that Milano featured on the company’s emblem. But southern Italy was in great need of economic investment and development, and the Italian government was keen to do just that and it controlled Alfa Romeo, through an organisation called IRI (Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale), and the underutilised facility at Pomigliano d’Arco. A plan was coming together. And now Alfa Romeo added the secret ingredient.


Rudolf Hruska was born in Vienna, Austria in 1915, to a family that originated in Bohemia, now in the Czech Republic (Czechia).  He studied in Vienna and started his automotive engineering career with Magirus in Ulm in southern Germany in 1935, and joined Ferdinand Porsche’s consulting business in Stuttgart in 1938, where he worked on the KdF-wagen, which became better known as the VW Type 1 or Beetle. He was also heavily involved it the VW Kubelwagen military vehicle adaptation of the Type 1 and the Porsche designed Tiger tank. After the war, and a brief period of internment, he emerged in Merano in northern Italy, running a Porsche dealership with Carlo Abarth and working on the Cisitalia sports and racing car business, before joining Finmeccania, then owner of Alfa Romeo under the IRI (and the precursor to the modern Leonardo S.p.A) as a consultant, initially in production.

By 1954, he was one of Alfa Romeo’s senior design and production engineering leaders, focussing on trucks and buses, and later ran the Portello plant, the main centre for Alfa Romeo production. He left Alfa Romeo in 1959, and joined Simca in France where he led the design of the Simca 1000. Simca was then linked with Fiat, so perhaps it is not surprising that Hruska next emerged at Fiat where he was key to the development of the Fiat 124 and then the Fiat 128.

And then in 1967, just as the Fiat 128 was being prepared for launch, Hruska got a telephone call. The caller was Giuseppe Luraghi, then President of Alfa Romeo.

Would Hruska lead the engineering and then production of an all-new compact family car, sold below the Giulia (above), funded by the IRI and built in the Pomigliano d’Arco plant, as part of the economic regeneration of southern Italy?

Giorgetto Giugiaro, the stylist behind the Giulia Bertone coupe and other masterpieces, was to be the nominated stylist. Otherwise, the page was blank and the funding generous. Hruska accepted, and joined Alfa Romeo in 1967, apparently to Fiat’s significant annoyance.

Hruska has been quoted as saying “When you set out to make a new product, you should start from fundamental principles. You need to decide exactly [what] it is you want to achieve. Only then should you establish the basic concepts”.

He spent five months determining what those principles led to in this context –  a car no more than four metres (157 inches) long, a body white weighing no more than 200kg (440lb), it would be front wheel drive to achieve the internal space for four or five passengers and the boot would carry four suitcases of a specific size that Hruska used, such that the only way Giugiaro could accommodate them and meet the length requirement was to use external piano style hinges.

Hruska also determined that the packaging needed a compact drivetrain, and the ambition for handling and driver experience led to a flat four engine, mounted forward and low, Citroen style. It is worth noting that in late 1960s there was no uniformity of opinion about front wheel drive or of the configuration of front wheel drive. Transverse? With the gearbox underneath or end on? Flat four pushed forward, or in line inclined aft? Gearbox on the front or behind an inline engine? Ten years later the argument was basically settled, and ironically the Alfasud was an outlier. As a short hand, the configuration of the Alfasud could be described as a conventionally suspended water cooled Citroen GS, a car that was on the drawing board at the same time.

Front suspension was by MacPherson struts and rear by a torsion bar with a Watts linkage and Panhard rod. The disc brakes were inboard at the front, outboard at the rear. The engine was a flat four, designed specifically and exclusively for the Alfasud, with belt driven overhead camshafts and two valves per cylinder. It started at 1186cc and ultimately grew to 1712cc. The engine was mounted ahead of the front axle, longitudinally (as in the crankshaft ran front to back), with the gearbox behind the engine.  This engine allowed a low bonnet line, as well as low centre of mass, and the car itself weighed in it at under 1800lbs.

As an aside, some questions to consider later – by 1968, rear engines and air cooling were losing their appeal, so if Ferdinand Porsche had defined the Alfasud in 1968, would it have looked like this? And in 1946 Alec Issigonis wanted a very front mounted flat four for the Morris Minor. What would his Alfasud have looked like?

In under four years, from that clean sheet of paper,  Hruska and Giugiaro had created the car, and the November 1971 Turin Motor Show saw the debut of the Alfasud, Alfa Romeo Tipo 901. Meanwhile, the factory at Pomigliano d’Arco had been established, and attracted over 140,000 job applicants.

The press reaction, after the first drives in spring 1972, was positive. CAR, as an example, described it not as a small car but as a small Alfa Romeo with all that “implies in terms of performance, handling and character”. The engine’s smoothness and power, the handling, notably the lack of understeer and torque steer and effective brakes all won praise, and the magazine stated that it was a better car than the Fiat 128, Citroen GS and Peugeot 304. Not bad for a first attempt in the sector.

Autocar was no less impressed. “The ‘Sud ….offers truly incredible handling, a comfortable and quiet ride and easy cruising.…the high-revving, exceptionally smooth and quiet engine, the crisp gearbox and light but effective brakes, it is a dynamic masterstroke.… remarkable economy and reasonable running costs shows how comprehensively engineered the Alfa Romeo Alfasud is, and just how practical an inspirational driver’s car like the ’Sud can be when executed properly.

For a full contemporary take, this is from CAR in May 1976

This comparative test was published in CAR in 1976, after the car had been on the market for four years. But the competitors were established too, so perhaps we can read backwards.

The Alfasud comes out as the pick, with a clear win on the driving experience whilst being competitive on comfort and efficient on packaging.

The car did have some interior and ergonomic oddities though. The driving position was not perfect, with some of the classic Italian “short leg, long arm” tradition evident.

The steering column stalks were notable – the left one familiarly enough for indicators, lights (twist the end) and pull for headlamp flash, push away for main beam. The right one did the horn (pull towards the wheel), the wipers (twist the end) and the heater blower (clicking round as if to indicate….).  These stalks, and the wipers,  were reversed for right hand drive, unusual for that time, but the boot release remained by the left side (passenger) seat. The choke warning light doubled for the brake fluid level warning.

It was a closer run against the Citroen GS and the Austin Allegro in 1974 – well, against the Citroen anyway – with a verdict (in a test that does not mention or record mpg!) suggesting comfort or Alfa feel would be the decisive factor, with the final nod going to the Alfasud.

Both the Alfa Romeo and Citroen were identified as “exceptional cars”, and few will argue with that. As a driver’s car, the Alfasud was setting a new class standard, but not at the expense of other key strengths. As an aside, it’s interesting to see that CAR’s attitude to the Allegro is warmer than history and popular recollection might suggest.  And it was reading reviews like these that first sparked my interest in Alfa Romeo.

The range started to widen in late 1973, with the arrival of two door 1200ti variant, with more power and a five speed gearbox, and the visual differentiation of twin headlamps. In 1974 came the better equipped SE, with fabric seats, padded dash and a tachometer.

And in 1975 came the three door Giardinetta estate car version, although the relationships within the Alfasud project were clearly weakening as Giugiaro refused to have this classed as his work, as too much had been changed by Alfa Romeo for his liking. Certainly, the square and boxy rear end does not fit particularly well with the front.

Most accounts of the Alfasud history will note that the ramp up of production was much slower than intended, that the peak rate of around 103,000 in 1975 took four years to achieve and was far short of the 1000 cars a day Alfa Romeo had predicted. Partly this was due to the car and the major failing we all know about, partly the limited model range and relative cost, and partly the performance of Pomigliano d’Arco which had more than its fair share of industrial strife, absenteeism (especially at harvest time and on Friday, allegedly) and supply chain issues. Some accounts suggest these issues impacted the model range directly, with an entry level 2 door saloon never appearing, for example.

And that major failing? Inevitably, we have to consider the corrosion problems that struck the Alfasud. Early cars, from 1972-75, were very soon found to be rusting. An early preventative action was to inject foam into box sections which in fact actually made the issue worse, as the foam trapped moisture inside the voids.

As CC has seen before, there are various reasons behind a car’s propensity to corrode. It can be low quality steel, it can be design weaknesses, it can be assembly failures and it can be poor painting and material preparation. Many have suggested that the Alfasud’s issues were traceable to poor quality steel, possibly recycled, possibly Russian. In fact the steel used was exactly the same as that used on the Giulia, and came from Italy. It was not unpainted cars being left outside in the rain or close to the coast and there seems to be little to suggest the Alfasud was more susceptible to corrosion from poor design than any other car. The cause formally identified by Alfa was surface preparation variations, notably due to weak process control and inconsistent use of the electrophoresis baths in Pomigliano d’Arco. Interruptions to production leading to excessive condensation on the steel added to the issue. From 1977, some elements of the body were made from zincrometal, with zinc and chromatic primer. Later cars were much better but reputational damage can be quick and long lasting.


The big news for 1976 was the launch of Alfasud Sprint, with a unique Giugiaro penned sharp edged style that was much more early 1970s than late 1960s. It also bore a striking resemblance of the first VW Scirocco from 1974, also by Giugiaro. To my eye at least, the VW looks like the later, more modern, less ornate design, perhaps in line with VW’s specifications, or perhaps due to Alfa Romeo’s delays. Who can tell us definitively? Is it too much to speculate that this car was expected to be launched earlier than 1976, and much sooner after the saloon?

Photo from Classic and Sportscar

But there were still clear Alfasud cues on the Sprint – the cropped clipped tail, the full length side crease, the rear window angle and the low bonnet line – and also a clear relationship with the larger Giugiaro Alfetta GTV from 1974.

The Sprint saw the start of the growth of the flat four, with a 1286 cc 75bhp engine in the first examples. The saloon gained the five speed gear box, becoming the 5M (5 Marce in Italian) as well.

There was a minor facelift with some trim changes in 1977 and again in 1980, when larger bumpers and bigger rear lights appeared.

In 1981, the long obvious thing happened – the car gained a hatchback without any change in its profile, initially on the two door and then on the four door in 1982. This was in effect another parallel with its long term competitor the Citroen GS, which gained a rear hatch to become the GSA in 1979. But the Alfasud was now looking an older product, and with smaller lower power engines than some rivals and was being at least challenged on the road by newer cars like the VW Golf, and sales didn’t improve. In 1983, the Alfasud saloons were progressively replaced by the new Alfa Romeo 33.

Total production was around 900,000 saloons, 5,000 Giardinettas and 120,000 Sprints of all kinds.

And even some van versions of the Giardinetta.

Not huge numbers, but comparable to the total for the Hillman/Chrysler Avenger/Plymouth Cricket for example, over a similar period, and considerably more than the Austin Allegro managed.

The Alfa 33 was derived from the Alfasud, but with a bit of growth in the floorpan and some simplification of the engineering – out went the inboard front brakes and rear discs. These changes were incorporated under the skin of the Sprint coupe, which also lost the Alfasud name to become the Alfa Romeo Sprint.

This lasted until 1989 in various forms, with 1.3 and 1.7 litre engines and various iterations of trim and details, which enable me to place this car as 1983-87. Whether these trim changes, focussing on varying plastic grilles, bumpers and trim strips, improved on Giugiaro’s 1976 work is a moot point.

The Alfasud drivetrain and front suspension was also used for the Alfa Romeo Arna and Nissan Cherry Europe, which clothed the Alfasud drivetrain in the body of the 1982 Nissan Cherry and was assembled in Pomigliano d’Arco with limited commercial success. The boxer engine lived on, in the Alfa Romeo 33 until 1995, and then in the Alfa Romeo 145 and 146 until 1997. In all, some 2.5 million cars were powered by the flat four over 26 years.

Survival rates are low, largely due to the corrosion issue; there are around 300 Alfasuds left in the UK, with just 120 on the road. Still, the Alfa Romeo Owners’ Club got over 60 all together last summer.

The Alfasud was more than another Alfa Romeo; it was more than another compact car. It was an Alfa Romeo that was a compact car, a sector Alfa Romeo had not competed in previously, with all the history and heritage that badge and logo (though now missing the word “Milano”) brought. But it was also a compact car that new standards in packaging, handling and roadholding, comfort, accessible performance and sheer Italian charm and brio. CC has seen before the products of cars defined if not designed in detail by one or two people – cars like the VW Beetle, Mini, the Citroen 2CV and Mazda MX-5 (and others) – and the Alfasud feels like another with Hruska and Giugiaro complementing each other’s talents and enabling both to shine.

How good was it? Well, it was launched in 1971 and still lauded as a very competitive car ten and more years later. It was launched at the beginning of the 1970s; in December 1979 CAR named it, not the VW Golf, Citroen CX, Renault 5 or Mercedes W126, as their Car of the 1970s, while in 1980 Autocar noted that in 1973 they had considered that the Alfasud was their favourite front wheel drive car for handling and on road behaviour, that opinion still stood seven years later. And it was still their pick over some good cars overall, and justified that on value as well.

Its test of the Alfasud 1.5Ti in September 1980 was subtitled ”Still the tops”, and describing the engine noise as “Latin” is, as far as I am concerned, a compliment.

There are some caveats to record also, as there always are. Corrosion was one, and the damage it (and Lancia’s issues) did to the Alfa Romeo and wider Italian car reputation in some markets is still there. Whilst performance was strong, fuel economy was not always great –  a smaller engine working relatively hard can be thirsty, and it would be tempting to make the boxer engine sing. The model range was seemingly simultaneously complex, with no little quick and easy naming of  trim levels and, for example, at one time, there were two models sold as 1.5 Ti with different power outputs, but also limited – no entry level three door, no right hand drive estate and no automatic option. The hatchback was arguably late, though Citroen and Austin amongst others may also be guilty there. That made the boot harder to load and not actually that spacious, to the benefit of interior space. Blame Rudolf Hruska’s personal baggage. Some of the ergonomics were awkward, or part of the Alfa Romeo Italian car experience depending on your perspective. And not much more.

So, a car that took one of the greatest names of sports cars and with a huge racing heritage into a new sector of the market, that was affordable, reliable, refined, looked great, had a tremendous coupe derivative and set new standards for road behaviour and comfort that were still class leading ten years later. Quite an achievement for a first time competitor.

Ford of Europe bench marked the Mk 3 Escort, the first front wheel drive Escort and the basis of the North American 1980 Ford Escort, against the Alfasud. The Escort was good, a huge step change from the previous Escort or the Cortina, but was it good enough to dethrone the Alfasud? Not quite, said CAR. And neither was the contemporary VW Golf GTi.

Henry’s grandson spent £500 million (in late 1970s values; £2 billion now?) on that car; no wonder Mr Ford would tip his hat when he saw an Alfa Romeo go by.

I don’t wear a hat, but I will always stand for an Alfasud.

And, usually, jump excitedly, pointing.