The Alfa Romeo story started in Milan on 24, June 1910. That was the day a group of entrepreneurs and businessmen took over the Italian Darracq automobile company (based in Portello on the outskirts of Milan) from its French parent company, and called it Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili – A.L.F.A. The new company was formed at a time of economic and social change: the first plastics were being invented, Guglielmo Marconi received the Nobel prize for physics and Alfa’s competitors – Fiat and Lancia – were eleven and three years old respectively.
The new company began with a winner: the 24 hp. The mechanical components, performance and driving satisfaction that proved so popular on Alfa’s first car are all features for which the brand was to become famous. The car also cost ‘only’ 12,000 Lire, i.e. £23,000 at today’s prices. The following year it made its racing debut, and it was set to win the Targa Florio when forced to withdraw due to a minor accident when the driver was temporarily blinded by mud.
In 1912, Alfa launched the 15-20 hp, and the 40-60 hp arrived in 1913. This car’s six litre engine powered it to second place overall in the Parma-Poggio Berceto hillclimb. Next year, Giuseppe Merosi built the first Alfa Grand Prix car in which driver Giuseppe Campari covered a kilometre at more than 147 km/h. The outbreak of World War One and consequent limited resources brought difficulties for the company. On 2, December 1915 it was taken over by the Neapolitan engineer and entrepreneur Nicola Romeo. The Portello plant, which employed 2,500 people at the time, was extended to handle military orders. At this time it was producing motor-driven compressors, munitions, aircraft engines and, from 1917, rolling stock.
With peacetime the company was forced to change again. It sought out new markets, manufacturing drills, tractors and more rolling stock. Although Romeo bought companies in Saronno, Rome and Naples, he did not forget about cars because in 1920 the Torpedo 20-30 hp appeared - the first vehicle to bear the new company name of Alfa Romeo. A 22-year old by the name of Enzo Ferrari secured second place in the Targa Florio at the wheel of one of these cars.
Like all other European countries, Italy underwent a political, social and economic crisis during the immediate post-war years. Factories were occupied and currency devalued. The dollar was quoted at little more than five lire in 1914, but rose to nearly 30 lire six years later. In 1921, Banco Nazionale di Sconto, the main shareholder of Ansaldo in Genoa, Ilva in Piombino and Alfa Romeo, collapsed. The government was forced to intervene and set up a special body (IRI) to subsidise these industries. The following year protesters marched on Rome, and even though the first locomotive built by the company was produced at the Saronno workshop, Alfa Romeo remained in difficulties.
The RL model, however, met with considerable success in 1923, when it took first, second and fourth places in the Targa Florio. At the Savio circuit the Baracca family gave Enzo Ferrari the prancing horse symbol that he was later to use on all his own cars. Merosi built the Grand Prix Romeo that later became the P1. Designer Vittorio Jano arrived from Fiat and began work on the P2.
A period of great technical innovation and sporting success then began to unfold. The reliability of Alfa’s engines was indisputable and the talent of its drivers a byword for skill on racetracks across Europe. Among them were Antonio Ascari, Gastone Brilli Peri, Giuseppe Campari, Enzo Ferrari, Tazio Nuvolari and Achille Varzi.
The world economic crisis triggered by the Wall Street Crash of 1929 affected Alfa’s growth and, in 1933, the Italian State’s Institute for Industrial Reconstruction (IRI) was forced to intervene.
The same year, the company pulled out of racing and its 8C 2300 B models were entrusted to Ferrari. The results were outstanding when it is considered that Alfa won more races than all other manufacturers during 1934, and in 1936 the company’s sporting activities actually forced standard production to take a back seat!
Two years later came the 8C 2900 B Lungo. The Touring version of this car was the most representative Alfa of the period; its mighty bonnet an intoxicating symbol of style and power. Alfa Romeo’s tradition of making standard production models to exactly the same mechanical and engine specifications as their race-winning counterparts really paid off when this car took the first three places in the Mille Miglia. In 1938, Jano resigned and, from then on, racing cars were designed by Gioacchino Colombo and Luigi Bazzi under the supervision of Wilfredo Ricart.
Strategic decisions had to be made during this period, and IRI directed Alfa’s manufacturing activities toward commercial vehicles and aero engines. In 1931 the first truck, the Bussing 50, appeared, followed by the 85C and the 350 Diesel, later to be adopted by the Fire Brigade. In 1935, the T85G won an international race for petrol-engined trucks over the Rome-Brussels-Paris route.
The delivery of more than 2000 vehicles to the Italian army during its Ethiopian campaign only served to strengthen Alfa Transport’s reputation for reliability. The truck version of the 500 model offered an excellent payload of 11,000 kg and its bus version won plaudits for styling, passenger comfort and a top speed of 68 km/h. The 110A provided public transport in Rome, Milan and Genoa.
Alfa engines were also the world’s best in aviation. They owed their success to the use of state-of-the-art materials such as Duralfa, a light aluminium alloy used to build propellers, pistons, cylinder heads and other components.
In 1939 the 135 was unveiled, a twin-row 18-cylinder radial engine that developed nearly 2000 hp and was the most powerful unit of its time. Some 150 of these were produced for the Luftwaffe. The 126, 127 and 128 set and beat 13 flying boat and aircraft world speed, height and distance records. Aeronautical output accounted for nearly 80 per cent of Alfa’s annual turnover and a new plant was built at Pomigliano d’Arco (Naples) at the end of the decade to meet growing demand, some of it from abroad. This had a positive impact on workforce numbers, which rose from 1000 to 14,000 in the space of seven years. On 10, June 1940, however, Italy joined Germany in World War Two and the company’s ambitious plans were overturned.
Like most of the Italian industry, Alfa was forced to carry out war work and its plants suffered from allied bombing raids as a result. Northern Italy also had to contend with the German occupation after September 1943. It was difficult to find raw materials and there was also a fear that entire departments would be transferred to Germany. Yet somehow the company managed to maintain its high engineering standards. In 1942, for example, a three-engined Italian SM75 powered by Alfa 128 units flew the 20,000 kilometres to Tokyo and back. After a bombing raid on 20 October 1944, however, the Portello plant ceased all activities.
After the war, nothing was left standing in which to build aviation engines or buses, let alone cars. So the 8000 Portello employees built electric cookers, steel furniture, fixtures, fittings and blinds – anything that the community needed to rebuild.
Cars were not built again until 1946 when the factory began to turn out pre-war 6C 2500 cars. Out on the track, the company raced 158s salvaged from the ruins. Then the new versions (Freccia d’Oro and Villa d’Este) arrived with their innovative steering wheel-mounted gear shift. Everyone liked them, including VIPs of the period. Rita Hayworth, Tyrone Power, Prince Ranieri of Monaco and King Farouk of Egypt all owned these cars.
In 1950 the 1900 was launched – the first Alfa with a unitary body designed by Orazio Satta Puliga (who joined the company in 1938). Sporting triumphs began to accumulate. The Alfa 158 enjoyed absolute supremacy in Grands Prix and won the world championship in 1950 with Farina at the wheel. Alfa also resumed production of commercial vehicles, aircraft and marine engines as well as diesel power units for industrial application. In 1948 IRI was reorganised and Alfa passed into the hands of subsidiary holding company, Finmeccanica. These promising events were interspersed with sadder episodes: Ugo Gobbato was mysteriously killed in Milan in 1945 and racing drivers Varzi, Trossi and Wimille both died.
As De Gasperi, Adenuer and Schuman laid the foundations for a future European Union, and international politics was dominated by the cold war, the Italians dreamed of prosperity and a time when everyone would own their own car. Only one in every 96 Italians owned a car in 1949. This figure rose to one in 28 in 1958 and one in 11 in 1963. Italy’s gross domestic product also increased by 6.3 per cent per year between 1955 and 1960.
After the success of the 1900 (some 20,000 were built), Alfa’s automotive business took on an industrial dimension. In 1951, Fangio won the world F1 championship at the wheel of a 159 fitted with the most powerful 1500 cc engine ever built. It produced 425 horsepower and was capable of more than 300 km/h. Immediately thereafter, Alfa decided to withdraw from Grand Prix racing. It continued to compete in other races, however, and produced the lens-shaped ‘1900 Disco Volante’ with a top speed of 225 km/h for this purpose.
The Giulietta Sprint Coupé, forerunner of so many successful models, arrived in 1954. This was the must-have 1300 of its day, and nearly 28,000 were sold. The 1955 Spider version was one of the finest open-topped cars of all time. It was a typically Alfa blend of style, personality and mechanical sophistication that somehow managed to express all the creative enthusiasm and will to thrive that underpinned the Italian economic boom of the early Sixties. The car’s success allowed Alfa to extend its presence overseas. The Giulietta Spider was created in response to demand from the US importer, which ordered 600.
The 2000 went into production in 1958. This box-like saloon was joined by a Spider and Coupé. During the following year, production began on a Dauphine utility model (under licence from Renault) in order to maintain production at adequate levels.
Production of commercial vehicles and Saviem diesel engines continued at Pomigliano d’Arco. The US jeep-inspired 1900 AR51 (better known as the Matta) was built for the army, while a multi-purpose light commercial vehicle known as the Romeo was built for the general public. In 1956, engineer Filippo Surace joined Alfa Romeo. Twenty years later he would take over from Orazio Satta Puliga. Alfa Romeo was to be indebted to him for, among other things, the 33, 75, 90 and 164.
The Sixties began in a rosy glow of optimism. Italy had just hosted the Olympic Games and was experiencing an economic boom.
Alfa Romeo had now become a group with subsidiary companies of its own, and had outgrown the Portello headquarters, which was being swallowed up by all the new building work going on in Milan. The company, therefore, built a new plant at Arese that covered an area of more than 2.5 million square metres, and production was gradually transferred there. A track was also built at Balocco (Vercelli) to test prototypes. Because demand for cars was predicted to rocket, Alfa Romeo also built another site at Pomigliano d’Arco (the first brick was laid on 29 April 1968). Engineer Rudolf Hruska was commissioned to design and build a new car, and thus the Alfasud took shape.
One of the most representative cars of that period was the Giulia. It arrived in 1962 and, like other models, was destined to diversify into an extensive range of saloons and sporting models. More than one million were sold over the next 14 years. To put these figures into context, the company built almost 35,000 cars in total between 1910 and 1955, but total production had risen to around 500,000 cars by 1970. The 2600 also dates from 1962 and was the first Alfa equipped with disc brakes.
The Spider 1600 ‘Duetto’ with its ‘cuttlefish’ profile appeared in 1966. It was taken to America on the transatlantic liner Raffaello and was made famous by the feature film The Graduate, starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft.
The 1750 came along the following year to replace the Giulia saloon. It was a fast, safe car with excellent roadholding. The Giulia Coupé version exhibited at the Montreal International Motor Show in 1967 was a prestigious sports car that was later fitted with a 2500 engine.
In 1968, the company took over a majority shareholding in the Brazilian Fabrica Nacional de Motores (FNM), where it produced trucks and cars such as the 2300 and 2300B (1974-80). In 1963 it also set up a company called Autodelta, under the guidance of Carlo Chiti, to look after all racing activities. The new firm was responsible for producing racing versions of the 33 (2.0 and 3.0 litre) and the 8 and 12 cylinder 3.0 litre boxer engines. Autodelta also produced marine engines and was successful in world powerboat championships. The hard work paid off and, in 1967, a Giulia GTA snatched the European Championship from under the noses of Porsche, BMW and Ford. Three years later, Alfa collaborated with McLaren to produce a 3.0 V8 engine that was later used by the British team in Formula One.
The company serviced aircraft engines (no fewer than 17 were displayed during the International Show at Paris Le Bourget in 1968) and also built them: the J85-13 A power unit was launched in 1970.
Socio-political problems and energy crises were the dominant themes of the Seventies. Far-reaching repercussions of the '68 protests led to difficult political times in Italy (the Aldo Moro assassination in 1978) and also to social difficulties (factories were occupied and some managers were injured and even murdered). The economy suffered as a result: inflation went into double figures and car sales dwindled. By 1970, out of 6.6 million cars sold throughout the nine member countries of the EEC, only 1.3 million (or 19 per cent) were Italian.
By 31 August 1971 the Alfa Romeo Group with its 32,500 employees was forced to face up to a difficult economic situation and the problem of insufficient funds. Despite this, it presented new models such as the 2000 saloon (1971), the Alfetta GTV coupé (1974), the Alfetta 2000 TD – the first Italian car with a turbodiesel engine (1976), a new Giulietta (1977) and the top-of-the-range Alfa 6 with its brand new 2500 cc V6 engine (1979). The Alfasud met with a considerable success: 28,000 cars were produced in 1972. It was the company's first front-wheel drive car, and 70,000 were built in 1973.
Alfa continued to do well on the race track. The 33 TT 12 won the World Makes Championship (1975) while the 33 SC 12 won the World Sportscar Championship (1977). In 1978, the Alfa Team tied for third place with Brabham in the Formula One Constructors’ league table.
In 1978, Alfa Romeo also signed an agreement with General Electric to build the CF6-32 aircraft engine. The following year it produced the first turbo aero engine to be built in Italy: the 600 bhp AR 318.
Luraghi, chairman since 1957, resigned in January 1974. He was replaced for a few months by Ermanno Guani and later by Gaetano Cortesi who stayed until June 1978. Alfa’s top management team was then headed by Ettore Massacesi as Chairman, and Corrado Innocenti as Managing Director. The task of restructuring the business and introducing new manufacturing processes fell to this pair.
By 1 January 1981, Alfa Romeo SpA was the parent company of the group and thus responsible for control, finance and strategic planning in four sectors.
In 1985, the Italo-Japanese company Cosmo Ventures Incorporated was set up to sell the Spider 3000 and Alfa 75 in Japan. The following year, an agreement with Chrysler allowed Alfa Romeo to sell the Alfa 164 in North America, where the Spider 2000 and GTV6 2.5 were already present.
Yet the financial and market situation became increasingly difficult. IRI decided to sell off the automotive business and so, Alfa Romeo was taken over by the Fiat Group in November 1986. Following that agreement, it was also decided to close down Arna, (Alfa Romeo Nissan Automobili, an Italo-Japanese company set up to produce Alfasud Boxer-engined cars).
The three most representative cars of the decade were the 33 (also launched in Station Wagon and 4x4 versions in 1983), the 90 (1984), the 75 (created to mark the company's 75th birthday) and the 164 in 1987, the first Alfa Romeo produced as part of the Fiat Group. In the sporting field, the GTV6 became European Touring Champion in 1985, while in 1988 the 75 Turbo Evoluzione was successful in the Italian Speed Touring Championship.
Alfa light commercial vehicles also did well. The Italian Customs and Excise became one of the biggest customers for the F12 van. The AR 8 and AR 6 models were offered in no fewer than 24 versions: multipurpose vehicles, school buses, window vans and the Ravello camper van, to name but a few. Alfa Avio was also sold off when IRI's industrial activities were further rationalised. It was initially taken over by Aeritalia, but then in 1996 was aquired by FiatAvio.
The first Alfa Romeo 155 left the Pomigliano plant in 1992, and one year later the V6 TI version won the prestigious DTM, the German Touring Car Championship. The 145 and 146 three and five-door hatchbacks were introduced, while new Spider and GTV models produced at Arese continued a proud niche model tradition. They feature Alfa’s new 16v production engine. The Proteo concept car was introduced in 1991 while the stylish, sporty Nuvola prototype (1996) hinted at the memory of Nuvolari's sporting triumphs. The SZ and RZ limited production sports cars, based on the 75 3 litre, are launched. Alfa’s famous V6 engine gains a 24 valve head.
Great success came with the arrival of the 156 sports saloon, which won the Car of the Year title in 1998. Then came the 166 luxury sedan. The first common-rail diesel engine, the five cylinder 2.4 JTD, was launched by Alfa Romeo in the 156. During 2000, Alfa's 90th birthday was marked by the arrival of the 156 Sportwagon, a fine blend of Alfa Romeo experience, engineering and style. Alfa's new compact hatchback, the 147, was launched in the autumn of 2000. Its heritage was clearly visible in its dramatic design which took styling cues from some of the most stunning of Alfa Romeo’s cars of the past nine decades.
The 147 was awarded the prestigious Car of the Year 2001, adjudicated by top European journalists. Alfa diesel engines become more sophisticated with m-jet technology.
The new 159, Brera and Spider ranges were launched with new engines and 4-wheel drive for the higher powered versions. The 8C Competizione was designed as a limited edition flagship sports coupe with only 500 made. The Alfa MiTo B-segment car is launched in 2008.
All Alfisti look forward to the 100th anniversary celebrations to be held in 2010.