100 Years of Alfa Romeo – what are your memories?
My first memories of Alfa Romeo aren’t very pleasant, but they certainly left a lasting impression.
It was probably 1984 and I was about eight years old. My father, who was motoring correspondent for The Sunday Independent was reviewing the Alfa 33, a car that was not Alfa Romeo’s finest hour by any stretch of the imagination. I was in the back seat and my father was driving rather ‘spiritedly’. The upholstery was biscuit coloured, I remember that much and I had eaten alphabetti spaghetti for lunch. I don’t think I need to spell out the rest, although my spaghetti did spell out something unreadable.
Alfa 33: Unpleasant
That was my first impression of Alfa Romeo. It was in a particularly bad time for the brand. The 33 and the 75 were the core models that had followed on from a period which has seen the Italian brand produce perhaps their worst effort, the Alfa Romeo Arna, which took the worst of Italian reliability and the worst of Japanese stying and the result was an Italian Nissan Cherry, something that nobody really deserved.
Alfa Romeo was officially established in Milan on 24 June 1910. That year, a group of entrepreneurs and businessmen acquired Società Italiana Automobili Darracq, the Italian branch of the French car maker, and its Portello workshops on the city outskirts, and established A.L.F.A. (Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili – “Lombard Automobile Factory, Public Company”). The emblem underlined the new company’s ties to the city of Milan: a red cross from the city’s banner and the Visconti family “grass snake” (“Biscione” in Italian).
Alfa 24HP: The first Alfa
The 1930s were the years in which the Alfa Romeo legend took shape. Engine reliability was undisputed and the names of valorous drivers – Antonio Ascari, Gastone Brilli Peri, Giuseppe Campari, Enzo Ferrari, Tazio Nuvolari, Achille Varzi – were on everybody’s lips. They won many legendary races: Mille Miglia (11 wins, an undefeated record), Le Mans 24 Hours (four consecutive editions), Targa Florio, and a very long list of international Grand Prix. In addition, the valuable indications arising from racing were transferred to standard production models
In this week’s Motors you can read as Kilian Doyle meets an owner of an amazing 1930 8C as well as many more so-called Alfaholics as they tell of tales of good and bad about the brand.
As an adult, my first experience of the brand came about in my first week as a motoring journalist. It was 2000 and my first ever press car was an Alfa Romeo 156, a car that was to both propel the brand back into the limelight once more and give the brand more fans than ever before.
Alfa Romeo 156
The 156 had been European Car of the Year in 1998 and it was selling like hot cakes in Ireland at the time. Suddenly buyers were being persuaded out of BMWs and Audis to buy a 156 because not only was it beautiful, but it drove really well and had brilliant engines.
I fell in love straight away. I had friends who bought them, colleagues who got them as company cars and they were all rather pleased with themselves – for a while at least. Then, things started to go wrong. Alfa had produced their best car, but couldn’t make it reliable. There was a litany of problems with the 156. Do an internet search for Alfa 156 and Google will suggest the word ‘problems’.
But it was marvellous. Soon after I was handed the keys of the 156 GTA, an amazing performance saloon which was quite terrifying at times and when the 147 arrived, this small Alfa looked like it was finally restoring Alfa Romeo to the glory years.
But reliability has been an issue and despite many changes at the helm and lots of new models, sales here in Ireland have never again reached the levels of 2000. Back in 2000, Alfa Romeo sold 2,645 units, outselling Audi. In 2009, Alfa Romeo sold just 151 units and Audi sold 15 times more cars than Alfa Romeo.
We want to hear your Alfa Romeo stories. Did you own one? Did you want to own one? Did you love it or did it break your heart? And, we want to know whether you think this brands really has a future in these days of teutonic motoring perfection.