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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: June 23, 2010 @ 11:17 am

    100 Years of Alfa Romeo – what are your memories?

    Michael McAleer

    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.

    • cold mike says:

      I’ve never even sat in one as far as I remember, but I fancy the idea of buying a late model 164 for the price of a BLT sandwich and coffee and just running it into the ground! I wasn’t aware the sales has collapsed, never mind to such a degree. It sounds like a lethal mix of reputation, cutting prices and the opposition raising their game has done for Alfa.

    • John Cradden says:

      That’s the thing. As much as I love Alfa Romeos (esp Alfasud, GTV and Guilia saloon) it costs so much to run an unreliable car so this prevents me from ever buying one, old or new. I run a classic BMW as an everyday car and if it wasn’t as reliable as it is (and therefore cheap to run), it would have left my driveway long ago. But if i didn’t have to depend on one and had a garage, I’d be tempted.

    • Brendan Moran says:

      My memories of my Alfa Romeo Alfetta are very happy ones. I bought it in 1977 and kept it until 1985. The day I sold it for, I think, about 200 pounds (I was transferring from Ireland) was a sad occasion. During the 8 years I had it, the Alfetta never let me down and that included five visits to Greece from Ireland with my family – most of the time with two chilldren. And that was in the days when the European motorway system was still in its infancy. The long drive through what was then Yugoslavia was some 1,200 kilometers of single carriageway road. Although the Alfas of that time had a poor reputation for rust, I was either lucky or careful and with the exception of a few spots of rust on the door sills, it was still in good condition when I sold it. I can still remember the pleasing gurgling sound from the engine – a unique feature of Alfas – and loved to fiddle with the twin Weber carburetters which delivered fuel to the engine -a pleasure no longer available as electronically controlled injection engines have replaced the old carburetters. Sadly , it was the only Alfa I ever owned, but of all the cars I have had since then, it was the one I enjoyed most – a real driver’s car.

    • Seamus Carroll says:

      I ran a ’93 reg 164 for three years from 2000. It was a brilliant car. It had more performance than most hot hatches available new at the time, as much interior space as an E-Class Mercedes (that’s the packaging benefits of front wheel drive for you!) and only cost me IR£3,000 to buy. Mechanically, it was 100% reliable over the 3 years. Unfortunately, it was let down by some shoddy materials in the bodywork (door handles and seat adjusters particularly).
      The only 2 major faults that I had with the car were first, that my girlfriend (now wife) thought the suspension was very harsh – a complaint that I never heard when SHE was driving – and second, the idiot that rammed me from behind and killed my lovely car.

    • Alan Watson says:

      Memories of Alfas, lots of them and all pleasant ones now there is a surprise for many of you !

      My first Alfa was in 1980 a 1977 1.2 Alfasud Ti . What a car , 4 disc breaks, 5 speed, interior lights , twin headlights, fantastic looks and road holding with a raspy noise from the flat four engine and toon themtaly reliable. Only problem was metal worm and flimsy interior door panels with cloth handles that always broke. CZY 325 a two door Ti was snow white with the deep front spoiler and a three piece rear boot spoiler, much smaller and neater than the later models had.
      Driving it made up for all the small failings the trim had if only it had the performance of the then newly arrived Golf GTI but then GTI owners wished for the go kart handling of the Ti. The brilliant white colour over time developed faint red streaks around the tail lights and large front door window frames ,southern Italian metal worm had evaded customs and dpt of agriculture officials and arrived in Ireland via my beloved sud !
      Rust in Peace

      I went on to own some 1300 and1500cc Ti , an Alfa Sud Sprint “Veloce” a few saloons including one with a full cloth sun roof that didn’t leak , all reliable and enjoyable and all rusty ! But hell I loved driving them and they all looked and sounded great. Later on I had GTVs and after a gap of nearly 20 years filled with VW Scirocco ownership (apart from a short love hate relationship with a Lotus Sunbeam and an even shorter one with an Ascona) I got the bug again and bought a new 156 1.8 which I thoroughly enjoyed for 80000 trouble free miles.
      Then I bought a Skoda ! Still, I think the reason I enjoy the Octavia VRS is that it so reminds me of my favourite car without the flaws the 1977 1200 Alfasud ti , bellisimo !

    • Mick Murphy says:

      My memories are of rust!

    • Des says:

      Currently driving a ’01 147, and after over 3 years of driving, I still love her. Sure, she throws up random error messages, I’ve rewired half the car to fix them, she costs a bit more in parts than seems generally reasonable, she drinks petrol, but every time I start the engine I get a smile on my face. (Although that might be relief that it has actually started!)
      I’m very disappointed that sales have collapsed, but with only 1 new (supermini) car in 5 years, they’re probably feeling a bit of a rut. Hopefully the new Guilietta revives the brand.

    • GTA says:

      I am the proud owner of a 156 GTA, which I bought second hand in 2006. It is my first Alfa and with the high running costs may be my last. However the V6 is piece of engineering beauty and every time I turn the the key to start the engine or drop down a gear to overtake I am reminded that driving can be a pleasure. A change in lifestyle dictates that the car should be changed for a more practical (cheaper and smaller) model, however with the GTA currently not worth much except to enthusiasts I may be stuck with it. Fortunately, that doesn’t really upset me too much. I think everyone should own an at least 1 Alfa in their motoring life; yes they can be unreliable, the electrics can cause problems, keeping them on the road is very expensive but the joy of driving a good Alfa is a truly different and uplifting motoring experience.

    • ian says:

      My first car was a 1983 alfasud 1.5ti, great to drive and the rasp and roar from the flat four engine was fantastic, none of the artificial noises you get from new cars. I then had a 1984 1.3ti, 1982 gold cloverleaf, 1983 33 1.3s, 1987 green cloverleaf and then the best of all a 1983 alfasud sprint trophy(sadly sold a few years ago)
      Now I own a rover 75 and saab, why you may ask, well all the alfas I owned had very reliable engines and electrics but were but a bit fragile and so not ideal for a day to day car. I would own another but only use on weekends etc.
      There is still nothing like the alfasud for fun driving, not that quick but just brilliant handling.

    • Willie O'Sullivan says:

      Interesting issues about Alfas been unreliable…..I have owned an Alfa 155 from new (1997) and the only issue of unreliability is the electric mirrors have stopped working in the last 4 months. It is, by far, the most reliable and enjoyable car I have owned in the last 30 years. Would I recommend Alfas…..yes, would I buy another Alfa…..absolutely. If anybody out there has an Alfa they want to give away, just let me know.

    • Ana says:

      I love to the evolution of Alfa Romeo car models,,, there are some really classic models that I wish they were still on production. It is amazing to see how technology and style changes throughout time!!!

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