Alfa Romeo

The Società Anonima Italiana Darracq (SAID) was founded in 1906, with Italian investment, by French car maker Pierre Alexandre Darracq (1855-1931). Its Darracq cars and taxis did not sell well, so in 1909 it was reformed as the Società Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili (ALFA) or Lombard Automobile Factory Ltd, still in partnership with Darracq, commissioning Giuseppe Merosi to design a home-grown 24 HP for 1910. ALFA raced two of these in a works team, driven by Franchini and Ronzoni, in the 1911 Targa Florio. Under pressure to produce military hardware for the Italian and Allied war efforts, in August 1915 the company reorganised under Neapolitan entrepreneur Nicola Romeo, who changed the name to Alfa Romeo. It restarted car production in 1920 with the Torpedo 20-30 HP, with industrialist Romeo adding his name to ALFA along with the Milan coat of arms, the red Crusader cross of the Dukes of Milan, on the left of its badge. On the right a serpent devours either a child, or a defeated Saracen, there is some dispute over which.

Romeo left in 1928, the company facing ruin after defence contracts ended, and bleak years until it was nationalised by Mussolini's government in 1932. It was producing some memorable cars, even though once again obliged to turn over its best efforts to aero engines and armaments supporting Italy’s war aims. The racing team was deputed to Enzo Ferrari’s Scuderia Ferrari; however the skill and daring of the best drivers of the day were unequal to the task of beating the Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union teams from Germany.

Alfa Romeo struggled back to profitability after the Second World War, mass-producing small vehicles rather than hand-building luxury models until the 1960s and 1970s, when it managed a return to sporty cars. Its Italian government parent company, Finmeccanica obliged to make a profit, sold the brand to Fiat in 1986.

Alfa Romeo's position in Italy’s social structure was emphasised in 1971, when it was instructed to set up a new factory making a small car in the south of Italy, an area of chronic unemployment. Giugiaro had a hand in the new model, known, because of the location of the new plant, as the Alfasud.

It was no ordinary economy car. Like almost every Alfa, it maintained the make's tradition for roadworthiness, remaining probably the best-handling small car in the world. Its flat-four engine and front wheel drive lent themselves to a sporting application, putting the Alfasud Sprint and certain Lancia models in an unusual position amongst sporting classics, with front wheel drive.

Alfasuds began life with a modest 1186cc, but the engine was enlarged to provide the Sprint Veloce with 1490cc, giving up to 105mph (169kph) and the best part of 28mpg (10l/100km). The Alfasud scored well, not so much through being fast - compared with many sports cars it was not, but it could be steered with great precision, placed on the road exactly where the driver wanted to go, with little body roll and a flat, even ride that went a long way to make up for the rather mean-looking interior. Even the admired Alfa Romeo mechanically musical noises remained -the Sud's little 'Boxer' engine produced a delightfully discreet rasping exhaust note.

TEXT from Sports Car Classics, Vol1, Dove Digital. Pictures Alfa Romeo 158 of he 1940s and 6C of the 1930s at Goodwood. Alfasud and modern reinterpretation of Alfa Romeo Disco Volante.