Another week, another excuse for me to get myself all dusty and covered in cobwebs with a trawl through the dungeon of despair, this time turning left at the artificial Christmas tree and reaching into the discarded packing crate marked “Italian, 1985+”
Alfa Romeo is a nameplate that has enjoyed something of a roller-coaster ride in terms of brand recognition pretty well anywhere outside Italy. “Who are they, what do they do and why should I buy a car from them?” the uninitiated may ask. Not us, of course. We all watch Top Gear and thus understand the strange appeal that Alfas always had, or at least alluded to having. But how much of this was smoke and mirrors? I mean, the Alfa 33 was just an Italian Ford Escort, really, wasn’t it?
“…the greatest name in the history of motor racing, Enzo Ferrari, began at Alfa Romeo as a racing driver”
You coudn’t blame 80’s Alfa for clinging as hard as they could to their illustrious motorsport past, really. It was, still is, a good heritage to have. Of course, not all the famous marques output really deserved that association; the misled Alfa Six and 90 models were uncompetitive in an arena that wasn’t really worth fighting in anyway. And there was of course the hilariously misguided Alfa Arna / Nissan Cherry Europe debacle, or how to combine the worst elements of two cars to create something far less good than the sum of its parts.
“In the eighties the Alfa Romeo road cars have proved yet again to be the equal of any in the world”
Yes and no. Of course, the GTV6 was winding down production as the 33 came onto the scene and the V6 powered 75 or Milano was often regarded as a great engine and transaxle looking for a decent body and chassis. However, they could never have been accused of lacking charisma. Soul, the Italian machines had by the bucketload.
“If there’s a faint trace of the enthusiast within you, if the distant rasp of a racebred exhaust note brings even the slightest smile to your lips- then be careful. Drive just one Alfa Romeo, and you may never drive any other kind of car again.”
It’s hard to define, this quality, if that’s the word. But it’s there. There’s a peculiar feeling of humanity in every AR product, a slight sensation of the car being alive, of giving a damn about what you’re doing. Flaws notwithstanding.
There were two boxer engines available, a 1.5 and a 1.7. The latter managed to yell out 118hp, which was impressive from a normally-aspirated engine of that size, and led to the car hitting 122mph flat out and gathering 60 in just 8.7 seconds. The larger engined cars were instantly identifiable by the factory-fit wind deflectors in the front windows, all the better for sprinting noisily across the countryside with the windows down without your Italiante hairstyle becoming discombobulated.
“At first, adopting the classic Italian driving position is like trying on a pair of new shoes. No mater how much you like the look, for the first few days they’re not as comfortable as the old ones.”
This was Alfa Romeos attempt at shrugging of criticisms levelled at their car by every single motoring journalist in the entire world. “We don’t fit!” was the united cry of the automotive press, moaning that their arms were too short and their legs too long to gel with the typical Alfa helm station.
Alfa’s view was, and this was probably quite valid if we were talking about minute detail, that the pedals were perfectly placed for heel and toeing and that the steering wheel angle allowed you to steer with your wrists and elbows, not your shoulders. All very well, but anybody over 5’8″ needed expensive surgery to comply, the kind of total limb re-design that must be well outside the scope of today’s medical science. Perhaps your ideal Alfa pilot needed to be of a breed less far evolved from Apes than the rest of society?
“(Alfa Romeo Designers) Approach the cockpit design with a haughty disregard of fashion and fad”
Yeah, not to mention ergonomics and common sense. Alfa were by no means as reckless as some other Italian firms, (Lancia Trevi, anybody?) but were prone to the occasional design clanger. The 75, for example, with its ceiling-mounted window switches. And in the 33;
“There’s also a discreet warning panel in the driver’s sightline, it monitors six functions and signals an alert if there’s anything beyond the information contained in the main gauges which the driver needs to know”
When they said “in the drivers sightline” they should have added “providing he’s not looking at the road, the instruments or the controls”. The extra panel was way, way down, below the radio, below the heater controls, below the ashtray. Equally amusingly, the rear wiper control shared a switch panel with the ventilation controls. I can only assume that Alfa wouldn’t be satisfied until major functioned could only be operated by rolling a six. Actually, that’s unfair. That’s more a Lucas thing.
“Despite the split-folding rear seats, despite its longer roofline and much increases capacity, this car preserves the style and panache of its hatchback stablemates”
It does. It’s quite a crisp, well executed design. But it didn’t make an especially practical load-lugger at all, you need only witness the sheer height of that loading sill which put paid to any thoughts of sliding lengthy items straight in. Better to use a stepladder, a cherry picker or a crane to haul said cargo to the necessary height, hold it on the ledge and let gravity do the rest. Fragile items were obviously a no-no.
“(The Alfa 33) retains the unmistakeable Alfa Romeo style in every line of its elegant coachwork, even in the way it sits purposefully on the road, as if it was made to be there. As indeed it was.”
Well, that’s a bit florid, even for me. But despite the neatness of the Sportwagon I prefer the odd-but-distinctive styling of the hatchback. Perhaps I’m already drunk (which is pretty impressive considering it’s midday on Sunday right now) but the 33 looks improbably handsome from the rear three-quarters, especially in black, in Veloce form. It looks, with a bit of squinting and a fertile imagination, like a miniaturised Maserati Ghibli or Shamal from the late ’80s. Of course, with its utterly prosaic front grille and headlamp arrangement it doesn’t look anything special from the front at all.
Later on, with various gentle restyles, the 33 gradually lost this individuality. The 33 and the bigger 75 had been at the forefront of the strange, almost cubist design treatments that Alfa adopted for their saloon cars in the ’80s, which would culminate with the fearsome ugly/beautiful/amazing SZ and RZ sports cars. However, the Spider sports car retained much of its original low-slung svelteness, and the 164 would soon realign Alfa Romeo with some kind of conventional elegance through its unspeakably handsome Pininfarina profiling.
My dentist used to have a 33, a 1.7 Sportwagon Veloce. He was a keen sailor, too, and an educated man, and very much typical of the sort of chap who would get the best out of an Alfa. There were far more effective cars out there, cheaper, better built, faster, more reliable. But more interesting?
My general approval of Alfa Romeos (well, generally about as far as up to 2008, I remain to be entirely convinced about anything post 159) is widely documented. I owned a late 156 for a brief period, before selling it when I realised I could make a 50% profit, and in that time I came dangerously close to falling in love with it. I hated the engine (it was a 1.9 JTD, 155hp, not bad for a diesel but lacking the fizz that an Alfa so badly needs) and there were areas of fit and finish that were patchy. But something about the way the car felt and responded made it seem like it had its hand on my shoulder. And the thing was gorgeous, inside and out. Which helped a lot.
I’m keeping an eye on them in the hope that I can love them again.