This page is dedicated to the memory of Pat Braden who died on August 25, 2002.
In the post-war period of reconstruction, Italy dragged its economy up
through countless governments and a labyrinthine bureaucracy. The
visionaries recognized the era as one of great opportunity, for the
industrial leadership of the next generation would be formed from the
ashes of the second world war. New companies such as Porsche and
Cisitalia were doing very well and the specialists, Conrero, Nardi, Siata,
Moretti and countless others, were prospering.
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Alfa was abuzz with plans: the innovative Gazelle was shelved, a replacement for the 6C2500, the 6C3000, looked promising -- but there was no money for development. There was a good deal of soul-searching. Europe would most certainly offer important new markets as its citizens gained affluence. Alfa had always courted the wealthy, but post war Europe offers the opportunity to capture new, and much larger markets. The decision was made to enter serial production. That was a momentous decision for Alfa, one which changed the nature of the company and its products. But again, no money.
Until the US Marshall plan subsidized the development of a volume-production facility at Portello, the original site of Alfa. The new model broke with Alfa tradition in a number of ways. In keeping with its "inexpensive" price, it had a four-cylinder engine, the first four from Alfa since the RMU of the late 1920s. And the car had no chassis, being instead a unit body. While the front suspension was independent, with two A-arms and a kingpin, the rear was a solid rear axle with coil springs. It was an instant success and no one paused to soul-search whether or not this was a "real" Alfa. The four-door sedan was not pace-setting in its styling and might have been mistaken for a Plymouth or Fiat 1400 by the casual observer. In fact, it was something between the two in size.
The 1900 had its share of teething problems on the new assembly line. While Satta was its undoubted father, Rudolph Hruska was brought in to sort things out. Hruska's experience included start-up of the VW facility before the war. He would stay on to help put the Giulietta into production, and single-handedly create the AlfaSud and its factory near Naples. The 1900 made unashamed use of plastics, and I think it was the first Alfa to use a wiring harness.
In keeping with Alfa's racing heritage, the new 1900 sedan was advertised as "The family sedan which wins races." And, in fact it did. The 1900 entered events from Monte Carlo to the Carrera Panamerica. But it also carted several generations of Italians around as a taxicab and populated the new autostradas as police pursuit cars. The design was conservative and the 1900 proved to be exceptionally durable.
Like its predecessor 6C2500, the 1900 was current in an era of optimistic experimentation. Production cars were capable of reaching aerodynamic speeds (the 1900 was good for about 100 mph) and extensive research was underway to find out how to keep them stable at high speed. New manufacturing techniques learned from the war years and an enthusiastic sense of the future spurred stylists into thinking seriously about what the future would look like.
More often than not, their ideas rolled on the Alfa 1900 chassis. The 1900 chassis was the basis of both the dramatic Bertone BAT cars and the sleek Pininfarina Superflow series. The 1900 was also the basis of Zagato's return to body building for Alfa. Further, the Touring-bodied 1900 coupe of 1955 set a styling theme which the Giulietta would emulate. If you pick up any worthwhile book on automotive styling of the 1950s, you're going to see a lot of 1900 Alfa Romeos. The BATs certainly set a record for winged imagination, but some of the most controversial bodies on the 1900 chassis were from Ghia. No one, of course, could see the future, but Ghia peered more resolutely than most. In the process, the carrozeria managed to produce some disjointedly ugly creations.
There were two basic engines in the 1900 series: the original displaced 1884 cc while the Super version displaced1975 cc. Both featured sodium-cooled exhaust valves and chain-driven twin overhead camshafts (some early 1884 cc engines had a half-size idler gear drive off the crank, then a chain). A single carburetor graced the standard sedans while a pair of down draft carbs were standard equipment for the Super. While a 4-speed gearbox was standard, the more-sporting Supers had a 5-speed, either column or floor shift.
Can we talk? I've owned a whole lot of Alfas, including a 1750 Zagato and an 8C2300. Yet the favorite of all the Alfas I've owned is the 1900 Zagato I had for a few happy years back in the 1970s. That's my idea of what a car should be. It was fast, ultimately reliable and just on the edge between ugly and beautiful. You could not fail to notice it (deep red paint aside) nor be exhilarated by its capacity to dominate the road. Its equipment included a five-speed gearbox, wonderfully full instrumentation, seats which were both beautiful and comfortable -- and an engine sound I shall never forget. An exceptional synthesis of the classic and modern, it is the only Alfa I have regretted selling.
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Copyright March, 1996
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