This page is dedicated to the memory of Pat Braden who died on August 25, 2002.
The First Real Kiss
There is no question that, in the broad history of Alfa, the 1900 series
cars were the most pivotal model since Vittorio Jano's
Giuseppe Merosi's RL series in 1926/27. The
decision to produce the
Giulietta was a proper extension of the
decision to enter mass production with the 1900.
I have been continually frustrated by Alfa management's inability to
understand that the significance of the Giulietta's success was that it was a
downscale car. This is especially frustrating because, just after the war,
someone in the company understood what it would take to save Alfa Romeo. Alfa
management shelved the 6C3000 in the clear realization that its only
salvation lay in the mass-production of an affordable vehicle. That was a
realization which should now be haunting the 164 sales folk in New York and
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The fact of the matter is that, as soon as the Giulietta had established itself as a success, Alfa began moving away from it, inching upscale. The 1900 was the first sports sedan. Those who know only the Milano or 164 would find the 1900 incredibly stark. By the time of the Giulia Super, Alfa absolutely owned the sport sedan market. But it abdicated that market to BMW. As a result, it now finds itself crowded out of the market it invented, slugging it out with much better financed companies who are producing much better products. There's a circular cause-and-effect which also operates here: with smaller market share, you have to make more expensive cars, which means you're going to sell even fewer.... Having failed to cultivate the seeds of its own success, then, Alfa broadcast the seeds of its own failure, ending up as a badge-engineered Fiat. I can't minimize the catastrophe that the Fiat acquisition represents to the historic Alfa Romeo. The very best face which can be put on the deal was that it kept Alfa in business. A cynic might ask to what advantage.
Alfa could have survived by eschewing deDion rear suspensions and V6 engines and simply continuing the production, say, of the Giulia Veloce spider as a reputable sport car and the Giulia Nuova as a no-nonsense sport sedan. It might have worked: in point of fact, the current spider is a Duetto, but one so overloaded with gadgets that its essential character is lost. The AlfaSud coupe might have done it for Alfa in the US, but by the time it came along, Alfa didn't have the money to promote it, even though the ‘Sud itself had passed our emissions and safety standards. As we now know, Alfa decided against producing a micro spider, a minimalist sport car which used many off-the-shelf components. Had it done so, it most certainly would have scooped the Miata, recaptured some of the magic of the marque and possibly saved the company's independent identity. Instead, it finds itself a marque with no real identity, trying to sell an undistinguished sedan in a market segment populated by several distinguished sedans.
Which is a long way from where the Giulietta pointed. In an age of wide-eyed automotive innocence, the Giulietta stood out. Never mind that it couldn't out-drag a ‘Vette: it had a twin-cam engine with a power output which was absolutely heroic. And, never mind that it leaned around turns much more than the British ox-carts: the conventional wisdom had not yet discovered that a flat-cornering car was not necessarily the fastest, especially on a road course.
So far as technology is concerned, the Giulietta represents the pinnacle of pre-electronic automotive design. Its twin overhead camshafts and hemispheric combustion chambers were classic assurances of high engine speeds (reduced danger of valve float) and optimum volumetric efficiency. The wet-sleeve design was daring and helpful: you can replace all the parts subject to wear in a Giulietta. It is an infinitely rebuildable design. Its monocoque chassis was both light and rigid (Duettos introduced cowl shake with a bolt-in dashboard), while its suspension was adequately supple to provide an excellent ride. The huge Alfin drums were aesthetically brilliant as well as mechanically efficient. The rear axle was so light and well located that the design gave away nothing even to exotic IRS setups, and its transmission was the benchmark for smooth shifting for over a decade. Everything mechanical on the Giulietta was designed in fealty to a classic vocabulary, and the result was a masterwork of the genre.
But none of these mechanical details explains the enormity of the Giulietta's appeal. For many of us, the Giulietta was a graduation from amateurish slobbering to the First Real Kiss. Consider the competition. The MG was slower, even with its new aerodynamic bodywork, and had a pushrod engine. The Triumph was a match for performance but not comfort. The Jag was faster, shared much of the Giulietta's technology, but was a nightmare to maintain. The Corvette was a sledgehammer of a car and anything European which could keep up with it on the straights -- Astons, Masers and Ferraris, was simply beyond the budgets of most enthusiasts. There were cars which matched the Giulietta for sheer charm, like the Siata and Abarth, but they were notoriously fussy.
The Giulietta hit a lot of enthusiasts' hot buttons. Like a true exotic, there wasn't a lot of information available about it, and you probably needed help keeping your Giulietta running. They were hard to start in the winter, the transmission required an oil which was available only in 55-gallon drums and the generator kept trying to fall off. The heater was a joke and the Veloce required a special technique just to get it underway without stalling. But the Giulietta, perhaps more than any other car of its era, spoke to the enthusiast's heart. It would travel all day at speeds which would have melted other cars' engines, it made wonderful sounds, was comfortable, could actually keep you dry in a rainstorm and was beautiful enough to turn heads. You could love a Giulietta. Really love it.
Enthusiasts have a way of getting together. Certainly the pre-war East Coast coterie which waited with McClure Hallely for the delivery of his new 8C2900 could be considered a prototype club. I think Ralph Stein was another member of that group. There might have been an informal California group, to which Otto Zipper must have belonged. Those guys were Titans, because the Alfas they owned were hand-built and very expensive. The Giulietta changed the price of admission. There was the Detroit Alfa group with Ken Askew a successful schoolteacher-racer. But it was Dic Van der Feen and Bruce Young of the Chicago group who wrote a letter to Road & Track offering help and soliciting membership in an Alfa club.
That's where I came in. In a very real sense, it's where all us regular folk came in. The Giulietta started it -- and, for many of us, the Giulietta continues to define what an Alfa Romeo really is.
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Copyright March, 1996
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