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Chapter 18

Roads not taken

Alfa needed to cut its work force. Hruska's cuts failed to stem the hemorrhage of funds, and laying people off was something no politician would venture. As a result, Alfa looked as if it might continue on its path unhindered. A shortage of funds restricted the development of new vehicles, however, and those which did appear began to seem out of step with current automotive technology.
Although it had developed a very interesting turbocharged racer, the GTA-SA, Alfa failed to take advantage of the US market's appetite for turbocharged cars. Several aftermarket units appeared for Alfa, and they gave the kind of performance increase which very well might have revitalized the image of the car. While turbocharged Alfas finally appeared in Europe, none came to the US.
After the turbo enthusiasm had cooled, multi-valve engines became the rage. The Japanese manufacturers were quick to adopt the technology which dates back to the Grand Prix Peugeot of 1912. Again, Alfa had a multi-valve head in development, but failed to pursue it for the American market.
Alfa was certainly not bereft of technological innovations. The V6 engine was light, innovative and reliable, if one ignores the early head gasket and belt detensioner problems. The modular engine, which varied the number of working cylinders, looked promising for a while but failed to be licensed by another manufacturer. A laminar-flow head, which added one-way reed valves to the intake port, gave a significant performance improvement by eliminating reversion, but failed to see production. The variable intake camshaft proved to be the only significant innovation Alfas offered.
In an era of active suspensions and computer controls for traction, Alfa fails to make even the starting gate. In a broader scope, its products began to seem less exotic than merely strange. The styling and ergonomics of the Milano sedan left enthusiasts around the world shaking their heads.
Advances in automotive technology came rapidly in the 1980s, borrowing heavily from aerospace and computer technologies. Low grades of fuel have kept compression ratios low. Maximum engine speeds, while moving past the 6000-rpm mark for the sportier cars, have not really taken advantage of the overhead camshafts and multiple valves which now grace even the most pedestrian passenger car engines. While few passenger cars utilize rugged new man-made materials such as kevlar, common plastics fill the interior of cars and are now widely accepted instead of fabric, wood or leather.
Stickier tires and more sophisticated suspensions permit cars to generate more than 1g on the skidpad, while anti-lock brakes and air bags have become almost universal. Emission control laws virtually compel the use of computers, and integrated systems, controlling both engine and transmission, are common. Traction control systems introduced by Mercedes and Lexus even apply the brakes and/or throttle back the engine on loss of traction.
For a while, cars spoke to their owners, reminding them that the door was ajar or the lights were on, but these systems were rejected as wretched excesses. Still, the level of automotive power or computer assists shows no tendency to decline. Voice recognition systems seem next, making power windows and door locks absolutely prehistoric. All these systems are the automotive equivalent of the infrared remote control couch potatoes use for their TV and VCR: they add nothing to the total experience, only make it easier to endure.
At the other end of the scale, the Miata discovered a niche for a "no-frills" sport car. It is, however, feature-laden compared to the austerity of the Giulietta and Giulia. The Miata is an engaging car which, given a lot more time and money, probably should have been an Alfa. Finally, it became clear that something had to be done about Alfa. A quiet inquiry was made to BMW if they would be interested in purchasing the company. Having already captured the major part of Alfa's sedan market, BMW had no need of Alfa's production capacity. Ford stepped up as a buyer. For a brief time, it seemed a good match. Ford needed exposure in Italy and might infuse enough money into the company to revitalize it. But Fiat, which had so many years ago gone on record for Alfa's closure, was unwilling to see a marketing giant such as Ford gain position in its home market.
Fiat's position was very much in line with the protectionism which has characterized the Italian auto market. Japanese companies have effectively been kept out of Italy, though the Common Market may undo much of that effort in the near future. While the Japanese have been quick to adopt new trinkets to their cars, the Italians have generally ignored their brand of consumer appeal. That has proved detrimental to the Italian auto industry, just as it has been to the Americans. It's hard to compete when you're not watching the competition, and the price of an Alfa is hard to justify when you're comparing features with similarly-priced Japanese products.
The arrangement with Fiat was much more politics than business, and no one at the time gave Alfa a hope of surviving as an identity within Fiat. Fiat's feckless track record in the US, both with its own products and the Lancia, gave Alfisti nightmares.
One of the first acts after the Fiat takeover was the cancellation of the Milano sedan. Fiat management had discovered that the sedan was being sold for less than the cost of its manufacture. Now, the product line for Alfa would be mediated somewhere between the niches occupied by Lancia and Fiat, since they were all one company. Publicly, Fiat reserved stately sedans for Lancia and sporting ones for Alfa. While that does not explain the Lancia Delta Integrale, it seems to provide some breathing room for Alfa.
Many years ago, I proposed that history would blur the distinctions between the Giulia and Giulietta and make all the 4-cylinder cars a single identity, differing only in horsepower and displacement. In the same spirit, I propose that Fiat's takeover of Alfa will be seen as the end of the marque, and the Milano, with all its shortcomings, as the last "real" Alfa. That is a very solemn note on which to end, for it writes fin to a very long and glorious story. But, as we have learned with Packard, Bentley and even MG, the term "badge engineering" defines a strict line between what is real and what is only pretend.

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Copyright March, 1996

Paul Negyesi
Budapest, Hungary.
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