1910 – 2010:
Alfa Romeo celebrates a century of wins and world records
Alfa Romeo will be celebrating its 100th anniversary on 24 June. Few automarkers have reached this goal, and the circle of those which have achieved the marketing successes and the racing wins of Alfa Romeo is even smaller. Celebrating Alfa Romeo's centenary means browsing some of the most important pages in automotive history. It means remembering cars and engineers, races and engines that put their mark on Twentieth century technological progress and car racing. The heritage of a brand like Alfa Romeo is all this and more, combined with the commitment and professional pride of thousands of people—engineers, factory workers, executives—who have followed one another over the years in the factories, in the offices and on the race tracks.
Alfa Romeo was officially established in Milan on 24 June 1910. That year, a group of entrepreneurs and businessmen acquired Società Italiana Automobili Darracq, the Italian branch of the French carmaker, and its Portello workshops on the city outskirts, and established A.L.F.A. (Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili, Lombard Automobile Factory, Public Company). The emblem underlined the new company's ties to the city of Milan: a red cross from the city's banner and the Visconti family grass snake (Biscione). The first car to sport it was the 24 HP, a model that stood out from the very beginning for its mechanics, performance and driving pleasure—features which became by-words for the brand.
The outbreak of World War I and limited resources created trouble for the company, which was acquired on 2 December 1915 by Neapolitan engineer and entrepreneur Nicola Romeo. He changed the name to Alfa-Romeo and converted the Portello plant, with a workforce of 2,500, to war production. The plant made engine compressors, ammunition, aircraft engines and, starting in 1917, trains. Alfa went back to making cars at the end of the war.
Alfa Romeo made a first important leap forward winning Targa Florio in 1923 (the first of ten wins) with the RL TF, which was also the first appearance of the four-leaf clover quadrifoglio racing emblem. Then, in 1925, the P2 Gran Premio won the first Automobile World Championship in history, the first of Alfa Romeo's five victories.
In the meantime, Romeo replaced Alfa Chief Engineer Giuseppe Merosi (who had created the first models and joined the company back in 1910) with Vittorio Jano, technical creator of the great Alfas of the 1930s. His debut model was the P2, which was followed by the 6C 1500 (1928), 6C 1750 (1930), 8C 2300 (1931) and the Gran Premio Tipo B-P3 (1932), all models which greatly contributed to increasing the Quadrifoglio prize record and elevated the technical prestige of cars made at the Portello plant. Jano was responsible for the legendary 8C eight cylinder in-line engine with supercharger.
The 1930s were the years in which the Alfa Romeo legend took shape. Engine reliability was undisputed and the names of valorous drivers—Antonio Ascari, Gastone Brilli Peri, Giuseppe Campari, Enzo Ferrari, Tazio Nuvolari, Achille Varzi—were on everybody's lips. They won many legendary races: Mille Miglia (11 wins, the all-time record), Le Mans 24 Hours (four consecutive editions), Targa Florio, and a very long list of international Grand Prix. In addition, the lessons learned from racing were transferred to standard production models.
The worldwide recession that followed the Wall Street Crash of 1929 had repercussions on Alfa's expansion: the company was taken over in 1933 by IRI, Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale—Industrial Reconstruction Institute. Ugo Gobbato was appointed Managing Director, and he rationalised and reorganised production focusing on the core business of aircraft engines, industrial vehicles and touring and racing cars. The company left the world of racing, and its C2300B cars were given to Scuderia Ferrari. Their results were brilliant: Alfa won more races than any other manufacturer in 1934, and racing even outshone standard production in 1936. Aeronautic production reached nearly 80 percent of the entire yearly revenue. New orders came in, also from abroad, and a new plant was opened in Pomigliano d’Arco (Naples) at the end of the decade.
The outbreak of World War II on 10 June 1940 unsettled the company's ambitious plans. As most Italian industries, Alfa converted to war production and its plants were bombed by the Allies (the Portello plant ceased operations all together following the damage it received on 20 October 1944). Work resumed the following April after the peace treaty was signed but the workshops had been damaged and there were no components for making aircraft engines, coaches or cars. So the eight thousand workers of the Portello plant made electric cooking ranges, metallic furniture, doors, windows and shutters—the objects needed to rebuild a country.
Auto building was resumed only in 1946. Pre-war 6C 2500s rolled out of the factory and 158s salvaged from the debris raced on tracks. New versions (Freccia d'oro and Villa d'Este), fitting an innovative steering wheel mounted gearshift, soon arrived. The 1900, the first Alfa with monocoque body shell, was designed by Orazio Satta Puliga (who had joined the company in 1938) in 1950, and the first assembly line was opened at the Portello plant. Racing wins multiplied. The supremacy of the Alfa 158 in Grand Prix was absolute and Nino Farina won the Formula 1 World Championship in 1950. The following year was Juan Manuel Fangio's turn: he won the second Championship behind the wheel of an Alfa Romeo 159 fitted with the most powerful 1500 engine ever made, delivering 425 HP at over 300 km/h. Immediately after, Alfa decided to retire from Grand Prix but kept on competing in the Sport category with the 1900 Disco Volante, a flying-saucer shaped car capable of reaching a top speed of 225 km/h. In the meantime, the company concentrated on the production of standard cars, industrial vehicles, aircraft and naval engines, and diesel engines for industrial applications. Following the IRI reorganisation in 1948, Alfa passed into the Finmeccanica sub-holding.
Giulietta Sprint was introduced in 1954. This car—along with the Spider (1955) and the Berlina (1955) —would be crucial, and not only for the history of Alfa: it established new parameters (this was the first standard car with a twin cam engine entirely made of aluminium) and embodied Italy's willingness to emerge from the dark years of the war. Furthermore, it consolidated Alfa Romeo's vocation as a major auto maker. The 1960s started with the success of the Giulia (1962), which continued the philosophy of the earlier Giulietta with new proportions, forcing Alfa Romeo to expand the shop floor and open a new plant in Arese near Milan. At the end of its long, honoured career, Giulia and its spinoffs—the Giulia Sprint GT (1964), the 1600 Spider Duetto (1966) and the 1750 in saloon, coupé and spider versions—reached the outstanding goal of one million units made. Racing activities continued throughout the decade. The Autodelta racing team was established and Alfa Romeo won on tracks worldwide with the Giulia TZ (1963), TZ 2 (1965), Giulia GTA (1965) and 33 (from ’69 to ’71).
The 1960s were florid years for the company: cars were sold worldwide and ties with the United States market—still particularly lively today—were consolidated. As a result of the forward-thinking managerial skills of Giuseppe Luraghi, CEO until 1974, and the remarkable engineering skills of Orazio Satta Puliga, Alfa Chief Engineer, who created all the models up to the Alfetta, Alfa Romeo reached the peak of its development. The Portello plant, by now incorporated in the spreading city of Milan, was insufficient. Production was gradually transferred to a new plant (with an area of over two-and-a-half million square metres), opened in Arese and a prototype test track was opened in Balocco (Vercelli).
Following the high increase in demand, Alfa Romeo planned the opening of a new plant in Pomigliano d'Arco (Naples): the foundation stone was laid on 29 April 1968. Engineer Rudolf Hruska was called to design a new car: the Alfasud, a compact entry-level car equipped with a number of sophisticated mechanical solutions (flat-four boxer overhanging front engine), was introduced in 1971. Production of the Alfetta started in Arese the following year. This sporty saloon with sophisticated mechanics (longitudinal front engine, rear wheel drive, De Dion rear axle and transaxle) was leader in its segment for many years: the Alfetta GT (1974), followed by the lower segment New Giulietta (1977) saloon, were the backbone of production at the Arese plant. In the meantime Alfa Romeo took two World Championship titles: in 1975 with the 33 TT 12 (Manufacturers Championship), and in 1977 with the 33 SC 12 (Prototype Championship).
Troubles deriving from the social unrest of the seventies were felt across Italy and in Alfa Romeo. Despite this, the company pulled ahead preparing models and strategies for the forthcoming decade: the Alfa 33, replaced the Alfasud in 1983, the remarkable Alfetta was replaced by the Alfa 90 (1984) and the Alfa 75 (1985), the last of the Alfetta family, was introduced to celebrate the brand's 75th anniversary.
The company changed hands again in 1986, for the third time in its history. Fiat Group acquired Alfa Romeo, at that time producing the brand-new top-range saloon 164 (1987). The car's success would revive Alfa Romeo and the Arese plant. 1992 was the year of the 155, remarkably successful in races. The 145 was introduced to replace the 33 in 1994 and the sporty GTV and Spider were launched the following year. The model of the 1990s revival was the 156 (1997). The sporty hatchback is the result of a new style and top-notch technical contents (like high double-wishbone front suspensions and common-rail diesel engine): it was sensationally successful on the market—awarded Car of the Year in 1998—and on international race tracks taking many wins in the Touring category. The 166 replaced the 164 in 1998, and in 2000 147 (also Car of the Year) replaced the 145 and was even more successful than its big sister the 156, that in the meantime had complemented the range: the GT, a four-seat coupe, with a style concept reminiscent of the Giulietta Sprint, was introduced in the autumn of 2003. In the 159 replaced the 156 in 2005, evolving its style and implementing new proportions, engine versions and body configurations: the Brera coupe was introduced in the same year, followed by the new Spider in 2006.
Again in 2006, Alfa Romeo introduced the long-awaited 8C Competizione, a very high performance coupe with a remarkable design that made it an instant classic. With only 500 units made, this supercar was for collectors and a handful of lucky owners. It was joined by the 8C Spider in 2008, which maintained the same mechanical features and performance as the coupe. The Alfa Romeo MiTo, a compact car with a sporty look, for young motorists and everyone who want a distinctive, performing car, was introduced the same year.
Now is the turn of the brand-new Giulietta with the aim of reviving the brand in one of the most important segments in Europe. In the centenary year, the name is a tribute to an automotive legend which was key in the history of Alfa Romeo: the Giulietta is a car that, in the fifties, caught the imagination of generations of car enthusiasts, making the dream of owning an Alfa Romeo and enjoying the high level of comfort and technical excellence accessible for the first time. The Alfa Romeo Style Centre has designed the new Giulietta, a five-door hatchback with an unmistakable Alfa Romeo look, capable of expressing both great agility on the most demanding routes and providing comfort on everyday roads. This is the merit of the new Compact architecture. Using sophisticated suspension technical solutions, a dual pinion active steering, top-quality materials and state-of-the-art manufacturing technologies, the Giulietta achieves excellent levels of on-board comfort, dynamic features and safety (both active and passive).