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Alfa Romeo, the car with a rich motorsport history

Alfa Romeo car museum, Italy, Arese

Alfa Romeo

Alfa is one of the car brands that divides the waters. If you are into sporty cars with a rich motorsport history, the brand cannot be ignored. For some, Alfa therefore has almost iconic status to this day. Despite this, there are quite a few car models which, over time, have not lived up to the proud traditions at all. Few car brands have such active brand clubs as Alfa.

Gobbled up by Fiat

In the time after Fiat took over Alfa in 1986, there were many who felt that Alfa was losing its unique brand DNA. It is probably partly true that the brand's exclusivity was watered down somewhat, but it is not entirely fair. Because without Fiat, the brand would not have survived. Fiat took over when project Alfasud failed. It was otherwise a fine and well-driving car model, but the quality was not up to par. The venture to build a local Alfa in Southern Italy, where labor was cheap, was otherwise a good idea, but it did not succeed. Alfasud was let down due to lack of product development, poor quality and rust. The absolutely fantastic driving characteristics and the fine boxer engine could not cover up the construction's weaknesses.

Proud traditions

Alfa's roots go back to 1910, the focus was never really on making money, more on motorsport. It was a brand for enthusiasts with petrol in their blood. The red color was, and is, the color of many fantastic racing cars and sports cars, for which the brand was known until the 50s. At that time it became clear that you had to start making more common mass-produced cars in order to survive.

The time up until then was turbulent financially, and even if you won races and the brand thereby gained status, the brand barely survived.

The time before Ferrari

It was a certain Enzo Ferrari and his Alfa team called "Scuderia Ferrari" who for many years kept Alfa's victorious traditions alive. Until Ferrari went its own way in 1949, Alfa was the world's most successful car brand on the racetracks. Alfa was in many ways the pride of Italy, somewhat in the same way as Ferrari is today.

That is why it was a national matter to keep the factory afloat, and during wartime other than cars were manufactured at the factory outside Milan.

Enzo Ferrari was a headstrong man, and he became angry with Alfa when they wanted to start their own factory team Alfa Corse, later Autodelta.

That's why Ferrari started out on its own with its own cars, which were also red. Enzo is said to have remarked that it felt a bit like killing his own mother when a Ferrari took its first victory over an Alfa.

The first mass-produced cars from Alfa Romeo were marked by the proud racing traditions. That is why all Alfa Romeo cars from the 50s to the 70s bore the mark of the proud traditions. Alfa's famous double overhead camshaft engines were a hallmark. Compared to most other car brands from that time, the cars had extremely advanced technology and extremely good braking and driving characteristics. Comparing a VW Type 1 from that era with an Alfa is like comparing a dump truck with a racing bike. But Alfa, unlike VW, had no proper sales organization outside Italy. If you wanted an Alfa in the 50s, you had to know someone who knew one, buy and collect it from the factory.

Alpha after the war

1954 was the year in which the Giulietta was introduced. This was the start of a new era. Typical of Alfa, it was the Coupe version that came first, and people were not at all prepared for how much demand this beautiful model generated. The car was a hit, and you had to start making cars on a large scale. The model came in several specially tuned versions such as Sprint, Veloce. And of course an open Spider version. Without hesitation, I would call this model a work of art on 4 wheels. It surpassed anything that could be bought in a standard car at the time, especially in terms of design and engineering. Low weight and pronounced use of aluminum in the engine and transmission gave fine performances. Many of the great post-war constructors and designers behind this car. Rudolf Hruska, Nuccio Bertone, Giovanni Michelotti, Franco Scagliotti, Giorgetto Giugiaro. No wonder it became a design masterpiece, and many of these design masters have since created countless design masterpieces under their own name.

Alfa's Violin

But Alfa was not just design. Constructors such as Giuseppe Busso were for decades the man behind some of the finest (and best-sounding) engines the world has seen (and heard). If you've never driven an Alfa with a Busso V6, you've missed an experience. The engine was not without reason called "Alfa's Violin" because of its fine sound.

Although the development of the Alfa V6 started in the 60s, it took many years before it was seen in a street car, it only happened in 1979. The first versions were with a single overhead camshaft, later with a double overhead camshaft and 4 valves per cylinder. In 2005 the engine went out of production, the new pollution standards took the life of this glorious machine.

The classic Alfa engine

Busso was also the creator of the legendary Bialbero DOHC engine, also known as the Nord engine. Anyone who has screwed this engine in will know what a fine engine it is, built in aluminum with wet cylinder liners and forged steel crankshaft with 5 main bearings. The cylinder head was of the Cross Flow type, and the engine had hemispherical combustion chambers and centrally located spark plugs. It was a masterpiece of an engine, which contained everything that was known at the time about how a good engine should be built. The performance and sound of this engine was unique for its time. This iconic engine was available in many sizes from 1.0-2.1. The Nord engine was in production from 1954-1994 and found its way into many different car models such as Alfa, Lancia and Fiat. The Twin Spark engine that followed had many of the same design elements and must be considered a further development of the classic Alfa engine. The Twin Spark engine was, for example, in the Alfa 147, 155, 156 and 166 models.

When you look back in time, it is clear that Alfa Romeo is a unique car brand with a unique history, and which calls to a great extent more on emotions and passion than on common sense. Models like Giulia, Alfetta, Spider, GTV and 156 bring beautiful images to the retinas of many people. Alfa Romeo is a strange mix of genius and lack of attention to detail that you either love or hate.

My experiences

Over time I have taken every opportunity to try various Alfa models. Never forget my first meeting with an Alfasud. However, it was only after a test drive in a new Alfa 156 2.0TS back in 1997 that I decided that I want to try owning an Alfa. It has since become several of this brand. 159, Giulietta and finally a Giulia.

There is something special about an Alfa

Alfa does not build perfect cars, I think most people are aware of that. But there is something special about an Alfa Romeo, something that few other car brands can match. Alfa is more focused on the driving experience than practicality. The complete driving experience which is not just good driving characteristics. Let me explain it this way, an Alfa usually drives perfectly fine with a focus on the sporty, and many other cars drive just as well. But few cars have the complete package, which also includes unique design and interior and not least a history like the one you find at Alfa.

Behind the wheel of an Alfa you have the feeling of sitting in a special car with sporty DNA, something that is quite unique among standard cars today, because the price is about the same as for other cars in the same class with which they can be compared. . And as a used Alfa, it can be extremely good value for money, especially when it comes to well-maintained examples.

Dare you buy an Alfa?

Many refrain from the car brand because of the brand's bad reputation, and this is not entirely incomprehensible, because many Alfa models over time have been plagued by childhood illnesses and poor detail solutions. But don't expect Toyota-level reliability in an Alfa.

Actually, I would still like to think that the bad reputation is a bit of an exaggeration of the facts, a bit of a relic from the past. Today, there is not so much difference between the car brands as far as that is concerned. But a bad reputation is hard to get rid of.

An Alfa must be kept up to date with service and does not tolerate default in quite the same way as some other car brands. And if you buy it new, the depreciation can be something you have to take seriously. On the other hand, as I said, a used Alfa can be a bit of a steal. Here in town we had a driving instructor who drove 400,000 km in his 156, so it is possible to make an Alfa last.

I still drive Alfa

My first Alfa was a 156 1.8TS, and it was a year old and had done 30,000 km when I took it over. I drove a lot for work and it reached 100,000 km in a couple of years. That car was a really good experience and a car that gave great driving pleasure. In my time as the owner of the classic 156s, it had problems, which were weak bushings in the rear suspension. I had them changed to the new type and it got a new camshaft phase variator which was another weakness of this engine. Otherwise just normal service. Its successor was a brand new 156 1.9JTD, which I also drove 100,000 km in. In this facelifted version there were many small improvements. That car drove like a dream and we were far around in it. In particular, a memorable 12-day holiday trip to the South of France in the summer of 2003 is remembered. The car managed an average of over 17 km per liter despite good speed and mountain driving.

It also led to many trips to Norway in summer and winter in the 156. Even if the diesel engine and Alfa do not fit perfectly together, the fine operating economy could to some extent make up for it. The Alfa 156 was not just a beautiful car, there was substance behind the handsome and well-proportioned exterior.

I have never had any major technical issues beyond what could have happened with any other brand. But the driving pleasure has been above average, so it has outweighed the disadvantages. My preferred dealer has been CB Auto in Ribe, which has provided good service and reasonable prices both for servicing and for car exchanges. For almost 10 years, much of my company driving took place in a 159, and it didn't go smoothly either. A trip from Venice to Grindsted in 12.5 hours was one of the highlights behind the wheel of the 159. But that car was no charmer, nor a dance-loving swing-eater in the same way as a 156

156 was a missed opportunity

With the 156 series, Alfa was very close to building a car that appealed to most people. The car received an excellent reception in the motoring press and even became car of the year. It's always a good sign when a car sells itself even before it can be delivered. To begin with, there was a long wait to get your car delivered, and for the first time in many years you saw used Audi and BMW models in the used car aisles outside Alfa dealers. It was a shame Alfa did not further develop and refine this excellent concept. Both 147 and 156 were fine cars, which unfortunately never got the last in terms of quality and finish. I can't help but think what could have come out of the 156's chassis combined with a modern Alfa boxer engine.

Although the GTA models were equipped with the unique V6 Busso engine. And the diesel models got a 5-cylinder torquey power pack. So it was with the 4-cylinder engine that these cars were most balanced.

The disadvantages of a 156 were that the car was never fully developed. There were too many childhood illnesses in the first years, and the Twin Spark engine used a bit of oil, typically 1 liter every 3,000 km. But since there was no oil level indicator inside the car, which was added later in the facelifted models from 2002-, many ruined the fine engine by running it too far down in oil level, and thereby the engine got an undeserved bad reputation. And then there was the matter of the timing belts, which also had to be changed on time. 60,000 km, to be on the safe side. On the downside, the relatively high maintenance costs, large turning radius, especially on models with a V6 engine. The low clearance under the engine and a partially poorly arranged driver's seat with more focus on style than practicality were clear disadvantages. Worst of all was little resistance to rust attack in Scandinavian climate.

The advantages of the model were to be found in its driving characteristics, its driving dynamics were far above normal for its time. It was also very comfortable to drive due to its good and harmonious powertrain that perfectly matched the vibrant TS engine. Despite its sporty genes, the car was comfortably suspended and in fine balance thanks to an advanced chassis. Driving a 156 in corners was like dancing with a beautiful woman who can dance.

I once heard a 156 owner comment on the car like that. As soon as I see it in my carport, I look forward to going out for a drive. I still think a 156 is one of the most beautiful and well-proportioned cars the world has seen.

The 159 series that followed was probably a better car, but without the 156's elegant and well-proportioned design and eminent driving dynamics. And the sad petrol engines from GM were so far from worthy of an Alfa.

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