Last year Alfa Romeo, a brand deeply steeped in heritage and controversies, celebrated its 110th birthday. With more than a century behind it, having survived two world wars and countless economic challenges, it is a brand that oozes great legends and myths. Undoubtedly one of the most famous quotes about an Alfa is the one attributed to the godfather of motoring, Henry Ford, who is believed to have said: “Every time I see an Alfa, I tip my hat.”
Love them or hate them, the Italian brand is revered by many while having a shocking reputation among others. However, no one can really argue that Alfa Romeo is not without a deep, passionate-about-racing history.
The company goes back to 1909, when Italian aristocrat Ugo Stella bought up shares in Società Italiana Automobili Darracq, which had fallen on hard times. A year later, in 1910, he relaunched and named his motoring plant “Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili” — A.L.F.A. which soon simply became “Alfa”.
Talented designer Giuseppe Merosi developed the first Alfa with a 24HP single block 4.1-litre engine, a single drive shaft that reached an impressive-for-the-times top speed of 62mph (99.7km/h). In 1914, just before World War 1 put a stop to all things frivolous, Merosi designed the Alfa Grand Prix, the first motor car to feature a twin spark ignition. Aimed at getting Alfa into international racing, the four-cylinder 4.5-litre engine reached a top speed of 87mph (140km/h).
During the war, Alfa suffered cash flow problems and so Nicola Romeo — a successful electrical engineer from Naples — purchased the company and began producing aeroplane engines and portable compressors. The new badge now became “Alfa-Romeo Milano”. Eight months before the war ended in November 1918, investors came on board and a decision was made to take the company public as “Alfa Romeo”.
In 1929, the year of the Great Wall Street Crash, Romeo, now broke, bowed out and by the time World War 2 reared its head in 1939, the company was in disarray. The Italian government under Benito Mussolini nationalised it, with the leader often brashly displaying Alfas as a sign of national pride. By the end of the war, Italy was in a state of turmoil. The economy was in pieces, with most car factories destroyed by the war. A further blow to Alfa Romeo was when company director Ugo Gobbato was assassinated by an unknown gunman as he cycled to work in April 1945.
Under the leadership of the new chairman, Orazio Satta Puliga, the company slowly got back on track.
With racing always at the heart of the brand, in 1950 Alfa Romeo won its first Formula World Championship at Silverstone. In the 1990s Alfa Romeo made a lot of noise on the German Touring and Italian Superturismo series with the iconic Alfa Romeo 155 V6 Ti.
However, over the past decade or so, Alfa Romeo has hardly made a peep in terms of sales in South Africa, despite being a beloved brand among diehards.
Reputationally, Alfas have suffered many woes. They are often known to be temperamental and give headaches to local owners when it comes to sourcing imported parts, plus there’s the added hassle of its tiny local dealership footprint. In fact, I’ve often wondered how the company has managed to keep afloat in South Africa. For example, when the much-awaited Giulia arrived on our shores in 2017, where 2,482 units sold in the US in the first five months of release, locally only 76 sales were registered over the same period.
In an interview with Car Magazine in June 2017, global head of sales (at the time) Reid Bigland was quoted as saying: “At Alfa Romeo we’re really not out to win any sales crowns… we’re out to re-establish a legendary brand around the world.”
But stay Alfa has, and now a shining beacon of hope is in place by way of the Stellantis merger which came together in early 2020 when Alfa Romeo joined 13 other brands to become the fourth most powerful global motoring company by volume, behind Volkswagen, Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi and Toyota. Stellantis comprises some big guns including Peugeot, Fiat, Citroën, Opel, Maserati, Lancia, Dodge and Jeep, now representing 9% of the global car market.
Recently I got to attend one of my first Stellantis/Alfa Romeo events in years, up in Gauteng, to drive the refreshed Giulia and Stelvio SUV along some pretty shocking Muldersdrift roads. The event was also to introduce the much-praised Giulia GTA and GTAm — but with price tags in the region of R4-million, they were clearly not going to risk these limited edition vehicles with us petrol heads, especially on those potholed, pockmarked roads.
First launched in 1962 at the Autodromo Nationale Monza, the Alfa Romeo Giulia TI birthed a long line of impressive driver-focused cars in the Giulia stable. The current generation Giulia was launched locally back in 2017, which included the Veloce and super-fast Quadrifoglio derivatives — it went on to win European Car of the Year that same year.
Beautiful cars are what Alfa Romeo has always been famous for and now in 2021, with a few interior updates, the timeless Giulia reflects the company’s design and racing heritage. It’s touted as a car that is “the natural extension of the brain, body and heart”.
Competing with other “lookers” like the BMW 3-series 330i, the Lexus IS and the Mercedes Benz C300 in the sport sedan segment, the Giulia wins my vote when it comes to passionate design and drive.
I got to test the Veloce on launch — the Quadrifoglio was sadly not available — but the “entry-level” Giulia is no pushover. Racing from 0-100km/h in 5.7 seconds, it’s supported by a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine, producing 206kW and 400Nm. Power goes to the rear wheels via an impressive eight-speed ZF automatic transmission.
Inside, it’s full of high-end standard appeal including a panoramic sunroof, a new 7-inch digital TFT screen, an updated 8.8-inch infotainment screen, leather sport seats, dual-zone climate control, a wireless charging pad and a heated premium leather steering wheel.
At times along the route, I did pick up some road noise which was undoubtedly coming from those 19-inch alloys on the uneven and potholed tarred roads, but despite the challenging surfaces, the Veloce’s steering was razor-sharp. Underpinned by a sophisticated suspension, courtesy of a double wishbone front and multi-link rear set-up, driving the Giulia was a reminder of why an Alfa is so appealing. It’s a car that seduced me with driver engagement, thanks to a combo of its brilliant chassis and adaptive dampers.
And with its rear-wheel drive, heralding a more balanced weight distribution, taking sharp corners at speed was a cinch.
Of course I was gagging to drive the award-winning Quadrifoglio, with its mighty Ferrari-fettled 2.9-litre biturbo V6 engine, producing 375kW/600 Nm, streaking from 0-100km/h in just 3.9 seconds. Pity it wasn’t there.
This engine is the one used in the newly launched GTA and GTAm, although both have been powered up to 390kW. From the videos I’ve watched, the new Akrapovic titanium exhaust system sounds thunderously thrilling. Both the GTA and GTAm hurtle from 0-100km/h in just 3.6 seconds.
Only 500 units of the Giulia GTA and the more hardcore track-focused GTAm have been produced worldwide, to honour Alfa Romeo’s 110-year heritage. Alfa Romeo SA has managed to nab 10 of them — five have already been snapped up.
At the age of 22, in 1920, Enzo Ferrari became a racing driver for Alfa Romeo and in 1929 he formed what would become Alfa Romeo’s official racing team, Scuderia Ferrari.
In his memoir, My Terrible Joys, published in 1963, Enzo Ferrari recalled his time spent at the company:
“I lived with you for 20 years: how many deeds, events and men went by! Today I remember them, each and every one. I still have, for Alfa, the tenderness of a first love.
“The pure affection of a child for his mother.”
Alfa Romeo Giulia Veloce: R989,900
Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio: R1,599,900
Alfa Romeo Giulia GTA: R3,999,900
Alfa Romeo Giulia GTAm: R4,299,900. DM