The Original Hot Hatch

At the dawn of the 1970s, when we were last outside the EU, things were not looking very rosy for grand old Blighty. Strikes, fuel shortages and 3 day weeks strained the mood as Britain laboured under seemingly endless grey skies.

The wheels we used to get to and from our offices and factories seemed to reflect this sombre atmosphere. Lumpy 1100s, tiny Cortinas, creaking Maxis and the occasional glitzy Japanese Datsun, all generally finished in various shades of beige and grey.

But then, in early 1972, as Bennie Hill's Ernie The Milkman gave way in the pop pickin' charts to the altogether sunnier New Seekers expressing an earnest desire to teach the world to sing, Britain's downtrodden motorists were gifted a ray of sunshine: the Alfasud, the new small car from Alfa Romeo.

Admittedly, some of the rays of sunshine were shining through the car's not-wholly-screwed-together bodywork, but here was something quite different to the Marinas and Escorts and Allegros crowding car forecourts. Where the humble saloons from Ford and Vauxhall and Morris were technically worthy but dull, the Alfasud was advanced with front wheel drive, a five speed gearbox and modern Boxer engine. It also looked good and was cleverly packaged.

The Alfasud was a direct result of the Italian Government's ownership of Alfa Romeo. The politicians wanted a volume car that would generate cash and provide employment. It was a completely clean sheet design and built, to later regret, in a brand new factory near Naples. By workers more used to picking tomatoes than building cars. But in 1972, at the car's launch, none of that mattered. Here was a car designed by Guigiaro, engineered by a former VW and Porsche wunderkind and built by one of the greatest names in motoring. And because this car was an Alfa Romeo the sporting DNA was sewn in deliberately and right from the start. This car had to be practical. But it also had to be fun.

As a result the Alfasud pulled off that rare trick - a practical family car that was, thanks to those zesty engines and neat chassis engineering, a hoot to drive. Ford may have slapped go-faster badges to its Escorts and Cortinas but no small car before the Alfasud was as fun and exciting to drive. It showed middle Britain that family motoring could also be fun.

Not surprisingly, Britain's army of family men wanted one. The Alfasud was relatively expensive compared to the Escort and Allegro, but that didn't matter when you read the car's rave press reviews. Good looks and spacious interiors got buyers interested but it was the Alfasud's stunning handling that opened cheque books. The car's low centre of gravity and direct steering made every journey memorable. And that's before you factored in the Boxer's crackling exhaust note and quick acceleration.

And Alfa had got selling the car right too - there was an Alfasud for everyone, from the humble 4 doors base model to the 3 door performance versions.

Of course, there was a catch. And a big one. Remember that new factory in Naples peopled by tomato pickers? Alfasud buyers did, often only a few weeks or months after buying their new cars. Because their cars disintegrated as quickly as they went round corners. If not quicker. Rust was the big problem, with new cars often arriving with holes in them, but build quality was also questionable. British Leyland may have suffered its share of electrical maladies but the Alfasud took it to a new level.

Buyers, initially, took this in their stride. The Alfasud was so utterly joyous to drive that they could overlook the iffy reliability and potholes appearing in the bodywork. But then reality would sink in and the regular calls saying you'd be late for work again or have to miss Aunt Margaret's 80th birthday bash because the Alfasud was playing up became too much. Alfasud buyers began offloading them as fast as they could and went back to their Morris Marinas and Vauxhall Vivas.

Or not. Because soon after the Alfasud arrived VW launched the Golf, which unlike the Italian car was a proper hatchback in a saloon car world. The Golf was many things the Alfasud wasn't, but chief among them was being dependable and reliable It looked ok - after all it was designed by the same bloke - and it clunked in a satisfying way when you closed the doors.

And it's kept on doing this for nearly 40 years. In 2020 VW launched the 8th generation of the car. There was never another Alfasud after the model was discontinued in 1983. The Golf is also famous for inventing the hot hatch. And, technically, yes it did. Because the Alfasud didn't get a proper hatchback until 1982. But lets not let a technicality get in the way of the real story here. Because, that pesky hatch notwithstanding, the Alfasud was aiming to do exactly what the Golf did - versatile family motoring outside the saloon car norm. And it did it first.

It took Volkswagen until 1975 to launch the Golf GTI in right hand drive. And while we hail it now as ground-breaking and game-changing, really it wasn't at all. VW already knew there was a market for a sporty family car because the Alfasud's success showed them. But even then they hedged their bets, initially limiting GTI production to just 5,000 units.

But lets take a closer look at what VW actually did with the GTI. Unlike the Alfasud, the fundamentals of the Golf were not particularly scintillating. Whereas a base model Alfasud was as enjoyable to drive as a performance Ti, the poverty spec Golfs were just family motors. That's why Alfa didn't really bother exploiting the 'Sud's sporting credentials until much later in its production run - it didn't need to, because all the models were sporty. To create the GTI VW dropped in a fuel injected 1.6 engine and beefed up the suspension. They fussed around on the outside with badges and spoilers and on the inside with bucket seats and a golf ball gear knob. And there's no doubt that the end result is a great car - quick, sporty(ish) and distinctive. But it does feel as if all the spoilering, sports seats and twin headlamps are there to remind you that this is The Sporty One.

Because driving a Mk1 Golf GTI is not an innately exhilarating experience. Yes, shoot me. It certainly goes round corners well, it goes quite quick in a straight line and it can munch motorways for mile after mile after mile. But, compared to an early Alfasud, it's playing the game. It's not the real deal.

Instead, what made the Golf so successful is all the other attributes of the car. The quality engineering. The reliability. The clever advertising and badge image. Where the Alfasud was fragile, the Golf was robust and durable. The GTI rode a fine line between sensible and exciting, a balancing act that middle England munched up.

The original Golf GTI is a good car, quite possibly even a great one. But it gained its crown by standing on the shoulders of giants. Specifically, the Alfasud. Without the Alfasud paving the way, softening up the British public to the idea that they might actually deserve to enjoy driving, there couldn't have been a Golf GTI. Those canny Germans wouldn't have taken the risk.

Buyers may have deserted the car in droves but Alfa Romeo persevered, keeping it in production until 1983, not long after the car finally got the hatchback it should have had in 1972. For the final few years Alfa continuously pushed the car upmarket and exploited its sporting character with high performance versions. These models attempted to out-GTI the Golf with bigger wheels, spoilers and wheel arch extensions.

There's no doubt that the Alfasud is not as good a car, principally because it was built by tomato pickers. But on paper and fresh-out-the-box with none of the daily grind attached, it is a more exciting one. And surely that's what we want, first and foremost, from a hot hatch?

_____________________________________ Graham Eason. Great Driving Days. 01527 893733

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