The world of classic car fans is a fickle one. And a tribal one. Generally die-hard enthusiasts know what they like and like what they know. Some love Fords, others Ferrari. There are even some who fawn over Vauxhalls, but I’m not one of them. I’m an Alfisti.
Let’s face it, if the love of a particular car brand has its own nickname then you know you’re onto something. So it is with Alfa Romeo, that most perplexing and truculent of car makers. Most of their cars are, by objective standards, not very good. They build them badly. Their electrics are designed and assembled by Hades himself and, frankly, for many years they made plain ugly cars. And yet, few car marques retain such a vestigal fire of love and devotion as this erratic Milanese firm. Even Jeremy Clarkson loves them: he recently named the Alfa GTV6 as the car he most regrets selling. Even though, in his own inimitable style, he concludes it was rubbish. So why?
Trying to understand the Alfa Romeo conundrum is not a new idea. But I’ll try to dissect it in a new way. Here goes.
1. Alfa Romeo is called Alfa Romeo
Bear with me. Consider BMW: three innocuous letters standing for where the cars are made and a propellor symbol. It’s hardly the stuff of raw emotion. Ford: a bloke with a hat and a penchant for black. Vauxhall: a bridge. None of these names conjure up anything except what they’re attached to. Alfa Romeo is different: you don’t need to know the typically complex Italian story behind the name to immediately get a sense of winding Tuscan hill roads or blasting top down along the Amalfi Coast. Let’s face it, anything with the word Romeo in it is probably going to be at least interesting. There is literally no other car name that comes close to evoking a mood quite like Alfa. And yes, Ferrari included.
2. They get it wrong more than they get it right
Some people, quite a lot in fact as it turns out, like dependable. They want a car that does what they expect, that looks quite a lot like the car they’re replacing it with and which promises to keep spinning the automotive washing day in and day out without fuss. For these people VW, BMW, Skoda and Audi exist. All power to their elbow, there is nothing wrong with knowing you’ll get to work on time every day.
Alfa Romeo doesn’t do cars like that. VW has been making brilliant, successful Golfs since the early 70s and only got things slightly wrong with the lardy Mk3. In the same period Alfa has made one very good family car (the Alfasud) and then lots and lots of not very good ones. Likewise, saloon cars: Guilia, very good. Long pause. 156 very good. Long pause. To make things even more perplexing Alf didn’t do a perfect job with the cars it got right: the Alfasud had an owl-like aversion to rain, the 156 fell to bits.
And yet it’s this infuriating inconsistency that fuels the passion for Alfa. Alfisti know the company can do it properly, and at some point will again, so they stick with it. And somehow the chinks in otherwise perfect cars actually make them, in their eyes, better. I own an Alfasud: it isn’t as good as a Golf GTI but for me the Golf’s irritating Prefect perfection makes it dull. Brilliant is easy, flawed brilliance is harder. And more human.
3. They make amazing engines
Lots of car companies make very good engines. Some make better engines than Alfa. But none of them make engines that could actually be your BFF. That have so much character that they could be powering a banana and still be enjoyable. Alfa engines, proper Alfa engines not reheated Fiat engines, crackle and sizzle. They rev, they respond instantly. From the flat fours to the twin cams to the Busso V6 Alfa has led the way with engines that excite and also last. Everything else may fall apart but the engine will still be running.
4. They made the Alfasud
Austin had the Allegro, Alfa had the Alfasud, two cars that promised so much but delivered quite a lot less. The Alfasud, of course, is not an Allegro: it has a similarly dismal reputation but for different reasons. The Alfasud was brilliant, well packaged, great-handling, good looking. And it rusted. It is arguably the Alfasud that laid down the template for the modern devotion to Alfa Romeo: the Alfasud popularised the upmarket, low volume Alfa brand and it is questionable whether it could have survived without it, even though the car was pretty much a sales flop. The Alfasud made Alfa mass-market and, for car lovers, it’s generally the Alfa they remember.
5. They might be back
Alfa has been revived more times than Lazarus. In the 70s with the Alfasud, in the 90s with the 156 and more recently with the 4C. Most of these big-budget relaunches have failed in the execution or were pretty far-fetched, relying as they did on a marketing veneer of Alfa rather than a fully-fledged grass roots product revival.
Every few years we are promised an Alfa revival. Each time there is a lot to be optimistic about and then it doesn’t quite work out. Someone in Milan gets cold feet. The engineering department goes out for a long, long lunch and forgets what they were doing. Fiat steps in and suggests a few more Fiat-y bits might work better than the Alfa-y bits that the engineering department forgot to make. Someone gets sacked, someone new in suede loafers comes in and says that they got it all wrong but will now get it all right.
There is reason to believe that the new bloke at the top of Alfa may, finally, be about to get it right. He’s used £4bn from Fiat to set up a dedicated Alfa design and engineering department. He refuses to use Fiat bits any more. He green-lighted the 4C. And an Alfa SUV. Yes, an Alfa sport utility vehicle.
And so, you see, it all begins all over again. An Alfa SUV. Exactly what the world is waiting for from Alfa. So we Alfisti sit and wait for Alfa to show us that it’s lesrnt the error of its ways. That there is room for one more Phoenix-style rejuvenation. Meanwhile we sift through the wreckage of the car’s history and worship its successes and ignore its failures, until they become so rare that they, in their own right, become worth attention.
I’m not sure how many more relaunches Alfa can reasonably attempt before Death’s shiny scythe glints meanly off stage. But I hope it happens. Obviously, for the sake of all Alfisti everywhere, I hope it happens in a distinctly Alfa way, which is to say half-cocked and charismatic. We wouldn’t want it any other way.
My Alfasud isn’t for hire but you can drive it for one time only on our Modern Classics Rally later this year. Visit http://www.greatescapecars.co.uk for more details or call 01527 893733. We also have a Series 4 105 Alfa Spider for hire.