The Giulietta was launched over 60 years ago, setting the template for four decades of small, characterful and desirable Alfa Romeos. Words Richard Bremner. Photography Alfa Romeo.
Driving the Sprint, Spider and SZ. You can’t believe the noise. A cracking pulse of sound, almost painful, not only for your eardrums but your mind too, which is suddenly wondering whether it’s hearing the mashing thresh of self-mauling metal. But no. This is the staccato sound of fracturing vapour, the ingesting, compacting, igniting, exploding and exhausting of fuel.
Look under the bonnet of this Alfa Romeo and you can see clues to the source of these sounds. Stuffed down one side of this engine are a fat pair of Weber carburettors and four intake trumpets, their bodies so big that they threaten to overwhelm the cylinder head. On the other side snake the multiple tubes of an exhaust manifold. And the head is no small thing itself, it being the crowning glory of a motor displacing just 1290cc. The head’s big because it carries a pair of overhead camshafts. They make it far wider than the block, and allowed the engineers to produce one of the sexiest-looking – and sounding – four-cylinders ever.
Above. Giuliettas gathered at the Balocco test track: clockwise from bottom left are SV Zagato, Spider, Sprint coupe, saloon and Bertone Sprint Speciale.
We’re enjoying it in a Giulietta SV Zagato, the rarest, fastest and winningest Giulietta of them all. We’re enjoying it as part of a factory Giulietta-fest, prompted by last year’s 60th anniversary of the birth of a new kind of Alfa Romeo from 1954. It was an Alfa that packaged the beauty, power, verve and luscious aural and tactile babble of its bigger, rarer and pricier pre-war ancestors into something that many more could afford. So successful was the Giulietta that it set the template for four generations of Alfa over four decades. Apart from miniaturising the essence of Alfa Romeo, the Giulietta was also remarkable for the way in which its development programme was paid for, a story that the company is more than happy to tell at this celebratory gathering.
The SV Zagato is the Giulietta at its dynamic pinnacle, but much of its heart was shared by the more humble saloon. The Giulietta Berlina was the centrepiece of Alfa’s plan to move into the less barren markets of a post-war Europe that was no longer able to afford the expensive, hand-built cars the company made before the conflict.
In fact, Alfa had already had one tilt at the mass market before the Giulietta, but its 1900 saloon from 1950, developed using loans from the US-funded Marshall Plan, had not been profitable. It was a sound twin-cam car that would live quite a long life, but it was too expensive to sell at the rate needed to turn red ink to black. Something smaller and more affordable was needed, as well as the funding to pay for it.
Alfa Romeo was a state-owned business, as it had been since 1933 when it became a symbol of Mussolini’s Italy. Now it was being nursed by the Government’s IRI-Finmeccanica arm, which decided to offer the public interest-paying government bonds to part-pay for the project, with an exciting twist. There would be a prize Giulietta for 200 randomly chosen bond-holders, who would get their cars in 1954. It was a novel way to bankroll a new car programme, and quite possibly unique. Either way, it’s hard to imagine Fiat Chrysler Automobiles boss Sergio Marchionne using the same method to pay for Alfa’s latest rejuvenation programme.
Alfa’s earliest thoughts on that smaller car certainly jumped around; an 800cc model and even a 350cc twin- cylinder two-stroke were considered, both necessitating the costly complexities of front-wheel drive. But reality soon struck, the bosses instead deciding to develop a front-engined, rear-drive four-door that was essentially a miniature 1900. The project would be led by Orazio Satta Puliga, the 1900’s creator and the father of all Alfas for the next 20 years. The Giulietta would be built around a monocoque body, powered by a new twin-cam 1.3-litre four, and ride on a quartet of coils suspending wishbones up front, and an A-frame-located live axle at the rear.
Twin cams apart, it’s a confection that seems slightly dull even for the day. But you didn’t need to dig very deep to turn up the advances that transformed this car into a lively little sophisticate. The Giulietta’s engine was constructed entirely of aluminium; the gearbox casing was aluminium too, as was the differential housing, the benefit being improved grip on bumpier roads. The front suspension did away with bulky stub axles, the hubs articulating on space-saving ball joints that allowed for superior geometry. Eventually those ball-joints would be self-lubricating and maintenance-free, regular greasing a filthy bane of car ownership back then. The Giulietta Sprint and Spider flaunted the latest radial tyres too, although the saloon ran on crossplies.
The saloon was also running late. Noise, vibration and harshness were the trouble, Alfa’s engineers battling to silence the excitations of its monocoque shell. The problem was acute enough to delay the launch, presenting Alfa and the Italian Government with an embarrassing problem. Here was a state-owned business threatening to renege on the terms of an investment bond, and by 1953 the press was sniffing around that fact. A clever solution was needed, and it was hit upon by engineers Francesco Quaroni and Rudolf Hruska.
The Giulietta had been planned as a family of cars from the start; the saloon to be joined by a Sprint coupe and a Spider convertible. These versions would be produced in far lower numbers, their design and build to be outsourced to coachbuilders. But the bones of the Sprint were well advanced, the engineering ‘mule’ used to develop the Giulietta’s mechanicals a workmanlike coupe. Development of the production coupe had begun in 1952, from concept sketches and 1:10 plaster models produced by in-house designer Giuseppe Scarnati. Only 1000 Sprints were planned, requiring nothing like the manufacturing automation of the saloon. That meant, reckoned the two engineers, that they could get this version of the Giulietta into production by 1954, providing the 200 prize cars to avert the looming scandal.
Scamati’s designs were the starting point for coachbuilders Bertone and Ghia’s design proposals. Bertone’s won, designer Franco Scaglione elegantly filling out Scarnati’s lines, in collaboration with Ghia’s Felice Mario Boano. Bertone would manufacture the bodies, Ghia paint and trim them, before they were subsequently shipped to Alfa’s Portello plant for marriage to their mechnicals. Hruska was able to display a finished example of the Sprint at the 1954 Turin show, a development that reassured the winning bond-holders, if not Bertone, as the small coachbuilder was not geared up to deal with a big influx of orders. Which is exactly what arrived when this pretty car was unveiled, 700 orders taken in just a few days. Eventually Nuccio Bertone would build 39,654 Sprint bodies rather than 1000, propelling his business into the big league.
It did the same for Alfa. The saloon appeared at the ’55 Turin show, followed a few months later by Pininfarina’s Spider. All three were major successes, the Sprint and Spider beyond Alfa’s imaginings. And this trio was far from the complete family. Still to come were the lightweight Zagato-created SV coupe in 1957, the sylphlike Bertone Sprint Speciale that appeared the same year and, more prosaically, the Giulietta Promiscua estate.
Pininfarina-penned Spider, pictured here in upgraded Veloce specification, was far more advanced than British rivals such as the MGA and Triumph TR3.
Most of these versions are present at the Balocco test track that was once solely Alfa Romeo’s. The 1962 Giulia range was developed here, but the Giulietta’s honing occurred on Italian roads using two undisguised mules. There are even pictures of engineer Giuseppe Busso taking his wife on holiday in one as part of his test programme.
The results of this work we can sample with the Alfa Romeo museum’s 1954 Sprint, among the earliest produced. Never a big car, the Sprint seems even smaller by today’s standards, although its cabin provides more room for its front-seat passengers than the saloon, whose occupants must sit almost uncomfortably upright, front or rear. You’re semi-reclined in the Sprint, behind a big, glitzy two-tone wheel that could have come from a Buick. But the dashboard presents sporting instruments, and the gearlever serves long, deliciously mechanical movements. Clutch and brake are floor-hinged and this, coupled with the ‘long arm, short leg’ driving position, forces you to crook your legs a little uncomfortably.
But the view out is great, those ergonomic foibles evaporating as soon as the Alfa’s single dual-choke Solex carb spits the twin-cam into life. Despite this modest carburation, it sounds surprisingly throaty and irresistibly keen. In fact, it’s not especially brisk, early Sprints dispensing only 65bhp rather than the later 80bhp, but it’s lively enough to experience the body-roll likely to ambush anyone who’s never driven one before.
It doesn’t roll like a 2CV, but it certainly lists a whole lot more than is fashionable today. You soon learn to use that big wheel as a prop, the seats more elegant than supportive, and discover that your view of a tilting horizon does nothing to undermine the Alfa’s enthusiasm for diving into bends, its measured steering allowing clean lines that you’ll soon be powering through. The steering tells you plenty about front-end grip, although it’s the rear wheels that are more likely to break traction in an easily collected drift. You have to try hard to get there with 65bhp, mind. In fact, Balocco’s paint-smooth surfaces fail to expose the best of the Giulietta’s dynamics, its sweetly sensitive steering feel amplified by the rise and fall of its front wheels over bumps that it absorbs with impressive decorum. The Giulietta’s ride, and its robustness, were what made it such an effective road- racer, qualities frequently revealed if you drive one on typically battered British B-roads.
Unsurprisingly, the mechanically similar Spider, which has been brought to this event by enthusiast Jerome Barugola from France, feels much the same but livelier, because he’s uprated his to perkier Veloce specification. It doesn’t roll as much as the Sprint either, its rooflessness allowing you to enjoy the growl and suck of the twin-cam, its Webers and their exhaust.
To understand the Spider’s advance you must set it in context, and that means thinking about the mostly British sports cars with which it competed at the time. Like the Alfa, the MGA and Triumph TR3 were dependent on the parts catalogue of sister saloons, which in this case were a whole lot less sophisticated than the Giulietta, which explains their all-iron, single-cam engines and cruder suspensions. They also suffered vintage separate chassis, promoting plenty of scuttle shake that the Alfa minimizes admirably, and they also did without the Spider’s windup windows and easily manipulated hood. The Alfa was a more sophisticated thing, and on the road it showed.
It didn’t take long for the Giulietta’s athleticism to be flaunted on the track, either. The Sprint won its first class in a race less than a year after its debut, this the first of many high-ranking results. The 1955 Mille Miglia saw no fewer than 24 Sprints entered in the 1300GT category, although these private entries were beaten by factory- backed Porsche 356s. Alfa chose not to get directly involved, but nevertheless introduced the swifter Sprint Veloce in 1956, which comfortably won the first three places in its 1956 Mille Miglia class.
It was a Sprint Veloce crashed on the 1956 Mille Miglia that gave birth to the rapid SV Zagato, its floor and mechanicals repackaged into a bodyshell said to have been designed by Ercole Spada. It was considerably lighter and more aerodynamic, leading to the build of several more before Alfa commissioned an official run, ultimately of 210, for an official race programme. These cars were built on the shorter wheelbase sub-structure of the Spider, rather than the Sprint, to carry slippery aluminium bodywork. Aluminium brake drums, lightweight seats, Plexiglass side windows and the optimistic absence of bumpers pared more weight, although it came with a heater, map-reading light and hubcaps. The result was a car weighing just 860kg; its twin-Weber 1300 issuing 99bhp to a five-speed gearbox, giving it the lungs and legs to top 125mph.
Most SZs are Coda Tonda models, their short, rounded tails complementing a snub nose. But the Alfa museum SZ we’re sampling today is the even rarer Coda Tronca version of which 30 were built, its lengthened, Kamm- cut tail further smoothing the air sluicing over its rump. But it’s still small and you can feel its lightness when you open a door with less heft than the Sunday paper, to take station in a tiny, flying buttress-bolstered seat. You need to be lightweight yourself to fit, and most will find their head butting the (padded) ceiling.
You sit before an austerely beautiful crackle-black dashboard, its bold binnacle showcasing a trio of dials. From the middle of the dash hang just seven switches, leaving you free to concentrate on the art of driving – and an art it is in this responsive little thing. Direct steering, low weight and snorting eagerness demand delicacy despite a soundtrack that’s anything but subtle – until you reach 4000rpm, when the thrillingly rude crack of combustion calms to a surprisingly civilised, throaty hum. Which is great, because this is where the twin-cam does its best work.
You soon discover that it’s easy to get into a rhythm, its keening engine, close-stacked five-speed and insect agility encouraging boldness. But any zeal must be measured, harnessing that Giulietta body roll to help through comers. You must take aim, pause and let the car settle before having your way with its throttle. If you don’t, the body sway gets out of kilter.
Learn this and the SZ becomes intoxicatingly swift, its mechanicals barking encouragement. It’s impressive for a car this old, but still more impressive is that the same character is cracklingly evident in all the Giuliettas, saloon included. It’s their mechanical character and style that are so special, setting standards most rivals needed 20 years to match. It’s this same magic that Alfa aims to recapture today with a new range of rear-drive models. If it succeeds, that will truly be worth celebrating.
‘The Giulietta’s ride, and its robustness, made it such an effective road-racer’
Above and left Cornering list is a well-known Giulietta trait and has been known to catch out the unwary; two-tone steering wheel provides a handy prop to hold onto when cornering gets a bit hairy; Coda Tronca SV here is one of just 30 built with a longer tail.