5 Things You Didn't Know About... Alfa Romeo!
Updated: Nov 10, 2021
The best part about being an Alfa Romeo historian is that you'll never know it all about the Milanese marque. Here are five among the lesser-known chapters of Alfa Romeo's history; sit back and enjoy the ride.
One: An Unbeaten Record
Alfa Romeo's sporting history on the world's racetracks is well known. But very few people are aware that, between the 1920s and the 1980s, Alfa Romeo engines from the Giulietta, Giulia GTA, Montreal, and others were adapted for marine use, setting speed records and winning championship titles in various classes.
One such boat, the "Popoli Alfa Romeo," actually belongs to Alfa's museum, and deservedly so: powered by a 2.5 liters "Tipo 33" V8 modified for marine use by Autodelta, in 1969 it set a speed record of 225,15 km/h that, in its specific category, stands to this day.
Two: The Italian Renaults
Keen to expand its product offering below the Giulietta, Alfa Romeo established a joint venture with Renault to produce and sell the Dauphine on the Italian market. Alfa Romeo assembled in Milan around 55.000 Dauphines between 1959 and 1964, and over 40.000 Renault 4 in Naples between 1962 and 1964. Contrary to the Dauphine, the Italian-made Renault 4s did not wear Alfa badges but are recognizable by their tail lights, which were the same items Fiat used on the wagon derivative of its popular 500, known as the "Giardiniera."
Three: The "Mad One"
After WW2, the Americans left behind hundreds, if not thousands, of Jeeps. These leftover vehicles were then used by the Italian police and the army of the new Italian Republic for several more years until wear and tear made their replacement inevitable. The Alfa Romeo AR51 off-roader was Alfa's answer to the problem, perhaps best known with its nickname "Matta," which means "Mad" in Italian.
The vehicle earned it during testing when engineer Antonio Alessio saw the prototype go up and down rough slopes with test driver Guido Moroni at the wheel. Surprised by the vehicle's capabilities, he exclaimed: "Ma questa è matta!" (But this is crazy!).
Coherently with Alfa Romeo's best tradition, the "Matta" was a sophisticated machine, very much overspecified for its target market: twin overhead-cam, aluminum block engine derived from the 1900 saloon, dry-sump lubrication, and independent front suspensions with torsion bars. Such refinement came at a price, though, leading the Ministry of Defence to choose Fiat's 30% cheaper offering, the "Campagnola." Consequently, little more than 2000 Alfa Romeo "Matta" were made between 1951 and 1955.
Four: The Long Way Around
In the summer of 1973, two Italian drivers and a journalist traveled 26.000 Km in just 29 days, starting from Nordkapp in Norway and ending on the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. Their ride of choice?
An Alfetta 1.8 liters four-door saloon, painted in Azzurro Le Mans. The car received very little in the way of modifications: a large roof rack, a bull-bar, and an aluminum skidplate to protect the oil pan. Mechanically, the Alfetta remained the way it left the factory, save for an additional oil bath air filter to protect the engine from the sand of the African desert.
How it went? The Alfetta took everything in its stride, with a blown damper being the only mechanical issue it had over the entire journey.
Five: Pioneering Technology
In the late 1970s, Alfa Romeo engineers were looking for ways to retain the performance and drivability of their engines while complying with present and future tailpipe emissions standards.
Dissatisfied with the crude fuel injection systems available at the time, Alfa Romeo's experimental department designed its own. Known under the CEM acronym, standing for Controllo Elettronico Motore, a fully integrated electronic engine management system allowed "modular" engine operation, switching off half of the engine's cylinders at light loads.
First installed on a fleet of 10 Alfetta 2000 that clocked around 40.000 Km each, driven by Milanese taxi drivers, the system performed admirably and netted a 12% average reduction in fuel consumption.
However, Alfa Romeo's perilous financial state and the system's prohibitive production costs meant the CEM saw very little use on production cars.
Less than 1000 Alfetta and around 1500 Alfa 90 saloons were ever fitted with the system, likely sold at a loss, given the CEM increased their powertrains' production costs by about 50%.
Bring the CEM's costs down significantly required economies of scale Alfa Romeo couldn't achieve on its own, and development pretty much stopped once Fiat took over the company in late 1986.
But that's a story for another time...