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  • Writer's pictureMatteo Licata

Arna: The Untold Story Of The Little Alfa Everyone Loves To Hate

Nearly forty years have passed since the launch of the Alfa Romeo Arna, and the world has yet to stop laughing. However, behind the old national stereotypes and TopGear-style bombastic oversimplifications, there's the intriguing story of a company's struggle for survival and a car that never deserved the bad rap it's gotten over the years.

This is the story of the Alfa Romeo Arna, possibly the most misunderstood automobile ever made.

Fighting for survival

To understand the Arna, we must go back to 1978.

Alfa Romeo had been hemorrhaging money at an increasing rate for years, and its debt burden was growing to the point of threatening the firm's very survival if the course wasn't swiftly reversed.

However, Alfa's position as a state-owned company meant its management had to fight this battle for survival with their hands tied behind their backs.

After all, the company's management needed the approval and financial support of the country's government to proceed with its plans, so drastic cost-cutting measures like massive layoffs and plant closures were strictly off the table.

One crucial part of Alfa's hopes for recovery rested upon reaching the full utilization of the Alfasud plant in Pomigliano d'Arco near Naples that, since its inauguration in October of 1971, had been operating well below its maximum production capacity.

However, with the Alfasud's replacement model (the Alfa 33) set to move slightly upmarket in search of higher margins, Alfa Romeo's management felt a new entry-level model was needed to boost volume and use all the engines and transmissions the Naples factory could produce.

The need for a partner

As it lacked the time and resources needed to design this new model from scratch, Alfa Romeo could make it happen only in partnership with another automaker. Contacts with the Japanese Nissan began in the Summer of 1979, and an agreement was finally signed off in October 1980.

The deal entailed the establishment of a new company based in Italy called Alfa Romeo Nissan Autoveicoli, or ARNA, of which the two automakers controlled 50% each. The body panels from the Nissan Cherry were shipped in crates from Japan to be put together in a new factory located in the Avellino area, roughly 50 Km from the existing Alfasud factory, where the cars' final assembly took place.

Opening a new, dedicated site simply for welding up the bodyshells, making the wiring harnesses, and the seats made zero sense from an economic and logistic standpoint. Still, it had to be done to create jobs in what was a powerful politician's constituency.

A win-win situation?

Using the bodyshell of the Nissan Cherry saved Alfa Romeo billions in development and tooling costs. On the other hand, the venture gave Nissan a low-risk foothold into one of Europe's largest car markets. As Italian labor and components amounted to around 80% of each Arna's value, they were exempt from the strict import quotas in place at the time against Japanese vehicles in several European countries, Italy included.

This proposition positively terrified Fiat's top brasses, who publicly opposed the deal between Alfa and Nissan and unsuccessfully tried to get the government to block it.

The projected volume was a relatively small 60.000 cars per year, to be evenly split between Nissan, which started marketing the model in the UK as the "Cherry Europe" in the Summer of 1983, and Alfa Romeo, which launched the Arna on the Italian market in October the same year.

Design compromises

Apart from the front grille and badges, the two cars were identical and married the Alfasud's rorty "boxer" engine and five-speed transmission with a Nissan bodyshell the Alfa engineers modified as little as possible.

The front suspension used modified Alfasud components, while for the rear end the original Nissan independent set-up with trailing arms was retained, albeit with revised settings. Interestingly, his makes the Arna the first mass-produced Alfa Romeo model equipped with independent rear suspensions.

But there's no denying the most controversial aspect of the Arna was its exterior appearance. As the whole point of the venture was to use Nissan's car to save money, the stylists at Alfa Romeo's Centro Stile could do nothing more than design new bumpers, grille, and lights.

The result, unsurprisingly, wasn't any sexier than the Nissan they started with, yet it's far from the travesty it's long been made out to be. After all, the Arna was set to compete with cars like the Talbot Horizon, the Opel Kadett D, and the Ford Escort Mk3, none of which ever won a beauty contest.

In fact, period reviews found the Arna bland rather than ugly, but "bland" wasn't what people bought Alfas for, especially outside Italy.

Meanwhile, Nissan's dealers had a hard time selling the Italian-made cars, as a more expensive Cherry that looked the same as the "regular" one but came with a "weird" engine was a product nobody asked for.

A commercial failure

Sales of the Arna never really took off, and by 1985 Alfa even had to temporarily suspend production to give its dealers the time to clear the unsold inventory via generous discounts.

Instead of the planned 60.000 cars per year, the Arna venture couldn't even manage that in four years, and Alfa Romeo likely lost money on each one. Between the deal's signature in 1980 and the cars' launch in 1983, the sharp appreciation of the Japanese Yen against the Italian Lira multiplied the cost of the parts supplied by Nissan, wrecking the project's already shaky economics.

Once Fiat took over Alfa Romeo, Arna production was promptly terminated, and Alfa's new overlords swiftly proceeded to buy out Nissan of its stake and pretend the Arna never existed.

By the time the last few cars left the Alfa Romeo dealers, the Arna had already become a punchline, mocked and dismissed out of hand as one of the worst cars ever conceived, mostly by people who never sat in one.

Which couldn't be further from the truth.

Once you strip away all the nonsense that's been said about it and assess the Arna for what it actually is, you find an honest little car that served its owners well, now finally being appreciated by a new generation of enthusiasts.



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