This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Alfetta saloon, a seminal model in Alfa Romeo's history, not just because of its commercial success but also because of its sophisticated underpinnings, which served as a base for many more beloved Alfa models for over two decades.
Work on the "116" project started in 1967.
Alfa's engineering team, headed by Orazio Satta, aimed to achieve far superior handling and roadgoing characteristics than the existing Alfa Romeo models.
One way to do so was to even up the weight distribution between the front and rear axles, so the clutch and the gearbox were moved rearwards to join the differential in a light alloy casing, together with "inboard" disc brakes to reduce unsprung weight.
Skill and determination
However, that created its fair share of problems during development due to the balance and resonance issues of having a long propshaft rotating at crank speed. So much so that without Giuseppe Busso's insistence on such a "transaxle" layout's merits, the Alfetta as we know it would have likely never happened.
Ultimately, the Alfa engineers split the propshaft into two sections, linked via special rubber couplings called "Giubo," resulting in the tough, dependable transmission we know and love.
Unfortunately, Alfa's engineers were somewhat less successful in solving another issue brought by having a rear-mounted gearbox: the long linkages between the gear lever and the transmission. Gear shifts tended to feel relatively slow and vague on Alfettas, leading careless owners to wear the second gear's synchromesh prematurely.
Satta's engineers opted for a De-Dion design for the rear suspension, which reduced unsprung weight compared to a traditional live axle while maintaining perfect camber regardless of cornering loads, with any unwanted lateral movement of the axle controlled by a Watt's linkage.
Less weight resting at the car's front end also meant the steering could become lighter, and a modern rack and pinion setup replaced the old-fashioned recirculating ball system employed on the Giulia and its derivatives. The double-wishbone front suspensions were also new, with the usual coil springs replaced by long longitudinal torsion bars.
In short, the Alfetta was a clean-sheet design heralding a new generation of Alfa Romeos, and the only aspect of it showing continuity with the marque's previous models could be found under the bonnet: the 1779cc twin-cam inline-four, fed by the traditional pair of double-choke sidedraft carburetors, was carried over with minor alterations from the outgoing 1750 saloon and was rated at 122 HP.
Presented in May of 1972, the Alfetta was warmly received by critics and the public alike, with Alfa Romeo struggling to build enough cars to satisfy demand.
Expanding the range
With fuel economy being a significant concern in the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis, Alfa Romeo decided to expand the Alfetta range downmarket with the Alfetta 1.6 presented in January 1975.
The new version was fitted with a 1570 cc engine rated at 109 HP, with the same interior dimensions of the engine already mounted on the Giulia but in a different state of tune, and fitted with a new plastic casing for the air filter element.
Externally, the Alfetta 1.6 was easily distinguished by the presence of a single pair of headlights on the front grille, a rear bumper that extended less onto the sides, and the deletion of the overriders. Contemporarily, the "original" Alfetta 1.8 saw its front Alfa "shield" replaced with a wider one, while its 1779 cc engine lost a few horses (from 122 to 118).
Coming to America
Sales of the four-door Alfetta in the United States started in 1975, with a specific, federalized model equipped with a two liters engine with Spica mechanical fuel injection and easily identifiable by the larger bumpers and side markers.
Americans weren't impressed, and that didn't change with the introduction of the restyled "Sport Sedan" model in 1978: only about 7.000 Alfettas ever crossed the Atlantic, and the model was dropped from Alfa's American lineup by 1981.
Possibly to get rid of surplus components for the American Alfettas, the company offered on the Italian market a limited run of Alfetta "Li America" in 1981. These cars were pretty much identical to the US-spec cars save for the lighting arrangement and the absence of the catalytic converter.
The Alfetta 2000
But the most significant development in the Alfetta's story certainly is the presentation, in February of 1977, of the Alfetta 2000.
Styled by the Centro Stile Alfa Romeo but with significant input from Bertone, the Alfetta 2.0 had a more modern appearance than the original 1.8 liters model but perhaps lost some of its character and distinctiveness.
The Alfetta 2.0 sported a completely redesigned front end that was longer by 100 mm and housed two rectangular headlights in place of the classic four circular elements. The rear light clusters were substantially enlarged, the bumpers became chunkier, the front doors lost the deflectors, and the external handles were new.
The interior was almost completely redesigned to match the Alfetta 2.0's intended role as a more refined and luxurious kind of Alfa saloon, with improved soundproofing, reprofiled seats, and an all-new dashboard.
Meanwhile, the equipment level and exterior appearance of the smaller 1.6 and 1.8 versions, which still maintained the original "short-nose" bodyshell, were unified.
The Devil's juice
The Alfetta 2.0 Turbo Diesel was Italy's first turbocharged diesel passenger car. Thanks to a modern engine built by the VM Motori concern, it could reach a top speed of over 155 km/h, making it the fastest diesel car available on the Italian market.
The Alfetta 2.0 Turbo Diesel was nearly indistinguishable from the "regular" model externally, with only two additional ventilation slots on the front bumper giving it away. However, the VM engine was substantially heavier than Alfa's aluminum twin cams, requiring a stiffer front suspension setup and a less direct steering rack to ease steering effort due to the lack of a power steering option.
Keeping up with the times
From November of 1981, the entry-level 1.6 and 1.8 versions of the Alfetta range were finally upgraded to the same "long-nose" bodywork introduced with the 2.0 liters cars, while various minor details, such as the plastic moldings on the doors, were also revised.
The suspensions were softened to improve comfort and, although doing so did cause the Alfetta's handling to lose some sparkle, its road-holding
characteristics remained just as safe as before.
Six months later, in June 1982, the loaded, range-topping Quadrifoglio Oro was presented, characterized by four round headlights, a new alloy wheel design, and some plastic trim elements finished in dark brown rather than the usual black.
In 1983 the Alfetta range underwent one last facelift in a rather desperate attempt to keep its appearance fresh on its eleventh year on the market while spending as little as possible. It consisted of yet more plastic trim elements and the application of a dark finish on many parts of the body, such as the windscreen pillars.
The 1962 cc engine of the Alfetta "Quadrifoglio Oro" was now equipped with Bosch Motronic fuel injection and variable valve timing on the inlet camshaft: the latter was an industry first that opened the floodgates for similar systems developed by pretty much every other manufactuer over the following years.
The Alfetta's final production tally of 472.868 units by 1984 represents one of Alfa Romeo's most significant commercial successes. Yet the Alfetta's lifespan also saw its maker transform from a powerful symbol of Italy's technical prowess into a textbook example of the havoc that bitter, violent industry relations, rampant mismanagement, and short-sighted political meddling did to Italy's state-owned enterprises.
The Alfetta's delightfully sophisticated mechanical layout would serve as the basis of many more Alfa models because the company could no longer afford to develop a replacement without partnering with another manufacturer. But that's a story for another time...