The Little Alfa That Never Was
Updated: Aug 3
The little Alfa Romeo "Tipo 103," also known by the uncharitable nickname "Pidocchio" (the Italian for "louse"), is perhaps more famous now than it's ever been, at least among the Milanese marque's enthusiasts.
The word "famous" must be intended in very relative terms, though, as we're talking about a single prototype that became a museum piece in August 1962, shortly after being built.
The "Tipo 103" was conceived in the late 1950s when the Italian automobile market was booming, and the Giulietta's success had transformed Alfa Romeo into the second-largest Italian automobile manufacturer, in place of a declining Lancia.
The word "largest" must also be intended in relative terms, given Alfa Romeo, with around 17.000 cars sold in 1957, remained nowhere near Fiat's volumes.
Nevertheless, the Portello's management felt confident enough to plan a further expansion downmarket, with a small 850cc saloon striking a "middle ground" between the established Fiat 600 and 1100 while retaining Alfa Romeo's values of superior engineering and performance.
The French Connection
Meanwhile, in 1958, the Milanese company struck a deal with another state-owned carmaker, Renault, to produce in Milan 250 Dauphines per day.
According to Alfa's own plans, manufacturing and selling the small Renault saloon helped it gain experience in this new market sector, for a future in which it planned to make up to 75.000 "Tipo 103" per year.
Speaking of Renault, it's often alleged that the French carmaker "took inspiration" from Alfa's small prototype for its successful R8, the Dauphine's successor.
Except the opposite is true, at least according to Giuseppe Busso's memoir, from which I translate for you:
"At that time, we had very active relations with Renault (...) we also knew that a medium-small Renault was about to appear on the market, which would be called R8, and the size of that car was often mentioned by management when discussing ours."
But the similarities with the French car remained skin-deep, as the 103's baby-blue body panels conceal a technical package that was head and shoulders above the standards of its class. The little Alfa's 900cc engine was mounted transversely besides its gearbox to maximize interior space and sent power to the front wheels: a first for Alfa Romeo.
The inline-four cylinders engine was an all-new design with dual overhead camshafts and gave 49HP when it was first bench-tested in February 1962.
The prototype preserved in the Alfa Romeo museum was readied in August that same year, but it hardly turned a wheel, as by then, the project's fate had already been sealed.
Alfa's president Giuseppe Luraghi had started to favor a slightly larger vehicle in the 1100-1300cc sector of the market... But that's another story!