Friday, 19 October 2007

Classic - Alfa Romeo Alfasud

Heroes are brilliant. Whether we like to admit it or not, everyone has a hero in some form or another; be it your dad, Valentino Rossi, Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards or Clarabelle (the second of Thomas the Tank Engine’s coaches and by far the more adventurous of the two), it’s generally just nice to have someone to admire. What’s even nicer is to find that your pedestal-percher of choice is tangibly fallible in some way. I’m not talking about total Gary Glitter meltdown – just some sense of humanity to bring the hallowed figure momentarily down to earth.

JK Rowling and Judy Finnegan illustrate this point rather well. Alright, to most rational minds they’re an overpaid wand-toting lunatic and a horrifying sea-cow respectively, but to a generation of students (whose interests are nicely serviced by both of them) they are genuinely admirable characters. Refreshing, then, when their blouses fall wantonly open during public appearances without them noticing a thing. See? They’re people, just like us.

Or how about Craig Charles? As Dave Lister, he was one of the most quotable and weirdly charming comedy characters of the nineties. Who cares if he wants to smoke loads of crack? He’s famous, he’s earned that money, he can spend it on whatever he likes. As long as he can still strap on the dreadlocks and call you a smeghead in that charming Scouse lilt, he retains his place at the top table.

In the automotive world, Alfa Romeo are one of those heroic entities; steeped in the kind of heritage that most manufacturers can only dream of, with such purity of focus in terms of exquisite engineering and sublime driveability that they don’t let piffling things like good build quality or hardwearing materials get in the way of the fun. If you’re after a sublime engine note akin to a chorus of seraphim breaking protocol to scream at one another (as well as the unreserved respect of every enthusiastic motorist you may encounter) then you buy an Alfa. It’s that simple. It’s often stated that you’re not a true petrolhead until you’ve owned an Alfa Romeo in some form or another. In a way, this is more to prove your commitment to the cause than anything else – you will inevitably end up at the side of the road, either up to your elbows in oil or desperately trying to fathom why the electrics have died again. This is just a fact. It’s part of the package.

Coming from a lineup of revered and famous cars (see the boat-tail Duetto in The Graduate, for example, or the Giulias of the polizia in The Italian Job), Alfa decided to make a radical departure. They wanted to break the mould of all that they had done before, explore strange new territories, master a market that was yet to flourish. The Alfasud was the culmination of these aspirations.

The new model seemed at first to be a significant chink in the armour. A company with such a proud and noble history building a basic little runabout on the cheap? Come on, we all have character flaws but there’s a vast gulf between fallibility and plain idiocy.

Production began in 1971 in the then-new Pomigliano d'Arco factory in southern Italy – hence the name – and managed to shift nearly 900,000 units by 1983, at which point the diminutive shape metamorphosed into the baby GTV-esque Sprint. The ‘Sud was initially viewed with suspicion as, horror of horrors, it was front wheel drive, which obviously meant that it was at least part-Communist, and possibly a little homosexual into the bargain. Nevertheless, highly favourable reviews of the bold styling and keen handling combined with aggressive bargain-basement pricing to make it a pretty attractive prospect. Italians, after all, love dinky little cars. Look at the runaway success of the Fiat 500. The Alfasud recaptured some of that pint-sized magic, but with moderately peppery performance to make it that little bit more enjoyable.

Oddly, it didn’t occur to Alfa Romeo to do the obvious thing and turn the simple two-box silhouette into a hatchback, so it was really a saloon car in the same way that the old Mini was. Still, you don’t really need a big practical door at the back, do you? Practicality’s for squares, and in this car all the fun’s at the front end anyway. With MacPherson struts, discs all round and a punchy boxer engine, it did everything it needed to extremely well, and was far better equipped than most of its contemporaries.

A great little car, then – but not perfect. Remember, it’s an Alfa. The steel for the bodies was sourced cheaply from Russia in some ill-advised backroom deal, and consequently was of very, very low quality. Add to this the damp and poorly ventilated body storage facilities and the production-line shortcut of occasionally stuffing the wings with newspaper as basic soundproofing, they rusted with gusto. Their desire to crumble into a flaky brown heap was matched by their irrepressible enthusiasm for overheating without warning, and for no apparent reason.

But hey, these little trials are all part of the Alfa ownership experience. It’s important to try new things, and that’s exactly what they were doing with the little ‘Sud; it may have been brittle and occasionally dangerous, but what Alfa Romeo isn’t? The point is it handles fabulously and has an achingly gorgeous engine note.

And what’s more, you get to tell people you drive an Alfa. That little badge carries a significant nugget of respect.

No comments: