Alfa Romeo Giulietta: Living La Dolce Vita

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C&SC’s resident Alfisto Mick Walsh celebrates Italian style with a blat around the lakes in a Giulietta.

Dreaming up the perfect road trip to celebrate Alfa Romeo’s centenary has been an entertaining distraction. With no restrictions on car or route, should it be Vittorio Jano’s magnificent 8C Monza over the epic Mille Miglia passes in Tuscany, a hot lap of Monza in a GTA, or maybe a Tipo 33 prototype around the sinuous, sun-baked Targa Florio course? But more significant than these glorious competition machines is Project 750, better known as the Giulietta, which, thanks to the inspired direction of engineers Orazio Satta Puliga and Rudolf Hruska, brought Alfa Romeo into the modern mass-production market in ’54. Its free-revving, all-aluminium 1290cc twin-cam ‘four’ powered a remarkable range of models, from family saloons to flyweight GT racers. Purity of styling, rewarding controls and lively performance made this affordable ’50s jewel a great driver’s car that, more than any other model before or since, established the marque’s reputation and character. Production of all types totalled 12,000-plus in its first two years, making it immediately far more important than the exotic pre-war greats.

The options look unlimited for an appropriate Giulietta jaunt, but a spring drive around the Italian lakes, diverting over some historic rally passes, seems spot-on for the anniversary. Combining that scenic escape with visits to the factory museum at Arese – plus the glamorous Villa d’Este concours – promises the ideal Alfa excursion. Luckily Walter Laimer, a passionate German Alfa enthusiast who runs an impressive fleet of Giuliettas and Giulia Spiders for corporate and private tours, has similar ideas about a centenary run around Lake Maggiore.

A Sprint GT would have been highly appropriate because the Bertone-styled beauty was the first Giulietta model launched at the 1954 Turin show as the cute Berlina’s lengthy gestation stretched into ’55. But, as desirable as the coupé undoubtedly is, the Spider is our preferred choice for this romantic trip. Laimer’s brilliant organisation doesn’t stretch to a beautiful Latin companion for the full Dolce Vita experience, so the Giulietta’s eager 103mph performance is handicapped by the addition of photographer Baker. In original single-Solex 65bhp tune, the 1290cc motor has to work extra hard with two blokes, plus their cameras and luggage.

Where better to start the tour than Arese, where production was cranked up with the construction of new factories in 1961? The original Portello factory at Via Gattamelata where the Giulietta was first built is long gone, and sadly the sprawling Arese facility is now silent after assembly was relocated to Turin.

The only Alfas left are inside the impressive Museo Storico, now isolated amid this industrial wasteland. There’s a strange atmosphere in the museum, with just a few wardens to protect Alfa’s crown jewels from bored students. Italians have traditionally looked forward, but this heritage showcase was the world’s best when it opened in ’76. Now that Alfa’s focus is with Fiat in Turin, the museum feels remote, but it’s still a must-visit for Alfisti. With so many great cars on show, it’s the rare prototypes that attract me most, such as the one-off 1965 Giulia Sprint Speciale that Giugiaro designed at Bertone but the management turned down due to its lack of rear seats. Most of the historic Giuliettas are away on promotions for its latest namesake, but unmissable highlights include a set of Tipo 33 concepts, a wacky early streamliner, a raft of aero engines and a remarkable – if dusty – model collection.

After lunch in the local Ristorante Castanei, which opened in ’64 and was once a regular haunt of Alfa management, we pack our Giulietta’s big boot – Alfa Spiders have always been amazingly practical – and head west for Lake Maggiore on the A8. Pitched in with the impatient commuters, the compact Spider, which has no seatbelts, feels vulnerable during the busy, wet trip. The tiny four-pot has to be kept on the cams with the early four-speed gearbox to stay out of trouble, but the Giulietta feels more modern over broken surfaces than many younger 105 Series Spiders that I’ve driven. Its rigid monocoque resists any scuttle shake that might upset the superb worm-and-sector steering. Once off the autostrada, with the top down and clear skies ahead, the 54-year-old design comes alive again as if born for these roads, and I can’t wait for the morning run.

The lake looks majestic at dawn – with mist hanging across the still surface – but the sun burns through by the time we leave. Like all Alfa Spiders, the Giulietta’s simple hood operation is a design lesson that MG, Austin-Healey and AC never heeded. The roads are quiet as we head back south to find the famous Italian rally pass that climbs from Stresa to Monte Mottarone at 4894ft. The best route up is tricky to locate but, once clear of the hillside developments, it enters the Giardino Alpinia, a near-deserted national park that is excellent Alfa country. I’m convinced that I’ve driven here on a winter rally – in the dark on snow-packed roads – and it’s a treat to see the unspoilt scenery from an open car in the spring. In standard trim, the Spider leans into the bends, though the grip is tenacious and the handling amazingly neutral even with such narrow tyres. Combined with the Alfa’s marvellous steering and slick gearchange, it makes the hilly route supremely rewarding – although the hearty twin-cam has to rev harder still with two up on the steeper sections. The organ-style, floor-hinged pedals are initially awkward for a newcomer and the drum brakes don’t feel that reassuring on the steep descents, but the rest of the car is wonderfully responsive. The Giulietta even keeps its poise over the winter-ravaged corners close to the peak, and I could happily turn back and drive it all again. If the Spider still feels this composed today, contemporary road testers must have found it a revelation.

After a welcome cappuccino break at the chilly summit, where we chat to a group of Moto Guzzi riders who reckon that this climb is one of the best local passes, we drive down to the west side and the smaller Lago d’Orta. Here classic-style launches transfer tourists from the delightful town of Orta San Giulio to the ancient Basilica on San Giulio island. Even in April this scenic spot is crowded, so we scarper back over the hills to Maggiore. En route to Arona we pass the gigantic Colosso di San Carlo Borromeo, a 75ft-high bronze of the local-born 16th-century cleric canonised for his work during the plague.

Heading back along the lake roads, we spot several other classics out in the heavenly evening light. An Aston DB2/4 on Italian plates darts by with little acknowledgement, though the drivers of an MGA and a Lancia Dilambda greet us like old friends with enthusiastic waves. We spot a Morgan group waiting for the ferry at Arona, but are more distracted by the Fiat Nuova 500s and mint Lancia Gamma for sale in lakeside garages.

We rise early on Sunday, with a plan to head north to the Swiss border for lunch at Locarno. Laimer encourages us to take another diversion for a final mountain foray to escape the legion of cyclists who enjoy the lakeside roads at weekends. Driving solo, I’m enthused by the Giulietta’s livelier performance and, compared to the more southern shore, the run to Cannobio is less developed, with fewer grand hotels and little Armco blocking the glorious views across the water to the Malcontone mountains. We cut west from Cannobio, as the wooded river-valley road soon turns into a steep switchback of endless hairpins right up to Malesco.

The Alfa thrives through these challenging bends, its light steering, precise gearchange and forgiving handling perfectly honed for the long ascent. With no passenger to complain about my press-on pace and few moderns about, you soon imagine that you’re Jean Herbert on a class-winning charge during the Liège-Rome-Liège. Cresting the pass, the evergreen pines frame the picturesque snowy peak of Cima di Laurasca at 7000ft. After another quick cappuccino, the Giulietta’s iconic pressed grille is directed north-east as we cruise down the Vigezzo Centovalli back to the lake and the busy tourist hub of Locarno.

Here the wider road is dramatically different, with the tarmac cut into rock faces as it traces the spectacular railway over the Swiss/Italian border. Rather than Locarno, instead I elect to stop in Ascona on the south side of the Maggia estuary to let the Giulietta cool while I walk along the quayside. Here the Bugatti Brescia was pulled from Lake Maggiore in ’09 after 70 years hidden. Story has it that Zurich-born architect Max Schmuklerski bought the Bugatti from a French tourist but never paid the import duties. The car was abandoned in a boatyard by Schmuklerski after he left town, then pushed into the lake by frustrated officials in 1936. The chain it was attached to eventually corroded and the Bugatti sunk to the cold, dark depths of the lakebed until discovered by divers. The view south is stunning, particularly when a classic Riva speedboat full of pretty passengers burbles past the ferry jetty.

Refreshed in the garden terrace of Castello Seeschloss, one of the oldest buildings in Ascona, it’s back in the Spider for a blat south down the A9 to Como for the final, and public, day of the historic concours at Villa Erba. This grand 19th-century home previously belonged to the Visconti family, including the celebrated film director Luchino who edited Ludwig here in his final years. Alfa has a fine heritage at this event, first claiming the coveted Coppa d’Oro in 1931 with the fabulous 6C-1750 GS ‘Flying Star’ with spider body created by Touring of Milan. No Alfa is in the running this year, but there’s a centenary display that features the original Giulietta Spider that was missing from the museum. Having become familiar with the production model over our road trip, it’s fascinating to compare it to the hand-made prototype.

American importer Max Hoffman was a key figure in the development of the Spider and, having seen the new Sprint, he stated: “Americans prefer convertible cars to coupés.” After rejecting Bertone’s Spider proposal, claiming that Franco Scaglione’s styling was troppo avveniristica (too futuristic), Alfa went for Pinin Farina’s more conservative design. It’s easy to see the connection with the Lancia Aurelia Spider in the prototype, particularly the moulded dash and proud binnacle for the central rev counter.

When Hoffman first inspected the Spider, he insisted that it would “sell better with roll-up windows”. The light-blue prototype, one of three built, still features the original sidescreens, removable quarterlights and practical door pockets that form part of the panel pressings, but the rest of the design is close to the production model. Frustratingly, another favourite Museo Storico exhibit – the wooden buck for the Sprint – is not displayed, and the new Giulietta is the centre of attention for the public. Like the classic Spider’s body, the new car is built in Turin. 

Its pearlescent white paint is dazzling in bright sunlight and we are taken with the detailing, particularly the rear lights and brushed-aluminium switchgear. Although it’s based on Fiat’s new Compact platform, the Giulietta – it was to be called the Milano but for reasons of tact the name was swiftly changed – looks bulky compared to the pert ’50s prototype. The weight comparison – 880kg to 1365kg – is telling, but first reports on the new car reckon that it’s worthy of its famous forebear. Like the 1954 original, it’s an important car that will shape Alfa Romeo’s future. But with prices of classic and modern both at about £25k, I know which I’d rather take home.

This article was originally published in the August 2010 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images. Click here to see the terms and conditions.

Words: Mick Walsh; pictures: Tony Baker

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