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The endangered Tipo 116 Alfetta berlina lives and dies by personal memories and old associations: unlike in its homeland, the car’s cupboard of British cultural references is practically bare.
A maverick detective did not drive one on the big or small screen. Nor did Autodelta enter one – wearing Gp2 wheelarches stretched over deliciously fat Campagnolo alloys – into the Silverstone round of the 1973 European Touring Car Championship. One didn’t star in Octopussy driven by Roger Moore wearing a shiny blouse. Nor was one a stooge to a gang of Mini-borne bullion thieves.
Alfettas were not used by plod to chase villains with 40-denier face-lifts, and thickset suited geezers did not bundle ex-geezers into an Alfetta’s boot for one last meeting with a shovel and a bag of lime.
At best, you may have spotted a berlina in the grimy streets of The Sweeney or glimpsed its North American cousin in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
These are fleeting thoughts as I head to Somerset in my 1978 Alfetta 2000.
A few years ago, the Alfa itch had proved irresistible and when looking at a Giulia Super, this was in the corner of Black & White’s showroom wearing a Charlesworth-sized pricetag.
Aside from colour, it was the twin of the 2000 that my father once had and which I steered on Pendine Sands while perched on his lap. One previous owner. A former concours winner. A history file almost as fat as The Pub Bore’s Guide To Italian Car Rust Quips. I couldn’t find a reason not to buy it.
Once the astern gearbox is warmed up and second gear is feeling friendly, the 2000 is an easy, relaxing thing to drive. Torque from the 1962cc twin-cam is enough to fend off the unwanted aggression of bottom-sniffing turbo diesels with a guttural bark from the rasping exhaust.
Its ride on 165-section tyres is comfortable and dismisses most road imperfections – this car’s custom timber and bovine interior underlining its Italianate lusso air. Handling is on the understeery side of neutral with light, slightly low-geared steering.
Alfa-ness can be found in the driving position, the two main instruments – the speedo needle moves upward and clockwise, but the rev counter anticlockwise downward – and under the dash, where there is a hide-and-seek hand-throttle that is only for the brave.
The Alfetta’s origins lie in a broken post-war Europe with threadbare pockets, where Italian industry had led the way with stylish attainable goods.
Alfa Romeo had repositioned itself from being the pre-Ferrari Ferrari to a mass-producer of middle-class machines with an irrepressible sporting bent. Such was the success of the firm’s reinvention that it must have caught the attention of a struggling German car company in the land of lederhosen and oompah bands.
The grudge match that ensued in the 1960s between Alfa Romeo’s Tipo 105 Giulia berlina and BMW’s Neue Klasse/’02 saloons had equipment levels rising, engines swelling, power increasing and performance escalating.
The problem was that these larger-capacity engines brought with them more weight, less balance and greater understeer, whilst the accompanying bodywork looked derivative and a bit old hat.
Sitting in the class above the Giulia – to make the most of Italy’s increasing wealth – the larger Tipo 116 Alfetta would put the Milanese manufacturer back on the front foot in its duel with the Bavarians.
Development began in 1967 under Dr Orazio Satta, Giuseppe Busso overseeing the ambitious mechanical design – which included an alloy-cased transaxle inspired by the Tipo 159 Alfetta racer – and Ivo Colucci styling the bodywork.
The Tipo 116 was unveiled in 1970 with production intended for 1971, but development delays, strikes and resources going into the Alfasud delayed its launch. The Alfetta would finally be launched in 1972, arriving in the UK in ’74.
Strangely, it had a sweet-and-sour reception. ‘The Alfetta brings the silence and refinement of large and expensive cars into the under 2-litre class, and excels most of them for roadholding and ride,’ purred Autosport, but rival Motor Sport was less convinced. ‘Because its unconventional layout promised so much,’ wrote the latter, ‘the Alfetta has left itself wide open to criticism because it doesn’t quite achieve the expected.’
The Alfetta severed the link with its predecessors, adopting a few Alfa production ‘firsts’ in addition to the five-speed transaxle – a de Dion rear, all-round disc brakes (inboard at the rear), double-wishbone torsion-bar front suspension, plus rack-and-pinion steering.
On paper this car had it all, but the Alfetta would go on to attract an unfair reputation. Despite Giancarlo Baghetti, Gianni Taroni and journalist Fabio Galiani undertaking a 16,000-mile drive from Norway’s North Cape to Africa’s South Cape in a 1972 model, the Alfetta got saddled with a reputation for unreliability.
It was fostered via a conspiracy of unusual drivetrain, labour problems, a requirement for specialist maintenance tools, plus a steel monocoque that could challenge Terry-Thomas for being wilfully rotten.
During its 12-year production life, the car was continuously evolved. In 1975, following the introduction of the 1570cc Alfetta 1.6, the 1779cc Alfetta became the Alfetta 1.8.
Here started a trend for the new range-topper to benefit from the latest look, while its lesser-engined sisters would have to make do with the prima donna’s hand-me-downs. So, where the 1.8 sported a new broader scudetto (losing its twin-bar moustache) as per the new Alfetta GT, plus plumper overriders, the 1.6 made do with the 1972 look – minus overriders and door mirrors – combined with single rather than quad headlamps plus a single-bar ’tache.
The biggest changes would be introduced in 1977 with the 1962cc Alfetta 2000. The car was comprehensively overhauled inside and out, with the introduction of a new dashboard, different headlamps, restyled tail-lights on a longer boot, impact bumpers, a rear-hinged bonnet, flush-fitting door-handles, new steel wheels and no more front quarterlights.
Titivation continued with the 2000 Lusso of 1978 and the UK range-topping vinyl-roofed Alfa Romeo 2000 in 1980. That was superseded by the fuel-injected Gold Cloverleaf in 1982, the plastic surgery extending to the reintroduction of quad lamps, new alloy wheels, plus various tweaks inside and out.
In 1983, the Alfetta’s final year, the Gold Cloverleaf sprouted more plastic body trim and received another interior tickle plus a vertical C-pillar vent, while the injected twink boasted Variable Inlet Valve Timing.
In 1984 Motor nostalgically noted that ‘the Alfetta saloon has tended to exist in the GTV’s shadow, somewhat surprisingly when you consider that it has always been the better car – a more consistent handler… During the mid ’70s, the Alfetta offered a higher level of technical sophistication and dynamic ability than Fiat’s rival twin-cam 132 and vied with BMW’s capable but rather clinical 5-series models for the ‘best 2-litre saloon’ title’.
Vernon Marston’s 1974 MkI Alfetta appears closer to its 1750 forebear thanks to its classic stainless whiskers and round headlamps.
Only four years separate it from the 2000, but they are as different as Times New Roman and Helvetica. The later version has a clean and freshly pressed look for the age of synthesisers, drainpipe jeans and digital watches. You sit lower in the MkI.
While the interior is very different, both dashboards give pride of place to a clock – for nothing is more important than mealtimes. Speedo and rev counter are both zeroed at eight o’clock, unlike the 2000’s eccentric blue dials. The tachometer doesn’t have a redline, the numbers just lose interest above 7000rpm. There’s a draft from the quarterlight. Gears are held longer. The tacho needle stretches further above 5000rpm, where the 2000 starts to sound strained, grumpy and sweaty.
When it gets in its stride, the noise from the earlier car is sweeter, higher-pitched, but clearly related – it buzzes like a wasp compared to the 2000’s hornet. The gearchange is less fluid but still nowhere near as awkward as sceptics suggest, although allowances should always be made for the brakes in right-hooker transaxle Alfas.
The Hellebore wheel discloses steering that has more weight, more precision and has a lot more texture and consistency flowing through it. Those optional Campagnolo Turbinas with 185-section rubber no doubt play their part, but such is the difference, it’s tempting to speculate on the MkI’s greater sporting emphasis or whether its geometry was tweaked when Konis replaced the single-action Spica dampers.
Ahead lies the corner we’ve been using for our photography – picture a comma reclined on its side with its tail in the air.
The 2000’s steering loads up and those 165s dream of understeer while the body leans further until settling – before gently and neutrally drifting around its tightening arc.
The MkI, in contrast, turns in and grips with scarcely any extra steering heft; its responses are far quicker, the car feels lighter. The rear then comes alive, spicing up the party with a snifter of yaw.
The balance of the MkI’s hip-swivelling chassis pivots around you like something far newer with fewer seats. The unassisted steering and keen throttle responses – always to the accompaniment of the fervid twin-cam, twin-choke chant – surpassing any post-millennial’s sense of involvement.
The trade-off for this show of suave accomplishment is a firmer ride, but it feels like a completely different car – more sportivo less esecutivo. It is utterly delightful.
“I bought it because I wanted something sporty,” says Vernon, smiling. “Plus, I couldn’t afford a Bertone GT at their current prices. I’ve got an Elan so I’m used to cars that really do handle and the steering on the Lotus is sublime. On this it is slower, it’s much lower geared – so there is more twirling – but it is very precise, accurate and there’s loads of feel. You can position the car beautifully and that’s what sold it to me.”
The photographer’s task is then delayed while two Alfetta owners go off on a tangent chatting about chassis dissection – covering tyre pressures and footprints, damper-rebound, toe-out, camber and castor adjustment. Yours sincerely makes a few mental notes.
If Britain’s population of Tipo 105 Giulia berlinas is considered thin on the ground, then the nation’s surviving Tipo 116 Alfettas could teach Bristol a lesson in exclusivity. Extant GTVs are comparatively more prevalent than four-doors, but that is because they were and are deemed worthy of preservation due to their sleek, desirable sportiness.
Yet as the clock ticked and exhausted frilly workhorses were scrapped, the berlina became another car paradox – a mass-produced, mass-market rarity. It is a most unfortunate situation for a pure-bred Alfa that is often forgotten, repeatedly misunderstood, and far too frequently underrated.
Images: Tony Baker
Alfa Romeo Alfetta
- Sold/number built 1972-’84/ 424,739 (all saloon versions)
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine all-alloy, twin-overhead-cam 1779cc ‘four’, two 40mm twin-choke sidedraught carburettors
- Max power 140bhp @ 5500rpm
- Max torque 123lb ft @ 4400rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual transaxle, driving rear wheels
- Suspension: front independent by double wishbones, torsion bars, anti-roll bar rear de Dion tube, coil springs, Watt linkage, anti-roll bar, telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes discs, inboard at rear, with servo
- Length 14ft (4280mm)
- Width 5ft 4in (1620mm)
- Height 4ft 81/3in (1430mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 23/4in (2510mm)
- Weight 2337lb (1060kg)
- 0-60mph 10.8 secs
- Top speed 112mph
- Mpg 26
- Price new £2448 (1974)
- Price now £5-15,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication
Alfa Romeo Alfetta 2000 (where different)
- Engine 1962cc ‘four’
- Max power 140bhp @ 5300rpm
- Max torque 129lb ft @ 4000rpm
- Length 14ft 43/4in (4385mm)
- Width 5ft 43/4in (1640mm)
- Weight 2516lb (1140kg)
- 0-60mph 10.1 secs
- Top speed 108mph
- Mpg 27
- Price new £4799 (1978)