Alfa Romeo was founded in 1907 to produce the French-designed Darracq car in Naples for sale in Italy. The Darracq quickly proved to be a commercial flop in Italy (it didn't last much longer in France) and the company's Italian investors took control and reincorporated in Milan in 1909 with Ugo Stella as chairman. A new, forward-looking name was chosen for this new, all Italian venture into automobile manufacturing: A.L.F.A, for Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili. A factory was set up on the outskirts of the city in an area called Il Portello. A new car demanded a new design, and a self-taught engineer, Giuseppe Merosi, was hired away from Bianchi as head designer. The first production A.L.F.A., designed by Merosi, was the 1910 24 HP. This was a large, conventional touring car with a 4 L, 4 cylinder cast iron engine, producing 42 HP (the 24 HP designation referred to the power rating for tax purposes). Merosi's subsequent designs for Alfa were similarly solid and unadventurous, but consistently achieved a high level of quality and reliability.
A.L.F.A.'s sales grew in the years following
1910, but the outbreak of the first world war put a stop to automobile
production. The factory sat nearly idle during the early years of the war,
but in 1916 the company came under the direction of a high-flying Neopolitan
industrialist named Nicola Romeo. Romeo's other
companies were deeply involved in supplying the Italian and Allied war
effort, and the A.L.F.A. plant began producing military hardware, including
compressors and generators based on Merosi's car engines, as well as aircraft
engines. Romeo amassed a fortune during the war, which enabled him to purchase
A.L.F.A. outright in 1918. Under Romeo's direction, car production resumed
after the war under the new name of Alfa-Romeo. Merosi continued as head
designer, producing a series of solid production models and several successful
However, he ultimately proved unable to produce the innovative passenger car designs that were needed for Alfa-Romeo to remain competitive.
In 1923, Merosi was replaced by Vittorio Jano, who was hired away from FIAT. A young Alfa racing driver named Enzo Ferrari was instrumental in bringing Jano to the company. Jano's first design for Alfa Romeo was the P2 Gran Prix car. The P2 had a lightweight chassis, and 2 L straight-eight engine, with two rows of overhead valves set at a 100-degree angle, each row driven by an overhead camshaft. The P2 won Alfa Romeo its first world championship in 1925.
Under Jano, Alfa-Romeo experienced a golden age. He developed a series of small- to medium-displacement 4, 6, and 8 cylinder inline engines based on the P2 motor that established the classic architecture of Alfa motors, with light alloy construction, domed combustion chambers, centrally-located plugs, two rows of overhead valves per cylinder bank, and--usually--dual overhead cams. Jano's designs not only achieved a high level of performance, but set exceedingly high standards of reliability.
Jano's first production car for Alfa Romeo was the 6C 1500, which appeared in 1927. The motor was essentially a detuned P2 unit with two fewer cylinders, resulting in a 1.5 L displacement. Most 1500s were sold with conventional, utilitarian bodywork, but sporting versions were also produced and saw some success in racing. However, the 1500's larger-engined successor, the 6C 1750, which appeared in 1929, was the ultimate 6 cylinder Alfa of the period. The 1750 was highly successful on the track, with wins in the 1929 and 1930 Mille Miglia and the 1930 Targa Florio, and numerous other events besides. With spare but graceful two- seater bodies by Zagato and Touring, the 1750s were also beautiful; they epitomized the union of function and form in the vintage European sports car. Outstanding as the 1750 was, it was technically surpassed by Jano's next variation on the P2 theme, the 8C 2300 of 1931-34. This car's 2.3 L eight-cylinder, dual overhead cam motor was created by adding two cylinders to the 1750. Jano used a creative innovation to avoid crank whip: he divided the inline eight into two blocks of four cylinders, essentially two four-cylinder motors mounted front to back on a common crankcase.
The 2300 was an expensive exotic of which only a few hundred examples were made. It was was beautiful like the 1750 and perhaps even more successful in racing, but it was introduced at a time when few could afford such luxuries and a government- supported company could not justify producing them. In response to new economic realities, Jano reverted to a 2.3 L 6-cylinder engine to produce a car that was smaller and cheaper than the 8 cylinder Alfas, although still neither small nor cheap in absolute terms. In spite of its pragmatic origins, the 6C 2300 and the 6C 2500 that followed it introduced fully independent suspension and semi-monocoque construction, innovations that foretold the design of post-war Alfas.
Jano produced two other major designs for Alfa Romeo. One was the P3 Gran Prix car, also known as the Tipo B. The P3 updated the classic Alfa architecture and was quite successful from its introducion in 1933 until it became uncompetitive after 1935. The final product, the 8C 2900, appeared first as a sports racer in 1936, and later as a production car. The production version was the 2900 B, described at the time as "the fastest car in the world." It was also one of the rarest and most expensive, making today's Ferraris look cheap and commonplace by comparison.
Enzo Ferrari had risen from driver to manager of the Alfa Romeo works racing team by the end of the 1920s. In 1929, he left the company and started went into business selling Alfa Romeo cars and preparing them for racing. By prior agreement, Ferrari's new enterprise, Scuderia Ferrari, also assumed responsibility for managing the factory racing team and developing racing cars in close collaboration with the factory.
Despite the technical and racing success during Jano's tenure, Romeo's industrial empire had financial difficulties and suffered serious damage in the crisis of 1929. Romeo had been removed as director in 1928, and the company passed into government receivership shortly after the crash. In 1934, it was absorbed with other industrial companies by an agency of the Facist government, the Instituto di Riconstruzzione Industriale (IRI), which was to control it for over 50 years.
With the government in control, another former FIAT employee named Ugo Gobbato was brought in to direct Alfa-Romeo. Under Gobbato's leadership Alfa Romeo began the transformation from traditional, artisanal production, to a modern, industrial approach. The company began large-scale production of aero engines, trucks, and other hardware which served Fascist ambitions, as well as improving its economic status.
Alfa also became the government-subsidized
standard-bearer for Italian racing efforts during the 1930s, but produced
very few cars for sale. Racing was emphasized over passenger car production
after Mussolini discovered its potential for building national pride and
international prestige. For a time Alfa was vitrually unbeatable in sports
car racing, winning Le Mans every year from 1931 to 1934, the Targa Florio
in 1931-1935, and the Mille Miglia in 1931-1934, 1936, and 1937. In the
early 1930s, Jano's P3 achieved an impressive string of successes on the
GP circuit, as well. By the middle of the dedade, however, ALFA could not
compete with the formidable teams from Mercedes and Auto Union, financed
by Germany's even more ambitious government. Tazio Nuvolari's stunning
victory over in the 1935 German Grand Prix was Alfa's last major success
decade. Jano, unable to satisfy Mussolini's desire for victory, was forced out in 1938 and went to work for Lancia. Ferrari's relationship with the company ended in the same year. At Alfa, Jano was followed by several designers: Gioacchino Colombo, who later designed engines for Ferrari, and Wifredo Ricart, a Spaniard who created the Pegaso in the 1950s, succeded Jano in racing car design, and Bruno Trevisan took over production car activities.
The second world war again brought a virtual halt to car production at Alfa. While the Portello plant made shells and other war materials, partially-assembled production vehicles were put in storage and a few racing and experimental cars were hidden in caves north of Milan. In the end, the war was a disaster for Italy, and for Alfa. The factory was severely damaged by Allied bombing in 1944, and occupying German troops commandeered part of what remained. Nevertheless, Trevisan's design team worked through the destruction to develop a different kind of Alfa Romeo for the changed Europe that lay ahead.
Car production was initially slow to restart at Portello. While the future of the auto industry in a devastated Italy was still unsure, Alfa Romeo produced a variety of products, including stoves and aluminum window frames, to keep its workforce and facilities productively engaged. Like those of other manufacturers, Alfa's first post-war cars were cosmetically updated models from the late 1930s. The first cars produced after the war were 6C 2500s that appeared in 1946. Interestingly, the years immediately after the war marked Alfa Romeo's last but very successful forays into Grand Prix racing. Alfa won world chapmionships in 1950 and 1951 with the tipo 158 "Alfetta," a recycled prewar racing car, and its modernized successor, the 159, driven by Giuseppe Farina and Juan Manuel Fangio, respectively.
In 1950 a completely new passenger car, the
Alfa Romeo 1900, was introduced. This was Orazio Satta's first production
model and the first modern Alfa Romeo. It was smaller than past Alfas (although
not small by post-war European standards), and retained many elements of
the classic Alfa architecture while incorporating modern innovations in
design and production technique. In 1954, a new model that departed even
farther from the company's elite past was introduced: the Giulietta. With
encouragement from the IRI, this was to be a smaller and more affordable
Alfa for middle class buyers. It featured a 1.3 L
version of the now-familiar all aluminum, dual overhead cam, inline 4 engine in a monocoque chassis with a rear live axle. To stimulate interest in the car, the first Giulietta, a Bertone- built sprint coupe, was given away in a public lottery. Models with
sedan and spider bodywork followed.
The introduction of the Giulietta brings us essentially to the beginning of the modern era in Alfa Romeo's history. The company's products and history from the 1960s onward are familiar, but four historically significant developments should be mentioned. Two new factories were built following introduction of the Giulietta. The first was a large complex opened in Arese, north of Milan, in the 1960s. This plant replaced the company's antiquated works at the Portello with a modern design and production facility. The Giulia Sprint GT was the first Alfa Romeo to be built entirely in the Arese plant.
The second new factory was the result of an ambitious, government-inspired venture to produce a smaller, cheaper Alfa Romeo for the home market. Rudolf Hruska, an Austrian who had worked with Porsche on the Volkswagen before the war, and later with Alfa Romeo on the Giulietta, as well as with Ford and Fiat, was given responsibility for the design of the new car and the new factory that was to produce it. In just five years, Hruska's small team developed an innovative, boxer-engined, space- efficient front-wheel drive car that went into production beginning in 1972 at Pomigliano d'Arco, near Napoli. The car was named the Alfasud, or Alfa-south, after the factory.
Despite the impressive technical achievements represented by the design of the Alfasud, the venture was not commercially successful. Alfa Romeo's official publications claimed credit for the Pomigliano d'Arco plant's part in industrializing the Italian south, but the factory experienced severe quality problems and labor disputes in its early years and has never produced at full capacity.
An even worse financial disaster resulted from
an attempt to keep a place near the bottom of the Italian home market by
producing a low-priced successor to the Alfasud. With this goal in mind,
Alfa entered into a joint venture with Nissan in 1981. The car that resulted
was called the ARNA, for Alfa Romeo-Nissan Auto. It was assembled in Italy
from Alfasud engines and front suspension pieces and Nissan Cherry body
panels imported from Japan. The ARNA car was badged as an Alfa Romeo in
Italy and elsewhere in Europe as a Nissan Cherry Europa. Although the ARNA
may have been more appealing to European buyers than a Nissan would have
been, the concept seemed to combine the worst features of Japanese design
and Italian manufacture. It was ultimately unsuccessful in the market,
and the venture saddled Alfa Romeo with debts from which it never
The final development, whose full significance is not yet known, was the end of Alfa Romeo's existence as a state-subsidized but autonomous manufacturer and its absorption in 1987 into the mammoth Fiat Group, which already controlled the rest of the Italian car industry. Alfa was struggling in the early 1980s, but the reasons for the sale are not entirely clear; similar struggles had taken place throughout the company's history. After the IRI let it be known that Alfa was for sale, talks ensued with Fiat, General Motors, and Ford. For a time, Ford seemed to be the likely buyer, but in the end Fiat triumphed. Fiat has invested large sums in retiring Alfa Romeo's debts, developing new models, and integrating Alfa production with Fiat and Lancia. The new cars produced under Fiat ownership continue to use some Alfa Romeo engine designs, but otherwise seem to have more in common with recent Fiat practice, particularly the use of front-wheel drive. Rumors persist that Fiat and Alfa Romeo will again part company, but no such plans have been announced.