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Motoring: Alfa Romeo Alfasud - 1972

Being a car buff, I'd always admired Alfa Romeos and dreamed of one day owning one but could never justify in my mind what I saw as their high price tag. That is until 1970 when the Alfasud arrived on the scene. For those not familiar with the Alfasud, it was a new concept for Alfa Romeo, a small car aimed at the lower end of the market, an affordable Alfa for the masses. It was designed along the lines of the Mini and its ilk in that it was front wheel drive with a wheel at each corner for maximum comfort and stability. I went down to the wharves of the port of Fremantle and watched as the first shipment of this cute little car was unloaded and knew this was the car for me. I picked out a red four door sedan and became the first person in Australia to own one.

The car was an absolute gem to drive. It was zippy but by no means a V8 beater, having just a 1200 cc motor. It road the highways like they were thick pile carpets and cornered like it was on rails. It used so little fuel I at first throught the fuel gauge was faulty. But the car had a down side, a huge downside. Everytime I drove it over 80kph in the country and came back to city driving the motor would cut out. I took it back to the dealer who told me its Golden Lodge spark plugs had burned out. In one particular week when I had to drive from Perth to Geraldton and back (600 kms) we replaced the spark plugs four times. The mechanics didn't know what the problem was so the factory in Italy was contacted but couldn't identify the problem either.

Six months and forty sets of spark plugs later (yes, forty!), I began wishing I was still driving my previous car, another lemon - a Volvo 142. The Alfa dealer rang me up and said the new two door Alfasud Ti had just been released and the spark plug problem had been fixed and would I be interested in one. He offered to give me what I paid for the the red Alfasud if I traded. I took up the offer and was surprised by not only the increase in power from the larger engine and fuel injection, but also by the fact its engine ran like a dream. He had only one left from the first shipment, a silver two door, which I took.

Performance-wise, every problem I encountered with the red four door had gone, but in their place were a string of other problems centred around the sloppy way the car had been put together. The boot was almost impossible to close, in fact the only way to do it was to have the car's windows open first. We soon learned not to close the car doors with the windows closed as this caused the boot to pop open, then you'd have to open the windows, get out and close the boot, close the doors then close the windows. But that wasn't all. Everything fell off - interior door handles, knobs, the wiper switch arm, the rear vision mirror. Just about every time the car went over a bump something hit the deck.

My wife and I went on our honeymoon in the Alfasud Ti. We went on a trip through the North West of Western Australia and discovered that the boot was not properly sealed. After an hour off the bitumen, everything in the boot was covered in fine red dust. When we returned we had to throw out practically all the clothes we had taken with us as the red dust had so permeated them, they just would not wash clean. After six months of screwing door handles and knobs back on we would have had a reasonable car were it not for the doors popping open which we couldn't fix. The 4 door and Ti were brilliant cars to drive, so stable, quiet, economical and surprisingly roomy, it's such a shame they were so poorly put together. From what I've heard, they also rusted away at an incredible rate of knots, but I kept neither of my Alfasuds long enough to find that out.

Like the BMC 1100 series, the Alfasud was a great design but the execution was a disaster. The factory in Southern Italy which built them (hence the name "Sud") used workers who were unskilled in motor vehicle production which explains their poor finish. The cars they built should have had a giant tick next to their name, but their woeful construction, combined with Alfa's failure to protect them against rust (they were apparently made from low grade steel bought on the cheap from the Soviet Union), turned the Alfasud into one of the biggest motoring disappointments of the 1970s.

History of the Alfasud

Alfa Romeo had explored building a smaller front wheel drive car in the 1950s but it was not until 1967 that firm plans were laid down for an all-new model to fit in below the existing Alfa Romeo range. It was developed by Austrian Rudolf Hruska, who created a unique engineering package, clothed in a body styled by Giorgetto Giugiaro of ItalDesign. The car was built at a new factory at Pomigliano d'Arco in southern Italy, hence the car's name, Alfa Sud (Alfa South). Construction work on the company's new state-sponsored plant at nearby Pomigliano d'Arco began in April 1968, on the site of an aircraft engine factory used by Alfa Romeo during the Second World War.

The Alfasud was shown at the Turin Motor Show three years later in 1971 and was immediately praised by journalists for its styling. The four-door saloon featured an 1,186 cc Boxer water-cooled engine with a belt-driven overhead camshaft on each cylinder head. It also featured an elaborate suspension setup for a car in its class: (MacPherson struts at the front and a beam axle with Watt's linkage at the rear). Other unusual features for this size of car were four-wheel disc brakes (with the front ones being inboard), and rack and pinion steering. The engine design allowed the Alfasud to have a low bonnet line, making it very aerodynamic for its day, also giving it a low centre of gravity. As a result of these design features, the car had excellent performance for its engine size, and levels of road-holding and handling that would not be equalled in its class for another ten years. Despite its two-box shape, a hatchback was not initially part of the range.

In November 1973 the first Alfasud sport model joined the range, the two-door Alfasud ti (Turismo Internazionale, or Touring International). Along with a 5-speed gearbox, it featured a more powerful version of the 1.2 litre engine, brought to 68 PS (50 kW; 67 hp) by adopting a Weber twin-choke carburettor, allowing the small saloon to reach 160 km/h (99 mph). In 1974, Alfa Romeo launched a more upscale model, the Alfasud SE. The SE was replaced by the Alfasud L (Lusso) model introduced at the Bruxelles Motor Show in January 1975.

Alfasud Sprint coupe 1979

In September 1976, the Alfasud Sprint coupe was launched. Built on the same platform of the saloon, it featured lower, more angular bodywork, again by Giorgetto Giugiaro, and featured a hatchback. The Sprint was powered by a new, more powerful Boxer, stroked from the 1.2 to displace 1,286 cc (78 cu in) and develop 76 PS (56 kW; 75 hp), and was paired the five-speed gearbox. The same 1286 cc engine was later fitted into the 2-door saloon, creating the Alfasud ti 1.3, which was put on sale alongside the "ti" 1.2 in July 1977.

All Alfasuds were upgraded in 1980 with plastic bumpers, a new instrument panel, headlamps and rear lights, as well as other revisions. Belatedly, in 1982 the four-door cars were replaced by five-door versions, as by now, most of its competitors were producing a hatchback of that size, although some also produced a saloon alternative. In 1983 an attempt to keep pace with the hot hatchback market, the final version of the Alfasud Ti received a tuned 1490 cc engine developing 105 PS (77 kW). Named Quadrifoglio Verde (Green Cloverleaf), the model was also fitted with Michelin low-profile TRX tyres on metric rims (tyre size 190/55 VR 340 TRX) as well as an enhanced level of equipment.

In 1983, the five-door Alfasud saloons were replaced by the 33 models. The 33 was an evolution of the Alfasud's floorpan and running gear, including minor suspension alterations, and a change from four-wheel disc brakes to front disc and rear drum brakes to reduce costs. The Alfasud Sprint was renamed the Alfa Romeo Sprint in 1983. That model was continued until 1989 by sharing 33's running gear. The three-door versions continued for a further year before being replaced by the unsuccessful Alfa Romeo Arna, a joint venture between Alfa Romeo and Nissan. The Alfasud was also assembled in Malaysia by City Motors of Ipoh, although the plant was located in Kuala Lumpur.

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