The Awful Alfasud

The Alfasud was either (a) a brilliant success for Alfa Romeo or (b) the biggest disaster ever to befall them. A paradox? Read on.

It all started so well. Launched in 1971 it was an attractive looking car which had been designed by an engineer called Rudolph Hruska who had already been widely praised for his work for Porsche and Volkswagen. It had a perky 1200 cc flat four-cylinder engine producing 95 brake horsepower; top speed was 92 mph and it could achieve a nought to 60 time in a fraction over 14 seconds. Not exactly sports car performance, but not bad for an economical four-door saloon car. Rack and pinion steering, front wheel drive, four wheel disc brakes, and a low centre of gravity gave it excellent handling and roadholding. It stayed in production for 18 years, with sales of over 900,000 in that time. What was there to complain about?

Let us first look at why it was called an Alfasud. The word 'Sud' means South. Alfa Romeo traditionally built their cars in Milan but for several decades the Italian government had owned Alfa Romeo after the collapse of a bank that was supporting it. The government wanted to provide extra work for the south of Italy, which was economicaly depressed; and so they came up with the brilliant idea of building a new car factory near Naples. Unfortunately what they didn't realise was that providing a building and machine tools for assembling cars was one thing, finding a labour force that knew what to do with those tools was a different matter. The result was that quality control suffered badly.

At the same time as the cars were being assembled in the south of Italy many components was still being manufactured at the Milan factory. Some of the workers there were not greatly happy about the fact that work that they thought would come to them had gone elsewhere. Perhaps this had nothing to do with the fact that some of these components were produced shoddily to say the least but it certainly had a detrimental effect on the ability of inexperienced engineers at the other end of the country to produce a high-quality product.

Alfa Romeo had always had a reputation for turning out fairly small numbers of first-class cars which still found a market even though they were expensive. They were now mass-producing dubious quality cars. Their reputation took a hit which still hasn't completely recovered decades later. And that is before we talk about rust.

Why Italian cars of the 1970s rusted away so quickly is a matter of debate. One of the reasons is that Russia was very short of foreign currency but their steel mills were producing more metal than they could ever use. Such is the efficiency of a fully planned economy! They got rid of a lot of this steel by barter with Italy; the problem was it wasn't really of terribly good quality.

What didn't help was the production methods that Alfa Romeo were using at the time. Before cars were painted they were frequently left outside in the rain so they were rusting before they even got a layer of paint on them. Under sealing was non-existent and design techniques that could have at least avoided the worst rust traps were not even, it seems, dreamt of. Hundreds of thousands of buyers who thought they had got a bargain found their cars, which were breaking down faster than they should, were also disintegrating faster too.

Try finding a decent second hand Alfasud now. There are probably fewer of them still in roadworthy condition than there are Stradales.

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