Birth of an Icon: 1972 Alfa Romeo Alfasud

The front-wheel drive Alfasud evolved into something decent during its 11-year production run, although for many it will be cruelly remembered for its rusty reputation

When did Alfa Romeo last build a really great car, something that set standards and shamed the competition? It may have given us some inspired vehicles over the last few decades – and plenty of sheds too if truth be told – but none has been so effortlessly superior in its class as the Alfasud.

The great thing about Alfa’s first front-wheel-drive car was the breadth of its ambition. Previewed at the Turin motor show in 1971, this was a new strain of Alfa, designed from scratch using all-new parts and intended for a mass audience of family motorists.

Alfa Romeo had long nurtured small-car ambitions and it hoped that the ’Sud would elevate the firm to the first division of volume car makers. The new model was priced to tempt Ford and Fiat buyers away from their Escorts and 128s and was to be produced in true volume in a new factory near Naples, providing jobs in a traditionally poor and rural part of southern Italy (‘sud’ is Italian for south). It sounded a noble endeavour but the social engineering of a government-sponsored car factory hundreds of miles away from established manufacturing bases in the north of the country had certain built-in problems…

When production got underway in 1972, the ’Sud made Britain’s early-’70s contribution to the world of family cars – the Allegro – look truly shameful. Technical interest centred around the Alfasud’s engine. Its squat boxer architecture meant a low centre of gravity, and by building in a low rate of roll and very little offset or castor in the MacPherson strut front suspension, the handling was truly revelatory, refreshingly neutral with light, precise steering (Alfa’s first rack and pinion). At the rear, a clever beam axle was located on a Watts linkage that helped it double as a giant anti-roll bar, adding to the feeling that the ’Sud was endlessly chuckable. Many of the car’s early buyers had never experienced responsiveness like it.

The first four-speed, 1186cc Alfasuds were willing rather than fast, and there was more grip than the engine’s 62bhp could ever hope to exploit, but away from straight roads it still took a genuinely quick car to catch a ’Sud. The single-overhead-cam-per-bank flat-four engine, slung well down ahead of the front wheels, would spin freely to 7000rpm, but it was also quiet and remote. The ability to cruise at 90mph on less than 1200cc was testament to the slippery profile of the chunky Italdesign body. One of Giorgetto Giugiaro’s first big assignments as a freelance stylist, it was simple and elegant in its earliest form, yet curiously it had a boot rather than the hatchback its shape suggested.

An awkward driving position and slightly austere interior trim seemed a small price to pay for the handling brilliance. What buyers were less forgiving of was the car’s now legendary corrosion. The Alfasud became a kind of poster boy for the rust problems that seemed to be endemic across the Italian motor industry in the 1970s due to a combination of low-quality reclaimed steel and poor storage of completed bodyshells. But even without the rust the Alfasud would have suffered problems. Car making and the disciplines of working in a factory environment were not part of the culture of the Neapolitan peasant farmers who assembled these cars and they had a relaxed attitude to build quality, particularly if relations with the management were poor, which they often were.

As the Alfasud evolved, there was plenty of meat in the flat-four for more capacity (1286, 1350 and finally 1490cc) and the inevitable five doors and five speeds made it a more useful car.  A quick TI version finally had the power to match the chassis but at the cost of some ugly spoilers.

Production of the Alfasud lasted until 1983, when it was replaced by the uninspired but still boxer-powered 33. The Alfasud had sold healthily (567,093 were made, plus 156,000 TIs) rather than becoming the overwhelming triumph the company had dreamed of, but it succeeded in another way – by making lifelong Alfa fans out of a whole generation of drivers.

Recommended

Alfa Romeo SZ headlights - Art of Speed
Alfa Romeo SZ headlights
Alfa Romeo

Alfa Romeo SZ headlights - Art of Speed

The Alfa Romeo SZ featured a headlight design many considered to be unsavoury at its launch, but it only improved with time
15 Sep 2020

Most Popular

MAT Stratos 2021 review – Lancia’s iconic Stratos reborn
MAT Stratos – front tracking
Lancia

MAT Stratos 2021 review – Lancia’s iconic Stratos reborn

It’s been a long time coming, but this Ferrari F430-based reimagining of the Lancia Stratos is finally here
11 Jun 2021
Ford Mustang Steve McQueen Bullitt Edition 2021 review – a 720bhp tribute act
Ford Mustang Steve McQueen Bullitt Edition – slide
Ford Mustang

Ford Mustang Steve McQueen Bullitt Edition 2021 review – a 720bhp tribute act

Immense performance from about the coolest modern muscle car out there. It’s expensive, but there’s nothing else quite like it
12 Jun 2021
BMW M5 CS 2021 review – a class act that reaffirms the M division’s brilliance
BMW M5 CS – front cornering
BMW M5 saloon

BMW M5 CS 2021 review – a class act that reaffirms the M division’s brilliance

Nonsensical on paper, but sublime in practice. Never has a modern supersaloon been more tactile or more engaging
14 Jun 2021
Tesla Model S Plaid deliveries begin – 1006bhp super saloon now reaching customers
Tesla Model S Plaid
Tesla Model S

Tesla Model S Plaid deliveries begin – 1006bhp super saloon now reaching customers

The long-awaited Tesla Model S Plaid has finally come to fruition, with first US examples hitting the road
11 Jun 2021
2021 Audi RS3 Sportback and saloon previewed – will it finally match Mercedes-AMG A45 S?
Audi RS3 manufacturer spy 1
Audi RS3

2021 Audi RS3 Sportback and saloon previewed – will it finally match Mercedes-AMG A45 S?

Audi Sport is putting the final touches on its new RS3 hot hatch and saloon
10 Jun 2021
2021 Maserati GranTurismo to go EV-only – IC option ditched
2021 Maserati GranTurismo spy – track
Maserati

2021 Maserati GranTurismo to go EV-only – IC option ditched

GranTurismo coupe and its soft-top GranCabrio sibling to be reborn later this year, but controversially without the proposed combustion alternative...…
11 Jun 2021
Posaidon’s 217mph Mercedes-AMG E63 RS is faster than a Porsche 918 Spyder
Posaidon Mercedes-AMG E63
Mercedes E63 AMG

Posaidon’s 217mph Mercedes-AMG E63 RS is faster than a Porsche 918 Spyder

Three new Posaidon power upgrades are now available for Mercedes-AMG’s E63 S, bringing hypercar numbers to the four door supersaloon
9 Jun 2021
Used car deals of the week
Used car deals 11 June 21
used cars

Used car deals of the week

Here's what caught evo’s fancy this week on the second hand car market
11 Jun 2021
Updated in-line six Mercedes-AMG GT 4-Door revealed – hybrid V8s still to come
Mercedes-AMG GT53 MY22 – front tracking
Mercedes

Updated in-line six Mercedes-AMG GT 4-Door revealed – hybrid V8s still to come

GT43 and GT53 4-Doors receive a refresh while we await the arrival of the V8 hybrid GT73
14 Jun 2021
Best small cars 2021 – pocket rockets reviewed and rated
Best small cars 2021
Best cars

Best small cars 2021 – pocket rockets reviewed and rated

You don’t need 200bhp or more in a small hatchback to have fun – these ‘warm’ small cars are the proof
7 Jun 2021
Ferrari F8 Tributo replacement mule spied – will it emulate the McLaren Artura?
Ferrari F171 spy 2021 – front
Ferrari

Ferrari F8 Tributo replacement mule spied – will it emulate the McLaren Artura?

Ferrari’s going hybrid and V6 for its next mid-engined supercar
9 Jun 2021
HKS in development of a supercharger kit for new 2021 Toyota GR 86
HKS Toyota GR 86
Toyota

HKS in development of a supercharger kit for new 2021 Toyota GR 86

Japanese tuner HKS is in development of a supercharger upgrade package for the new GR 86
9 Jun 2021
BMW announces entry into LMDh class from 2023 – to fight Audi, Porsche and other big names
BMW Le Mans header
BMW

BMW announces entry into LMDh class from 2023 – to fight Audi, Porsche and other big names

The 2023 LMDh class is shaping up to be a big one, with BMW getting back in on the action with its own racer, but only in the USA
11 Jun 2021
Can the Renault Clio Trophy beat a modern supersaloon for daily transport?
Jethro opinion header
Opinion

Can the Renault Clio Trophy beat a modern supersaloon for daily transport?

The boot struts have gone saggy and the hatch slams onto my head three times a week, but the Clio Trophy is hard to resist
8 Jun 2021