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A Century of Alfa Romeo Cars

From Italy with love By ,


With eye-catching, enthusiast-enthralling cars like the Giulia and Stelvio—an SUV that thinks it's a sports car—Alfa Romeo is currently enjoying a welcome spell in the limelight.

The famous Italian marque hasn't always had an easy life, though—it has faced its fair share of financial crises and there have been times when enthusiasts felt that some of its cars' sporting spirit was ebbing away. We reckon it's high time, then, that some of the marque's most illustrious, significant or just plain sexy cars were celebrated.

The history of Alfa Romeo makes for fascinating reading. An interesting and little-known fact is that the company started under the Darracq name in 1906, with cars marketed under the A.L.F.A. brand from 1910. Those initials stood for Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili, or Anonymous Lombard Automobile Factory, referencing the administrative district of Lombardi, of which Milan is the capital. It wasn't until 1920, five years after the company came under the direction of entrepreneur Nicola Romeo, that the Alfa Romeo name was born and first appeared on a car—the Torpedo 20-30 HP open tourer.

The period between the wars was difficult and found Alfa Romeo under government control, where it, like many European manufacturers, concentrated on working towards the Italian war effort. Only one model, the expensive 6C 2500 sports car, was series-built during World War II, in both road and racing versions. At the end of the war, Alfa Romeo's car manufacturing interests would intensify, but a return to profitability didn't come easily.

The hugely successful pre-war Alfa Romeo 158 Grand Prix car returned to the track after the war ended and brought welcome publicity to the company, which restarted production in earnest with the 1900 sedan, coupe and convertible. It was the right car at the right time, and its positive image contributed to Alfa Romeo's continued expansion. Some of the company's most celebrated models were produced in the 1960s.

So, now you know a little about the company, grab yourself a cappuccino and relax as we explore some of the most significant cars in the history of Alfa Romeo. 

Alfa Romeo 8C 2900
This elegant model, more than any other, exemplifies the glory of pre-war Alfa Romeo. Most famous in its Grand Prix car form, the Alfa Romeo 8C 2900 was one of the last cars run by the Scuderia Ferrari racing team, before Enzo Ferrari founded his own car-building empire. In sports racing form, the 8C 2900 saw considerable success in road racing, including the infamous Mille Miglia. Road versions were also offered to very wealthy customers—a Pininfarina-bodied example was once sold at auction by Christie's for over $4 million, in Pebble Beach, California.

Alfa Romeo 1900
After World War II, the 1900 was the car that effectively rebuilt Alfa Romeo as a major force in European car production. First sold in 1950, it was available initially in sedan and later coupe and convertible forms. Although it used a twin-cam engine from the outset, in 1954 it would receive the next-generation Alfa Romeo twin cam engine that powered cars from the marque all the way up to 1994. The 1900 also formed the basis of many coachbuilt specials by famous Carozzeria such as Ghia and Zagato, as well as the near-legendary BAT series of cars from Bertone.

Alfa Romeo Spider 1600
The Spider name had already appeared on open Alfa Romeo roadsters before, but it was the perky, voluptuous Spider 1600 that remains the most famous of all. Styled by Pininfarina, and made made famous by the film The Graduate, it was produced from 1966 to 1994, although its appearance changed markedly through four separate major updates. The first, in 1970, replaced the curvaceous rear end with a square 'Kamm' tail, while the final 1990 update re-introduced some of the grace the Spider lost over the years. Its 1994 replacement made the change to front-wheel drive.

Alfa Romeo 33 Stradale
The name 'Stradale' translates directly as 'road-going'—a strong hint as to exactly what this most famous of Alfa Romeos was. Essentially, the 33 Stradale was Alfa's official factory racer of the day, given a little extra comfort in the passenger compartment and a few adjustments to make it legal for road use. Its ultra-distinctive style includes the first dihedral (butterfly-wing) doors ever on a production road car, although their hand-built nature resulted in every example having subtle visual differences. All used the same jewel-like 2.0-litre V8 engine, detuned to 230 hp for road use for a 160 mph top speed. Such is their scarcity, examples are rarely offered for sale, but Alfa Romeo bosses in North America estimated 2015 values as in excess of $10 million.

Alfa Romeo Montreal
The rakish Alfa Romeo Montreal was quite a departure from any car the Italian firm had made before. Evolving from a Gandini-styled 1.6-litre show car displayed at Expo '67, an international exhibition held in Montreal, it was well received by the public and developed into a production model using a high-revving 2.6-litre V8 engine derived from the 33 Stradale mentioned above. Its body was almost as exotic as its engine, including retractable louvered covers that partially concealed the four headlamps and distinctive cutaway slats in the side pillars—later aped by the graphics on some American muscle cars. Pricier than the Jaguar E-Type or Porsche 911 when new, after a long period of relative obscurity the Montreal is now an expensive and sought-after classic car.

Alfa Romeo Alfasud
The Alfa Romeo Alfasud probably did more to give the Italian company a presence in the mass market than any other model. Introduced in 1971 as part of a government-subsidised scheme to bring industry to southern (or sud) Italy, the Alfasud's name was inspired by the all-new factory in Naples it was built in. Although that doesn't sound like an exciting beginning, the Alfasud soon became renowned for its sheer driver appeal. It used a charismatic flat-four gasoline engine and – although it was front-wheel drive—four-wheel disc brakes, a long wheelbase and low centre of gravity made it an exciting car to drive, with impressive grip and nippy performance. Ending production in 1983, its mechanical structure continued in the replacement Alfa 33 hatchback and Giardinetta wagon.

Alfa Romeo GTV
The GTV name dates back to the 1960s, but many feel that this version, produced from 1974 until 1987, was the most appealing of all. Based on the Alfetta sedan, the range opened with the 1.6-litre Alfetta GT, the GTV name being reserved for the more expensive 2.0-litre version. It's the later GTV6 that enthusiasts hanker after, though—distinguished by an unmistakable bulge in the hood to clear the engine intake, the 2.5-litre V6 powered coupe was an immediate hit on its 1981 launch, making a name as a very charismatic grand tourer – although beset by confusing interior design and poor ergonomics until the very end. Its 1994 replacement was designed alongside its Alfa Romeo Spider open-top sister, and every subsequent GTV has been front-wheel drive.

Alfa Romeo 164
The Alfa Romeo 164 was the first large executive car from the marque since World War II that could really be termed successful outside its native Italy. Previous efforts in the field, the Alfa Six and Alfa 90, had been let down by derivative looks, despite their wonderful 'Busso' V6 engines. Fortunately, the latter made it under the hood of 164, and with Pininfarina styling, looks were certainly on its side. Although developed alongside the Saab 9000, Lancia Thema and Fiat Croma as part of the famous 'Type 4' project, the 164 had a style all of its own inside and out. Drivers loved its keen handling and, of course, the evocative sound of its 3.0-litre V6—although economical 2.0-litre Twin Spark versions were also available.

Alfa Romeo SZ/RZ
The 1989 Alfa Romeo SZ sports coupe and its 1992 RZ roadster successor are among the most iconic cars the Italian marque has produced in the modern era—and it all comes down to that eye-watering styling, which you'll either love or hate. Whichever camp you fall into, there's no mistaking the six-eyed face of the car that became known as 'Il Mostro'—The Monster. Although built at the famous Zagato factory just down the road from Alfa Romeo, the car's looks were mostly the work of Fiat's design studio, while the mechanical package was derived from the Alfa 75 sedan. Its 3.0-litre 'Busso' V6 provided plenty of power and a sensational soundtrack, while a transaxle gearbox meant the car's weight was evenly placed for fantastic rear-drive handling.

Alfa Romeo 156
The Alfa Romeo 156 is included in our list, as it was arguably the first of the company's recent sedan cars to pay homage to the voluptuous looks Alfa was once famous for, as well as being one of the first sedans to conceal its rear door handles, coupe-style. Introduced in 1996, the 156 was positioned as Alfa Romeo's rival to the BMW 3 Series. Despite it using a front-wheel-drive configuration, reviewers and owners quickly came to praise the 156 for its sharp, fluent handling, although some enthusiasts preferred the more dramatic nature of rear-drive BMWs. However, enthusiasts continue to hanker for the aggressive and very fast 156 GTA, which featured extremely quick steering.

Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione
The 8C 2900 at the beginning our list was certainly worthy of celebration and the 2007 8C Competizione truly worthy to bear if its illustrious forebear. The 8C badge referred to an eight-cylinder engine: a 4.7-litre V8 assembled by and developed with the assistance of Ferrari. The 8C's structure was derived from the Maserati Gran Turismo, and with a voluptuous, retro-tinged body, luxurious interior and official top speed of 181mph, the 8C Competizione quickly came to be seen as a very desirable supercar. It also underlined Alfa Romeo's intent as a serious maker of high-performance cars, a promise delivered by the the compact Alfa Romeo 4C sports car and the Quadrifoglio versions of the Giulia sedan and Stelvio SUV.