Anyone who ever watched Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate" knows what an Alfa Romeo is, although many were unaware of the marque before they saw the movie. That's too bad, because Alfa Romeo goes back a long, long way. The pre-WWII Alfas were legendary racing machines, driven by the likes of Fangio, Nuvolari and Ferrari (yes, old Enzo himself was an Alfa driver during the 20s and 30s.)
1967 Alpha Romeo Duetto Spider
Anyway, the grand old Italian company from Portello never had the sales successes in the U.S. that the [inferior, and we'll explain this later] British sports cars had. Perhaps it was because of a poor dealer network, service and distribution, marketing, or just bad luck, but Alfa never did sell more than about 4,000 cars a year during the four decades it was offered here. The company pulled out of the American market in 1995, but its sports car days were over two years earlier.
The Alfa company devoted most of its rather sparse engineering money to engines, most notably the 4-cylinder,1290-cc Giulietta of the late 1940s and early 1950s. It was a modern design, with twin overhead camshafts and a smooth, high-revving disposition. This was updated with a newer, 1560-cc design in the mid-late 1950s, which offered a more powerful version as the Veloce. Horsepower ranged from 110 to about 130, which was plenty to propel their relatively light cars.
Car models were offered in spider (spyder, in European spelling) and Sprint bodies and all cars had 5-speed gearboxes and disc brakes on the front, two features not found on British or American cars. The bodies themselves were designed by the Pinin Farina studios and, say what you will, nobody designs cars like the Italians.
1967 Alpha Romeo Duetto Spider
There must have been something in the air in 1967, because it seems that the whole world changed overnight. It was everywhere; in music, theater, social mores, political unrest, technology and, of course, automobiles. The height of the muscle car era was in swing and the Summer of Love was soon to start. Meanwhile, Alfa Romeo introduced its spectacular Duetto Spider and it was noticed by everyone who followed automotive design.
The car featured a sharp, razor-like nose, glass-covered headlights, a classic scallop running down the side and a boat-like taper at the rear. It looked sleek, sexy and Italian in every way. Interiors were pure sports car, but luxurious enough to keep the driver comfortable during longer trips. Instrumentation was excellent and the overall feel of the car superb. Driving it was pure fun, due to its nimbleness and ease of control.
The Duetto's engine displaced 1570 cc's and produced 125 horsepower, which was more than enough to move the 2,100 pound car sprightly. Four-wheel disc brakes and rack-and-pinion steering made its handling exceptional, and 23 mpg was pretty good for an era when nobody cared about fuel costs and the typical American car was getting 15 mpg.
There was absolutely nothing wrong with Alfa Romeo cars nor any reason not to own one if you were looking for a sports car, and even their price tags were reasonable enough. Instead the buying public opted for MG, Triumph, Sunbeam and the more expensive Jaguars, having fallen in love with the British thanks to the Beatles. Alfa cars were far more reliable and refined than the British cars, but no one seemed to care. The movie, "The Graduate" even put them in front of millions of eyes but sales didn't improve.
The Duetto Spider model lasted two more decades and model names like Spider Veloce, Quattafolio and Graduate (get it?) came and went, but sales never increased enough for the company to spend the resources to accommodate ever-tightening U.S. safety and emissions standards.
Alfa tried one last gasp here by introducing the 164 Sports Sedan in 1993, but it too failed to catch on and the company went away in 1995, as mentioned before. GM bought shares in the company in 2001, but nothing's likely to come of it.
Alfa Romeo cars are highly collectible because the hobbyists know their value. The typical Alfa of a given model year goes for about 1.5 times what an MG or Triumph does, but the cars give a far better ownership experience. Try one out!
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