An Alfa Romeo for the proletariat
The Alfasud is Alfa Romeo’s first challenger in the small car market, a distinct departure from the Milan company’s previous offerings and to produce it a new factory has been created at Pomigliano near Naples. In Italy this front-wheel-drive “Alfa for the masses” may well be a cheap car, but by the time it has travelled overland to Britain the price has escalated to a few pence under £1,400, a great deal of money to pay for an 1,186-c.c. family saloon.
On the credit side the Alfasud has a sophisticated flat-four engine, superb handling and road-holding, is surprisingly spacious, the four-door body being capable of carrying five people with adequate luggage, and is astonishingly quiet and comfortable. However, its appointments are cheap and tasteless and its performance is most un-Alfa-like. While acceleration figures of 0-60 in 14.9 sec. and a top speed of over 90 m.p.h. are extremely creditable for such a small engine (they’re just about as good as the current Triumph Spitfire) they fail to reveal the real drawback of the Alfasud, a disappointing lack of low speed torque and throttle response leading to the need for far too many revs. to move the 16.3 cwt. car from rest and continual rowing of the precise gear-change, the lever being surrounded by the usual Alfa bellows and linked to the gearbox by a rod system. Performance drops considerably with a full load.
Once under way at reasonable speed on the open road the sophistication of the Alfasud is apparent in its quietness and ease of cruising up to maximum speed, but for driving around town I find my wife’s Escort 1100 (shod with Michelin ZX, a transformation) much more enjoyable, quicker through the traffic because of the better low-speed engine characteristics and easier to park. It is also £450 cheaper and gives a 12 m.p.g. better overall fuel consumption than the Alfasud’s 24 m.p.g.
Impressions of the test car were coloured by a carburetter malady which I hope was restricted to this car. When engine temperature rose under conditions of hard driving or heavy traffic, the flat-four lost power and failed to respond to the throttle immediately. The car was returned to Alfa’s Edgware Road headquarters for a day for rectification, but the symptoms returned while heading back to the office through heavy traffic. I can’t help looking suspiciously at the induction design as a whole and wondering whether this could be an inherent problem. A little single-choke Solex carburetter sits on top and in the middle of the one-piece, cast iron engine block and feeds the mixture through two very long, water heated, alloy inlet manifolds, one to each bank. Those inlet tracts are extraordinarily long, surrounded by hot water and directly in the rising heat from the engine block, which could perhaps account for the malady appearing when the engine became hot. In any case the size of the carburetter must restrict the power output, though it didn’t seem to help economy.
This 63 b.h.p. DIN at 6,000 r.p.m., 80 mm. bore x 59 mm. stroke (grossly oversquare and surely designed ultimately for a longer stroke) Alfa engine sits ahead of the front wheels, its configuration allowing for a low bonnet line and considerably lowering the roll centre. Drive to the front wheels is via an all indirect four-speed gearbox behind the engine, contained in the same alloy casing as the hypoid differential and the self-adjusting, 7 in. single-plate, hydraulic clutch. Driveshafts have double constant velocity joints. Though the engine block is iron, the cross-flow cylinder heads are alloy. Combustion chambers are in the pistons plus a small part of the cylinders. There is a single overhead camshaft to each bank, activated by toothed belts from the steel crankshaft and easy tappet clearance is provided by an Allen-key operated screw pad on top of each valve stem, accessible through holes in the camshaft. A four-branch exhaust manifold, two pipes per bank, merges into a single system. The front-mounted radiator is aided by a thermostatically controlled electric fan and an alternator is standard.
Within a sort of sub-compartment between the windscreen and the engine are housed the top mountings of the McPherson struts, a Varta battery, a screenwasher bottle, fuse box, tandem brake master cylinder, reservoir and £15.49 worth of optional servo, and the steering rack and pinion. This double bulkhead, together with liberal use of sound deadening materials insulates occupants from engine noise most effectively.
The front suspension is McPherson strut type and the rear is equally simple, employing a beam axle controlled by a Panhard rod, Watts linkage and vertical dampers/coil springs, a system which keeps the wheels effectively vertical at all times. It consumes very little space, too, enabling an 11 gallon fuel tank to be fitted under the flat boot floor, along with the spare wheel. The track is very wide, which, combined with the fat 165/70 SR 13 Ceat tyres, gives the Alfasud a pronounced “glued to the road” squat appearance.
The Alfasud is the antithesis of the old tale about cars being overpowered for the chassis. To do full justice to this little Italian’s splendid roadholding another 30 or 40 b.h.p. would be required and the brakes too should cope with such increased performance. Four-wheel discs are quite an innovation for a small car and what’s more the 10.15 in. front ones are inboard mounted and have the handbrake connected to them. The rear discs are of 9.17 in. diameter. Resultant braking is excellent without a trace of instability or wheel-locking. I cannot recall another front-wheel-drive car with such precise and pleasant steering and the handling is impressive, with very little roll and only moderate understeer. Wet or dry the Ceat radials are almost impossible to break away. The ride over any surface is almost as good as the Citroen GS, which the Alfasud exceeds slightly in price, and the general feeling behind the wheel is one of tautness in suspension and body.
Once a high cruising speed has been reached and can be maintained the Alfasud is able to show superiority over several 2-litre cars in terms of lack of wind noise and subdued engine and road noises. Even better, straight line stability up to maximum speed is the equal of any car on the road today, another virtue of the engine in the nose and front-wheel-drive.
The interior is cheap and disappointing. Rubber mats cover the floor, admittedly practical but lowering the tone, the facia and door trims are cheap and plasticky and there is not even a lidded cubby-hole. Seats are cloth-covered and comfortable, but the knurled knobs for adjusting the back-rests are obstructed by the door pillars. The driving position is excellent, the dished, alloy spoked, soft plastic rimmed wheel being adjustable in an up-and-down plane. Unfortunately the pedals are set too far to the left. The Veglia speedometer has a trip mileometer and is red-lined at 26, 48 and 72 m.p.h. intermediate gear speeds, but the engine characteristics cry out for a tachometer. A second dial contains a badly fluctuating fuel gauge and warning lights for alternator charge, oil pressure and water temperature (extinguished at 45°C from cold and activated if the coolant becomes too hot). More warning lights between the dials advise of flashers, main beam and choke behaviour. Warning lights are no substitute for proper instruments in a £1,400 car. A right-hand steering column stalk controls the two-speed wipers (which lift partly off the screen above 75-80 m.p.h.), two-speed heater blower, powerful but noisy on its fastest speed, and the horn. The opposite stalk controls indicators and all the light functions. Whilst Alfa were at it they could have added an electric screenwasher to the steering column controls in place of the manual pump on the facia.
Heating and ventilation is effective in everything except demisting: the steeply sloping back window mists up instantly on cold mornings or in wet weather and I consider it quite ludicrous that such a window design should not include a heated screen at the Alfasud’s price. Ventilation is via eyeballs at each end of the facia and demisting via Escort-type grilles in the facia top. A crude plastic flap operated by the left toe switches from heat to demist. Another annoyance is the interior boot lid handle mounted on the left of the passenger seat (put there of course for I.h.d. operation). Impossible to reach from the r.h.d. driver’s seat and difficult to move at all without opening the passenger door. The boot lid itself lacks a prop and fumbling fingers usually let it fall, meaning another trip round to the passenger door.
The Alfasud has an appealing appearance and distinguished cornering, cruising and braking behaviour, but its engine lacks the essential torque to make it pleasant. Many of its appointments are cheap too, but it is likeable and distinctive. I suggest that potential customers take a long, hard look at its value for money, however (and the same goes for any foreign car purchasers at the moment), and look at what they can Buy British for the same price. Take, for example, the 2.3-litre Vauxhall Magnum four-door which offers over 100 m.p.h., 0-60 in around 10 sec., similar fuel consumption to the Alfasud, vast torque and tractability and every interior comfort except radio for £1,318. Then decide whether you can afford to pay the price of individuality.