Of sporting impact - Alfa Romeo's plans for Great Britain

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Brabham Alfa Romeo is the wording on the red and white Grand Prix contenders of Niki Lauda and John Watson. It represents the ultimate in sales promotion for the 128 occupants of a late nineteen-sixties building at the northern end of London’s Edgware Rd. Of course it is not just for Alfa Romeo GB that the Italian parent makes these gestures, but those words suns up a recently more-sales-conscious attitude. What other methods are used to persuade people, such as the 8,637 who purchased Alfas in the UK last year? And what other methods are used by those officeblock inhabitants to complete the Italian marketing job? To find out we trundled (how else Can you describe a double-decker bus ride ?) up the Edgware Road to discuss their future plans, and some of the exciting new models due its Britain over the next two years. Since Alfa Romeos are now made by factories only a decade old, there was also plenty to learn about where the Cars are made.

Our guides through the mysteries of marketing these attractive imports were the company’s Managing director in Britain, Carlo Cattaneo, and public relations Officer. N. Barrington (“Barry”) Needham. The latter name may sound as imposing as a genuine Georgian mansion’s lofty elegance, but there’s nothing old fashioned about his, or the company’s, selling techniques.

First a few words on what is happening in Italy to make and transport such cars to our country. There are three main factory areas.

In the North they make everything, except the Alfasud, at a factory called Arese. This modern car plant has replaced Milan as the Centre for manufacturing operations: the famous Milano building should be sold, but like everything else pertaining to a company owned 99.9% by the-government, especially an Italian government, such decisions are more the subject of politics than logic.

In the South, not far from Naples, an equally modern set of factories and a few associated suppliers turn out the Alfasud front-wheel-drive range. In 1976 some 16,000 workers produced over 93,000 ‘Suds, while at Arese (and to a small extent Milan, which was then being run down) 14,000 workers made over 108,000 of the various front-engine, rear-drive Alta Romeos, alI with that classic four-cylinder motor.

 These figures offer a clue to the unrest felt in Italy over the Southern plant. Created to provide work in an area of unemployment it has never reached the 1.000 cars a day level that would avoid the current substantial losses. In fact production, at best, reaches about 700 a day. Britain is the third biggest export market for the ‘Sud derivatives, behind Germany and France. We ought to have been the third largest export customer for the rest of the Alfa range too, but without a r.h.d. version of the 122-b.h.p. Alfetta 2000 saloon (available in Europe for nearly a year now) it has been hard to gain a decent volume of sales.

Obviously parallels between Leyland’s problems and those of state-owned Alfa Romeo are made, and Carlo Cattaneo is very sympathetic to the problems of the British giant. In fact, he is one of the few car industry people in Britain who understand how politics and redundancies are intermixed. In Italy, union officials are frequently full-time politicians as well, and you write off the cost of cads new recruit at the time of Isis employment, for it is practically impossible to sack anyone,

Cattaneo said, with uncharacteristic gravity, “When I meet the managers of our other European sales companies they are always asking for more ‘Suds. There is no doubt we could sell more cars than we are making. Even so, over 60% of all ‘Sud production is exported.

“You know we have grown in sales -fantastically since 1973. Then we sold less than 2,000 cars in Britain. In September 1974, we had the ‘Sud for sale here, and that year we doubled registrations. Then we did it again in 1975. when we had 5,807 ‘Suds and 2,480 others registered that year, so again we doubled our sales! In 1977 we sold 5,498 ‘Suds and 3,139 others.

“So, for us, the ‘Sud makes the trick. The only major problem is that the car is not profitable, but these are paper losses, I think. How can you say it’s all loss when it creates those jobs and brings in currency from outtide? The potential is there, and I think it is good for Italy to make this factory in the South. Sonic things are just not black or white, there are many good reasons far this factory to be in the South. You know our kind of cars, they are, well, very apparent. Like Alitalia, the press just cannot stop writing about us.”

The Alfas are transported to Britain via train and boat services. Here in Britain there are 124 dealers, 55 of them concentrating solely upon Alfa Romeo. Future plans include the appointment of a further 31 dealers this year. Last year 10,067 cars were allocated to the British market, this year’s target is 15,000: a 49% increase! Everybody chuckled knowingly about these figures, pointing out that if every importer’s plans came true, there would be 3 million cars sold its the UK for 1978, rather than the anticipated 1.4 million.

Commenting on the cars that will be coming to the UK in 1978, Mr. Cattaneo said: “We. must get the 2-litre Alfetta on sale soon.” In a joking aside, he added, “If we don’t. I’ll resign!” Such shafts of jollity lightened much of our conversation, but it is obvious that seven years serving Alfa in Britain has been a more serious affair, at which this modest individual has excelled. He says more seriously. —It has taken us longer to get hold of this car than any other in the range; normally we wait only 6-8 months after the Continent, and that includes Alfasud.

“The Giulietta (the 1.6-litre model that shares the Alletta rear gearbox and many other mechanical parts) should be on sale here laterin the year. Of course, the Alfasud Sprint will be more freely available too, and we expect to sell about 150 of these cars a month.”

It is possible that the sophisticated new Alfa Romeo big saloon will appear in Britain by the end of the year too, although it has not yet. made its official debut in Europe. This exciting venture will give Alfa their first 2-litre plus luxury saloon since the demise of the 2600 in the ‘sixties. Like that model the new Alfa will have 2.6-litres, but disposed in a double overhead camshaft (per bank) V6, whose ancestry is traced back to the racing V8 motors. It is expected to have 170 b.h.p., on carburetters (Alfa also own the Spica fuelinjection people incidentally) and will have automatic ZF transmission for the majority of export cars.

“With power steering, electric windows, things like that, it will sell against the top of the Peugeot range and the bottom of the BMW/Mercedes big-car models. At present-day prices, that means it would sell between eight and nine thousand pounds,” reported Mr. Needham.

Another new weapon in the marketing men’s armoury to entice the well-lined pocket is also being tried by Alfa this year— the 2-litre Affetta GTV Strada. Some 300 such cars will be made, all converted at premises in Deal, Kent. This adds up to nearly, £7,000 as the price for this specially-equipped GTV, by far the most expensive model at present in a UK Alfa line which begins at £2,899.71 for the Alfasud 5M. All the Alfa prices are inclusive—”anticipating legislation that will be announced soon,” I was told—and there is even the two-year routine service scheme (referred to as “red carpet motoring”) in the Alfaplus prices.

It seems the Alfaplua system of offering the car with all taxes paid, safety belts and number plates installed will be staying for good now, as will the servicing scheme (which includes the routine items that need changing I and the inclusion of delivery charges. It seems a much more honest way to price a car, and it is an important selling point to the marketing men.

That is not to imply any lack of engineering expertise and innovation. Any company that makes a flat four-cylinder engine and hitches it up to the front wheels with barely a trace of f.w.d. tug deserves that no trace of innuendo should attach to this remark. Rather that it is a rare company which combines engineering and sales awareness to such a degree. Interestingly, Barry Needham was once a PR for Citroen, so he’s no stranger to the merits of small flat fours with f.w.d…

It is interesting to hear what Mr. Cattaneo feels about the British market, especially on the subject of our colour idiosyncrasies. As these marketing men say, “Green may be beautiful in Portofino, but it can look like hell on wheels outside the Bullring in Birmingham!” Aside from this, there seem to be few British preferences that are not easily catered for. Automatic transmission is not very popular in Italy, and especially not with those who feel an Alfa Romeo cannot be an Alfa without a five-speed manual box played fortissimo. Just ten years ago over 70% of Alfa production comprised coupes and convertibles; now they make more saloon bodies than any other style, but the thought of going for automatic transmission has often had to be stifled in the face of tradition. The last of the r.h.d. 2000 saloons (from the previous series) did creep through with a ZF unit, but it was just a parting gesture, one feels!

British specification cars, in line with most other importer’s practices, tend to be very fully equipped, so that the number of model variations in trim and equipment are minimised. As Cattaneo says frankly, “In Italy every model is available in a basic form-things like heated rear windows and so on are extras—but this is the technique a home manufacturer can use in his own country: Ford often do the same sort of thing in England.”

Summing up his feeling about the British market, Cattaneo said, “I like it very much and it is good for us because: (1) it’s bigenough for everyone to share; there’s no problem finding elbow room with people from Lancia, BMW or whatever and there is plenty of room to grow for all of us. (2) Here we have the customers we want to have. They like a smaller car with sporty manners.

“Now this does not mean it is a nice market for every importer. I should not like to be the one who has to sell small Fiats.” A big chuckle as he adds, “Always you must be fighting in the market to make an impression with economy small cars. It is very hard.”‘

This brings him to a thing he really dislikes about the UK conditions. “I don’t like the prices. Nobody is making good money in Britain. This is true of every class of car. You can see the truth when you compare the prices of a car like Fiesta across Europe; for us the best money is in Germany.

“This prevents us attacking the market as we should do. Something like 10% more profit is needed, but the salaries paid in Britain are not enough to support this, so everybody suffers.”

Commenting on type approval regulations, which come into force this year. Mr. Cattaneo felt there were only the normal problems of bureaucracy to contend with. The theory was mtteh the same its Europe, but some of the details took time to sort out.

Turning to the fuel aonsumption figures that we will see on all cars from April 1st (appropriate date, they feel!), Cattaneo confirmed that Alfa Romeo merely had to submit their French certificates, as the principles were the same. “The figures look marvellous in place of the general magazine-sourced overall consumptions that we used to quote,” said the men of Alfa Romeo happily. The testing method still quotes m.p.g. at k.p.h. speeds (the constant speed ones are particularly misleading) so the public should be pretty bathed on all counts by this piece of expert British legislation!

I then asked how important the sporting side was? Mr. Cattaneo is quite keen on all branches of the sport, but retains a practical eye for what benefits their interests the most. He said, “As I said, 10 years ago we sold only coupes and other sporty cars. Now we have switched to a position where saloons and ‘Suds are of more importance as part of our image. Now, we have to say, the Alfa Romeo is sporty and practical. It takes time, effort and a lot of money to convince the public that we have changed from being only interested in sports/racing cars to having some cars for the faintly as well.

“You know many people think Alfa Romeo’s just OK for sport, So we have to think carefully. Our official solution is never to leave this sporting area, but not to overdo it: that is why it is a Brablram Alfa, not an Alfa-Alfa.” (When this was written there were recurring rumours of just such an all-Alfa Romeo F1, car, running on Pirelli tyres.)

“I think, if you have a Formula One World Championship to boast about, then this must be a help. Now the policy is for head office to do all these sporting promotions, because sales companies like ours do not have the money.”

For in my years Alfa were involved in saloon-car racing, particularly Group Two where their Autodelta subsidiary won many European Touring Car Championship titles with Giulia coupes. I asked whether they thought Alfa had turned their backs on racing cars that look like their products for good? Mr. Cattaneo looked thoughtfill and said, “It’s true, we did put a lot of effort into such programmes but this has changed because of the attitude of the press and because we were not sure that the saloon-car racing audience was right for us. We prefer to have national radio, TV and press coverage, so as to place the name Alfa Romeo in front of the new family customers we are looking for.

“The Italian press goes for everything between us and Ferrari. It’s true, we have made the most of it and”—he tilts his chair back to achieve the dramatic span of hands- “yes, there are headlines this big on AIfa v. Ferrari.”

Press relations man, Barry Needham added, “Frankly, you have only to look at the type of vehicles people bring to British races to know why we prefer Formula One. Very few of the cars are worth more than £2,000. Thus British saloon-car racing, in particular, is better for people like Ford who may sell Capri-type vehicles from saloon-car events.

“In fairness I should also add that British saloon-car racing is very specialised. The home manulacturers have put a lot of time and elfint into the UK regulations in homologating and developing parts. So we find our products are often not suitable. This is because the Italians have to do all such work, and they are mainly interested in Group Two [and then they go racing only with big sponsorship—J.W.] so our cars receive less attention. Of course, the 1,500-c.c, engine for Alfasud Sprint may help things and, in addition to what we have already said about our plans for 1978, you can expect to see this car in Britain this year.’

One is left wondering a little about the British company’s attitude to the sport when you see the list of countries. (very small in sales volume) who do have rounds of the Alfasud Cup, a heavily Alfa-sponsored one marque series. Why not here I asked ? Mr. Cattaneo said decisively, “yes, but all that publicity has to be paid for. We make it, it is not the same as racing against others. For example in Austria, the dealers are much more interested in the sport, and we do not have that situation in Britain.’

This comment gives a good clue to the Alfa GB attitude toward the dealer team which runs their products in Britain. They say frankly that only live dealers are really interested in supporting the sport (which might provoke some comment and confirms Mr. Cattaneo’s comments about the change in Alfa image!) and so it is increasingly hard to run the team. Napolina, the dealer team’s sponsor last year, is prepared tostay in for 1978 but so far as direct Alfa Romeo involvement goes Mr. Cattaneo says, “We are good friends: many of them have worked for us. We cannot do more than help with parts and advice, so the links are not very close any more. I think there is room for a good driver to do, a job for us, but all the development necessary parts would have to be done outside … and so would the money!”

In fact, the best activity. from the British end this season, has been the Worth-sponsored Alfetta GTV for BSM instructor John Lyon. The car has performed well, called little on Alfa’s resources in this country, yet has also been a credit to the company name. Untorinnately, Worth do not appear to want to continue support in 1978. Ironic, for the reason is apparently that they achieved what they set out to do, much as Yardley had in racing, puzzling though it may be to enthusiasts.

Overall, we spent an informative day at Alfa Romeo. Much of what happens there is common amongst importers, but despite all this talk of family saloons, the sporting spirit is still very much alive in their current production, albeit a spirit adapted to the road conditions of the 1970s.—J.W.

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