Initial impact

There’s only one letter between them, but it makes one hell of a difference. Motor Sport celebrates the Alfa Romeo GTA and GTAm touring car greats before heading trackside 

By Andrew Frankel

Coppice corner, Donington Park. Turn in blind on a trailing throttle, feel the back of the little car start sliding. Do not attempt to correct. Wait until nose is pointing at corner and rear is approximately 45 degrees from the intended trajectory. Apply corrective lock, boot throttle, start laughing. OK, so it’s not exactly a textbook approach but that’s the problem with the Alfa GTA – you can spend all your time seeing how fast you can make it go, or you can hang the lap time and have a ball. There’s no doubt in my mind which is the more fruitful approach; the funny thing is, the Alfa seems pretty clear about it too.

‘GTA’ – three initials that mean so much. Attached as a suffix to ‘Alfa Romeo Giulia Sprint’ they describe a car of humble origin that grew into something far greater than the sum of its surprisingly modest parts, a car that would come to dominate its class in touring car racing, would be driven by some of the world’s finest drivers and earn itself a place alongside the P2, Tipo B, 8C and Tipo 33 among the great racing Alfas of all time. Yet, as the great Ferrari, Alfa and Autodelta engineer Carlo Chiti admits in his foreword to Tony Adriaensens’ masterly Alleggerita, ‘the GTA was a car that really didn’t have anything special’. Yet its place among the giants has been entirely earned, for on the journey from its launch in 1965 to its last laughs as the fearsome GTAm in the early 1970s, the GTA earned the love of those who drove it, the respect of those who raced against it and the adoration of an entire generation of touring car fans. If ever a car was greater than the sum of its parts this, surely, is it.

Even today you’d be hard pressed to tell a GTA from a standard Sprint GT unless you knew what to look for. From a distance, only the wire mesh grille, Campagnolo alloys and TZ door handles give the game away. Were you to come closer you’d spot that the pop rivets fastening the roof to the chassis were left exposed but you’d need a magnet in your pocket before you twigged the big difference: that body was predominantly skinned in very light aluminium-based alloy, enough with perspex rear windows to drop the dry weight by over 200kg to just 745kg – and this a fully-trimmed ‘Stradale’ road version, not a stripped-out racer. Things look a little different under the bonnet, too: the familiar 1570cc twin-cam is there, but it seems to have more than its fair share of HT leads, double the number to be precise, denoting the presence of a twin-plug head. In stock road form it gave 115bhp, but for racing 160bhp was and remains an entirely achievable and reliable objective. The gearbox was also fitted with lighter, shorter ratios.

Although GTAs were made at the same Arese factory as Sprint GTs, Autodelta – as the official racing arm of Alfa Romeo – provided a dizzying list of modifications to tune the car to its forthcoming track duties, and while its very earliest competition outings in 1965 were undistinguished to say the least, come its first proper year on the track, it was ready for a spot of giant-killing.

Drawing upon the driving talents of names such as Jochen Rindt, Rob Slotemaker and, of course, Andrea de Adamich, the GTA embarked on the European Touring Car Championship, intent on giving our homegrown Lotus Cortina the fight of its life. And after wins at Monza, the Nürburgring and Zandvoort, the GTA duly delivered the title for drivers to de Adamich and that for manufacturers to Alfa Romeo.

Its debut on the opposite side of the Atlantic was no less remarkable. Who remembers now that the marque which won the inaugural Trans-Am championship was not Chevrolet or Ford, but Alfa Romeo, courtesy of the GTA? Picture the scene at the ultra-fast Sebring raceway on March 25, 1966, the first ever race in the Trans-American Sedan Championship. The entry allowed cars with engines up to five litres, so it was no surprise to see vast Dodge Darts, Plymouth Barracudas and Ford Mustangs on the grid. And Jochen Rindt in a tiny 1.6-litre Alfa GTA goes out and dusts the lot of them. The second-placed Dodge team was reduced to claiming ‘victory in the over 2-litre category’.

The GTAs were back for more in ’67, with de Adamich successfully defending his ETCC title and Ignazio Giunti adding the European Hillclimb Championship. While titles became harder to come by as the decade rolled to a close, the GTA remained a serial class winner in the important categories in which it competed.

By the start of the 1970s it was clear that major development would be needed to achieve success in Group 2 racing. The result was the GTAm, a car whose conception and production was so complicated that even now, some 37 years on, questions as fundamental as how many were built remain. Somewhere between 40 and 60 is the closest the experts come, of which some were all steel and some used varying proportions of aluminium. 

The new GTAms were based on the then-new 1750 GTV, but others were created by adapting earlier cars – the one on these pages started life in 1968 as a 1300 GTA Junior, a successful offshoot of the 1.6 GTA. All engines were nominally of two litres but some were as small as 1985cc, others bored out to 1999cc. Some used Spica fuel-injection, others Lucas. This one’s on carbs. Oh yes, and while a twin-spark, two-valve head was the norm, really trick GTAms, like this one, come with a single plug but four valves for each cylinder.

Adriaensens says even the name is disputed. The ‘m’ element is popularly held to stand for ‘maggiorata’, or ‘increased’ to denote the rise in engine capacity from 1.6 to two litres, but he maintains the name is short for GT American.

But however circuitous and complex the route taken by the GTAm to get to its first important race at Monza in 1970, from there to victory took just four hours as Toine Hezemans – who would become to the GTAm what  de Adamich had been to the GTA – humbled the might of BMW and Ford. He was second in Salzburg and won again in Budapest and Brno. He won his class and came second overall in the Tourist Trophy but crashed at the Nürburgring – needless to say another GTAm (driven by  de Adamich) won instead. GTAms came second, third and fourth at the Spa 24 Hours after Hezemans retired, and he failed to finish again at Zandvoort though, somewhat inevitably, a GTAm still won. At the last race of the season at Jarama, GTAms filled the first four places, Hezemans claiming victory and, with it, the championship.

The 1971 season proved tougher as the 3-litre Capris really started to put pressure on the GTAms but as before it started with Hezemans winning at Monza and ended with Alfa taking the European Touring Car Championship.

You don’t need to drive them to see how radically the GTA was changed to create the GTAm. The older car is more upright, dainty and toy-like, the Am an altogether more butch proposition. While the GTA seems only a little distance removed from a road car, even in full race trim, the Am, while still road legal, is clearly every inch a racer. Yet there are surprises in store.

Climb into the defiantly 1960s cabin of the GTA and spark up the twin-plug, twin-cam motor expecting just to toddle off down the pit lane for some gentle exercise, and you’ll probably not get out of the garage. The engine in this particular GTA has perhaps a little less than 160bhp but it has to be wound up so tight even to liberate this modest amount of power that there is nothing – and I mean nothing – below 4000rpm. In fact it’s only really getting interested at 5000rpm, yet peak power is at 7100rpm. What this means is that you have to rev way past this – 7600rpm at least – to retain enough revs in the next gear to keep the engine in the torque band. Alfa tuner Bob Dove says you can get more, even the 170bhp claimed for the Autodelta racers, but longevity is compromised.

Once on the boil it feels pleasantly quick but no more – it’s saving all its tricks for the corners. Even with me on board, the GTA probably weighs less than 900kg which is one reason it changes direction so astonishingly rapidly. Despite front springs which have approaching 10 times the stiffness of the rear ones, there is zero understeer in the dry and a comically lurid oversteering balance when it’s wet. 

This is a car you drive entirely on its nose, while trying to contain the worst excesses of the tail with moderate use of the throttle and judicious twirling of that beautiful alloy-spoked wheel. Dove says the rear roll centre of the GTA is fundamentally in the wrong place, which is why later cars and GTAms employed a sliding block rear suspension system; but if all you want to do is have huge amounts of fun, the existing arrangement works very well indeed.

To be honest, the GTAm does not feel five years younger than its older, slower sister; to me it feels like about 15. While the GTA engine possesses the classic slightly hollow twin-cam noise, the Am with its 16-valve head sounds completely different – richer but also less distinctive. It develops 240bhp, an incredible output for a two-litre normally aspirated road car-based engine of its vintage, but accounts both contemporary and current eulogise its reliability. And, compared to the GTA, it’s as tractable as a large diesel saloon.

Currently this car is wearing twin 48mm Webers and it pulls without a murmur of complaint from under 3000rpm. Autodelta quoted peak power at 7400rpm but this motor is so crammed with mid-range torque there seems little to gain in straying past 7000rpm, especially as it’s also equipped with a close-ratio, straight-cut Colotti ’box. This means that you don’t need to manage the engine in the same way as the GTA, which requires great precision to tread the line between making it give its best and damaging it. Tread hard in the Am at almost any speed, in almost any gear, and it just goes.

And it’s mighty quick. With 240bhp in the nose of a car weighing the same as a packet of crisps, it doesn’t so much eat the straights at Donington as devour them. Shifts are slammed through not from the wrist but the elbow and, in a straight line at least, the couple of early ’90s Porsche 911 Carrera Cup cars that were also testing that day stood no chance.

And but for the limitations of the Dunlop M-section rubber its owner chooses to run it on, I think it would have scared the life out of them in the corners, too. Its handling is so different to that of the GTA it’s a struggle to believe they’re based on the same design. While the GTA skitters and slides, the Am turns in with modern-car precision, exhibits the smallest whiff of stabilising understeer before the apex and simply colossal traction away from it. It’ll slide all right, but it needs to be provoked, unlike the GTA, to which opposite lock is a natural state.

Of course, a lot of this may be revealing as much about set-ups as it does the inherent differences between their designs, but they feel much as their appearances and ages suggest: one a child of the ’60s when tyres were skinny, tracks were narrow and set-up a rather informal art, the other a ’70s wild thing with a sharper focus on racing. 

Few people will ever find themselves having to choose between the two, not least because GTAms are so rare they don’t often come up for sale, and when they do their scarcity is reflected in the price. Clearly the GTAm is the more accomplished racer but the GTA is eligible for many more race series and is, in the real world, a much more usable car.

But I’d still have the yellow one – I’m not sure I’ve driven another racing car that’s made me feel so at home so quickly. While the exuberance of the GTA is an undoubted delight, the pace of the GTAm is exceptional. Until I drove it, I would not have believed an early ’70s 2-litre coupé could travel so fast. Which is why this very car won the 1971 Italian Touring Car series for the private Monzeglio Squadra Corse team. Even now, the car is incredible; back then it must have been out of this world.