Real Petrolheads Only: The History of Alfa Romeo

Alfa Romeo say that ‘we don’t simply manufacturer cars, we create them’ and a recently unemployed BBC motoring journalist wrote ‘owning an Alfa is a portal through which all petrolheads must pass if they genuinely want to know what it is that differentiates a car from a toaster or a washing machine.’

 They’re both right.


Alfa Romeo Badge © Supermac1961

Humble Beginnings

Like most of the car companies that emerged in the formative years of the 20th century, Alfa Romeo went from making cars to racing them and then back to making them again with a brief hiatus in the middle making aircraft engines.

The first incarnation of the firm that became synonymous with Italian automotive panache was started in 1906 by French car manufacturer Alexandre Darracq. By 1905, Darracq was producing over 10% of all cars sold in France; he was breaking land speed records and winning motor races in America and a year later, Società Anonima Italiana Darracq (SAID) was formed.

Their cars sold slowly and the Italian investors employed a new designer called Giuseppe Merosi to shake things up. Little did they know then that the new company they formed would go on to be a globally-recognised brand but it was called Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili, or ALFA.

The first car the new company produced in 1910 was the Merosi-designed 24 HP, a stunning passenger/racing car that competed in the 1911 Targa Florio. Four years later, the company came under the leadership of Neapolitan entrepreneur Nicola Romeo who promptly converted the factory in Milan to make munitions and hardware for the war effort.

‘When I see an Alfa Romero go by, I tip my hat’ Henry Ford

War, Racing, Ferrari, War

With World War I in the way and Romeo seemingly more interested in building trains, car production didn’t return until 1919. The name of the company was changed to Alfa Romeo and the first car badged as such was the Torpedo 20-30 HP. Alfa cars were raced at legendary fixtures including Mugello and the Targa Florio, and included a second place in 1920 in a Torpedo driven by some bloke called Enzo Ferrari.

The racing pedigree of Alfa Romeo continued throughout the 20s and early 30s and when Enzo Ferrari left to set up Scuderia Ferrari and on to build some pretty decent cars himself, he was replaced by racing royalty Tazio Nuvolari who had an incredibly successful pre-war career.


1936 Alfa Romeo 12C-36, Tazio Nuvolari © kitchener.lord

However, success on the race track doesn’t necessarily correspond to success on the balance sheet. In the mid-30s, the company was effectively bailed out by Mussolini’s Fascist government who assumed control and in turn used Alfa Romeo as one of Italy’s unofficial emblems.

They wanted to create beautiful hand-built cars for the wealthy and they succeeded. The 8C 2300 Spider Corsa and the 2900B Type 35 were stunning cars but the advent of World War II halted production yet again.

Notwithstanding the organisational difficulties the business was facing, the factory at Portello (which was producing Macchi C.202 Folgore aircraft engines) was obliterated in an Allied airstrike and as the war ended, Alfa Romeo struggled to get back to profitability. They even made electric cookers to try and make ends meet.


Alfa Romeo Freccia D’Oro © Christopher Pillitz

Alfa’s Love Affair With F1

After a complete ‘volte face’, large handbuilt cars were out and smaller cars made in high production numbers were back in. The gorgeous ‘Freccia D’oro’ or ‘Golden Arrow’ was one of them but in the early 1950s, the emphasis was on racing and the new single-seat Formula 1 series.

The inaugural 1950 F1 season was contested over seven races and Giuseppe ‘Nino’ Farina driving an Alfa Romeo Tipo 158 Alfetta edged out teammate Juan Manuel Fangio who went onto win it the following year, also in a 158.


Alfa Romeo C52 Disco Volante © Frank Weber

In the early 1950s while Italy was suffering from post-war financial difficulties, the company still managed to produce the drop-dead gorgeous Disco Volante as well as the Giulia, the first car to be produced on a massive scale which went on to sell over a million units.

The success of the Giulia and its forefather the Giulietta turned Alfa Romeo from a small niche manufacturer into a global brand, so much so that an army of fans formed calling themselves the ‘Alfisti’.

Other successful models throughout the 50s and 60s followed including the 1600 Spider Duetto (driven by Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate), the Alfa 1750 and 2600 as well as the Giulia Sprint GT. In addition, various minor racing championship titles were secured but come the 1970s, the business was again faced with financial difficulties.

There followed an unsuccessful joint venture attempt with Nissan and as the government-owned company (IRI) that took over Alfa way back in the mid-1930s were themselves suffering heavy losses, IRI president Romano Prodi (who went on to become president of Italy and the European Commission) put the company up for sale.

A ding-dong battle between Ford and Fiat raged on until Fiat put in a bid for the whole lot while offering job guarantees to Italian workers and it was one that Ford couldn’t – or wouldn’t – match.

The deal was concluded in 1986 and included a merger with Lancia. The new company was called Alfa Lancia Industriale S.p.A.

 The 1990s and Beyond…

Alfa Romeo enjoyed the pre-and post-millennium years.  They launched a number of ground-breaking models including the 155 and 156, the GT in 2003 and then in 2007, the next in a series of eye-wateringly beautiful Alfas hit the streets, the 8C Competizione.



Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione © Romain Drapri

The 8C’s impact can’t be underestimated. It’s a 4.7-litre, 8-cylinder V8 supercar with a 0-60 time of 4.2 seconds and a top speed of 181 mph. It’s fair to say that this car above all reinvigorated the somewhat dormant Alfisti and again they could worship at the altar of stunning design, red-hot performance and the unique feeling you get when you’re behind the wheel of an Alfa Romeo.

Over the last half-dozen years, the amazingly talented design department at Alfa has been incredibly busy. The very Italian GT and gorgeously-elegant Brera were followed by the Mito super-mini and then came the all-new Giulietta, a timelessly elegant classic.

The 8C’s baby sister, the 4C, showed up in 2015 and described by Clarkson as a ‘Ferrari puppy’, it made people in the street stop and stare and if you’re splashing the cash on a 2-seater red Italian sports car, isn’t that basically the point?


Alfa Romeo 4C © Fiat Chrysler Automobiles

It’s fair to say that as a business, Alfa Romeo in all its various states of public and private ownership can generously be described as turbulent, but as a concept, it’s an undeniable success.

Ferrari aside, there are very few car marques with bona fide fan clubs but Alfa has one. Yes the electrics were famously unreliable; yes they had a tendency to rust and yes, they may have broken down from time to time but for the short while when everything is working beautifully and harmoniously and you’re in your Alfa Romeo, everything about the world feel just right.

Alfa Romeo is more than just a car manufacturer. It evokes an almost unique passion for motoring. When you step into a Ferrari or a Mercedes or a BMW, you know you’re in a highly sophisticated machine but when you step into an Alfa, it somehow feels a little bit human, like it has a soul and a temper. That’s the difference.

They say that there’s no better testimonial for a product – any product – than the voice of the satisfied end user and there’s one end user’s testimonial that sits above all others…

‘I still have, for Alfa, the tenderness of a first love. The pure affection of a child for his mother’. Enzo Ferrari