It hasn't been sold in the United States for the better
part of two decades. Its last Grand Prix victory was in the early 1950s. The
reliability of some of its cars can be
charitably defined as iffy. But it has a history second to none.
Today, Italian automaker Alfa Romeo celebrates its 100th
anniversary. The original red dream began on June 24, 1910, and festivities to
mark the occasion will stretch through the weekend in Milano.
So what is it about Alfa that conjures up such magic and
memories? Alfa is a microcosm of why enthusiasts like cars. It doesn't have to
be rational. It's fun and it's elusive, exciting and invigorating. And it's
simply about the automobile.
Money and maintenance aren't part of the discussion.
Alfisti know most of this, but here's a short version of
some memorable moments in the history of the brand.
The company was founded in 1910, and the first car to wear the
famous badge was the 24 HP. The name, originally A.L.F.A., stands for Anonima
Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili (which means Lombard Automobile Factory, Public
Company). A.L.F.A. was bought by Neapolitan engineer and businessman Nicola
Romeo in 1915, and the Alfa Romeo moniker was born.
The company truly found its legs in the 1920s and '30s,
as the age of the automobile grew rapidly around the world. The 8C 2300 from the
early '30s took the world by storm with its supercharged eight-cylinder inline
engine, and 8Cs remain a favorite at summer concours.
An Alfa won Targa Florio in 1923, helping to launch the
long racing lineage of Italian cars. The brand counts 10 victories at
Targa--second only to Porsche--and Alfa won the Mille Miglia a record 11 times.
Overshadowed by the unparalleled racing history of a company it helped
begat--Ferrari--Alfa does, in fact, count two world championships in Grand Prix
racing. Despite withdrawing from Formula One in the 1950s, its two titles equal
Renault and Mercedes. Antonio Ascari, the father of Ferrari champion Alberto
Ascari, and Enzo Ferrari drove for Alfa.
Twice the company mobilized to support Italian efforts in
world wars and its factories were converted for wartime production. Alfa plants
were bombed during World War II.
As Italy rebuilt, the company emerged for a golden age in
the 1950s and '60s with the Guiletta and then the Giulia. The marque was
cemented in pop culture when Dustin Hoffman famously drove a spider in the 1967
classic The Graduate. Over the years, Alfa also collaborated extensively
with Milanese body maker Zagato and design house Pininfarina, themselves both
icons of Italian carmaking.
Despite Hollywood magic, Alfa would ultimately struggle
in the United States, and it withdrew in 1995 amid declining sales and
reliability questions. The most memorable Alfas endure for their sexy sheetmetal
and driving dynamics, though the company was never a threat to Detroit's Big
Fiat bought Alfa in 1986. Its recent history has been
decidedly less glamorous, but there have been highlights and signs of life. Car
fans did get a (high-priced) taste of Alfa again, when the 8C Competizione made
it to U.S. shores in coupe and spider forms. But it was extremely limited; just
50 coupes and 35 open-tops arrived. The MiTo was revealed in 2008, and just this
winter, the new Giulietta broke cover at the Geneva motor show, offering fans
the tantalizing potential for more.
With this as a foundation, Alfa followers are left to
ponder what lies ahead.
As the Fiat conglomerate now stewards Chrysler, Alfa is
poised to return to U.S. shores in the next few years, using the parent
company's resources as a touchstone. With its present more secure than ever,
perhaps Alfisti can look to the future with a ray--illuminated in red--of hope.