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Expertly packaged and engineered without compromise, this enigmatic, boxer-engined family saloon for the 1970s set standards of road behaviour, refinement and driver appeal that its rivals were still struggling to match in the early 1980s, a full decade after the model’s production began.
Compact and front-drive, it took this grand old name in a new, egalitarian direction. At last, here was an Alfa that blue-collar buyers could aspire to in a sector of the market where the rewards were greater, but so were the risks.
The name ‘Sud’ was a reference to the car’s southern origins, not far from Naples in Campania, where local assembly of Renault Dauphines and R4s alongside Alfa commercials maintained a corporate foothold in the small-car market.
But it was an open secret that plans for a true baby Alfa had been around sincethe 1950s.
Only a gentlemen’s agreement not to step on Fiat’s toes in the volume-car business had kept the idea on the back burner.
As for the Sud’s Turin motor show launch, half a century ago this year in 1971, all bets were off.
With its slippery four-door, two-box body styled by Giorgetto Giugiaro’s newly formed ItalDesign and a drivetrain by engineer Rudolf Hruska, the human pedigree alone behind the Alfasud must have had Fiat rattled.
Having worked on the 1900 and 105-series project his track record with Alfa could not have been better.
For Giugiaro, after a decade of styling mostly exotica, the Sud was a first mass-market success, created under the strict disciplines of Hruska’s brief.
The Austrian inspired nightmares in the young designer, particularly when it came to his insistence that the boot had to be big enough to take a supposed set of giant suitcases.
“They were enormous,” Giugiaro has since stated, “I don’t believe they ever really existed, but Hruska insisted that the trunk should be large enough to hold them. And that was that.”
For a car of less than 13ft long the Alfasud had a huge boot, and more rear legroom than a standard-wheelbase Jaguar XJ6.
It could take four full-sized people in a cabin that was arguably the best piece of packaging since the BMC 1100, while at the same time incorporating safety features – an under-seat fuel tank, crumple zones and a collapsible steering column – that had not been an issue a decade previously.
While Hruska oversaw the drivetrain and production engineering, ItalDesign was responsible for designing the body structure.
The cars were four-door only at first, with an internally released bootlid featuring ugly external hinges that could occasionally make contact with the rear ’screen, with predictable results.
But Alfa was curiously resistant to addressing the problem, and by the time it did, in 1981, the Sud’s days were already numbered.
The decision to build the new small Alfa in an impoverished part of southern Italy, where the job options tended to range between farming and crime with not much in between, must have had a certain logic to it when the idea was plotted in the late 1960s.
New and separate from its established product lines, it made sense to produce the Tipo 901 Sud away from Arese, where the limit of the local labour force was felt to already have been reached.
In fact, because of the massive investment that was required, a new company was formed to build the cars: 90% owned by Alfa and 10% by Finmeccanica, the financial arm of the Italian government’s industrial reconstruction agency.
Car making and government intervention rarely go together well, although the idea came from Alfa rather than being an entirely political move.
Enquiries with Rootes about the fortunes of the Scottish-built Imp might have given Alfa Romeo bosses cause to question the wisdom of entrusting the construction of an all-new car in an all-new factory to an essentially rural peasant workforce.
Work in Pomigliano d’Arco, on the site of a former Alfa wartime aircraft engine factory, started in 1968 and Sud production began in the spring of 1972. The factory would be plagued by strikes or, at harvest time, by employees who went mysteriously off sick.
So much for social engineering. Luckily it was Alfa Romeo who designed the car, rather than the government do-gooders.
Front-wheel-drive and Alfa’s first rack-and-pinion steering were the engineering headline-grabbers, but the key to the Sud’s charm was its horizontally-opposed four-cylinder engine.
It was slung well forward of the front wheels to give a low-profile nose – the Cd was a then-remarkable 0.30 – a low centre of gravity and as much interior space as possible, but without ruining the weight distribution.
With plenty of potential for expansion, this well oversquare 1186cc unit with iron block and alloy heads had bowl-in-piston combustion chambers and would cruise the 1900lb (862kg) Sud at 90mph on just 68bhp.
Tellingly, it required only half that amount of power to maintain 70mph, while doing 30mpg and 300 miles on a full tank.
Smooth and free-revving, it was also designed for easy maintenance and along life, a nod to the fact that this was a mass-market car aimed at less well-heeled buyers than the traditional Alfa constituency.
Similar reasoning must have been behind the decision to make the cams belt-driven and the front discs inboard (they also incorporated the handbrake), where they were easy to get at as well as reducing unsprung weight.
Sitting four-square on relatively skinny 165 tyres, those early four-speed Alfasuds were given a rapturous welcome.
Quiet, thrifty and spacious, here seemed a family-car dream come true. At £1400 when the first examples arrived in the UK in 1973, it blew its rivals out of the water.
Even if it had not been so pretty, or blessed with such a delightful engine, the baby Alfa’s handling would have won over the sceptics.
On paper the combination of MacPherson struts at the front and a beam axle at the back looked predictable enough, but, by dialling-in very little offset and castor into the steering geometry, and making the accurately located rear axle into an effective anti-roll bar (a precursor to the modern torsion beam), Alfa produced a car with near-perfect poise and comportment.
The Sud steered so neutrally, rolled so little and had such an abundance of cornering power that its overall lack of straight-line urge was always going to be an issue, although it went uncommonly well on less than 1200cc.
Help was on the way in the form of the five-speed, two-door ti models, the first offspring in a complex family tree.
Our tricolore of Suds is represented by the early-series red ti and green Sprint coupé of owner Alex Ruggeri, and the white Series 2 ti of Matteo Bragoli.
North Londoners of Italian extraction – Ruggeri runs a travel business, Bragoli a car-detailing outfit – they perfectly embody the enthusiasm these Suds generate.
“I had known about the 1977 ti for a couple of years,” says Ruggeri, “and begged the owner to let me buy it. He only caved when he needed a deposit for a modern Alfa, so I had it as a Christmas present to myself in 2012.
“I was so chuffed I kept it outside for a week so I could look at it through the curtains every 10 minutes.”
His green twin-carburettor Sprint Veloce came from a dealer in Kent in 2014. Also from the pen of Giugiaro, these lower-slung, chisel-edged coupés first appeared in 1976 and were five-speeders from the beginning, with a hatchback but without folding seats.
This 1980 example doesn’t get used as much because it is not quite so comfortable to drive as the ti; but we will come to that later.
In the early Sud saloons you didn’t get carpets, a heated rear window, a brake servo or a rev counter as standard, but the ti and Sprint upped the game.
Owners enjoyed cloth trim, extra gauges (rather than warning lights) and sports road wheels to go with the tail and chin spoilers.
“That Alfatex interior is irreplaceable,” says Ruggeri, looking fondly at the near-immaculate cabin of his ti.
“Generally speaking, Suds are not so well served for parts as the 105s, although they are getting better – maybe because more cars are being restored now.”
You can’t talk about Alfasuds for long before the subject of the dreaded brown cancer comes up.
Prior to delivery they needed paint repairs and most Suds had new sills fitted at their first MoT unless, as with these cars, they were protected by Ziebart from new.
It was not an issue with the quality of the steel, reckons Ruggeri, but rather the poor working practices at Pomigliano d’Arco.
Raw shells would end up being stored outside or left to gather condensation while strikes and walk-outs were resolved. Towards the end of the 1970s things did improve, and it is a fact that the post-1980 Suds – Series 3s, picked out by their big bumpers – are better-built cars.
Bragoli’s award-winning ti is one of the short-lived Series 2s, built only between May 1978 and January 1980, with a 75bhp engine from the first of the Sprint coupés.
He bought it in response to a rather brusque ‘take it or leave it’ website advert in 2016: “It had been sitting in a garage since 1991 – I’m only the fourth owner – and was rust-free, although we bare-metalled it because it was so original it was worth doing properly.”
Bragoli, 28, was brought up onItalian cars and his Sud shares garage space with a low-mileage original Fiat 500 and a Strada Abarth 130TC.
What strikes you about all three Suds is how modern and capable they feel. This really was a new chapter opening in terms of people’s expectations.
Today some would consider the steering on the heavy side at low speeds, but it isn’t really. Assistance has made us all soft.
And what counts, in any case, is the way the lack of understeer, body roll and tyre squeal gives them such a planted feel, with margins of grip you would never begin to explore on the road.
The Suds are so biddable and confident that to drive them quickly becomes a sort of relaxation. The steering never fights you, never loads up, and the brakes are strong, if a shade over-boosted.
The Sprint Veloce, with its twin carburettors and 1490cc, is the liveliest of the trio – as much in torque as outright pull through the gears.
But all three feel vivaciously eager. From a slightly throbbing tickover to a free-spinning 6000rpm and beyond, there is something refined yet unburstable about the way these little engines sing through the revs.
The tis have slightly offset pedals, which you soon get used to, but there is a slight sense that the steering wheel is sitting in your lap in the Sprint. It feels more cramped and you have to concentrate if you are not going to get your feet tied up in the closely grouped pedals.
“The coupé is a nightmare to drive,” agrees Bragoli, “in the saloon you feel instantly at home.”
I’m not usually sensitive to driving positions but it cannot be denied that the ti is a much nicer place to be, and not so austere and cheaply appointed as the contemporary reports suggest.
I like the way Alfa put all the controls on column stalks, even the heater blower, and the good all-round vision was part of Hruska’s brief.
Agility and cornering power do not come at the expense of comfort, either: the ride is supple enough to shrug off potholes and all but the most aggressive of traffic-calming measures.
The Series 2 ti has a throaty exhaust rasp and feels appreciably but not dramatically stronger through its five speeds, in a gearbox that plots a notably slick and precise course.
It has a strong synchromesh and works well with the Sud’s eager throttle response. This must have been one of the first really nice gearboxes in a front-drive car in those pre-Alfetta years, when an Alfa with a rubbish gearchange was unthinkable.
Sharing nothing with its rear-drive, twin-cam-engined Alfa Nord predecessors, there was a touch of genius about this little saloon from the start that no subsequent Alfa Romeo has managed to recapture.
The mystique fully lived up to the marque’s reputation as a maker of great drivers’ cars, perhaps even enhanced it.
A total production of 1.1 million makes these the biggest-selling Alfas of all, and projected sales were doublethat.
Yet the Sud has become a tragic shorthand for the epic rust problems and shoddy build quality that dogs perceptions of every Alfa Romeo to this day. And perhaps even Italian cars generally.
The sad part is that good Alfasuds, or even bad ones, are incredibly hard to find.
Fewer than 80 are currently accounted for on UK roads. Like white dog poo, you just don’t see them any more.
Yet there is something about these cars, beyond mere rarity, that still makes grown men such as Bragoli and Ruggeri weak at the knees.
Somehow the strife, political machinations and sense of missed opportunity that surround this flawed prodigy of a car only add to the romance.
Images: Olgun Kordal