With an eye on the mass market, Alfa Romeo trained its sights on creating an affordable small sedan in the early 1950s. But being Alfa, with its history of great sporting machines, the temptation to make something livelier of the new car resulted in a real jewel -- the 1954-1965 Alfa Romeo Giulietta and Giulia.
In the ordinary scheme of things, cars are created under the watchful gaze of gifted individuals or by teams directed by product planners, marketing managers, and bean counters. The car born almost by accident, the product of what can only be called an afterthought, is extremely rare, and the odds of it achieving greatness are slim indeed.
Thus it is highly appropriate that the Alfa Romeo Giulietta -- an afterthought that definitely merits the mantle of greatness -- came into being as the result of a lottery, a long-odds enterprise if ever there was one.
To understand the twists and turns of the Giulietta's birth, it is necessary to go back to 1952, a time when Alfa Romeo was abandoning its traditional niche as a builder of limited-production, high-performance machines for a spot among the mass producers.
At the time, Alfa was short of cash, a far-from-unusual state of affairs that persisted until Fiat took control of the firm many years later. But the Milanese company did have a new car -- the Giulietta Berlina, a creation of the brilliant Orazio Satta Puliga -- designed and ready to go.
Satta had taken the best elements of the existing 1900 series and scaled them down, making improvements where necessary. Designed for mass production, this small sedan was a new concept for Alfa; 1900 sedans, coupes, and cabriolets had always trickled out the Portello factory's doors in small quantities.
In order to generate the revenue needed for Giulietta development and tooling, Alfa Romeo conducted what was, in essence, a lottery. Hordes of Italians were induced to buy interest-bearing company bonds, with the promise that 200 of them, chosen by random drawing, would receive brand-new Berlinas as a bonus when production got under way.
The lottery was a success, raising enough money to finance the new car. Mechanical components were quickly put into production to meet an announced goal of showing the new car during 1953. But at the appointed time, completed Berlinas were nowhere to be seen. Though this led many people to believe that the bond sale/lottery scheme was not strictly on the up-and-up, the simple fact was that body production was well behind schedule.
Something had to be done. Someone at the factory, perhaps inspired by a design study for a small coupe that had been kicking around the Alfa works since late 1952, decided a custom sports-car body wrapped around Berlina mechanicals might deflect attention away from the sedan shortage.
Alfa contracted with Carrozzeria Bertone for a Giulietta coupe to be shown at the 1954 Turin Auto Show. Whether this was initially intended to be merely an attention-grabber to quiet the chorus of mutterings about nonexistent Berlinas or a toy for the fortunate 200 is unknown.
Learn about the design traits of the Alfa Romeo Giulietta and Giulia in the next section.
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1954-1965 Alfa Romeo Giulietta and Giulia Design
Nuccio Bertone was not given much time -- some say just 10 days, but that seems unlikely -- to come up with a design for the Alfa Romeo Giulietta. Fortunately, he drew little or no inspiration from the existing coupe styling model but instead handed the job to his designer, Franco Scaglione.
After having dealt with the technical challenges of bodying the Arnolt-Bristol and the aerodynamic forms of the brilliant Alfa BAT show cars in a somewhat flamboyant manner, Scaglione produced a simple, clean shape for the Giulietta coupe.
Its skin was stretched tight over the mechanical components and passenger space inside, and the overall proportions and management of details displayed Scaglione's genius. Not until another, much later, Alfa Romeo -- the 1967 midengine Type 33 Stradale -- would he create a more enduring design.
In the end, Bertone was able to complete four cars before the Turin show deadline, with final trimming and painting completed at Ghia. An unusual side-opening hatchback design was a feature of the first quartet; this less-than-rigid setup was replaced by a fixed rear window and separate trunklid when production started.
What Alfa management had not counted on was the public response. While no record of the lottery winners' reactions seems to have survived -- and it is unclear if all 200 actually received their prize coupes -- there were plenty of others who wanted to buy the new Giulietta Sprints. Some say 3,000 orders were taken at Turin, and more followed quickly. In any case, they -- and the cash customers -- were in for a wait, as only a dozen cars were completed through the end of 1954.
Once the tiny coupe's place in Alfa's production schedule was clear, Bertone offered up a roadster proposal. This, too, was a Scaglione design, one that bore more than a passing resemblance to his Arnolt-Bristol. But Alfa bosses were unimpressed by Bertone's topless Giulietta, so much so that, according to some accounts, the company actually lost the prototype (one of four built) entrusted to it.
A better reception awaited a design from Pinin Farina. That firm's effort had more of a fraternal appearance when seen alongside the Sprint coupe; open and closed sporting Giuliettas appeared to have been designed together, though no panels were interchangeable between them. Series production was ordered, and the first examples were shown to the public at the 1955 Paris Auto Show.
Max Hoffman, not surprisingly, was one of the most vocal proponents of an open Giulietta. As Alfa's U.S. importer, Hoffman wielded a great deal of influence. And he backed up his suggestions with a sizable order for cars, just as he had done when prodding Porsche to create the 356 Speedster and Mercedes-Benz to put the 300SL "Gullwing" on the market. Thus, the Giulietta Spider joined the family.
The Giulietta sedans, by the way, ultimately became the mass-market success Alfa hoped it would be. Within their boxy little bodies they carried the same spirited powerplant and superb suspension -- not to mention the same distinctive grille shell -- that delighted Sprint and Spider owners, and brought many of the joys of sports-car driving to those forced for practical reasons to opt for four doors. They also hit the market in 1955.
Find out about the performance feats of the Alfa Romeo Giulietta and Giulia on the next page.
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1954-1965 Alfa Romeo Giulietta and Giulia Performance
Back in Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint coupe-land, more potential customers were queuing up even before the first orders were filled, a happy state of affairs that led Alfa to continually develop the Sprint. There was precious little wrong with it right from the beginning -- excepting, maybe, the column-shift linkage installed in early coupes -- but much potential lay in the basic design, especially for top performance.
Essentials were kept. The 1.3-liter light-alloy twincam inline four was a real jewel, a rev-happy little powerplant that was good for 60 horsepower even with a single Solex carburetor. The four-speed gearbox was equally good; both could take considerable hard use and remain reliable.
Front and rear suspension were conventional, though the coil-sprung live rear axle was unusually well-located, boasting both a trailing arm on each side and a central triangular locating link attached to the axle housing itself. The large drum brakes were more than adequate for the 1940-pound Giulietta.
First on the improvements list was an increase in performance. In the 1955 Mille Miglia, the Giuliettas were badly beaten by the 1300cc Porsches. This intolerable state of affairs led Alfa to develop the Veloce, available from 1956 onward in either Sprint coupe or Spider convertible form.
A pair of Weber carburetors and internal modifications raised power from the original 60 to more than 90 horsepower at a raucous 6,000 rpm. A floor-mounted gearshift was supplied as well, and the suspension was stiffened.
But most of the company's effort went into weight reduction: Plastic side windows and aluminum doors and hood were used, as were fasteners of reduced size throughout the car (meaning that nuts, bolts, and screws were not interchangeable between normal Giuliettas and Veloces).
These measures cut away some 250 pounds. The result, according to one contemporary tester, was a car that could reach 60 mph from rest in 10 seconds and attain a maximum speed of slightly more than 110 mph. Not bad for a mere 78.7 cubic inches!
The standard car was no slug either. It would make the 0-60 sprint in less than 15 seconds and reach a 100-mph maximum, while delivering fuel economy in the 25-30 mpg range.
In time, horsepower would be increased again, first by retuning the engine, which brought output up to a claimed 80 horsepower for the standard Giulietta, then by installing a new, larger powerplant of near-identical design. This 1.6-liter (actually 1570cc) engine was rated at 92 horsepower in normal form and 112 horsepower in Veloce trim. It was joined to a five-speed gearbox that brought engine revs and interior noise levels down considerably.
So appreciated was the extra ratio by long-suffering owners that the factory introduced a five-speed conversion kit for the four-speed. Available from late 1962, the 1.6-liter engine/five-speed combination transformed the Giulietta into the Giulia.
In 1959, the Spider's wheelbase -- but not the Sprint coupe's -- was lengthened by two inches (from a very short 86.7) with consequent improvement to interior space. These dimensions also served the Giulia in its first years.
In 1964, toward the end of production, the 1.3-liter engine reappeared in Europe in a less-expensive coupe called the 1300 Sprint. However, this seeming rehash of the old Giulietta Sprint did include the front disc brakes that had been phased in for the Giulia.
Get a rundown of the various Giulietta and Giulia models on the next page.
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1954-1965 Alfa Romeo Giulietta and Giulia Models
At its birth in 1954, the Alfa Romeo Giulietta was given a "750" series number, which denoted the coupes, convertibles, and sedans with a 1290cc engine and four-speed transmission. The lightweight, high-performance Veloce models retained this number, though it had many specific components that did not interchange with those fitted to normal Sprint coupes and Spider convertibles.
During 1959, a new model, designated "101," was announced. At this time, the Spider's wheelbase was lengthened and a few cosmetic changes were made to the exterior: Convertibles adopted nonopening door vent windows, coupes added a fine egg-crate texture to the center and side grilles, and both gained larger tail-lights.
But the important modification centered around the engine and four-speed transmission. The former switched to a diecast cylinder block in place of the original sandcast component; the latter was housed in a new case first used for a five-speed in the Scaglione-designed Sprint Speciale that debuted two years earlier. Five-speed gearboxes seen today in 101-series Giuliettas are either transplants or -- less likely but possible -- period conversions made with a factory-offered kit.
The 750- and 101-series cars have a substantial number of unique parts that do not interchange. But the differing parts numbers don't tell the whole story: The shift from 750 to 101 production was, as were many other changes to the Giulietta line, gradual, with new items added as stocks of old parts were depleted. As a result, some late 750s and early 101s may not adhere strictly to the official specifications -- no surprise to anyone familiar with Italian cars.
Another change, this one even more significant, occurred in 1962 when a 1570cc engine was introduced and the five-speed was adopted across the board. The new powerplant was taller, so a broad bulge was added to the hood of the low-slung Spider. At this point, the cars became Giulias -- the Giulietta name was dropped -- but they remained in the 101 series.
According to the figures cited by Luigi Fusi in his book All Alfa Romeo Cars from 1910, some 24,084 Giulietta Sprint coupes were built in both 750- and 101-series form between 1954 and 1962. Meanwhile, 14,300 Spider convertibles were turned out. The high-performance Veloce was rarer, with a claimed production of 3,058 Sprints and 2,796 Spiders.
In addition, Fusi reported that 1,366 Sprint Speciale and 200 Zagato-bodied SZ coupes were made. Output of the Giulia Sprint came to 7,107, plus another 1,400 of the Speciale. Giulia Spiders accounted for 9,250 assemblies, as well as an additional 1,091 Veloce convertibles. The late 1300 Sprint, made for the European market in 1964-1965, used up 1,900 Giulia bodies and 1.3-liter Giulietta engines.
Learn about the pluses and minuses of these cars in our final section.
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Pluses and Minuses of the 1954-1965 Alfa Romeo Giulietta and Giulia
Some things did not change throughout the decade Alfa Romeo Giuliettas and early Giulias were in production. For starters, everyone seems to have loved them when they were new, as do those who are fortunate enough to drive them today. Road tests were peppered with adjectives praising either coupe or Spider (or both at once).
Even Consumer Reports, which tested sports cars on occasion in those days, came away favorably impressed with the two-seat Alfa, even if its staff couldn't manage to generate the kind of 0-60 mph times recorded by others.
The qualities that captivated those long-ago magazine writers and customers are as apparent today as they were then. For starters, the Giulietta's shape is just plain lovely, smooth and almost delicate when compared to rivals from England or Germany.
Then there's the interior, executed in leather, painted metal, a strange mix of carpeting and rubber mats on the floor, and some strategically placed bright trim. The driver has little to do beyond keeping eyes on the road, as there are only a few control knobs for distraction.
Instrumentation is complete, beginning with a large tachometer directly ahead of the plastic steering wheel. It is flanked by a speedometer on the right and a combination gauge on the left that holds warning lights (one unusual fitment for the time was a low-fuel lamp) and dials for fuel level, coolant temperature, and oil pressure. Unlike the majority of its contemporaries, the Spider version has proper wind-up side windows, not British-standard removable sidescreens.
Good as the little Alfa was to look at or sit in, it was far more fun to drive. In either 1.3- or 1.6-liter form, it is capable of a more than decent turn of speed, at least so long as the driver is willing to keep the revs up. The only penalty for doing so is noise; vibration is nonexistent, even at the 6200-rpm redline, a maximum that most Alfa drivers quickly learn can be exceeded without causing problems. Shifting is easy as well, as is braking.
But it's handling that makes these cars so enchanting to drive. The chassis behavior is precise and responsive, even when riding on the narrow tires of its day. Said tires grip well, and give plenty of warning before the Sprint's natural understeering tendencies are exchanged for oversteer.
The copious amount of body lean -- something a driver coming from, say, a contemporary MG might find disconcerting at first -- does nothing to detract from the fun. Neither does the worm-and-peg steering box, which is only marginally less direct than a rack and pinion would be.
That doesn't mean there are no complaints to be made. Not all are from hindsight, either, as some were mentioned at the time. The first, especially for coupe owners, is noise. Yes, it's a wonderful noise, a mechanical song with (at least in the Spider) the rush of wind as counterpoint. It's just that there's too much of it for long-term comfort. A few miles in an enclosed Giulietta will make almost anyone wish for the later five-speed transmission and its longer top ratio.
The instruments, nice as they are, have light-colored faces and numbers, which makes them difficult to read at a glance. And the seats lack the firmness and side support available in some competitors' cars.
Even so, the overall impression left by the Giuliettas and Giulias remains positive. They were remarkably refined automobiles for their day, enchanting little machines that combined Italian flair with enough practicality to be suitable for everyday use.
They were reliable, too. The 1950s-era perception of sports cars -- and this applied even to the low-revving cast-iron English examples -- was that they were temperamental and should always be backstopped by a mundane passenger vehicle. The Alfa's mechanical bits thrived, at least as long as regular servicing was provided, and seldom left owners stranded.
Only the electrical system was trouble-prone. The uninitiated (and proponents of British sports cars) tend to blame this sorry state of affairs on Magneti Marelli, yet only a few (mainly the Veloces) were supplied with Italian electrical bits. The majority had -- and still have -- generators, starters, and distributors sourced from Joseph Lucas, Ltd. Enough said.
Giuliettas were raced -- what wasn't in the Fifties? -- and rallied with some success after the Veloce iteration was made available. They also formed the basis for styling exercises from the then-thriving Italian coachbuilders. Two of the latter, Bertone's dramatic Scaglione-styled Sprint Speciale (1957-1965) and Zagato's rounded, chunky, aluminum-bodied SZ (1959-1961), were produced in limited numbers. They also enjoyed the benefit of the five-speed transmission even before it appeared in the Giulias. Of the pair, Scaglione's effort, showing unmistakable influence from the earlier BAT show cars, is far and away the more glamorous.
All good things come to an end, however. Production of the base Sprint, the Normale, ended in 1964; assemblies of the Sprint Speciale and Spiders ceased the following year. Other Alfa Romeo coupes and Spiders would follow, always growing larger, heavier, and more sophisticated.
Still, many enthusiasts and owners maintain that when rated for looks, feel, performance, and out-and-out driving pleasure, the original Sprints were the best of the lot, and there is little evidence to contradict them. These compact coupes and convertibles are, despite their almost accidental beginnings, timeless classics, as lovable today as they were when new.