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.