In November 1977, Alfa Romeo launched the Tipo (Type) 116 Giulietta to the European market. Powered by 1.3 and 1.6 units, the underpinnings were based on the Alfetta saloon but the in-vogue styling and promised quality showed the firm’s intent to take on the likes of the BMW 3 Series and Ford Cortina in the sales race. With its own production facility, South Africa was soon to follow suit in ’79. However, as Stuart Grant finds out, the Brits outfit ignored the engines offered overseas and instead fitted a 1.8-litre lump. With claims of it being the most advanced Alfa Romeo to date, it is no wonder Europe followed suit and added the 1.8 to its range too.
In the words of Dr Vito Bianco, managing director of Alfa Romeo South Africa at the time and qualified mechanical engineer, “We have taken all the best features ever used in Alfa Romeo models, refined them, and added some new developments to produce what is the most advanced Alfa ever to go into production.”
This development he spoke of began prior to the ’77 European launch. Tooling was set up and prototype testing (more rigorous than any Alfa had endured before) showed that no major mechanical changes to the original were needed – except for the decision to dump the idea of 1.3 and 1.6 power plants. Instead, the choice was to employ the new 1.8 ‘L’ engine for the sake of standardisation and to meet the flexibility requirements needed to suit our wide range of road conditions, geography and altitude at the Reef, where the largest market lived.
The South African car was highly specced too, with the likes of velvet-like cloth upholstery, and offered options such as air-conditioning, sunroof, tinted windows and alloy wheels. With a price tag of R8 195, it slotted nicely between the brand’s entry-level Alfasud 1300 at R5 145 and the top-dog executive R9 495 Alfetta 2000 saloon.
With the aim of producing around 200 units per month, the Brits plant kicked off production with a 58% local content number but gradually grew this to the 66% mark required by the government officials at the time. Interestingly, the aluminium 1800 engine was a full import – said to be so light it didn’t affect the weight-based local content equation enough to warrant the cost of setting up an engine plant.
Although one of the smaller manufacturing plants, the ratio of hands to cars built was relatively high which meant a decent level of individual attention could be given to a quality product. White-coated inspectors roamed freely and signs reading ‘Alfa has a tradition of quality’ were displayed around the factory.
The Alfisti had something to cheer about with the arrival of a car that was said to re-introduce the idea of quality, practicality and spirited driving to the market – perhaps the most excitement since the arrival of the original Giulietta 1250 cars in Cape Town in 1958, or the first of these models built at the East London CDA plant in 1961.
Yes, that’s right – the Giulietta name applied to the Type 116 wasn’t the first Alfa to sport the tag. These honours go to the Type 750/101 launched in 1955 and produced through to 1965. It was a game-changer for the brand which until then had built a reputation as a maker of specialised cars for enthusiasts. Suddenly the world could get a practical Alfa family vehicle that could easily double as a racer at an affordable price. One only has to look at South African race results from the 1960s to see that the original Giulietta was one fine bit of kit and soon garnered plenty of fans. When production of this model came to an end it was replaced on the showroom floors by the Type 105 Giulia four-door. Alfa then spread (or is that clipped?) its wings in 1971 and ’72, offering a more entry-level machine in the form of the Alfasud and a step up the ladder to the Alfetta respectively.
The Alfetta continued the success and although the Alfasud had (for the most part) all the right ingredients, the move to a new factory in the South of Italy (Sud meaning South), production issues and dismal quality control severely tarnished the brand. Alfa needed to fix this fast, and planning for the new middle-class citizen started in 1972 under the codename ‘Alfetina’ (small Alfetta). The brief called for the same Joe Public appeal that the original Giulietta had, so it had to have a combination of practicality, quality and sportiness, but also needed to have more comfort and score high on the active and passive safety charts. With such a brief, it is no wonder that the name Giulietta was yanked out from retirement and applied to the new saloon.
Alfa’s in-house Styling Centre were pitted against Giugiaro’s Ital Design for the initial concept sketches and models in 1974. Both had to utilise as much of the Alfetta’s underpinnings as possible and keep the same wheelbase and track. But when the proposals were scrutinised, Giugiaro’s was declined for being too similar to the Alfetta and therefore having the potential to date quickly.
The Alfa Romeo Styling Centre option featured a hard-edged wedge profile, accentuated by a deep-lipped airdam incorporated into the front bumper and a raised ‘ducktail’ on the boot lid. These were added after tests in the Pininfarina wind tunnel showed them to drop the drag co-efficient but improve downforce – the marketing types jumped on this, claiming that they improved high-speed cornering and handling.
Out came the computers and the Type 116 saw stress, safety and comfort tested in the virtual world. The result was the addition of inert sponge-like material to remove vibration and noise as well as a strong encapsulating core structure, and front and rear crumple zones to protect occupants in the event that the spirited driving ended in a prang. This all meant extra weight (about 30kg more than the Alfetta) but thanks to the fitment of 13-inch wheels instead of the 14s found on the rest of the Alfa models, the 1800 Giulietta was the fastest Alfa on offer in SA at the time, with a 10.5 second sprint.
With the goal of reviving Alfa’s quality and addressing – dare I say it – rust issues associated with the Alfasud, corrosion resistance was another focal point in the design. To accomplish this, Alfa Romeo head office claimed that unnecessary gaps and holes were removed from the structure and box sections were made accessible for painting and wax-filling. Different metals were kept away from each other to prevent rot-inducing electrolytic reactions and all metal joins were treated with zinc-rich primers and sealed with PVC. Window frames and bumpers were coated in a nylon-based film and the underside and wheel arches received some PVC protection. These were then tested, along with the safety measures and ability to handle harsh road conditions, at the Balocco research centre outside Turin.
The forward-thinking design carried over into the cockpit. With the dashboard and its drawer-like cubby-hole, and pod-like instrument cluster mounted on top of the black soft-touch dashboard, it was not only borderline sci-fi but also relatively easily swapped from left- to right-hand-drive layouts. Then there was a centre console that wouldn’t look out of place in a car in the 1990s and the cherry on top – the digital clock mounted above the rear-view mirror for all occupants to see.
And there was ample space inside for four adult clock readers, with the raised rear body section giving decent headroom. This wedge aesthetic also had the added benefit of making the boot deep enough to swallow all your holiday suitcases vertically – if you ticked another option box on order, you’d get some specially made Alfa luggage. The spare wheel lay vertically in the boot, so you didn’t have to unpack an entire bootful of luggage when changing a flat on the way to the coast.
Type 116 made an ideal holiday car with its engine bucking the traditional revvy Alfa trend by dropping the peak torque mark made by the long-stroke twin-cam motor to 4000rpm. Combine this with a five-speed box, a decent aerodynamic package and average speed of 80km/h, and it’s possible to dip under 7 litres per 100km and cover 850 kays on a single fill of the 65-litre tank.
Drop the kids at the beach and it’s a joy to hit the roads in that Alfisti manner. There’s a crisp exhaust note and handling is brilliantly light and responsive. With the engine upfront and the gearbox and clutch at the rear, the weight distribution is near 50/50. It’s not a tail-happy monster however, with understeer engineered in for safety reasons – this is done in part by the clutch and gearbox being body-mounted to reduce unsprung mass but also by the fact that these and the fuel tank are located close to the axle for rear wheel grip. Directional stability is handled by a De Dion tube and Watts linkage eliminating camber changes at the rear, while the front is handled by double wishbones with longitudinal running torsion bars on each side.
Giulietta brought the classic Alfa back to the South African market. Whether the 1800 or later 2000Ti, it was the family car for the enthusiastic driver and it looked so darn cool. It was no Ford Cortina or BMW 3 Series, and that’s a good thing. But all good things come to an end and for Alfa Romeo South Africa and the Giulietta, that was in 1985. Political pressure saw the factory shut up shop and the brand leave our shores, which meant we didn’t get the Giulietta replacement, the 75.
By nature of the style of driving the Type 116 encouraged and the rate at which they rusted (did South Africa follow the corrosion-prevention methods mentioned previously?) the survival rate of these brilliant machines is dismal.
If you find a solid example today, don’t hesitate – buy it and drive it. A well-kept Giulietta is an Alfa model of great importance and delivers bang for your buck, sportiness and practicality.