Founded in Milan in 1910, Alfa Romeo has the distinction of being one of the world's oldest surviving automotive brands. Its endurance is a credit to the Italian automaker's continuing flair for mechanical innovations, championship victories and passionate, sports-driven style.
It goes without saying that Alfa Romeo is a favourite marque at Motorclassica and one that deserves the spotlight in this anniversary year. Join us in celebrating the famous names behind the badge and some of the most iconic and influential cars in motoring history.
1910s: First car
Alfa Romeo was founded on 24 June 1910 by a group of anonymous entrepreneurs as A.L.F.A. (Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili), the Italian branch of French carmaker Lombard Automobile Factory. Based in Portello on the outskirts of Milan, the company hired celebrated engineer Giuseppe Merosi to design a brand new model that would become the 24 HP.
This early version of what could be described today as a sports sedan, was powered by a 4.1-litre engine that delivered 42 horsepower and a then-impressive top speed of 62 mph (100 km/h). A modest success, by 2015 the 24 HP was joined by the 15 HP and 40/60 HP before World War I saw the Portello plant converted to military production.
This period also saw the company's debt entrusted to young entrepreneur Nicola Romeo, whose name would be incorporated into the company by the time car production resumed in 1919 along with the first version of the now classic logo.
The first model produced after the war, the Alfa Romeo RL was a big success locally and internationally – notable owners including an Indian Maharaja and the brother of the Japanese Emperor. Driven by a straight-6 engine with overhead valves, multiple variants were produced including Normale, Sport, Super Sport and Turismo versions.
A lighter Corsa race version featuring the first double carburettors was also produced, renamed Targa Florio after its 1923 victory in that historic endurance championship. On the first racing team that helped Alfa Romeo establish its reputation for performance and endurance was a certain Enzo Ferrari.
Ferrari was also responsible for persuading Vittorio Jano to join as Alfa Romeo's new chief engineer, replacing the departing Merosi. Jano's first creation for the company was the Grand Prix Tipo P2, introducing the first straight 8-cylinder supercharged engine that drove it to success in the first Automobile World Championship of 1925, 14 Grand Prix and other races.
The P2 was followed by the 6-cylinder 6C, another winning design on the tracks that achieved speeds up to 95 mph (152 km/h) in the 6C 1750 model with its flexible chassis. Jano's principles of small and efficient engines, lightweight handling and balanced weight distribution have remained the basis of Alfa Romeo design through to the present day.
1930s: 8-cylinder era
Alfa Romeo weathered the global recession brought about by the 1929 Wall Street Crash thanks to Jano's engineering ingenuity and race management under Ferrari. The decade was driven by Jano's new straight 8-cylinder supercharged engine, which debuted in the powerful and photogenic 8C line and scored too many race victories to list between 1931 and 1939. Less successful than the 8C but no less exciting was the Bimotore, developed by Luigi Bazzi for Scuderia Ferrari based on the Alfa Romeo Tipo B. Featuring a second 8-cylinder engine behind the driver, this powerful vehicle recorded 209 mph (337 km/h), but proved difficult to handle.
When World War II broke out at the end of the decade, Alfa Romeo's resources were again converted to military use, including a new factory dedicated to aircraft production.
1940s: Post-war recovery
After a dark decade in world history, Alfa Romeo slowly resumed car production from 1946 from new locations after its plants were bombed in the war, including the original Portello factory. The 6C 2500 was the most notable model of the era, which introduced characteristic design cues such as the joining of the central shield with the lateral air intakes.
1950s: Full-scale production
In 1950, Alfa Romeo introduced assembly lines to take manufacturing to the next level. The 1900 was the first vehicle to emerge from the assembly line, introduced at the 1950 Paris Motor Show as “the family sedan that wins races.”
Other significant models included the iconic Spider and Giulietta Sprint, which demonstrated new innovations such as an all-aluminium twin overhead camshaft engine and exceptional performance for the time.
1950 was also the debut of the Formula 1 World Championship, won by Giuseppe “Nino” Farina in the Alfa Romeo Tipo 158, followed the next year by Juan Manuel Fangio in the Tipo 159. To the surprise and disappointment of many, Alfa Romeo retired from racing after these victories to concentrate on developing new models, most notably the aerodynamic 1900 C52 “Disco Volante” (“Flying Saucer”). Ahead of its time, only five were made, of which four still survive today.
1960s: Global expansion
Italian style broke America when Alfa Romeo began exporting cars to the United States in 1961, led by the Giulietta and its derivatives. The major new model for the decade was the Giulia, debuting in 1962 with a 1570 cc engine that was admired in the small sedan segment for its acceleration, safety and overall dynamics. Among the many versions of the Giulia produced, the most famous was the Spider Duetto, as driven by Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. The aluminium-bodied Giulia GTA was driven to victory in seven European Championships by the company's new Autodelta team as Alfa Romeo returned to the tracks.
Another stand-out design from the 1960s was the Tipo 33 sports racing prototype that won two World Championships, but was more notable to motoring enthusiasts for spawning the 1967 Tipo 33 Stradale, Alfa Romeo's pioneering supercar that was hand built and limited to just 18 sought-after vehicles.
The 70s saw a number of new models added to the portfolio across the segments, including the compact Alfasud, sporty Alfetta sedan and the Alfa 75 (renamed Milano for the US market). The iconic Montreal grand tourer also entered production in 1970, bringing V8 performance to the roads. Alfa Romeo continued to bring home World Championship titles across the decade in the Tipo 33 and competed in Formula 1 with Mario Andretti driving the Tipo 179.
1980s–90s: New ownership
Fiat Group acquired Alfa Romeo in 1986, ahead of a joint venture with fellow Italian design house Pininfarina to produce the 164 four-door sedan at Alfa Romeo's Arese plant. The 155 GTA racing version of the compact executive car took podiums in the mid-90s before being usurped by Walter De Silva's 156 D2, named European Car of the Year for 1998 and victorious in 13 touring championships.
2000s: New icons
Another European Car of the Year followed in 2000 for the three-door 147, which soon received five-door and V6 GTA upgrades. This hot hatch was joined by the Alfa GT coupe in 2003, with design harking back to the Giulietta Sprint, and the Brera 2+2 coupe. The first truly iconic model of the new millennium was the 8C Competizione, debuting at the 2003 Frankfurt Motor Show and entering production in 2007. Powered by a 4.7-litre 450 hp V8, the supercar was limited to 500 units before the 8C Spider became more widely available in 2008, boasting a top speed of almost 185 mph (300 km/h).
2010s: Centenary revivals
The milestone 100th anniversary saw the Alfa Romeo Style Centre unveil new versions of old favourites in the form of the new Giulietta five-door hatchback, followed by the high-performance 280 hp Giulia in 2016 and its twin turbo V6 505 hp Quadrifoglio variant in 2018, named Motor Trend Car of the Year. But designers weren't only looking to the past, with new models such as the 4C mid-engine coupe in 2015 (0-60 mph in 4.0 seconds), the Stelvio high-performance crossover SUV in 2017 and the ambitious Tonale concept, named Best Concept Car Design and Most Beautiful Show Car at the 2019 Geneva Motor Show, its plug-in hybrid drivetrain giving an indication of Alfa Romeo's future.
Also historic was Alfa Romeo's return to Formula 1 in 2018 after more than 30 years, determined to hold onto its legacy as the marque with the most race victories in the world.
2020: Moving forward
Mere months into the new decade, Alfa Romeo has already unveiled a contemporary classic in the Giulia GTA, a high-performance sedan that traces its lineage back to the unbeatable Giulia Sprint GTA from 1965. Boosted by a 30 hp Ferrari-derived V6, the GTA (“Gran Turismo Alleggerita,” a reference to its weight savings of 100 kg) is strictly limited to 500 units for serious collectors.
Motorclassica's planned exhibition of Alfa Romeo cars from the past and present has sadly been cancelled for 2020 due to current events, but we're excited to see what the future holds for one of the world's greatest automotive success stories.