Tribute: Alfa Romeo Giulietta

by James Kraus

Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint

It would be hard to name a car more quintessentially European or essentially Italian than the Alfa Giulietta in all its permutations.

Alfa Romeo developed an enviable reputation in the 1920’s and 1930’s in the art of designing and manufacturing high performance vehicles of first class quality. Their P2 Grand Prix car won the inaugural World Championship in 1925. The Alfa 158, campaigned for Alfa Romeo by Scuderia Ferrari, won thirty-one of the thirty-five events entered.

This experience was put to good use in the development of the Giulietta. The first model to debut in 1954 was the coupé version, the Sprint. To raise funds in order to tool up to produce the new range, Alfa held a lottery whereby winners would receive new Giulietta Berlinas. Unfortunately, development lagged the projected timeline and when the lottery results were announced, production was still far off. As a stopgap, Alfa arranged with Bertone to build what was meant to be a fairly small run of coupés. Being coachbuilt, these could be brought to market much quicker. The resulting Sprint was first shown at the Turin show in the spring of 1954. It won rave reviews and became a permanent member of the family. In 1955, the Berlina finally arrived and in 1956 the Spider, designed by Pininfarina.

Giulietta Berlina

Giulietta Berlina

The heart and soul of the Giulietta was the 4-cylinder all-aluminium twin-cam 1.3 litre engine designed by Orazio Satta Puliga. The only other cars on the market at that time to offer twin-cam powerplants were the Aston Martin DB2, XK powered Jaguars and the Maserati A6G. Ferrari production cars would not have dual overhead camshafts until the 275 GTB/4 of 1967. Nearly as rare were aluminium engine blocks.

The engine was red-lined at 6500, but could be pushed to 7000+ without protest. Initially rated at 50 hp in the Berlina and 65 in the Sprint and Spider, it eventually was developed to produce over 100. The transmission was a four-speed all-synchromesh design with a cast aluminium housing. This latter item was another plus for the Giulietta since synchronized first gears were still a rarity in the mid-fifties. Even the big Lancias did without, until the Flamina began replacing the Aurelia in 1957.

The suspension featured coil springs all around, complimented by an anti-roll bar at the front. Rear coil springs were few and far between in the 1950’s. A road-going Ferrari would not enjoy this amenity until the 275 GTB, and front-engine Maseratis would not be so endowed until the Khamsin and Quattroporte II of 1974. Although the rear end was fitted with a live axle, it was firmly controlled by a single trailing arm on each side and a laterally mounted wishbone attaching the top of the differential housing to the unit body (this centre wishbone design would be used later on Mark I Lotus Cortina’s, although not as successfully). Any potential for wheel hop and axle wind-up were thus eliminated. The differential housing was cast in aluminium, keeping unsprung weight to a minimum, and generously finned to keep lubricant temperature in check. The brakes featured iron-lined finned aluminium drums front and rear. The brakes were massive, filling every bit of space inside the 15″ wheels. Clearly these cars were designed from the first original drawings to withstand, encourage and reward driving in the most spirited manner.

Giulietta Spider

Giulietta Spider

The Giulietta lived up to its specifications, and reviewers praised its responsiveness, brakes, steering and roadholding. Particular raves were generated by the free-revving twin-cam engine, which could push the Sprint to 160 kph (100 mph) on a good day.

The plaudits increased substantially with the release of the Veloce versions of the Sprint and Spider. Veloce models were graced with twin Weber dual-throat side draft carburettors, higher compression and more aggresive cam timing. Even better, the first Veloce engines went into special lightweight versions of the Sprint that were destined for competition. These were equipped with sliding plexiglas windows, and aluminium doors, engine and trunk lids and bumpers. After the introduction of the Veloces, a T.I. version of the Berlina debuted using the base Sprint engine.

Giulietta Sprint Speciale

Giulietta Sprint Speciale: 1960 Targa Florio – Riolo/Federico

Not content to sit on their laurels, Alfa rolled out another iteration of the Giulietta in 1959, the Sprint Speciale; a special-bodied version of the Sprint. The intent of the SS was that it become the performance and competition standard bearer for the Giulietta lineup. The new model would have the Veloce engine, its compression raised for even more power, and would be based on the lighter short-wheelbase Spider platform.

Designed by Franco Scaglione at Bertone, the SS incorporated the baroque flowing lines of the BAT series of Alfas, minus the fins.  Favourable aerodynamics were a priority of the design. To reduce frontal area, the car was seven centimetres lower than the standard Sprint. To minimize drag, the lines smoothly flowed to dramatically tapered ends, both front and rear. While this resulted in very long front and rear overhangs and a detrimental weight gain, the result was a reputed coefficient of drag of 0.28 and over 200 kph from the 1.3 Veloce engine.

The gestation of the SS was convoluted. Originally conceived as a lightweight competition special and successor to the original Sprint Veloce lightweights; it ended up more as a rather luxurious grand tourer, and therefore a bit controversial among performance-oriented Alfisti. The SS was not without its adherents however, and it ended up (equipped toward the end with the Giulia 1.6 engine) outlasting all other Giulietta  body styles.

On one point however, there was no dissension from the sporting contingent: the Sprint Speciale was the first volume production sports car to feature a gearbox with five forward speeds; over a year before they were available at the local Maserati showroom and three years before Ferrari installed one in the 250 GTO. All five gears were equipped with Porsche servo-ring synchromesh, facilitating smooth and rapid gear changing.

Giulietta Sprint Zagato

Giulietta Sprint Zagato

In late 1959, Alfa announced the final Giulietta derivazione, the Sprint Zagato. While the SS was being developed, many privateers were winning races with Giuliettas re-bodied by the Milanese coachbuilder, Carrozzeria Zagato, renowned for creating designs that were both aerodynamic and extremely light in weight. In short, just the recipe first envisioned for the SS. Also built on the SWB platform and clothed in all aluminium bodywork, the stubby SZ weighed it at approximately 100 kg less than a standard Sprint and inherited the tuned Veloce engine and five-speed transmission of the SS.

Though not the most comfortable road car due to its uncompromising nature, the SZ was the lightest, smallest and fastest of the range. Its aerodynamics were further developed by Ercole Spada at Zagato in 1961 with a longer nose, more sloping rear window and a Kamm-effect tail; the revised version becoming known as the SZ Coda Tronca.

The truncated tail of the SZ Coda Tronca

The truncated tail of the SZ Coda Tronca

Although Professor Wunibald Kamm and Baron Reinhard Koenig-Fachsenfeld proved the efficiency of the truncated tail design in the 1930’s, the concept was forgotten during the war years. The Coda Tronca was the first design to make use of the technology since the BMW 328 Kamm Coupé of 1938. Within two years, the 250 GTO, Lola Mk6 and Porsche 904 would sport similar Kamm tails, at which point they became the norm in sports and GT racing.

As would be expected, the Giulettas developed an illustrious record in competition. Their first international outing was the 1955 Mille Miglia where a Sprint Normale came in 1st in the GT 1.3 litre class and 32nd overall. The following year the new Sprint Veloces did much better at the Mille Miglia, finishing 1,2 and 3 in the GT 1.3 litre class, finishing above all the 1.5 and 1.6 litre cars, and coming in 11th overall behind a Mercedes 300SL. Another SV came in 11th overall at the Nürburgring the same year. At the Targa Florio, a Sprint Veloce won 6th overall in 1959 and 8th overall in 1961. Regardless of the venue, the SV usually took home 1.3 litre class honours.

In 1962, the SZ became the standard bearer, coming in 7th overall in the Targa, and 4th at the Rallye Wiesbaden in 1963. That same year saw an SS finish 16th overall in the Tour de France. In 1964, the new Giulia TZ took over the reins, but in the twilight of its career, a Giulietta SZ was still able to win 6th overall at Bridgehampton.

Quite an impressive record for a 1.3 litre competing for overall victory against some of the most storied competition machinery of the post-war era: the 2.5 litre Ferrari Testarossa, 250 GT and GTO, the Dino 246 SP, the 2.0 litre Maserati A6G and 2.9 litre Tipo 63 “Birdcage” and the 3.0 Mercedes-Benz 300SL.

To sum up, I could do not better than to quote John Bolster from the 27 March, 1959 Autosport. John was former racing driver who retired after injuries sustained in a crash during the 1949 British Grand Prix. Afterword, he served as BBC motoring commentator and technical editor of Autosport.

There are certain cars which are acknowledged throughout the world as being thoroughbreds, and among these the Alfa Romeo Giulietta stands very high. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that, if a poll of the readers of Autosport were undertaken, the Sprint Veloce version would be voted just about the most desirable car that money can buy.

High praise indeed.

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5 thoughts on “Tribute: Alfa Romeo Giulietta

  1. To this day I consider the Giuliettas to be the greatest Alfas of the post war era.

  2. A great article! You could add to your list a Giulietta Berlina TI winning overall in the Touring category of the Tour de France in front of a 3.4 litre Jaguar in 1958.

  3. The conclusion of Autosport is quite similar to what Road & Track (USA) stated in the March 1958 issue in regard to the Veloce Spider: “A car has no business being so desirable”

  4. I once had the pleasure of owning a beautiful aqua-colored Sprint Veloce for several years when I lived in Zürich in the early 1960’s. While the traction was not so good in the snow, the Alfa was sheer pleasure to drive with brio on the Alpine roads. I have wonderful memories of trips to Lake Lucerne on summer holidays. I sold the car when I relocated and have always regretted it since.

  5. Pingback: Auto Universum Giulietta Tribute Article « giulietta sprints

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