The Alfasud Sprint

The Berlin wall had fallen, Germany was reunited, I was seventeen and eager to get my driver’s licence. The minimum age for it was 18 but my brother was one and a half years older than me, so I struck a deal with him to avoid my parents from interfering. I would buy the car long before my 18th birthday and he would get to drive it until the authorities would hand out my licence. Common behavior for a young guy in Germany of the 90s.

As a paper boy I had made quite a fortune, and there was a Bertone coupe sitting with a sign in the windshield in the industrial area of my hometown. Unfortunately, my savings only came close to half of the 8,000 Deutschmarks price tag. I had the urge not to go mainstream and buy a Golf I or II. Instead, I had to have something a little more out of the ordinary. An Alfa Romeo sounded like it would fit the bill. The Bertone out of reach, I opened Saturday’s newspapers and scouring the small adds found an Alfasud. I didn’t know what an Alfasud was, but it was listed under the Alfa Romeo column and it was close by. I bicylced there and instantly thought damn, what an ugly car. But it had a true Alfa Romeo badge on the front, enough for me to open my wallet… Teenagers can be utterly impatient.

What I had bought that Saturday was a ten year old, special white-edition 1982 Alfasud Ti, with the 14 inch white (!) Ronal A1 rims complete with plastic surgery all around. White plastic in the shape of sills, fender flares, bumpers and two spoilers, one on the trunk and one on the roof. Not really necessary for a top speed of 181 km/h. And a towing hook. The pensioned owner used it to tow his trailer. That’s why he went for the most powerful version of the Alfasud with 95 hp.

I fell in love with that engine. I took off all the plastic extensions and spoilers and lightened it by screwing off every part of what I considered to be excess weight. The suspension really was worth something. The only car I know of that had so much negative camber already in series trim. The documentation stated -1° to – 2.5° on the front axle to be standard! I still didn’t like the looks of the car, but the sound compensated for everything. And the throttle response really killed. It was as instantaneous as when two people say the same thing at the same time. That quick.

In a Kalahari desert environment the concept of Alfa Romeo’s Alfasud was awesome and years ahead of its time. An economy-class hatchback with loads of legroom for the rear passengers, a giant trunk, great suspension and a revvy engine. Brake discs all around and a 5-speed gearbox when the other bread-and-butter cars on the market had to make do with drum brakes in the rear and only 4 gears. Interestingly, the front brake discs where attached on the inside, running directly next to the gearbox. The nifty Italian engineers thought it would be smart to engineer the handbrake onto the front axle, since the two brake calipers were only 3 inches apart of each other anyway. Mechanics who had to adjust the handbrake after a change of linings thought differently though, as they needed Go-Go-Gadget-like fingers to work in the very confined area between gearbox and bulkhead.

***

Fast-forward twenty years and there’s me with two little children. What do I want to teach them? What do I want to pass on to them for them to behold and understand? In the two decades in between I have sat behind the wheel of hundreds of different cars, rental cars, own cars, borrowed cars, including some of the faster contingent from makers such as Aston Martin, Porsche, and Lotus. What unites all of those cars: you sense a time delay between your foot’s movements and the pickup of the engine. All along I had never forgotten the feel of that 95 hp, 1.5 liter, flat 4 Alfasud engine—because you don’t feel a throttle actuation system with it. It feels as if your mind directly operates the two Weber twin-throat carburetors. Four butterflies that is.

The plan was clear. I had to get an Alfasud Sprint again, so that I could show my next of kin how much fun we had in the 90s with a car that didn’t even have a three-digit horsepower figure. Handily, the investment didn’t break the bank as Alfasuds and Sprints are traded at four-digit prices. But finding one is another story as they seldom appear on the market since many speed rusted to death. The story is quickly told:

Back in the late 60s, many Italians left the agrarian-oriented South to find work in the prosperous, industrialized North. Alfa Romeo was state-owned and based in Milano—the city name even graced the round Alfa Romeo sign. It was negotiated that Alfa Romeo would receive huge government grants and tax reliefs if in return the new plant for the new economy model line would be erected in the South of Italy. Hence the name “Alfasud”. By the way, that’s the reason why the word “Milano” was dropped from the logo. Pomigliano d’Arco was chosen, since Alfa had built airplane engines there in WWII. But the plant close to Naples struggled with thousands of unskilled farmers as plant workers not qualified for the job resulting in severe quality issues. Not uncommonly, raw chassis rested for days unprimered under the skies in the salty coastal air while workers partook in an abundance of strikes. And since the majority of the Suds were sold in markets with weather conditions not as dry as the Kalahari desert, the Suds oxidized quickly. Cheaper, but inferior recycled gauge steel out of Russian production didn’t help either and the public image of the car was battered and ruined.

The coupe version followed the hatchback with a four-year delay in 1976. Giugiaro was commissioned with the task to shape a sporty coupe onto the Alfasud platform. Suspension, engine, drivetrain and the chassis platform were identical, but the rest was allowed to be different. All panels were new, and all interior parts like the seats and the dashboard were also new. Come to think of it, the one piece carpet is an interchangeable part too.

My first Sprint was a 1982 model with the carpet in vibrant green, it followed the white Sud Ti, after it was denied the TÜV sticker for too much rust. Many people get it wrong and call the “plastic facelift” of 1982 the second series, but in reality it marks the third series. The first series is the chrome series from ´76 – ´77. The second series from ´78 – ´82 looks just like the chrome series, but carries a tiny bit of less chrome. The third series appeared in 1982, when Alfa Romeo had already stopped the Alfasud production in an attempt to shake off the rust-image. The Sprint coupe outlived the Sud by 6 years with big plastic bumpers, plastic planks on the sides, new engine grill, bigger taillights and a heavily revised interior.

The Alfasud Sprint came with the flat four engine in 1.3 and 1.5 displacement (75 and 84 hp) with a carburetor hovering in the middle over a cast manifold. These engines are agile, rev nicely up to 6000 rpm, have good throttle response and a great sound. Gradually, they were superseded by the double twin-barrel Weber carburetors. The hp-figure grew from 75 to 86 for the 1.3 liter and from 84 to 95 for the 1.5 liter. The visible distinction was the chrome badge “Veloce”, Italian for fast or quick. With the introduction of the plastic series, the Sprint lost its Alfasud name as well as the Veloce tag. Now, the official name was Sprint 1.3 or Sprint 1.5.

As an 18-year old I wasn’t very kind to my Sud Ti and Sprint 1.5. I waited until the alloy-engine was warm, but then I pushed it full throttle with the needle constantly crossing the red line. My rate was one ruined gearbox every 12 months. Why? The Formula One Grand Prix of Germany 1991 and Derek Warwick. His Footwork Arrows had a TV camera showing his footwork. It was attached underneath the steering column. I thought: “Ahh, so that is how blipping works!” On the old Hockenheim ring two chicanes made all drivers shift from sixth to first gear within a roughly two-second braking zone. That is one gear change with blipping and engine brake every half-a-second! I tried it with my Alfa. I practiced a lot. The engine? Whenever the oil lamp lit up in my braking zones, I knew it was time to put a liter of 15W 40 into it. It was well below the minimum level when that happened, but the engine didn’t care. It just ran. I practiced 25,000 miles per year with oil refills only when that light lit up, no service, and no valve adjustments. As I said, I was young and a good tester for the reliability of the engine. The 5-speed box though wasn’t as forgiving.

***

The Alfasud production just broke the million mark; the coupe version of it sold 116,500 times. The technical platform of the car was so advanced in 1973 that it was still in use some sixteen years later when the Sprint ran out of production in 1989. And even the successor of the Sud, the Alfa 33, still used the same platform. You can bolt the suspension of a 1994 Alfa 33 under the chassis of a 1976 Sprint and don’t have to drill a single new hole.Sprint_1993

Many people mistake the Sprint for the Alfetta or GTV of the same era, but that car only shares the basic shape. The Alfetta is bigger, heavier, a totally different technical platform with transaxle, much more Grand Turismo-like. In comparison, the Sprint feels quicker, nimble, much more ratty. And on top of that it fits my whole family with luggage for a full week of holidays! I drive it daily. Even though its rust-affinity makes it hard to hold on to, it is definitively worth to pass the Alfasud Sprint experience on to our next generation.

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