Featured Italian Cars

Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint and Spider 1954-1965. Gordax

Written by lombreblanche

A really classic Alfa, with good looks from Bertone, great breeding, superb engines – and really the only hard thing about it is deciding whether you go for the Spider or the Sprint coupé.

In 1954 the grille apparently came off a van, but everything else about the 65 bhp Giulietta was new – and it showed because they were special right from the word go. Unusually the car had actually been funded by a national lottery, with examples being handed out to the lucky winners, but it was expensive too with a little 1570 cc Sprint Veloce costing only £102 less than a 4.2 litre E-Type.

What you got for that, though, was something which, from a design point, was for its time astonishingly beautiful. Chaste and pure, quite chromey round the front end but otherwise gloriously unadorned, it was a highly sophisticated design, this despite the apparent simplicity of the basic shape. When the first cars went on show on 21 April 1954, it was apparent immediately that cash-strapped Alfa had another winner on its hands.

It’s true that the first year saw just a dozen examples leave the factory, but after that orders began flooding in, production was eventually ramped up to meet it and soon the Sprint was joined by the now-iconic Spider and the distinctive, if slightly awkward-looking, Berlina saloon. A year after that more powerful Veloce (or speed) variants joined the lineup with the power output climbing to 80 and later 90 bhp.

This being Italy, other coachbuilders had a crack at the car too – most notably Zagato which produced a series of strangely-styled but undeniably effective designs – but even now there’s little to beat the Bertone originals with their clean lines, careful detailing and irresistibly characterful appeal.

Contemporary roadtests were immediately enthusiastic, albeit few and far between in the UK largely (it was said) because dealers here were selling cars so quickly that the importers felt unable to sideline a few of them for the press. Autosport got its hands on one, however, and admitted it ‘could rave all day about the beauty of this little machine’ and described its road manners as ‘well-nigh perfect.’ Five years later, indeed, the same magazine was still describing the car as ‘just about the most desirable car that money can buy’.

Today the bald statistics – 1.3 litres, as little as 65 bhp, drum brakes and 110 mph if you’re lucky enough to find a well-sorted Sprint Veloce – sound modest to say the least. The car is light, however, and fantastically well balanced which, in this sort of thing, is really what matters. It’s also deceptively modern in its essentials with independent front suspension, quick steering (two and a half turns lock-to-lock) and controls which, though heavy, become completely natural to use after a few miles on a familiar road.

That said, it’s obviously not going to keep pace with anything modern, but then you’re talking about a car that’s half a century old, something I’d defy anyone to guess were they to (unwisely) take to the road blindfold. This car, back then, was a revelation, and actually it still is: light, focussed, hugely enthusiastic, suddenly it’s not hard to see why, price-wise, it was nudging Jaguar’s E-Type. It may not be quite such a headturner, or as fast on the limit, but it feels (and is) better sorted, and more alive, and of course these days Giuliettas are much rarer too.

And it’s no mere poseur either, which the E-Type eventually became. With class-wins in the Mille Miglia and Targa Florio, the Giulietta also won the 1956 Monte Carlo Rally outright as well as giving several future F1 stars – including double World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi, Jo Bonnier and Jochen Rindt – some of their earliest successes.

These days, as a result, you’re unlikely to find a really bad one, at least in this country: Giuliettas, even Berlinas, have simply been revered for too long for many of them to have fallen into uncaring hands. You still need to check for rust, though, particularly around the edges of any exposed panels, in the sills, the floorpan and the boot. The good news is that most of the bodywork panels are being remanufactured, because the chances are that sooner or later you’ll find something under there that you do not like.

As with any ageing performance car, ordinary wear and tear is also something of an issue, particularly in the braking, suspension and steering departments (even though the car’s basic design meant that it was fundamentally strong mechanically). Water leaks and overheating could indicate a head gasket problem, but here again parts supply is not a problem on the whole – at least for later cars. (Hence so many early ‘750’ series cars sporting later ‘101’ mechanicals. It’s also why many cars come with a box of bits, useful spares for the future, so don’t whatever you do drive home without them.)

Today, 50 years on, a late-model Spider is probably the most sought after model – if only because people just love fresh air, even in a country like ours where rainfall is more or less guaranteed. If you see an early Sprint on a good road one sunny evening, my guess is it’ll turn your head and keep it there as there’s something about the coupé which makes it all but irresistible. It definitely gets my vote.

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