Should the Grandi Formaggi at Alfa Romeo wish to remind themselves of the standards to which their new Giulia should aspire, they could do a lot worse than study the two cars in our picture, above, in detail.
One is a 75: Alfa Romeo’s last rear-drive saloon and, indeed, the last Alfa to be launched in the company’s pre-Fiat days of independence. The 75 was born 30 years ago, but my guess is that there would be shockingly little dissent among both the general public and Alfisti to my contention that Alfa Romeo has not produced a better saloon since.
The other car is the original Giulia. Old though it is (it was launched in 1962) and angular enough to look more like a small child’s doodle of a car, to me, at least, this is the greatest Alfa saloon of all. I’ll tell you why in a moment. For now, though, let’s consider what they have in common.
Remarkably, given that they hail from different generations, both share the same engine. Okay, the 75 has fuel injection, variable valve timing and two plugs per cylinder and it displaces 1962cc rather than the Giulia’s 1570cc, but at their core both use the same all-alloy, twin-cam motor that appeared in 1954.
More relevant to today’s designers of the new Giulia is something else they share – less easy to define than a lump of metal under the bonnet, but far more important even than that. It’s an approach and, if you look back through the post-war history of Alfa Romeo, you’ll find every truly great car the company has made follows it.
Simply put, it is the pursuit of driving pleasure through the deployment of the best available engineering solutions. If the new Giulia really is to mark the rebirth of Alfa Romeo, it is this philosophy it must capture.
Take the 75. The engine we already know. It directed its power via a gearbox mounted between the rear wheels – not great for boot space, but brilliant for weight distribution. Its rear disc brakes were located not behind the wheels but inboard either side of said gearbox because there they’d reduce unsprung mass.
Its front suspension was sprung by torsion bars, its rear axle of De Dion design – once again to cut unsprung weight but also to minimize camber changes under load. A limited-slip differential came as standard.
As for the Giulia, it offered in 1962 a twin-cam engine, a five-speed gearbox and a coil-sprung rear axle, whereas even Ferrari’s staple product at the time, the 250GT, had a single cam per bank, a four-speed gearbox (plus troublesome overdrive) and cart-type leaf springs at the back. The Alfa also had disc brakes at each corner – an unheard of refinement in a saloon of its size at the time.
The result is extraordinary, like your blue-rinse grandma suddenly leaping to her feet at your sister’s wedding reception and throwing shapes all around the dance floor. The Giulia might look fuddy-duddy but that’s not how it drives. The car here is a 1967 Giulia Super with a brace of Weber carbs strapped to the sides of its twin-cam motor. Together they offer a fabulous sound and surprising pace. However, the real class act is the chassis.
On tyres skinnier than those fitted to most motorcycles, the Giulia feels taut, accurate and responsive. Steering feel is of a kind that’s been extinct in family saloons for decades and when you lob it into a corner at the improbable speed it will carry, the car may heel over but it will hit your apex every time. There’s not quite the power to boot the tail out but in quicker turns you just set your approximate trajectory with the wheel and fine tune your line with your right foot from thereon in. There is a driver’s car of rare skill lurking within that mumsy shape.
The 75 plays the same game, but at a rather higher level. You may be wondering why there’s a Twin Spark in these pictures rather than the full fat 3.0-litre V6. The answer comes in two parts. Firstly, the Twin Spark is better balanced, and second, you may have no idea just how difficult it is to find an unmolested example of any 75 these days, regardless of engine. V6s are far quicker and sound better but you lose something in the handling. One is neither better nor worse than the other – just different.
The Twin Spark doesn’t actually feel that quick. It spreads its 148bhp over a wide rev range and while fuel injection has robbed it of the inimitable Alfa growl, it’s still a cultured, pleasant voice in the car. Unexpectedly, given how terrible earlier Alfa transaxle gearboxes were to use, the 75’s is a delight. Again, though, it is the handling that makes the 75 honour its marque and why, over 20 years since the last one was built, we still felt the need to hunt down a 75 and try it out.
On fat modern tyres it has grip aplenty but, just like the Giulia, it is the car’s balance that distinguishes it from the Alfa saloons that followed it. It turns in so sweetly and with such poise that you’re tempted to look behind to make sure it really is a four-door saloon.
It shares the Giulia’s aversion to understeer and prefers to adopt a neutral stance, while feeding information about grip levels and the road surface through the seat and steering. Like the Giulia, the 75 offers an immersive and delightful experience. It plucks you out of the director’s chair and throws you into the action.
Both cars demonstrate how Alfa Romeo managed to stand out from the crowd then and how it could do so today. The new Giulia need not have the joke driving position of its forebear or the insane ergonomics of the 75. It just needs their character, innovation and verve.
With great looks, rear drive and a 50/50 weight distribution, the new Giulia represents Alfa’s best chance in 30 years of launching a great mid-size saloon. I hope with all my heart that it takes it.
Alfa’s best saloons since the 75
Alfa Romeo 164: Shares underpinnings with the Lancia Thema, Saab 9000 and Fiat Croma but comes with Alfa power and Pininfarina looks. With a spacious and sensibly arranged cabin, it was a fine effort undone only by 3.0-litre models’ prodigious torque steer and poor build quality.
Alfa Romeo 156 3.2 V6 24v GTA: This isn’t a great Alfa by any means — the requirement to send 250bhp through its front wheels saw to that — but it was hugely characterful by Alfa’s latter-day standards and was involving to drive, even if not always for the right reasons. Worth it for the noise alone.
Alfa Romeo 159 3.2 JTS V6 TI Q4: A complicated name for a car made far simpler to drive than its predecessor by the provision of four-wheel drive, there to deal with the power of the 3.2-litre V6. Overweight and not wholly engaging, the Q4 was at least competent, attractive and quick.