Recently, Italian car maker Alfa Romeo made a big splash into the U.S. market (you may have seen their commercials during the Super Bowl). But by no means is Alfa Romeo a new car company. In fact, they are one of the oldest car makers in the world, with many beautiful, classic cars to their name.
Alfa Romeo has been around as Alfa Romeo since 1920. But the core company is actually even older than that. The original predecessor to Alfa Romeo was called Società Anonima Italiana Darracq (SAID), and it was founded in 1906 by French automobile manufacturer Alexandre Darracq, alongside several Italian investors. Darracq Italiana cars struggled to sell, and by 1909 the Italian investors had decided to form a new company, A.L.F.A., which stands for Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobil (translated as “Anonymous Lombard Automobile Factory”).
The first A.L.F.A. car, the 24 HP, rolled out in 1910. The 24 HP actually served as A.L.F.A.’s first foray into auto racing as it was driven in the 1911 Targa Florio, considered the oldest sports car racing event in the world. That car’s designer, Giuseppe Merosi, went on to design a few more powerful models, including the 40-60 HP, and the GP1914 – the company’s first Grand Prix car.
In 1914, Nicola Romeo took over the company, just in time for the outbreak of World War I. War meant car production stopped and the factory was instead used for military production like aircraft engines, compressors and generators.
Car production resumed after the war, and the company took on a new name, Alfa Romeo. The first Alfa Romeo car was the Torpedo 20-30 HP, which was the car of choice for a young racing driver by the name of Enzo Ferrari. With Merosi still on as head designer, Alfa Romeo produced some of the most successful road cars and race cars of the time, including the RL Targa Florio and the P1 Grand Prix Romeo. In 1923, Alfa Romeo poached Fiat designer Vittoria Jano, in no small part thanks to Ferrari. Jano brought designs that were lighter, more powerful, and more reliable to Alfa Romeo, including the P2 Grand Prix, which along with Alfa’s drivers, ushered in a period of success on racetracks across Europe.
In 1928, Nicola Romeo left the company. In 1929, the effects of the Wall Street Crash rippled across the world, and Alfa Romeo was no exception. The Italian government had to bail the car maker out in 1933, essentially taking control. Through the 1930s, Alfa Romeo made several iconic cars such as the 8C 2300 B and the 8C 2900 B. These cars were dominant on the racetracks under the direction of Scuderia Ferrari.
Standard production took a backseat to racing production and commercial production, such as trucks, busses, army vehicles and airplane engines. When World War II broke out, factories once again converted in whole to the war effort. The plant in Portello was bombed in 1944 and car production did not resume until 1946. The company started producing the Alfa 158, which were a perfect match for the brand-new Formula 1 single-seater races. The 158s and 159s enjoyed great success on the track.
In 1954, Alfa Romeo introduced the Giulietta series, which eventually included a boxier “saloon” (or sedan), a coupe, and the open-topped “spider.” The Giulietta also included the engine that would become the overhead Twin Cam four-cylinder engine, which would remain in production until 1995. The Giulietta proved enormously popular, and along with the Alfa Romeo 2000, played a big part in the economic boom in Italy in the 1960s.
1962 brought another iconic car onto the scene, the Giulia. Alfa Romeo would sell over a million Giulia’s during the following 14 years. This period also saw the introduction of the 2600 as well as the 1600 ‘Duetto’ which was featured in the movie The Graduate.
Despite continued success on the track, the 1970s were a turbulent time for Alfa Romeo, marked by declining sales, management changes, and an unsuccessful joint venture with Nissan. By 1986, Alfa Romeo was put up for sale. Ford put in an offer, but the company ultimately ended up in the hands of Italian rival Fiat, who was able to keep operations on Italian soil and save Italian jobs.
The most iconic Alfa Romeo of the early 90s was the 155, which won the German Touring Car Championship. And the 147 hatchback. Alfa Romeo stopped importing cars to the US in 1995, with the last model being sold the 164 sedan.
Reports of a possible return by Alfa Romeo to the United States began to surface in 2006, and in 2009, Chrysler (which is now also owned by Fiat), began integrating Alfa Romeo models into its factories. In 2014 Alfa Romeo launched the two-seater 4C coupe in the U.S., and in 2015 the new Giulia, which was featured heavily in Alfa Romeo’s ads during Super Bowl LI.
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