Musings on the Past

The car that made and broke a brand – The Schrödinger’s Car

A good product makes a company, a bad one sinks it quicker than the Lusitania. That is as fundamental to the rule of business as you can get.

An exception to this fundamental is but a zero division equation. It is impossible. There cannot possibly be a product that is so delectably good that it won ardent converts to the brand while being so catastrophically bad that it tarnishes its name for generations to come. A scenario so absurd that Erwin Schrödinger might balk.

Though Schrödinger’s cat in a box rhetoric was meant to expose the absurdity of quantum mechanics, reality might see the Nobel-winning Austrian rescinding his thoughts if he ever were to own an Alfa Romeo Alfasud, the only man-made creation to have broken that fundamental rule of business, and by in large, the company itself.

The Alfa Romeo name after World War 2 was what BMW is to us today. A prestigious premium (if you would call it that) name with a penchant for producing sporty sedans long before BMW was BMW. However, like any surviving car company, Alfa had ambitions on capitalising on the growing post-war middle class.

Born from Alfa Romeo’s desire to create an affordable front-wheel-drive family car in the 1950s, the car that would become the Alfasud was aimed at bringing the brand to the masses. So when Alfa got around to working on that idea in the late 1960s, they practically bet the farm on the idea.

Though meant to serve as its new entry-level model, Alfa Romeo didn’t pull any stops in its development and had every intention to make it their ticket back into the big leagues. Alfa plucked the cream of the crop from Fiat, something the small car maker wasn’t too pleased with as it was said to have violated a gentleman’s agreement of steering clear of each other’s customer base.

Heading the effort was ex-Fiat Rudolph Hruska, an engineer who worked with Ferdinand Piech on the Volkswagen Beetle. Styling the body was left to design maestro Giorgetto Giugiaro while its road manners were determined by a sophisticated (at its time) MacPherson strut front and beam axle with a Watt’s linkage rear suspension setup. Though started from a clean sheet design, Hruska was able to bring the car to the market in four short years, which was a noteworthy achievement for its time.

To accommodate the big numbers Alfa Romeo had in mind for its new baby, an underutilised aero-factory was refurbished in Southern Italy, in the region of Naples, hence lending the car its off-brand name, the Alfasud, or Alfa South. The factory was to be run by a new entity that was 90 per cent owned by Alfa Romeo and the rest by Finmeccanica, the financial arm of a government-controlled company with the intention of bringing jobs to the region.

As a car, the Alfasud was an absolute charmer, perhaps the most charming front-wheel-drive family car to have ever graced the roads. It rode, steered, and handled with the proficiency of a 1990s Ford Focus, and played a sonorous tune that pulled dearly at your heartstrings every time you got near its throttle.

Nevermind that its humble boxer engine, which grew from 1.2-litre to 1.5-litre in its lifetime, never quite managed to fan a fiery tempo into its stride. The unit’s eagerness punting along a compliant chassis more than made up for what it lacked in outright figures.

Anybody who had the privilege of getting behind its wheel would want to toss it fervorous nose into every corner with every ounce of strength its measly engine could muster for the sheer fun of it. Even with the wrong set of driven wheels, the ‘Sud was a masterpiece that won the hearts of an entirely new audience. A true-blooded Alfa Romeo in every sense even if it wasn’t cut from the Alfa’s traditional blue-blooded cloth.

However, the giddy romance the ‘Sud delivered behind its wheel was soon to be overshadowed by the heartbreak that awaited beneath its body. You have certainly heard the trope before. A muscle car roars, a Mercedes-Benz wafts, and an Alfa rusts. And boy did the Alfasud rust.

Rust may be a common problem with many early post-war cars, but up until the Alfasud, a rusting Alfa was sort of a norm amongst its contemporaries, not the exception. The ‘Sud however further plunged that reputation to the nth degree, elevating its undeserved reputation to a level that was soon to become synonymous to the Alfa Romeo name.

The Alfasud’s woes weren’t so much as a warning to engineers but a case study for anthropologists. As it turned out, the steel supplied to the Naples plant was cheap poor quality steel the Italian government agreed to import from Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe. But that was just the base of the Alfasud’s mounting pile of horse manure. To make matters worse, not only was rustproofing scant, but the 15,000 strong workforce of unskilled Napolese peasants weren’t too bothered about properly transporting and storing body shells nor putting the cars together with much care or conviction.

So not only did the cars succumb to rust within a few months, the lucky ones that somehow escaped the onset of rust weren’t put together all that well either. And to top it off, sour industrial relations with an indifferent workforce meant that Alfa Romeo not only couldn’t sell you a properly built one, they could make enough of them to turn a profit, plunging the company further into financial troubles and ultimately tarnishing the company’s reputation; ultimately paving the way for an intervention and take over by Fiat.

Even with such horror stories, the Alfasud’s legacy is undeniable. In many ways, the Alfasud had achieved what Alfa had set out to do with it. Though once the maker of Grand Prix cars whose clientele were aristocrats, the Alfasud cemented Alfa Romeo’s reputation as a manufacturer of soul-stirring cars regardless of class and brought the company a legion of new alfisti converts who would continue to ardently defend the merits of its products even till today; even for a comparative turdbox like the MiTo.

The ‘Sud, for the egalitarian intent and soulful character made Alfa Romeo relatable – and desirable – to nearly every level of society, an achievement not equalled since and until Mercedes-Benz’s third-generation A-Class.

On the other hand, from a business perspective, the Alfasud was an unmitigated disaster whose unfortunate circumstances torpedoed their corporate aspirations like the Lusitania and had left an indelible stain on the brand that lives on till this day. A stain that continues to persist even if later Alfas from Milan were more immune to the dreaded rot than its contemporaries. A strange, frustrating, and impossible conundrum that neither time nor Schrödinger would be able to resolve.

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