x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

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The Alfasud had good intentions, but as Nick March discovers politics ruined the cars before they even left the factory.

Production for the Alfa Romeo Alfasud began on April Fool's Day, 1972.
Production for the Alfa Romeo Alfasud began on April Fool's Day, 1972.

The Alfa Romeo Alfasud was a pert little family car produced by the Italian marque during the 1970s and 80s. Indeed, the Sud looked prettier and handled better than a budget car of this period had any right to. Yet neither its price nor its capabilities occupy the better part of the car's legacy. Welcome to the corroded history of the Sud - the car that should have been one of the marque's enduring successes but was most likely to be seen on the back of a low-loader heading for its final destination: the scrapyard.

The Sud, or "south", took its designation from Alfa Romeo's decision to build a new assembly line in southern Italy, a naming trick the marque has recently repeated with its 21st century supermini the MiTo, which takes its name from the Italian cities of Milan and Turin (Torino) where the car was designed and subsequently manufactured. There was, in fact, no strong commercial imperative pushing production into Italy's largely industrial-free south. Instead, like the later decision by the British government to site DeLorean sports car production in Northern Ireland (how well that one went, too), the choice was driven by political demands.

Alfa had previously been nationalised by Benito Mussolini in the 1930s and remained a government-backed organisation until the privately owned Fiat group was coerced into adding another brand to its portfolio in the mid-80s. As arranged marriages go, the relationship between Alfa and the government was filled with compromise, the often myopic thinking of politicians being counterproductive to the long-term strategy needed to make a car maker successful.

Successive post-war political administrations had long battled with bridging the economic gap that existed between the prosperous north of Italy and the poor south. So, when Alfa needed a place to build their new small car, the Istuto per la Ricostruzione Industriale, the state-owned organisation appointed to run the company, declared that site should be north-east of Naples. It was an act designed to bring jobs to a hitherto economically deprived area, an admirable and praiseworthy notion that also pitched men more used to ploughed fields into the alien world of performance quotas.

The Sud programme was overseen by a fastidious Austrian named Rudolf Hruska, whose wide-ranging responsibilities included supervising the construction of the new factory and development work on the new car. Together with Giorgetto Guigiaro, who styled the Sud's exterior, Hruska came up with a front-wheel drive, four-cylinder car that charmed the crowds at the 1971 motor show in Turin, generating a healthy order book. There was but one problem - the factory was nowhere near completion.

Production eventually began belatedly, without a hint of irony, on April Fool's Day the following year, before becoming mired in the world of industrial disputes and manufacturing problems. These issues began with a highly politicised workforce prone to striking at the sharp sound of a shop steward's whistle. They were compounded by the wholly political decision to embark on an Italian-Russian trade agreement that saw cheap Communist steel being shipped to Italy to be used on the Sud. They were finished by the almost complete absence of anti-corrosion treatments being applied to the car's metalwork in the manufacturing process. The problem was so bad, it was not uncommon for a Sud to be rotting before it left the factory.

Decades later, the Sud's failings still cloud opinions of Alfa Romeo ownership. Indeed, for every buyer of one of the brand's current range of handsome cars, you'll find a twice-shy Dr Doom with a dazed look in his eyes whispering the words: "It'll be gone in 60 seconds" or worse still, "you haven't, have you?". The Sud was the car that sent Alfa's reputation south. For some it has never returned.