After growing fat on reputation in the lead-up to World War 2, it’s no secret that Alfa Romeo experienced a tough time as peace resumed. Its first mass-produced small car, the 1900, was finely built and beautiful, but it was expensive and didn’t exactly set the sales floors alight.
The 1954 release of the Giulietta changed all that, bringing advanced engineering to the public beneath another achingly pretty shape.
The Giulietta’s gestation was typically Italian. Desperately short of funds, the government-backed Alfa Romeo had wanted to introduce a small Berlina (saloon) in 1953. In order to finance the project they decided to sell company securities and hold a lottery for the investors, where the winners would be given a new Giulietta. Delivery dates were decided, the winner’s names were drawn… but the cars were still in pieces. Insiders knew the truth; the Berlina required massive re-tooling and would not be ready until 1955, even though it shared a similar mechanical layout to the 1900. Sensing a kill, the press moved in, and had Alfa not moved swiftly into Plan B, the marque may not exist today.
Alfa contracted Nuccio Bertone, head of Carrozzeria Bertone, at the time a small-scale coach builder. Bertone took on the contract to produce a coupe based on existing Giulietta parts, and the pretty Giulietta Sprint (with final design credit to the revered Franco Scaglione) was born in time for the 1954 Turin Auto Salon. It assuaged lottery winners and kept the press from dealing a final blow. Seven hundred firm orders were received for the coupe at the show itself, and the Giulietta – and Alfa Romeo – was on its way.
It was powered by a 1290cc derivative of the 1900’s engine, but the twin-cam now featured a lighter alloy block, giving the Sprint a capacity edge over its contemporary 1100cc Fiat, Renault and Citroen opposition. Fed by a single Solex carburettor and with 8.0:1 compression, output was initially 65bhp at a heady 6000rpm. This was mated to a four-speed column-shifted manual transmission, with drum brakes fitted at each corner.
Buoyed by the showroom success of the Sprint Alfa, ever the racers, decided to introduce the Sprint Veloce (fast) in 1956. It defined the term ‘mini-GT’, with an output of 90bhp (67kw) at 6500rpm, 9.1:1 compression and twin 40mm Weber carburettors. Further details included an aluminium baffled sump with integrated oil cooler, a tubular exhaust manifold, higher-lift camshafts and shotpeened rods which allowed it to spin like a top, through to 7000rpm-plus.
A small run of Alleggerita (lightened) Sprint Veloces were fitted with ally panels and perspex windows to become the devils of the Dolomites, dominating the 1300 GT classes at hill-climbs and road racing events in Europe and America. One such car won the 1957 Tour de Corse outright, while Grand Prix driver Jo Bonnier regularly beat 1600cc Porsche 356s and hounded Ferraris throughout the 1950s.
1959 saw a series update which included a split-case gearbox along with more durable engine parts designed to increase longevity. Outwardly an altered, busier front-end treatment distinguishes the newer series (known as the 101) from the previous 750-series model, although power outputs remained the same.
The featured car is special, for several reasons, but these photos have a particular poignancy for your scribe. They were taken back in 2012 when this Azzurro Iseo 1962 Giulietta Sprint Veloce was owned by a now-departed friend of mine, Tony Hawker. These images are a tribute to the day. Rest in peace, Tony.
As you can see, the steering wheel is on the right-hand side, making this Giulietta SV unique; no record exists of another… though how it came to be is truly fascinating.
Manufactured on 4 June 1962, it was sold to a Europe-based Australian engineer by the name of Michael Barden on 15 June 1962. Mr. Barden ordered the car in Azzurro Iseo, the powdery, light sky blue that adorns it today. It was also optioned with luggage straps to facilitate him driving around Europe with his new bride for their honeymoon. Michael and his wife, after paying 1066 pounds sterling, collected it from the Minetti dealership in Milan and headed for the autostrada.
After this romantic sojourn through the Alps, Michael had the SV shipped to his new post in the United States, firstly arriving in Texas before moving to Chicago in 1963.
In preparation for his 1965 return to Australia, Michael decided he wanted to convert the Giulietta to right-hand drive and take it home. Historical production figures show that a little over 1 per cent of Giulietta Ti Berlinas were produced in right-hand drive form, but the Sprint Veloce was left-hand drive only, thanks to clearance issues with the twin side-draught Webers hanging off the 1300.
Michael wrote out – to the Alfa factory, to UK conversion experts Ruddspeed and Thompson & Taylor, and finally to Gemmer in France to seek advice and attempt to secure parts. He was told it would be impossible; perhaps not something you’d say to an engineer blessed with intuitive genius.
An Alfa club contact put him in touch with an employee of Alfa Romeo South Africa (a right-hand drive market) and they supplied the steering box and other parts from a Ti… Michael just had to make it work. His solution involved the development of a flexible steering column shaft to clear the carburettors and the fabrication of mounting brackets and linkages to ensure sufficient strength.
Other improvements, which Tony eloquently called “thoughtful touches”, included a period update of the electrics from Marelli to Bosch, a redesigned fuel sender unit to fully utilise the 80L long-range tank, and a home-made set of heater hoses in a more heat-tolerant rubber. That Michael also built the dies to produce these hoses goes without saying.
Its Australian history encompasses a bare-metal repaint in 1992, which Tony believed to have been the only cosmetic refurbishment the car has had, while Michael also rebuilt the engine at 89,500km (it showed 97,000km in 2012). During the rebuild compression was upped to 9.7:1 and a later five-speed Giulia gearbox was fitted with lightened gears and a 4.5:1 final-drive to give the Veloce a real peppiness to its performance.
The first sense that jangles as you open the driver’s door is smell, the scent of real leather absorbed into your lungs. These are later seats, a Recaro-style used in some 1970s Porsche 911s, and they support a larger frame nicely, though Tony also had some original Giulietta SV seats restored as spares.
Once ensconced, the smaller-than-standard Nardi wheel (easier to get the legs under; the original remained in Tony’s possession) feels delicate to the touch. Start the motor; it fires with a characteristic Weber-fed gargle before settling down to an idle familiar to anyone who has sat behind an Alfa ‘Nord’ motor of any displacement.
The driving experience itself is all about feel, about melding with the near-organic tactility of the controls, sensing the car’s reaction to inputs and measuring your next movement accordingly. The SV’s manual steering tingles the fingertips, thanks in part to the tall 155-series tyres which simultaneously provide granular feedback, minimal steering effort and acceptable ride. Handling-wise, it continues to be about delicacy. The Giulietta runs a double wishbone front suspension with a live rear axle supported by coil springs. I recall Tony saying, “People think of a 105 series Alfa as being a good handler. These leave them for dead!”
Though the drum brakes require a lot of pedal pressure to provide meaningful deceleration, once into a corner the steering weights up progressively, allowing you to feel for the point when the throttle can be reapplied, the SV light on its feet and poised as you would expect in a car weighing less than 900kg.
Back on the power, the little 1.3-litre obviously lacks torque compared to its later, larger derivatives. Though it doesn’t labour in the lower reaches of its rev range, it is happier when the tacho swings past 4000rpm, sounding ever more eager, like it will happily stride higher forever. There is no discernible kick in delivery up here; it’s more a matter of the delivery smoothing out, the gear change becoming more conducive to snappy upshifts and meaty throttle blips on down changes.
The Giulietta Sprint Veloce is a jewel, pure and simple.