Matteo Licata, an automotive designer for many years, has written a meticulously researched book about the Alfa Romeo Giulietta – a love song to that era of Alfa design and engineering. We asked him about his passion for the Giulietta, the importance of putting cars in context, and why the design was so ‘honest’. Over to Matteo, then:
“Being a lifelong lover of all things Alfa, the complete absence of a title devoted to the 1977-85 ‘116’ Giulietta model struck me as kind of a weird oversight: the model had been a sales success for Alfa Romeo at the time, it’s fondly remembered by former owners, yet nobody had ever written anything about it. So, I decided to tackle it myself.
“I have no direct personal connection to the Giulietta, but I’ve always been an admirer of its original wedge shape – it was the first production Alfa to have been designed under the direction of architect Ermanno Cressoni, a brilliant designer whose legacy is not celebrated enough, in my opinion.
“The economic and political situation within Alfa Romeo itself influenced the design of the Giulietta: in 1973-74 the bread and butter of production at the Arese factory was the Giulia. It was still a good seller but it was already over 10 years old, so a completely new vehicle was being developed to replace it... until circumstances changed.
“A perfect storm of events changed the course of history for Alfa Romeo forever. First of all, the infamous geopolitical events kickstarted by the Yom Kippur war of 1973, and the ensuing OPEC oil embargo, dramatically hit sales and put a further strain on Alfa’s bottom line, which was already suffering the high costs of the problematic first years of Alfasud production.
“Then the architect of Alfa Romeo's post-war success, president Giuseppe Luraghi, was ousted in early 1974 in a boardroom coup, because of his stern resistance to government pressure to build a totally unnecessary second Alfa Romeo plant in Southern Italy, as well as the aforementioned Alfasud plant in Naples – of course Alfa Romeo was a state-owned company at the time.
“Last, but by no means least, Orazio Satta, the charismatic head of engineering at Alfa Romeo since 1946, died suddenly in ’74 of an incurable illness, leaving Alfa’s engineering and product planning rudderless at a crucial juncture.
“In such a situation the company could no longer afford to develop and launch a completely new model to replace the Giulia, so it was decided to use the then-new Alfetta floorplan and running gear and simply develop a new, shorter and cheaper-to-make body.
“According to the period documents and interviews I've seen, development of the Giulietta started some time in 1974 and, as the production car was launched in November 1977, we can safely assume the design/engineering development time lasted only around 18 months: very short but, after all, it was mostly a new body on an existing chassis.
“This decision certainly defined much of the car’s personality: the 2510 mm wheelbase wasn’t changed, so the Giulietta offered the same amount of interior space as the Alfetta but less luggage space, as its shorter length of 4210mm (versus the 4280mm of the Alfetta) was achieved solely through a reduction of the rear overhang. The fuel tank was placed behind the rear seats and the spare wheel sat vertically on the right hand side of the luggage area, instead of under the boot floor as it did on the Alfetta.
“This situation generated a quite high and stubby third volume, but Ermanno Cressoni's team cunningly transformed this constraint into a feature, devising a marked wedge profile that gave the Giulietta a unique personality, while the cab-rearward RWD proportions were further emphasised, giving the car a somewhat sportier, younger appearance than the Alfetta.
“In design, context is paramount to fully understand why certain choices have been made in the first place: car design does not operate in a vacuum, it's a product of its time as much as anything else. Each era has its own design trends, for example the Giulietta fitted perfectly in the ‘origami’ and ‘wedge’ car design trends that dominated the 1970s, pioneered by the likes of Marcello Gandini and Giorgetto Giugiaro.
“Plastic was making huge inroads into car manufacturing, particularly in the interior but also replacing the classic steel bumpers. Chrome had become a big no-no, as it was seen as a thing of the past, gradually phased out not only on taste grounds but also because of an increasing pressure on the industry to clean itself up: remember that chrome plating is hardly an environmentally friendly process and attempts to clean it up hiked production costs.
“I’d say the classic negative inclination of the front grille, together with the low bonnet line and the steep rise of the belt line towards the high, stubby tail of the car gave the Giulietta a sense of intent and purpose which was also present in the more traditionally designed Alfetta but in a more subdued fashion.
“What I love most about the Giulietta is its refreshing minimalism: there’s little in the way of gratuitous ornamentation, it’s the overall volume of the car that carries the message, and that’s particularly evident in the first series of the car, built between 1977 and 1980.
“The rear view even does without an Alfa logo, there's a simple silver adhesive strip that visually connects the two tail lights and carries the ‘ALFA ROMEO’ and ‘Giulietta’ scripts in that oh-so-period Century Gothic font: I've referenced this detail for my book cover design!
“For those days the interior was quite original, especially compared to the traditional fake wood ambience of the early Alfetta models: the dash was moulded in ABS and all the instruments were united in a floating pod placed in front of the driver, which steered the Giulietta through a heavily padded wheel that was very original and particularly coherent with the overall design of the car itself.
“Sadly, some of this purity was to be lost in the two subsequent restylings, as often happens. Such purity and sense of purpose is what I often find missing in the over-decorated, almost dishonest designs that are the norm today. Car designers need to take a more holistic approach and stop underestimating their customer’s intelligence.
“One last note of thanks: the main protagonists of the Giulietta story are all sadly long gone, and most of my research was therefore based on the study of period documents kindly provided by the Centro Documentazione of Alfa Romeo itself and Turin's National Automobile Museum: I wish to thank their personnel for the invaluable support they gave me during my research work.”