Originally published in Autoweek, September 13, 1982
Walk around the car. Watch the light work on it, cascade over the body like the ripples of a Disney-animated waterfall. Watch’s reflections slide over the fender, slip down into the trough between the fender and the hood and then spread into a quiet pool over the hood itself.
Light moves that way all over the car. There is not, it seems, a straight line on the entire automobile. Sure they can be found if sought, but only as accents, not as major design themes. This is the ultimate in late ‘50s aerodynamics. This is the Alfa Romeo Giulia Sprint Speciale.
The body is what it is all about, and the Bertone shape is a direct descendent of the BAT Alfas built by Bertone in the early ‘50s. With their variously shaped tail fins, they were early experiments in aerodynamics. Although some of the more radical aspects were eliminated – the skirted wheels, the humongous engine bay exhaust vents – the basic shape was retained in the production GulIetta Sprint SpecIale introduced in late 1958. The steeply raked windshield and backlight, the general profile, even the noticeably convex body sides remained. It was all there, just softened for commercial appeal and practicality. It was, by most accounts, one of the slipperiest cars of the era, and it handled well and had super brakes to boot. The 1290cc engine, however, was just not enough motor for the car.
That fault was corrected with the introduction of the Giulia Sprint Speciale, the new name that identified the substitution of the 1570cc engine. It was one of these “1600s” that AutoWeek recently drove, a ‘66 belonging to Ron Eichelberger of York, Pennsylvania. Eichelberger’s Alfa, built in the penultimate year of the models run, followed a circuitous route to York. It was manufactured for German delivery – it still has the dealership plate and behind-the-firewall coil – but is equipped with a speedometer calibrated in miles per hour. Perhaps a servicemen who planned the car’s eventual trip to the States? Eichelberger’s, then, was not one of the 106 “officially” imported Sprint Speciales.
It is the instruments which one notices first after struggling into the cockpit. (The doors are short and even on the passenger side a 9½ will hang up between the seat and doorframe. It’s worse on the driver side with a generous steering wheel to complicate things. The tach is rightfully centered on the three-dial dash, with speedometer to the right and the matching compound oil pressure, water temperature and fuel level gauge dial to the left.
The driving position is somewhat in the Italian orangutan mode (long arms/short legs), but a comfortable compromise can be reached between arms and legs. Taller drivers might find headroom spare as my average frame just fit.
A twist the key brings the DOHC four to life. It’s the oh-so-familiar Alfa all-aluminum engine, beautiful as a piece of sculpture. But it lives. And the sound it makes! Whirring chain and assorted valve train tappings. And above it all, back through the four Weber throats, through the aluminum intake plenum, through the flexible hose over the engine, through the air cleaner canister, out to somewhere inside the left fender, then into the passenger cabin through some Machiavellian fresh air ducting comes a vibrant, palpable intake drone that asked why you are still only blipping the throttle.
So against the spring-loading, move the shift lever up and to the left for first of five speeds. Ever drive an Alfa? You know how the shifter feels. There’s that same long lever angling back from under the dash with its up-and-down pattern. The clutch is quick and the reward is a wogga-wogga in the drivetrain for the inconsiderate. That smooths as the tach twists toward the red line. It feels as good as it sounds. It’s not cammy–there is a good level of torque on the bottom–but the faster it goes the stronger it gets: 129 bhp at 6500 RPM. It does one well to keep the revs up, however, with max torque of 96 lbs. ft. up at 4500 RPM.
The moving view from the driver’s seat requires acclimatization. It is the A-pillars which seem closer together than on most cars or some weird optical effect of the steeply inclined and curved windshield that makes the road appear as if you are looking through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars? The “bug screen” is also distracting. It looks like a JC Whitney special, but this plexiglass strip is original equipment. It is in fact it is a bug screen, it does seem to work. Why put it on this aerodynamic Alfa but not others? Eichelberger says the most likely explanation he’s heard is that it is necessary if the windshield wipers are to work at speed.
Advance through the gears on the winding Pennsylvania farm roads. The steering has a heavy feel to it, like maybe a lot of caster. It doesn’t impede control and it is quite precise, but muscle it you must for tighter corners. And the brakes. For effectiveness, they were a benchmark of their day, but the big discs upfront and giant finned drums in back required the driver to really exercise his quadriceps before anything happens. It will stop and quickly too, but you must push hard.
Now let the four unwind. The faster it goes the better it feels, even on less-than-perfect pavement. Alfa’s double a-arms and live axle on multiple links does the trick. But again it feels…heavy…more than its 2300 pounds. It’s vintage showing: Late ‘50s origin and mid-‘60s tire sizes.
Taking it out on the highway reveals another side of the Alfa’s personality. Again it climbed relentlessly through the revs, its prow parting the wind, the lane dividers disappearing ever more quickly under the left front fender. Cruising at 100 in fifth, the only sound is the intake growl. Eichelberger shuts the air vent and that ceases. Only the mechanical whirring of the engine reveals our speed. This is the Alfa’s true element, even more than this side roads. Up and running, taking giant strides across the countryside, shrinking the map, covering ground, traveling.
Unfortunately, all good things must end, and so does my time with the Sprint Speciale. As I sit at my typewriter, however, my mind is still in the Alfa, stepping off the miles, heading into a roseate sunset, watching the colors melt off the hood and slide into the darkness. And into my memory.
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