Boss Christopher Nicholl has slashed the network, encouraged those who remain to pull their socks up, and the result is the strongest state of health the dealer network has seen in years.
It may not be huge, but Alfa’s UK retail presence is full of hope – because of the brilliant new MINI rival it’s been granted to sell.
Makes you wonder why it took the brand so long to produce, really. Especially when three-and-a-half decades ago it was just about to launch what in many ways is the spiritual forebear of the MiTo – the Alfasud.
It was small. It was front-wheel-drive. It had flat-four boxer engines that sounded delightful and gave it the handling finesse to beat a Mini Cooper. What was not to like? At first, very little.
Sales started in July 1973. It was a quiet beginning: dealers had just the one car to sell, the 1,186cc Berlina four-door. This was followed by an SE model in April 74, with a sporty two-door Ti version, still using the same engine, coming a month later.
More austere L and N models chimed with the mid-1970s economic woes. This, remember, was when Ford discovered how popular ‘Popular’ boggo-spec Escorts could be…
Indeed, it wasn’t until spring 1977 when a larger 1,286cc engine became available. Grandly titled Berlina Super, these cars were quickly followed by a facelift in 1978, when an even larger 1.5-litre flat-four came on to the scene. By now, the Ti version was quite a weapon. The range was also becoming pretty complex
But it wasn’t until 1980’s Series 3 cars, distinguished by black plastic bumpers, that the Alfasud really started to exploit range diversification (and dealer-mystifying trim line-ups!). There was yet another new entry engine, the 1,351cc unit, and a far more comprehensive range of trims, including Berlina, Ti Veloce, SC, and Ti X.
In 1982, the famed Cloverleaf model arrived. Just the thing to challenge the Golf GTI. Shame it was a bit late. Also overdue, the hatchback came on the scene in 1981, joining the sporty-look coupe Sprint version that had been sold since 1979.
By 1983, though, it was all over, after almost 900,000 had been built. The delightful Alfasud was replaced by the so-so 33. After reasonable beginnings, Alfa began a period of decline in the UK that would continue for many years.
The Sud didn’t help. Because, and they’ll hate us for reminding folk of this, it rusted. We spoke to one owner, who regaled us with tales about welding on new sills, to get it through its first MOT. ‘I should’ve known, when the rear number plate fell off after a few months, because the screws had rusted through.’ The damage to the company’s reputation lasted years.
Indeed, while its fortunes have ebbed and flowed over the years, the company has arguably just not had the product to get a strong foothold in the UK. Even the brilliant 156 was stymied by weaknesses elsewhere.
The MiTo is different, though. It’s a great-looking Alfa Romeo, priced very keenly, that’s taking the illustrious name into a high-volume sector. It’s economical, cheap to run and a hoot to drive. Just like, in fact, the terrific ‘Sud. 35 years after it set a flawed template, Alfa’s finally got round to fixing the bad bits and copying it…