Long ago, when women of fashion were dressed by a personal tailor who accepted no other clients and wouldn't dream of going into retail, men of means drove handmade sports cars that seldom logged many miles before being returned to the tender mercies of the local mechanic. Such a gentleman typically garaged his long-nosed, spindly wheeled dream machine during the week, took it out for the weekend, then returned it to the mechanic on Monday morning with a list of needed repairs. He appreciated its uniqueness and no more expected that replacement engine parts - much less body panels - would fit properly into place than he would expect his tailor to address a frayed suit cuff by ordering a replacement leg from Naples.
Alfa Romeo was a leader among the fabricators of the day, its cars celebrated for their elegant lines, race-ready engines, and evocative use of hand-rubbed paint and fine, fragrant leathers, and it suffered more than most when the automobile evolved from an enthusiasm of the wealthy to an everyday means of transportation for millions. The transition was particularly difficult in the United States, the birthplace of mass production, where tinkering with a fussy foreign sports car came to seem as quaint as getting shaved every morning in a barbershop. By the mid-1980s, your average American Alfa enthusiast had devolved into a quixotic creature who invited you to admire the engine in his Milano while hoping that you'd overlook the fact that the muffler was being held in place by a coat hanger. Swallowed up by Fiat in 1986, Alfa departed from these shores altogether in 1995, leaving its fans to reflect on its past glories with a lasting affection tempered by a mordant recollection of its many faults. By that time, the one thing every American knew about Fiat (Fabbrica Italiana di Automobili Torino) was that it stood for "Fix It Again, Tony."
Now Alfa is planning to return to America, perhaps as early as fall 2009, with a product lineup that has yet to be determined - in part because, as one company official sniffed, "We have yet to determine what the American driver requires, other than a cupholder." ("Why in the world," he mused, "would anyone want to drink a beverage while driving an automobile?") Nor is a distribution deal set, apart from plans of starting with Ferrari and Maserati dealers. Meanwhile, Alfa has set the stage by producing a "halo car" - the 8C, a 450-hp two-seater priced somewhere north of $230,000 and intended to rewrite Alfa's reputation as the automotive equivalent of an aging movie star who has lost her glamour while retaining her imperious eccentricities. That goal is perhaps not unattainable - after all, Alfa manages to sell more than 150,000 cars annually worldwide and has moved ahead with quality control while few Americans were paying attention - but is the 8C good enough to polish the Alfa image in a world amply supplied with mouth-watering supercars?
As always, the proof is in the driving.
Dawn on a stormy morning found me at the Fiat Group Proving Ground, near Balocco, Italy, where two 8Cs sat side-by-side on the rain-slicked tarmac. One was black - a very good, deep "Alfa" black - and the other red, an even better red. The first thing that struck me is that these cars look a lot better in the flesh than in photographs, their design understated and subtly contoured, their lines sculpted in a series of unfolding curves as natural as those of a water-worn boulder.
Martino Domenico, a veteran factory test driver and engineer, explained that the 8C starts with a steel Maserati platform, shortened to deliver a 104.1-inch wheelbase, while the body is entirely carbon fiber, reinforced with steel and aluminum at the front and back "for the crash testing." Careful refinement of the carbon-fiber underside in Fiat's wind tunnel had made the car aerodynamically sound, he explained, without resorting to wings "or other unaesthetic things" beyond a turned-up lip at the rear. He opened the hood - a scalloped wedge that could hang in an art museum - to reveal its 4.7-liter V-8, sitting up like an egg on straw and looking pretty enough to recall the days when Alfa fans made coffee tables by balancing a glass top on an Alfa engine block. In classic Alfa fashion, the engine sits behind the front wheels, but while the transmission housing in old Alfa racing cars crowded the driver like an obstinate old dog, the 8C employs a rear transaxle that wipes out any potential trunk space - the "trunk" is a curved slit containing a fitted case with room for three bottles of wine - while providing a spacious cabin and a 49/51 percent front-to-rear weight distribution. With so much carbon fiber in the body and the interior, the 8C has a low center of gravity and a horsepower-to-weight ratio that is far superior to that of a Porsche 911 Carrera S and close to that of a 911 Turbo.
Climbing into the driver's seat, a maneuver involving none of the crawl-across-cut-glass contortions required by some exotics, I found myself in one of the most tasteful interiors ever to adorn a sports car. The carbon-fiber dash is rendered in a subtle gray-black resembling fine wool. The center console is a handsome, eleven-pound aluminum sculpture carved from a 232-pound block. Visible electronics are limited to a glowing red display, not much larger than a deckof cards, located between the speedometer and the tach. The rest is mostly leather - Poltrona Frau on the door panels and carbon-fiber seats, with wonderful Schedoni luggage strapped behind the seats. Visibility is excellent, the ergonomics are superb, and the overall effect is like being on horseback: you have power, some bits of burnished hardware, the smell and creak of leather, and a commanding view.
The engine fired up with a delightful burble that got deeper when I selected Sport mode, which opens the inner pair of the 8C's four exhaust pipes (otherwise they sound off only at high revs), tightens throttle response, and cuts shift time from four-tenths to two-tenths of a second. The only other drivetrain choice is fully automatic or manual shifting. I selected manual, pressed a button on the console to put the car in reverse - whereupon the stereo emitted a bleep like that of a tour bus backing up, the car's only aesthetically dubious feature - and ventured forth.
To reach the Fiat track, you drive down a single-lane road that has deliberately been left potholed for testing purposes. An '80s-era Alfa Spider would have jumped around on this wretched surface like keys in a jogger's pocket, but the 8C handled it with zero harshness, holding dead straight at 60 mph with my hands off the wheel.
Pulling onto the wide, wet track, I checked the mirrors and floored the throttle. The tail kicked out instantly but tucked back in with a flick of the wheel - no drama - while the engine emitted a heart-rending howl. The Alfa's song is lower in pitch than a Ferrari's and, to my ears, at least as gratifying: If Ferraris sound like the sum of all human longings, the Alfa 8C sings of longings fulfilled. Up through the gears, flipping the crescent-shaped carbon-fiber paddles behind the steering wheel - they're almost hidden from sight but always there when you want them - and soon the mouth of the first turn was opening like a whale's jaws. I trail-braked in, squeezed on some throttle, and let the dance begin.
It quickly emerged that this was a very driv-able car, a return to the old days when any decent driver could fling around a narrow-tired sports car without living too dangerously or squandering a lot of lap time. Induce oversteer with the stability control on, and the 8C catches itself as gracefully as you would, or would like to. Turn off the stability control, and you'll have to catch it yourself, all right, but the results are similar: The car straightens out with a casual Italian shrug, and you're set up to blast it through the hole. When you switch off the stability control, it's completely off, but should things go horribly sideways - delivering you, as one Alfa driver put it, into "the hands of Isaac Newton" - standing on the brakes reawakens it, hopefully before you have to learn just how much it costs to replace those carbon-fiber body panels.
The Fiat track, which incorporates turns copied from many of the world's great grand prix circuits, afforded ample opportunity to explore the 8C's considerable versatility. A blind, high-speed hilltop curve put my heart in my throat every time I took it without lifting, but the car went through it as happily as a horse trotting back to the barn. A diminishing-radius right-hander got me into the stability control about one lap in three, but the car was polite about it and the delays minimal. At one point, I passed the best of the prewar Alfas, a 1938 dual-supercharged 8C 2900B Speciale, known in its day as the world's fastest and most beautiful sports car. Watching this lanky masterpiece shrink in my mirrors was the closest I've ever come to time travel.
The transmission mapping was so good that I tried a few laps in full automatic. The car ran a trifle slower, but its upshifts, like its downshifts, were better than I could have managed with a stick (which isn't available anyway), and the computer always selected the right gear. (When I reported this to a Maserati executive, his mouth turned down at the corners as if I'd said I believed in ghosts. "Signore," he whispered, "this car will never give you the wrong gear.")
To sum up: In the 8C, Alfa has produced, right out of the box, one of the finest sports cars ever built. It's not the fastest car in the world, but it's gorgeous to look at, thrilling to hear, and capable of delivering enough dance-with-me-baby kicks to satisfy just about anyone. If you must experience brute force, set it for "launch control," turn the steering wheel to full lock, and floor it from a standing start to enjoy a 360-degree world tour while smoke pours from the rear wheel wells. It can do brutal, but that's like using a bottle of fine Chianti as a cudgel.
If you find the 8C appealing and have a quarter of a million dollars to spend, the good news is that it can be ordered in a beguiling variety of interior leathers, with options including a $9400 set of 40 percent lighter wheels (which I recommend) and a pair of green-on-white four-leaf-clover badges behind the front fenders (which I don't). The bad news is that you almost certainly cannot buy one. Only 500 8Cs are being made, and all have already been purchased. Alfa took 1200 orders in forty-eight hours, then weeded out all but what the Alfa design chief described as "proper people - collectors, friends, not speculators.
"Some of the speculators are pretty dumb," he added. "They place an order and immediately take out an ad offering the car for sale. We have people who keep an eye on that sort of thing, and we cancel the orders of those who try such tricks." So almost all 8Cs are going to wind up in the garages of wealthy collectors in Italy, Germany, the U. K., France, Belgium, Austria, Japan, Russia, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Saudi Arabia, with about ninety headed for the United States.
But it would be a shame to leave it at that. The car is just too good. One hopes that Alfa will go on to produce a less exotic version of the 8C, with a steel or aluminum body and enough additional horsepower to offset the added weight. Such a car would make a splendid flagship for whatever lineup of front-wheel-drive sedans, coupes, and station wagons - all with cupholders, no doubt - Alfa winds up exporting to the States. And it would let a lot more drivers get their hands on a wonderful creation whose soul is as beautiful as its skin.