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.