At the break of dawn, our posse drives into Randsburg, California, a mining town just southeast of Death Valley that time has almost forgotten. The few locals who remain turn to stare as tumbleweeds rustle in the distance. Cruising the dusty main street, we spot the firehouse down the road from the White House Saloon and the old General Store. The city jail sits at the far corner, and though the sheriff is nowhere to be seen, causing trouble is probably a bad idea. It feels like we’ve created our own spaghetti western right here in Randsburg. Clint Eastwood’s poncho-clad Man With No Name is notably absent, but it feels like he should be squinting menacingly at us through the glare of the morning sun, teeth clenched on a cigar.
Our steeds are not horses but a trio of Alfa Romeos. Three gasoline-swigging, rubber-burning, rear-wheel-drive hooligans who each have shouldered some responsibility for keeping Alfa’s name alive in the United States. Among us are a 1967 Giulia Super, a 1988 Milano Verde, and a 2017 Giulia Quadrifoglio, each the most potent version of their respective model available in the U.S. The cars represent a half century of sport sedan development from an automaker you could argue invented the modern sport sedan by putting a powerful engine in a small, four-door car.
Prior to World War II, Alfa Romeos were cars for the wealthy. The 6C series, built from the late 1920s until the outbreak of World War II, were large, hand-built cars with body-on-frame construction typical of the time. They flaunted coachbuilt bodies with swoopy, hand-formed shapes and then-exotic, twin-cam aluminum cylinder heads. Alfa was known for its cutting-edge sports cars, and its competition versions won some of Europe’s greatest races, including the Mille Miglia and the 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps. When Alfa resumed building cars in the post-war world, it realized the key to a successful future was in modern assembly-line production methods and a lineup of smaller but still advanced cars it could sell at a price that would allow volume production.
The cars represent a half century of sport sedan development from an automaker you could argue invented the modern sport sedan.
The plan worked. By the time the original Giulia (the 105 series to Alfa geeks) ended 15 years of production in 1977, Alfa had sold nearly a half million examples worldwide. Roughly 85,000 of those were Giulia Super versions, such as the burgundy example cooling its engine in front of Randsburg’s General Store. This 1967 model is compact and almost utilitarian with its classic three-box design. When it was launched, there was but faint praise for its styling, but today its stark, minimalistic lines are compelling in a sea of overwrought, modern family sedans. Look closer, and the subtlety of the design and execution of the smaller details is simply wonderful. The hood’s low leading edge and the trunk lid’s scalloped center section both hint at performance. Surprisingly, Alfa developed this car in the wind tunnel, where it achieved a 0.34 cD drag coefficient — a figure even a sports car of the period would have been quite happy with.
What the Giulia sedan lacked in outright beauty, it gained in functionality. The roomy interior is capable of seating average-sized adults in the back even with the Giulia’s sub-100-inch wheelbase. The hot Super variant started in 1965, and along with Super badging came the highlights from the previous TI Super — a motorsports homologation special built in limited quantities — but now delivered to the masses. Upgrades included four-wheel disc brakes, a floor-shift transmission, dual Weber 40 DCOE carburetors on the 1.6-liter twin-cam four, a revised instrument panel with individual, circular gauges, and a sporty, three-spoke steering wheel. This particular example is a daily driver in Los Angeles, and its owner (this feature’s photographer) uprated the car with a later 2.0-liter twin-cam making perhaps 130 horsepower, firmer shocks, springs, and sway bars, and some sticky 185-width Toyo T1-R tires on slightly wider but stock-style wheels. The original-style twin-Weber setup remains, providing plenty of fuel and air.
When it was new, this Giulia kept the peace on mean streets full of BMW 1600s and Datsun 510s, and today it can still turn a wheel in anger. The little twin-cam engine rasps its gruff tune as we make progress around the winding Randsburg Loop road that leads both in and out of town. It changes gears with precision despite the foot-long shift lever, and corners with grip that belies the fact the little Giulia is now 50 years old. No doubt this car’s updates give it a little more grunt and help it corner a little flatter than it did originally, but the solidarity of the chassis — the near-total absence of squeaks, rattles, and other questionable noises — is impressive. Steering effort is on the heavy side, due to tires quite a bit wider and stickier than the 155-width items the Giulia left Italy with, and there’s little distraction inside the cabin save for some wood trim — a perfect environment for getting on with the act of driving.
The Giulia changes gears with precision and corners with grip that belies the fact that it is now 50 years old.
Our trio winds its way up to one of the old, decommissioned mines scattered around the area. The black Milano sedan is blanketed in dust by the time it rests its tires by the remnants of a wooden miner’s shack. The Milano began life in 1985 and was named 75 in Europe, in commemoration of Alfa’s 75th anniversary. It came to our shores for the 1987 model year, ending a near seven-year lull between its arrival and the cancellation of the Giulia’s failed successor, the Alfetta sedan, in 1979. Success has rarely come easy for Alfa Romeo on this side of the Atlantic.
The Milano was a different character. It retains the Giulia’s creased, three-box dynamic, updated with ’80s styling cues and a peculiar upturned rear end that caused some to wonder if the clay styling model hadn’t been shoved into a wall. Even more bizarre were ceiling-mounted window switches and the ashtray and cigarette lighter’s prime location atop the center stack, while the radio was tucked behind the shifter. The underpinnings too were atypical, consisting of a De Dion-style rear suspension located by Watts link, with coil springs in the rear and torsion bars in the front. A rear-mounted transaxle gave excellent weight distribution, and inboard rear disc brakes reduced unsprung weight, the latter a direct link to the Alfa-powered Brabham Formula 1 cars of the late ’70s. Rear-seat room is a bit cramped because the wheelbase is the same length as the ’67 Giulia and both a sunroof and ’80s safety requirements eat into cabin space.
Our 1988 Milano is a Verde model, the sportiest variant and top trim level for the U.S. market. It is easily identifiable by its 15-inch “phone dial” aluminum wheels, wraparound rear lip spoiler, side skirts, and green quadrifoglio badge on the trunk lid, a symbol reserved for the most sporting Alfa variants and race cars. Inside, Verde models got big-bolstered Recaro sport seats and orange lettering on the instruments, but the most important upgrades were underneath the hood. Verde trim specified a 3.0-liter version of the Busso V-6 engine (named after its late designer, Giuseppe Busso), producing 183 hp to the standard 2.5-liter car’s 154 hp, along with a limited-slip differential and anti-lock brakes. Our example has a little more than 156,000 miles on the clock, and it still runs strong, a testimony perhaps to Alfa longevity or maybe to the massive binder of service receipts in the trunk.
Many enthusiasts say the Busso engine is the best-sounding V-6 this side of a Ferrari Dino’s, and we’re inclined to agree. The urgent, mechanically complex soundtrack that accompanies a drive in a Milano is inspiration to wind out the engine to its modest 6,000 rpm redline at every opportunity. It’s not a very quick car by today’s standards, but the exquisite balance of power to grip and the rear end’s playful nature almost mandate the car be pitched into turns with abandon. Plenty of body roll is present despite the aftermarket Bilstein shocks and the Verde-specific larger front anti-roll bar, but that’s an acceptable compromise considering how well the car rides over bumps and dips. With the rear-mounted transaxle, shifts are long and somewhat vague, but the small, leather-wrapped wheel is the perfect size and makes catching the easily rotated rear end more enjoyable. After a short drive in this Verde, we almost forget the car has four-doors. It drives like a pure GT car.
Despite the Milano’s driving dynamics, sales remained slow in America. By now Fiat owned Alfa Romeo, and in 1989 the Milano was ousted from the U.S. market and replaced by the front-wheel-drive 164, a larger, more conventional, and more refined car. It was a case of too little, too late, and Alfa withdrew completely from the U.S. market in 1995. The Milano was the last rear-drive Alfa sedan until the launch of the 2017 Giulia.
Alfa’s future in the U.S. — and as a viable brand — relies strongly on its latest Giulia sports sedan and the Stelvio SUV that will share the sedan’s basic chassis and powertrains. While some may argue the Giulia is only identifiable as an Alfa Romeo by its traditional, heart-shaped front grille, there’s no denying the car is the looker of our group. The body panels (carbon fiber for the roof and hood) are elegant, while the special touches of this top-shelf Quadrifoglio variant — hood vents, front splitter, rear diffuser, side skirts, fender vents, and rear spoiler — add aggression in carefully measured doses. You won’t find many styling cues from our heritage cars, but that’s probably for the best.
From the driver’s seat, there is at least one nod to earlier Alfas: the dual-cowled instruments that recall 1970s Spiders. The cabin is sleek and modern with plenty of carbon trim. The way the center display integrates with the flow of the dash is especially inventive, even if navigating the clumsy software is a somewhat frustrating experience. Hey, all Alfas have their quirks. Anyway, these cars are about driving, and the Giulia’s low seating position is excellent for the task. The seats are grippy and supportive but still comfortable for drivers of somewhat larger stature. Real aluminum shift paddles behind the optional carbon-fiber and leather-trimmed steering wheel are a delight both from a visual and tactile sense. Even the rear seat is comfortable.
Thumb the red steering-wheel-mounted engine start button that looks like it’s ripped directly from a Ferrari 488GTB, and the star of the show, a 505-hp, twin-turbocharged, 2.9-liter 90-degree V-6 fires to life without theatrics. This engine is exclusive to the Quadrifoglio and despite claims to the contrary is essentially a Ferrari V-8 with two cylinders lopped off the end. If you don’t splurge for the Quadrifoglio trim, you’ll have to make due with a 290-hp, turbocharged I-4, itself no slouch.
We escape the dirt of the mining road for a twisty ribbon of asphalt, and the Giulia’s light, super quick steering makes the car feel immediately eager. Despite its prodigious power, the engine is fairly muted in the Normal mode of Alfa’s DNA drive selector. Switch to Dynamic mode, and the exhaust baffles open under load, which seems to occur earlier when the car’s eight-speed automatic is operated manually. Race mode keeps the baffles open all the time and sounds terrific, but it also turns off ESC. With this much power on public roads, it’s best to stick with the Dynamic setting in most cases.
Power from the 2.9-liter twin-turbo V-6 is manic and fairly linear, thanks to the twin turbos. Of course, performance is simply in another league compared to our ghosts of Alfas past. Simply put, the Giulia is too quick and too capable to enjoy to the fullest on the street. Again and again we run the engine to its upper reaches, the Giulia’s gruff crescendo of a growl trailing off into rocky hills once rich with gold and silver. Shifts, up and down, come fast from the ZF eight-speed. Even though the transmission is capable when shifting gears for itself, the Giulia comes alive when we’re working the paddles. It almost begs us to, as a good Alfa should.
When the dust settles, the sun is setting on Randsburg, and perhaps our posse has overstayed its welcome. It’s time we saddle up and move on. The Giulia has its work cut out for it, after all. The streets are full of M3s, C43 AMGs, and ATS-Vs to keep in line, and there’s the honor of a little brand from Italy to uphold.
Badge of Honor
You’re likely familiar with the “staff and serpent” and “quadrifoglio verde” badges found on Alfa Romeos, but do you know what they represent?
On the former, the staff (red cross on a white background) is the official symbol of Milan, Italy, where Alfa Romeo is headquartered. The serpent with a person in its mouth is the symbol of the Visconti family that ruled Milan. Legend says the symbol was won in battle during the crusades when a Visconti knight defeated an adversary who had the symbol on his shield.
The quadrifoglio verde badge has its origins with Alfa factory driver Ugo Sivocci, who had grown tired of his multiple second-place finishes in the Targa Florio. For the 1923 race, Sivocci painted a green four-leaf clover (quadrifoglio verde in Italian) on the side of his Alfa RL race car to give himself good luck. He won the race, and the legendary symbol stuck. Since then, it has come to identify Alfa’s race cars and the sportiest variants of its street cars.
1967 Alfa Romeo Giulia Super Specifications
|PRICE||$2,995 (price in 1967)|
|ENGINE||2.0L DOHC 8-valve I-4/130 hp @ 5,500 rpm, 130 lb-ft @ 3,000 rpm (est)|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, RWD sedan|
|L x W x H||163.0 x 61.4 x 56.3 in|
|0-60 MPH||10.0 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||124 mph (est)|
1988 Alfa Romeo Milano Verde Specifications
|PRICE||$21,200 (in 1988)|
|ENGINE||3.0L SOHC 12-valve V-6/183 hp @ 5,800 rpm, 181 lb-ft @ 3,000 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, RWD sedan|
|EPA MILEAGE||18/25 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||170.5 x 64.2 x 53.1 in|
|0-60 MPH||7.7 sec|
|TOP SPEED||139 mph (est)|
2017 Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio Specifications
|PRICE||$73,595/$79,195 (base/as tested)|
|ENGINE||2.9L twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6/505 hp @ 6,500 rpm, 443 lb-ft @ 2,500 rpm|
|TRANSMISSION||8-speed dual-clutch automatic|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, RWD sedan|
|EPA MILEAGE||17/24 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||182.6 x 73.7 x 56.1 in|
|0-60 MPH||3.8 sec|
|TOP SPEED||191 mph|