A Glimpse Inside Museo Storico Alfa Romeo

It’s like trying to fit into your old prom outfit after decades of takeaway pizzas. Or trying to turn the Iliad into a haiku. Condensing Alfa Romeo’s colossal history into a digestible online story is no mean feat.

There are over 110 years to cover. There are planes, trucks, tractors. There’s motorsport, engines and, of course, cars. Some of the most exotic, beautiful and exclusive cars the world has ever seen, plus some of the biggest blunders the industry has ever seen. Usefully, when there’s a need to be brief, there are cars in Alfa’s history that cover both the triumphs and the calamities; take the 4C, for instance.


Before there was Alfa, there was SAID (Societa Anonima Italiana Darracq), a pitiful car company making automobiles in the Milanese suburb of Portello. The cars were totally inadequate for the environment and couldn’t cope with the hills of the Southern Alps. Alexandre Darracq, the ‘D’ in SAID, and chairman Cavaliere Ugo Stella decided they needed to start fresh with a new car company, a new name, and an entirely different attitude.


The new car company would focus on quality and durability, and its name would be Societa Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili. Which, by the time the company was founded on 24th June 1910, had become ALFA.


The first two cars, the 4-litre 24HP and the 2.5-litre 12HP, were a significant step up from any SAIDs, but not exactly thrilling. After only a year, Giuseppe Merosi, Alfa’s first designer, built a racing version of the 24HP. He stripped away the heavy bodywork, improved how the engine breathed, and the 24HP Corsa was born. Similar cars were created by Alfa from their road cars and, despite lacking any real delicacy, there was plenty of success in hillclimbs and road races.


To really make the big time, however, Alfa realised the new sport of Grand Prix racing, with its purpose-built single-seaters, was where it’d really galvanise its sporting reputation. Alfa went all-in and Mersosi was given an almost limitless budget to develop a car and engine. The result was a modified Alfa road car chassis with a brand new 16-valve twin-spark four-cylinder engine. The Grand Prix contender was finished just as WWI began to break out and the project was halted.


Having focussed heavily on high-end cars and developing a sporting reputation, Alfa was not prepared for riding the economic repercussions of the war. Shareholders of the company pulled out and new investors were needed. A Neapolitan businessman by the name of Nicola Romeo, who had huge government contracts to make machines, bought shares in Alfa. He turned the car factories into compressor, tractor and aircraft engine facilities to support the war effort.


Romeo was not interested in building cars; practical machinery is what had made him rich. But as Italy recovered after the conflict, the army’s need for machines dwindled and the public became desperate to spend money, Romeo anticipated there’d be a demand for automobiles. He also understood that Alfa’s existing reputation was not one to discard, so he simply added his own name to the company’s existing title and Alfa Romeo was created.


Initially, production of the old cars was reinstated, but all-new Alfa Romeos were being built by 1920. At first, the focus was on limousines, but as there was no longer any aristocracy to buy them, these grand luxury cars were a sales failure. No one at Alfa Romeo was keen on producing mass-market budget cars, so it was decided sports cars were the answer and there needed to be a racing programme alongside them. The old Grand Prix car was hauled out of a drugs warehouse where it had been kept safe during the war and racing was back on the cards.


Despite a few upgrades, the old GP car was just too chunky to compete with the likes of Fiat. Alfa Romeo persisted, hired new talent and the following decades saw its race cars succeeding all over Europe. These accomplishments helped sell a range of performance-oriented road cars, but Alfa’s big security came during the 1930’s depression when the government bought a stake in the company. Italy’s then dictator, Benito Mussolini, made sure the company and its high-profile racing was a success with significant financial support.


Then came another war. World War 2 devastated both Italy and Alfa Romeo far more significant than the first. The large factories that bolstered Italy’s prosperous industry were bombed and almost completely destroyed, including Alfa Romeo’s Portello base.


After the conflict ended, and Italy and Europe had started to recover from WW2, Alfa was surprised to find that its sports cars were in demand. In 1947, the company made just five of its Turismo limousine models but produced 276 Sport and Super Sport versions, all of which were essentially the same design of the pre-War cars. Knowing there was an appetite for performance cars from its customers helped form the template for Alfa’s following models. The first of the new breed was the monocoque-bodied four-cylinder twin-cam-powered 1900.


For me, Alfa gets really interesting around the mid-1950s with the Giulietta. This is when it began properly mass producing its cars and truly experimenting with, what we call today, platform sharing. True Alfisti, who have thick 20W50 oil from their pre-War 6C 1750 coursing through their veins, would call me a heathen. They’re probably correct. It’s probably tantamount to saying that the Cayenne was the ‘car’ that got you interested in Porsche.


If you’re upset, take off your Mr. Toad driving goggles and hear me out. The Giulietta that gets me fired up because it possesses all the brio and excitement of the cars that preceded it, all the grace and beauty, but it’s also youthful and accessible.


And giving this entry-level practical saloon the all-alloy twin-cam engine and double-wishbone front suspension that would be needed for the coupe and convertible versions, presumably to save money, was a genius move by Alfa.

You see, sharing these components doesn’t diminish the Sprint or the Spider version’s credibility, it only bolsters the saloon’s. Not compromising on the base car’s fundamental engineering also helped create a whole new type of car – the small sports saloon. There may not have been the Lotus Cortina, BMW 2002 or Subaru Impreza if the Giulietta hadn’t proved the formula first.


Whether you’re on board with that theory or not, the Giulietta range absolutely paved the way for its successor, the Giulia. Which vitally also include its spinoffs, the Pininfarina-penned Spider and the Bertone-styled Sprint GT, GTV and GTA. To this day, these ’60s cars are considered some of the best-looking, best-handling and best-sounding Alfas, and have established a legacy the company continues to live off.


Maybe that’s because the years following the Giulia have been so hit and miss for Alfa. Rust and reliability issues have plagued its reputation, and many die-hard Alfa fans of the brand turned their backs when Fiat platforms formed the base on many of the cars.


Still, there have been some soaring successes. There’s possibly the greatest production car engine in history, the Busso V6. There’s ultra-rare and drop-dead gorgeous 33 Stradale. Wild era-defining concept cars like the Carabo and Iguana. There are pesky hot hatches like the Alfasud Ti and 147 GTA, too. Beautiful coupes like the 8C and not so elegant, but still fascinating, SZ are clear highlights. And there are many motorsport wins in rallying, sports cars and especially touring cars, where Alfa can trace its success right back to the Giulia.


The Arese plant, just outside Milan, was built to construct the Giulia and GT and has been the home of Alfa Romeo’s official museum since 1976. Over a decade ago, Museo Storico Alfa Romeo was an odd place. Wonderfully, exceptionally odd. Its location wasn’t really advertised; you just had to find it in the abandoned city that was the old Arese plant. Then there was the entrance fee, which I think was based on what car you turned up in. If you were in an Alfa you just walked in; something else Italian or interesting and you left your passport as a deposit. What you were charged if you turned up in a dull car, I dread to think.


Beyond the initial judgement from the person on the entry desk, there were no other staff. And, probably thanks to its hidden un-signposted location, there weren’t a lot of other visitors either. Inside, it was like an old underground office and all the cars were all parked in dark corners next to funky graphics and old racing pictures. There was also a scant amount of information about any of the exhibits.


That wasn’t really an issue. The lack of personnel meant that getting up close to the cars was easily possible. Want to know what engine was in any particular car, just pop open the bonnet. What was the driving position like in a 1750 GTAm, just climb inside. I highly doubt opening doors and bonnets was part of the museum rules, but it meant you could find out exceptional amounts of detail and, I can assure you, it was all done with utmost respect and care.


A new museum was opened in 2015; this one is actually suitable and prepared to accept visitors. Excellent if you want a consistent entry price, you want to actually learn about the history of the cars, and you want a bright and airy location to truly appreciate them in. Not so great if you want to poke around them without an angry Italian security guard chasing you out of the building.

Will Beaumont
Instagram: will_beaumont88

Photography by Mark Riccioni
Instagram: mark_scenemedia
Twitter: markriccioni



Comments are closed.


by Oldest
by Best by Newest by Oldest

Alfa Romeos are beautiful things!


BRAVO. Perfect speedhunting article for a tippy top marque, wish you added some racing/vintage pics as AR has some epic moments, but this made my day.

Tryon Lippincott

I have seen a Montreal in person and it is absolutely beautiful. My dream car is a Gulia GTV.


No Alfa 155 btcc,and the 164 pro car?


Pictures of the tipi 103 by any chance????


Edit: Tipo 103


The Montreal will always be my favorite Alfa. Designed Gandini, same guy that designed the Muira, Countach, Lanica Stratos, and De Tomaso Pantera to name a few.


The Carabo is a boy's dream come to life. Such a cool car.


Alfa car always reminds me of PS's Grand Turismo driving sim, Alfa Romeo 155 2.5 V6 TI '93.
The 155 performance was so godly and unreal, that it could smoke almost every car available in the sim.

Forever “La meccanicia delle emozioni”


Alfa WAS ahead of its time in the 70's when even its 1.3 Giulia was already equipped with 4 disc brakes 5 speed DOHC tachometer when even the base Mercedes (Mercedes 200) only had 4 speed SOHC.. My late Dad's Alfetta 1.8 even had inboard rear dics DeDion Axle 50-50 weight distribution just like the Porsche 928. Fast forward while the competition moved at a rapid pace Alfa progressed at a glacial place. Reliability particularly electric was always an issue. Rust was also its trademark. JD power recent survey ranked Alfa close to the bottom. As much as I love the current Giulia I would stick to domestic cars. Car and driver 40000mile test sowed lots of issues. Source: https://www.caranddriver.com/reviews/g30287316/top10-car-reviews-2019/. I am not sure if I ever buy an Alfa again.


rust were no longer an issue since the early 90s. mechanically they are ok but their electronics are still questionable.

while C&D Giulia QV review is a mess, MotorTrend review on lower trim Giulia somehow is almost trouble-free that even they are surprised with how smooth it went.

still, I really would love to have a Giulia one day, especially in the new Montreal green colour. it is just *chef's kiss*


Car and Driver is a reputable car magazine here in the US and is read by tens of millions. You may not like what they stated but that was the truth. Another source of Giulia F review https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zgE0U1M3o0w and here is the reliability link published by autonews https://www.autonews.com/manufacturing/lexus-reclaims-reliability-crown-jd-power-survey-shows where Alfa Romeo was ranked second to last only better than Land Rover. So these multiple sources are all wrong?? Come on. I love Alfa and my late Dad owned Alfetta and Giulia super but one has to be objective.


I'm sorry if you find my reply as hostile but I never meant that

I'll admit that I am a fan of the brand and I didn't say C&D is untrustworthy or anything but people have been parroting the C&D review everytime Alfa Romeo is mentioned that I feel it is worth mentioning MotorTrend review as well.

plus Alfa isn't always at the bottom of the barrel in every reliability survey. In the UK, they ended just outside of the top 10 ranking out of 31 brands on What Car? 2020 Reliability Survey.

Sorry again for my previous reply.


I'll give my 5 cents about the Alfa...
I'm a 100% petrolhead, but not an 'Aflisti'. In the last few years we had some Alfas within my closest family though (we all like cars, including my mom and sister). Some of the cars we have (or had) are: BMW 320d e90, M3 E46, 520d F10, BMW 530d E39, Alfa Stelvio 2.2jtdm, Alfa Giulia 2.0 Ti, Alfa GT 3.2, Porsche Cayman S (987) and a 981 GT4, Seat Leon Cupra, VW Caddy, Volvo V60 (and some more...)

Anyway, out of all of those cars, the Alfas were the most reliable, BMWs the least. E90 needed expensive repairs at least once a year, F10 is now at BMW for an engine replacement (head gasket blew when my mom was driving back home from a business trip), my M3 had the usual Vanos and conrod bearing problems, and I can't count how many times I wanted to drive the 530d somewhere and it just wouldn't start.

The only Alfa that needed some more expensive work was my 3.2 GT, but it's a 2004 car that I bought used in 2017 and the previous owner kept it in a garage and didn't even start it for at least 2 years. Anyway we had NO problems at all with the Stelvio and Giulia.

If I needed a car for a long trip and had to be sure it will take me back and forth with no problems at all, I'd either take one of the Alfas or the 987 (it's crazy reliable as well, done a LOT of track time with no issues at all).

Btw. We do quite a lot of miles in our 'daily' cars, we have bought the Giulia, Stelvio and F10 brand new and around the same time. They all have over 100k miles right now. Other Giulia and Stelvio owners that I know are happy with their cars as well.


Potevate avvisare, si andava a bere un caffè e fare dei preventivi al MotorVillage....


How is the 4c a calamity?


Go and look at the sale figures and if you explore the technical spec you will find that despite the extensive use of exotic materials and deletion of air condition the car is more or less lineball with base Miata weight wise and the latter being a mass produced relatively affordable sports car. Common sense would expect the 4C to be closer in weight to Lotus Elise / Exige but it isn't. I grew up with my late Dad owning 2 Alfas but now... until it shoots up in reliability rating then I will stay away from it. US spec car weighs +/- 2500lbs. Source: https://www.alfaromeousa.com/cars/4c/specs


Nice article! Love the Alfa Museum! A few years ago I made a trilogy of it, here it is:

Part one "Timeline": https://youtu.be/2rxP7uOQFCo
Part two "Beauty": https://youtu.be/W9vzmpf3fh0
Part three "Speed": https://youtu.be/KXisVH50-PU

Hope you like them!


Bravo es un fantastag