Brian Joss – Storie Alfa Romeo: Episode six.
“It is a very forgiving car. Very pretty, too.” That’s what Steve McQueen had to say about the Duetto. The legendary actor and car enthusiast had been invited by Sports Illustrated to try the Italian spider in the summer of 1966, along with other “fast friends”. The model he drove was one of the first Alfa Romeo 1600 Spiders to arrive in the USA, after its debut at the Geneva Motor Show a few months earlier. In a few words, McQueen’s judgment sums up the essence of the Duetto and the uniqueness of Alfa Romeo: driving pleasure and pure beauty.
Technically, his was an authoritative opinion. Steve McQueen was a supercar collector and a skillful driver, who finished second in class at the 1970 Sebring 12 Hour event, paired with Peter Revson.
A year later, a young Dustin Hoffman was driving a Duetto at full speed to the music of Simon & Garfunkel in “The Graduate”. Iconic images that became sculpted in film history, launching a whole series of quotations where the Duetto was seen being driven in hundreds of films and TV stories, becoming a cult in its own right.
When he was World Heavyweight Champion, Muhammad Ali had a Duetto: copying his famous motto “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”, he had his numberplate customised to read “Ali Bee”.
The Duetto harnessed all the technical innovation of the Giulia, while retaining the charisma of its predecessor, the Giulietta Spider, to become an international star.
Born to discover America
The story of the Giulietta Spider also contains a protagonist called Hoffman. Not the actor, Dustin, but the businessman Max Edwin Hoffman: an ex-racing driver, forced by Nazism to abandon Austria for the United States, who in a few years became the reference American importer for European car manufacturers.
Max was much more than a simple “trader”: he had a profound expert knowledge of the market. He gave advice on commercial policies, asking for specific models, suggesting style variations and contributing to the creation of some of the most passionately admired sports cars ever made – one of which was the Giulietta Spider.
The Spider became an obsession for Hoffmann. He began asking Alfa Romeo for it in 1954, immediately after the launch of the Giulietta Sprint, convinced it would become the perfect car for the Pacific Coast and that everyone in Hollywood would want one. So confident was he of its success that he said he was willing to buy several hundred, even before he had seen the final designs!
The Beautiful Young Lady
Hoffman managed to convince Francesco Quaroni and Rudolf Hruska, and the project was launched. A styling competition was set up between the two designers of the moment: Bertone and Pinin Farina. Bertone came up with an extreme vision, the daughter of Franco Scaglione’s “2000 Sportiva” concept: pointed front, streamlined headlights and rear fins. Pinin Farina’s proposal was designed by Franco Martinengo, and was chosen on account of the elegance and classic balance of its shapes.
“The beautiful young lady”, as Pinin Farina described it, began with a panoramic windscreen and sliding side windows. It also had no interior door handles: instead, a rope activated the door opening. Only later would a traditional windscreen appear, plus descending side windows, equipped door panels, folding roof, external handles, and new interiors.
The Spider adopted the Giulietta engine: a 1,290 cm³ in-line four-cylinder engine, which delivered 65 horsepower and thrust the car up to 155 km/h. Power continued rising in subsequent versions, starting with the 1958 80-horsepower Spider Veloce.
Flexible, young and quick. And beautiful. Giulietta Spider adored the cinema and became a status symbol: loved by famous people, desired by everyone.
Made in Italy
The time came when an heir had to be conceived for the Giulietta Spider. Luraghi and his team were aware that making an excellent car would not be enough: the same charisma was needed. It’s launch also had to a grand and glamorous affair.
Alfa Romeo wanted something massive. So, for the USA launch it arranged a transatlantic luxury cruise, inviting the most exclusive celebrities from show business, sport and fashion. There were 1,300 VIPs on board the Italian turbine liner Raffaello, sailing from Genoa to New York, with a stopover in Cannes for the film festival. During the cruise, three examples of the new Spider were displayed extravagantly on the ship’s bridge: one green, one white and one red. There was no denying that Alfa Romeo’s new sportscar was proudly “Made in Italy”.
Giulia’s technical heritage
The Alfa Romeo Spider 1600 was born on a Giulia base, with the wheelbase reduced to 2,250 mm and the mechanics shared with Giulia Sprint GT Veloce (an evolution of the Sprint GT). At its launch, the Duetto was equipped with the classic all-aluminium 1,570 cm³ twin-cam four-cylinder engine, capable of generating 108 horsepower and with a dry weight of less than 1,000 kg. Its maximum speed was 185 km/h.
“Duetto” or “Cuttlefish Bone?”
Finding a name for the model was a story in itself. A competition was organised in collaboration with all its European dealers. “Duetto” won… but a problem with rights emerged due to a chocolate biscuit with the same name, requiring the car to be launched as “Alfa Romeo Spider 1600”.
The name Duetto remained in the background, becoming the nickname of all the car’s generations. Others were added: the 1966 Spider, the first of the series and the last masterpiece by Battista Pinin Farina, was called “Cuttlefish Bone” due to its ellipsoidal shape, with rounded front and tail, convex sides, and very low belt line. It has also affectionately being called the boat-tail Spider. The second incarnation was the 1969 “Coda Tronca”, or Short Rear, eye-catching for the aerodynamic cut of its rear, and consequently known as the square back Spider.
The third is the “Aerodinamica” of 1983, named after its lengthy trials in the wind tunnel and aerodynamic appendages. In 1989 the last generation arrived, the so-called “Series 4” with a clean and streamlined body, almost a return to its origins.
Four generations and more than 124,000 produced over 28 years, this particular generation Spider is the longest life ever for an Alfa Romeo model.
CAPTION: Starring role: the Duetto was much more than a trend-setter. Picture: Quickpic