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Against all odds, the Alfa Romeo new Spider “Duetto” project 938

Photos courtesy of Zbigniew Maurer Archive

Duetto is a magic word for Alfisti. It was chosen via an international contest to find a name for a very important car, the successor of the already iconic Giulietta Spider. The winning name seemed perfect for a new Alfa Romeo two seater spider, it was easily pronounced in most languages and was internationally familiar as a part of Italian music-related terminology. Strangely enough it was never officially adopted because Alfa renounced its use after the first, unlikely protest coming from a chocolate-based snack producer...

Evidently Alfa Romeo had first-class engineers and technicians but very lousy lawyers at the time!

Nevertheless the name Duetto has always been used by Alfisti, journalists and general public to identify the four editions of this lovely evergreen spider throughout its almost thirty-years-long life-span.

The successor of Duetto, the 916 series Pininfarina-designed spider didn't quite manage to retain the original Duetto's flair and driving pleasure. It was bulky, heavy and in some way alienating for its occupants. Its Fiat Tipo derived chassis, despite many modifications and a completely new, ad hoc developed rear multi-link suspension, failed to deliver the renowned Duetto driving feeling. Even the top-spec, beautiful V6 “Busso”, the last 100% Alfa Romeo designed and produced engine, was struggling to transmit with due refinement its generous torque to the ground through the front driving wheels. But probably the greatest disappointment in comparison with Duetto was the experience of the open-air driving for both the driver and passenger. High, inclined belt-line and massive A-pillars, ending very close to the occupants' faces, resulted in a somehow oppressed feeling, a far cry from the wonderful feeling of freedom and full contact with the surrounding nature the original Duetto was granting its occupants.

I have experienced all those differences first-hand, driving my personal 1973 cut-tail, our Centro Stile service IV-series Duettos and the then-recent 916 series spiders. So, when it came to design the new or future Duetto, I had my ideas quite clear.

The new Alfa Romeo Spider project begun in the late 1990's and coincided with big organizational changes, the director of Centro Stile Alfa Romeo Walter De Silva left for Seat and was succeeded by Andreas Zapatinas coming from BMW. The design coordinator of the Fiat, Lancia and Alfa Romeo brands, Carlo Fugazza was succeeded by Humberto Rodriguez coming from VW, Fiat Auto CEO Paolo Cantarella was succeeded by Roberto Testore and the Fiat itself entered in a joint-venture with GM. Lots of changes in a very limited span of time.

At Centro Stile we started to develop the first proposals based on the modified 916 chassis but after the joint-venture with GM and with the new boss we started again from zero, including some wishful-thinking and, unfortunately short-lived, rear wheel drive proposals. At the end we were given a new, GM-based, front wheel drive chassis scheme. We developed as many as five different proposals at Centro Stile and also Pininfarina was involved with a couple of proposals.

Given the great number of initial design proposals I decided from the beginning to pursue the “classic” but by no means nostalgic or even worse, “retro” design philosophy.

For me it was logical to design a new Alfa Romeo Spider as a continuity of its best tradition, a contemporary, modern car that would offer the best open-air motoring experience. From all the post-war Alfa spider models, Duetto seemed to offer the best mix of ingredients and was still present in every potential buyer's memory.

Trying to understand the reason of Duetto's success under design point of view I quickly realized that the secret of its long-lasting popularity was its timeless styling. It didn't follow the period's fashion or trends that usually help to gain quick acceptance of any new car but, at the same time, date it at the particular period and limit its originality.

When launched in 1966, Duetto was like no other car on the market, its bold and unique styling was based on Pininfarina's futuristic concept car, developed for Alfa Romeo more than ten years earlier. Like the 1962 Giulia sedan, with which it shared the chassis and all the mechanical components, Duetto was a typical “love it or hate it”, no-compromise design.

As stated earlier, the FWD packaging we received to develop the future spider on was far from the ideal thoroughbred sports car scheme but then again, neither was the Duetto's Giulia sedan based scheme in comparison with British sports cars of the period. So I eagerly accepted the challenge of designing a “classic” Alfa Romeo spider not following the passing styling trends of the moment but applying all the design solutions at the limit of the possible to obtain my goals.

I requested the biggest available diameter and relatively narrow tires, a very unusual request at the time, only recently adopted on some modern electric-powered cars. I remembered when I asked some years earlier our Alfa chassis-engineers what were the best tires to achieve the best all-around handling and road holding balance, to my surprise, they told me to choose the narrower tires offered for a given car. They all spent hours at our Balocco test track driving at the limit (and above) all sort of cars so they must have known better...

I also wanted the lowest possible seating position to lower the center of gravity and the car's height. The limiting ergonomic factor in this case was the downward visibility angle which, in its turn, was conditioned by the height of the front hood that had to cover the front, transversal engine. At that time the new pedestrian-impact rules were introduced, requiring even more clearance above the engine bay hard elements like the engine itself, battery, upper suspension mounting domes etc. It was definitely the “insurmountable” constraint that precluded any significant lowering of the seating position.

After hours spent controlling the critical clearances on various longitudinal and transversal sections trying to find an “impossible” solution I asked what exactly everyone of countless lines on those technical drawings represented.

I still remember my disbelief when they told me that the highest, most critical line did not actually represent the highest part of the engine itself but the engine cover... Engine cover???!!!

Without hesitation and with a dose of genuine anger I said I will respect only the hard points of the actual engine and that I didn't care about any engine cover! Their reply was that the engine cover was a part of the engine as it came from the Fiat-GM Powertrain and as such it was untouchable. My reply was that since everything that client sees, including the engine compartment, must pass the approval of Centro Stile, we will redesign the engine cover or, better still, we will help them design the cam covers aesthetics so they will not need any purely aesthetic engine cover at all, with resulting cost savings! I insisted that this economic aspect be put on the verbalization of the meeting knowing that it had a great importance in decision making and that nobody would dare to refuse a cost-cutting solution. It was also very unusual situation because usually it was Centro Stile that was asking for costly solutions and not the other way around.

Remaining in the engine bay area, another aspect I wanted to optimize from the beginning was the cooling air management. I remember I was told by engine engineers that the performance of the V6 engine equipped 916 series Gtv/Spider was limited by not enough cooling air passing through the radiator pack.

They told me the most critical aspect was not a limited air intake area but the difficulty in expelling the hot air from the engine bay, a problem common to the transversal-mounted big engines in very “busy” engine bays.

I decided to address this issue with introduction of the air exit louvered grill on top of the hood, just after the radiator, in the maximum negative pressure area, a solution often used on racing cars. To avoid any possible critics that might result in its elimination, I incorporated this grill with the headlights in a unique pattern that made part of the entire front or “face” of the car. The headlights placed on top of the hood and extending rearwards helped to visually shorten the long front overhang and allowed lowering of the leading edge of the engine hood, just like in the original Duetto.

The long and low hood allowed a low belt line, a characteristic I wanted from the beginning and especially important in an open car with low sitting position. I definitely wanted to avoid the “sunk”feeling when seated in 916 Spider.

For me an Alfa spider is in some way an exhibitionist's car and you don't want to pass unobserved when cruising in a nice scenery with your elbow out.

Another crucial aspect of the open air driving experience is the maximum outward visibility and the sensation of close contact with surrounding nature, you usually choose to drive a spider in nice places don't you? To obtain it I wanted the windscreen not excessively inclined and surrounded by as thin and unobtrusive as possible, continuous frame. This allows to avoid the brutally truncated A-pillars that terminate uncomfortably close to your face.

A spider, in difference with a cabrio, can and should be designed and visually optimized in the open configuration and the (occasional) closed roof aspect should be secondary.

Limiting the windscreen inclination allows to obtain visually longer hood, keeps the top part of the windscreen in a comfortable distance from the occupants' faces and provides a much more rigid structure. This last aspect is of primary importance because the windscreen frame serves as a roll-bar in case of accidental roll-over and makes part of any open car's safety features.

Here it's useful to address the contrasting design criteria of A-pillars, present in any body configuration but especially critical in open roof cars. Maximum structural rigidity calls for a generous cross section meanwhile maximum visibility has the opposite requirements. I decided to take the full advantage of the freedom that the spider configuration offered. I decided to adopt the hydro-forming technology for the entire windscreen frame. It consists of placing roughly bent high resistance steel alloy tube in a robust dies and injecting a very high pressure water inside the tube that expands it against the inner die surface. In this way it is possible to obtain a very rigid frame of complex and reduced section.

As mentioned earlier, my proposal was one of many and definitely not the preferred one of our new boss at Centro Stile. That meant that I had little attention and limited resources but, at the other hand, I enjoyed a great freedom in decision making.

All the attention and resources at Centro Stile were dedicated to a proposal that didn't even respect the basic project dimensional constraints and later, to a new concept design project “Sportività Evoluta” or Evolved Sportiness.

Even the fact that my Spider project was preferred during all the intermediate presentations didn't change that peculiar situation. That didn't scare me as I quite enjoyed this internal competition but I can't say it was easy to follow the physical development of the full-size styling model and all the project development meetings all on my own, with relatively great freedom in taking decisions but equally great responsibility with no internal support. This isolation was augmented by the fact that I was often relegated to follow the project development outside our Centro Stile workshop, at various external suppliers.

In this period I must say I found much more solidarity and help from those external collaborations, including the Pininfarina project development team even though I was representing alone our Centro Stile in competition with their own design department proposal. They really demonstrated a high level, impartial professionalism.

Among many external collaborations I even had a pleasure to work with highly skilled and experienced ex-Bertone modelers who started their long working career with Marcello Gandini on Lamborghini Countach!

The whole project was a very intense and full of obstacles experience that was progressing, one might say, against all odds but, unlike in Hollywood, not all troublesome stories have a happy ending.

When my project remained the only one from the original five proposals from Centro Stile and was in advanced stage of development, a sudden decision was taken to halt the entire 938 Alfa Spider project.

It was not the first time a well advanced project was abruptly stopped so we were all accustomed to it and acquired a sort of emotional immunity. Sort of, because no matter how many times you have witnessed it, when it happens to a project in which you were so deeply involved, it's not easy to accept.

I can only say that during all the project duration I have always tried my best.

Luckily there were new projects to follow and especially one of them, the future Diva, would give me a lot of professional satisfactions.

1 Comment

Dear Zbignew. If I am not mistaken 938 was a code name of the 147, however you mentioned GM platform. Could you please clarify.

There are some pictures in the Internet of the 147 Spider proposal by Zagato. Both cars ar very similar by proportions but yours have a smaller front overhang.

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