The generally excellent history of Alfa Romeo GTAs | Top Gear
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Geneva Motor Show 2020

The generally excellent history of Alfa Romeo GTAs

The new Giulia GTA has one hell of a bloodline

  • Alfa Romeo’s a bit of a funny one, really. Throughout its history, it’s been as hit and miss as a heavyweight boxing match. But, just like Mike Tyson in the 1980s, the misses tend to be mostly forgotten among a series of hits that landed so hard your ancestors felt them.

    Among a pantheon of limited-run specials, tie-ups with Italy’s best coachbuilders (looking at you, Zagato) and properly bonkers F1 cars, the mainstay of Alfa excellence has always been represented by three letters: GTA.

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  • 1965: Giulia Sprint GTA

    Alfa’s first use of the Gran Turismo Alleggerita appellation – Italian for ‘grand tourer lightened’ – came in 1965, when it managed to take a full 210kg out of the Giulia GT, which, at 950kg, wasn’t exactly a porker to begin with. It’s an astonishing thing to take more than two kilos out of every ten out of a car, even back then. But this is pre-Fiat Alfa, and astonishing is what they did. Aluminium panels and control arms, thin-gauge steel, plastic windows and magnesium alloy wheels matched a new lightweight interior – down to the door handles and window winders. Clearly, they were taking this alleggerimento business seriously.

    Combine that with a new cylinder head with two spark plugs per cylinder, a lightweighted drivetrain and twin 45mm Weber carburettors and the all-aluminium 1.6-litre Nord engine would do 115bhp in street trim and as much as 170bhp in race trim. Yep, that’s as near as makes no difference 230bhp per tonne – more than an E46 M3. Oh yeah, did we mention this was in 1965?

    Also, if 170bhp still seems paltry, we should probably point out that there was a version – the GTA-SA – with two superchargers for 250bhp at 7,500rpm. Power to weight? About that of a Ferrari F430. Yeah. That’ll do it.

  • 1968: GTA 1300 Junior

    The Giulia GT Junior was, if we’re honest, a complete tax dodge. Not for Alfa, mind – for the buyers of its cars. Yep, it’s that old doozy of punishing big-capacity cars, and the entirely logical step of just sneaking engine capacities under the prescribed limit. In this case, Alfa used a 1.3-litre version of the same Nord four-cylinder, making a slower, but less punitively taxed, 105 Series.

    At least, until Alfa released the GTA 1300 Junior, with 110bhp from a 1.3-litre, road-going atmo engine, in the late Sixties. Racing partner Autodelta fitted their GTA Juniors with fuel injection, getting more than 160bhp. Pure excellence.

    But the GTA Junior was also the first instance where Alfa went completely off-script with the whole ‘Alleggerita’ part of the GTA moniker. The 1300 didn’t get anywhere near as many lightweight bits as the original GTA. Consider it, then, like asking for a C63 AMG and getting a 4.0-litre engine instead of a 6.2. Once the brand is strong enough...

    Image: Marvin Raaijmakers

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  • 1969: GTAm

    The original Alfa GTA was an exemplar of what you could achieve with less. But, as the banner in the Top Gear office says, if less is more, imagine how much more that more could be.

    Helpfully, in this case, we don’t have to imagine. It’s 240bhp, a complement of lightweight parts and flares that wouldn’t look out of place in Studio 54.

    The keener-eyed among you might notice that it’s not based on the exact same Giulia GT as the original GTA; instead, the newer Alfa 1750 GT Veloce served as the base. Not as keen-eyed? Look to the bonnet. The original “Scalino’ or step-front bonnet left a small gap between the leading edge of the bonnet and the front grille. Ever wonder where Lexus got that idea for the LFA?

    Image: GTHO

  • 1993: 155 GTA

    Pour out a Campari for the 155 GTA, the all-wheel-drive turbocharged saloon that would have been the perfect cat among the pigeons in the battle between E30 BMW M3 and 190E Cosworth.

    Just think for a moment, if you will, about how much richer our lives would be if we had a Lancia Delta Integrale-based four-door saloon with an Alfa badge and 190bhp, every bit as boxy and amazing as its German counterparts. We can always dream, can’t we?

    Well, apparently Zagato did some dreaming on our behalf, building a distinctly limited run of 155s dubbed the 155 TI-Z and 155 GTA-Z. Now, mixing GTA and Zagato is pretty much like mixing bourbon, vermouth and bitters in our book. Or mixing some other, non-alcoholic things, if you’re not a complete soak who daydreams about Manhattans when they should be working. In any case, it’s a good combo, enjoyed too infrequently.

    Oddly, the TI-Z followed the 155 GTA formula more closely, with a turbocharged four-cylinder, while the GTA-Z used the (admittedly entirely excellent) Alfa V6. All 24 Zagato 155s seemed to end up in Japan (which was in its booming heyday back in the 1990s), and if anyone knows where we can find one, get in touch. No, really.

  • 2001: 156 GTA

    Lightened? Er, nope. Maybe the A in this case stood for Awesome engine, or Amazing sound, or Aaaah, were we meant to lighten something?

    Yes, just like Muse, the original ideas and direction disappeared without a trace, leaving everyone on the receiving end about as confused as it’s possible to be. But, unlike a modern Muse album, at least the 156 GTA sounded good, thanks to 250bhp worth of Busso V6.

    But for all the chromed-runner inlets, monstrous torque and a sound under heavy acceleration akin to a lion falling down an elevator shaft, the fact was that it was a front-drive saloon with turn of the century Fiat plastics. Oh, and build quality.

    But we forgive it much because it’s a) gorgeous, b) no, actually gorgeous and c) it actually drives pretty well. And you could have an estate version, too. Sold!

  • 2002: 147 GTA

    Actually, not sold. Because we bought this one. Yes, you can count the 147 GTA as a member of the Top Gear personal cars alumni. But, we should also say, it was such a catastrophic pain in the derriere that it will forever remain an alumnus, emeritus and all the other fancy words that mean ‘don’t darken my garage door ever again’.

    But it’s a wistful casting off, to say the least. Ours had a bit of extra fruit, such as a Supersprint exhaust system, Koni FSDs and a limited-slip diff, so it gripped like a limpet with separation anxiety and made noises like a gutshot opera singer. Oh man… that car. Loveable and infuriating in equal measure. Alfa in a nutshell.

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  • 2009: Mito GTA

    While we’re discussing Alfa in a nutshell, it’s probably worth mentioning its past business model, via the helpful example of the Mito GTA.

    So, we know Alfa as the purveyor of singular, and single-minded GTs, sports saloons, coupes and drop-tops. Excellent. Then Fiat comes along and, all of a sudden, Alfa’s doing mid-sized hatchbacks. But they were pretty, and had the option of the Busso V6, so we shrugged and gave Alfa the benefit of the doubt. But then we got the Mito, a supermini that was neither pretty nor characterful, but was based on a GM platform and used Fiat engines.

    It’s fair to say that the Mito was stretching the friendship already. Then, at the 2009 Geneva Motor Show, Alfa took the last millilitre of our patience and showed off an Alfa wearing the GTA badge that was not a GT, nor lightened, nor Alfa-engined, nor on an Alfa platform, nor prettier than your average fish from the hadal zone.

  • 2020: Giulia GTA and GTAm

    Not exactly the reserved, lithe lines of the original Giulia GTA, is it? Well, nor does it need to be. We live in subtlety-free times, friend, where the only way to get noticed is to shout twice as loudly (and, in some cases, four times as stupidly) as the guy next to you.

    So it’s a product of its time, and it suits the time we’re living in. Some would say it’d suit the times even more if it were fully electric and promised to conserve one lesser-spotted New Guinean tree frog for every car sold, but let’s remember that, just like seemingly everywhere else, there’s an us and them game going on. So it’s a choice of electric-only or hyper-engined monsters with enough power to run a small city.

    But let’s neatly sidestep that punji pit of internet arguments and instead focus on how well the new Giulia GTA matches the ethos of the original. Lighter, more powerful, and with a memorable, if not exactly beautiful, GTAm version. Job done, we think.

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