Playing Romeo

Sales of Alfa Romeo cars are being dramatically outpaced by its rivals and parent company Fiat has hinted at permanently parking the brand. With its latest Giulietta model due to be unleashed, John Stones considers if design has a role to play in reconnecting Alfa with its public

Beauty is not enough.’ So ran the strapline of Alfa Romeo’s recent advertising. The problem was that consumers tended to agree overwhelmingly. Despite heritage second to none and producing some of the most beautiful and charismatic cars of recent times, sales have been lamentable and Alfa Romeo has made heavy losses. Design on its own, it would seem, has not been enough.

Its most recent design director – the Austrian Christopher Reitz – left quietly a few months ago, and has not yet been replaced. Alfa Romeo Centro Stile, its Milan design centre, has been mothballed, and the design function integrated with Fiat’s in Turin under the supervision of Lorenzo Ramaciotti, head of style for Fiat Group.

Alfa currently sells a paltry and unviable 110 000 cars a year, is massively outsold by its rivals, and has incurred the admonishment of Sergio Marchionne, chief executive of exasperated parent company Fiat, who has even publicly mooted a complete withdrawal of support for the brand.
Meanwhile, this year Alfa Romeo is set to celebrate its centenary with a big bash in Milan. It’s also just launching the Giulietta, the new model on which the brand’s future so heavily depends. The model is expected to go on sale in the UK this summer, and reviews have been promising.

So the scene is set for a typical confusion, the kind of which has dogged Alfa Romeo through much of its history. Despite asking himself just how many renaissances the brand can have, Marchionne last week announced his ’unequivocal support’ for the brand as part of a large-scale restructure of Fiat. The ambitious relaunch plans include a return of Alfa Romeo to the US, a raft of new models including, for the first time, two Alfa Romeo SUVs (based on Chryslers) and sales target of 500 000 within four years. Achieving the five-fold increase in sales will be a tall order indeed, as will getting the traditional Alfisti to accept the beautiful logo slapped on the front of a Chrysler 4×4.

The design management task will be far from simple. Alfa Romeo’s predicament echoes that of Saab (and to a lesser extent Volvo), which upheld Swedish design values in the automotive world in the same way that Alfa Romeo upholds Italian ones. It too was mocked by its owner GM, and dwindled to a pale shadow of its former self. But now, having narrowly avoided being closed down and bought instead by tiny Dutch sports car company Spyker, Saab is bringing design, which had been centralised in GM Europe’s Rüsselsheim studio in Germany, back to Sweden under the stewardship of Simon Padian, a British designer who has been with Saab for more than 20 years.

The question is whether the management of both brands has cynically over-relied on design. However, a comparison with the Volkswagen group, which has used design highly effectively to differentiate similar models and selling them under its various brands, might suggest it is not the strategy, but the quality of its implementation that has been the problem.

As it stands, Alfa Romeo’s design has many fans, including Tom Karen, the legendary designer of unconventional cars such as the Reliant GTE and, of course, the Raleigh Chopper. ’Italian cars are ungimmicky, which I like. Alfa Romeos are very nice cars with clean forms that have avoided the over-clever surface gymnastics of some of the competitors,’ he says.

Professor Dale Harrow, head of vehicle design at London’s Royal College of Art, believes Alfa Romeo has done a reasonable job, but hasn’t had a strong enough grip on its design, notwithstanding a short period in the 1990s under Walter de’Silva (now VW Group’s design chief). ’It’s suffering from the difficulties of having often outsourced its design to Pininfarina and Giugiaro, and not having built up a strong internal culture of design,’ he says.

’There’s almost constant reorganisation, so many senior people going in and out, not getting on or being integrated and quickly leaving,’ he adds. ’The individual styling centres didn’t have quite enough critical mass to do the job.’

Chris Bangle, the controversial former BMW design director (another designer who had earlier been through the Fiat Group’s revolving door), has criticised ’brand holiness’ – car makers’ obsession with history. Alfa Romeo’s heritage, however, is probably its strongest suit. Harrow suggests heritage should be separated from the consistent ownership experience rivals have offered. ’Apart from the enthusiasts, history isn’t relevant to most car buyers. Car makers are too concerned with the past,’ says Harrow.

Karen, however, thinks it would be a shame if its history wasn’t acknowledged. ’If you have such an attractive character you definitely want to hang on to some of that – as long as the rest of the package is competitive, of course,’ he says.

At the recent Geneva show, Pininfarina, the Italian styling house that has also fallen on hard times, showed the Duettotanta. It’s a contemporary reinterpretation of the 1960s Spider, perhaps the quintessential Alfa Romeo, immortalised by its role in The Graduate. Praise, however, was somewhat muted. ’How long ago was the film with Dustin Hoffman driving around in a Spider?’ asks Harrow. ’Most consumers will see just another red sports car and wonder if it is really necessary. It’s not really connecting with buyers in the right way any more.’
There will, however, be many keeping their fingers crossed that Alfa Romeo (and Saab and Volvo) again finds a way of properly connecting with the public. It will be interesting to see what role design will play in that process.

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