What Can Alfa Romeo Learn From McLaren?

David Walton
by David Walton
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what can alfa romeo learn from mclaren

If you read the title and mouthed “everything,” I can’t blame you, but please bear with me. What can Alfa Romeo, the Italian former racing marque and the assumed quintessence of automotive passion, emotion, and physical beauty, learn from McLaren, the English Formula One mainstay and sometime purveyor of clinical, efficient supercars? The two companies represent quite divergent poles along the automotive landscape, but they have much in common, both historically and in the present day, particularly in the North American market.

Alfa Romeo traces its origins back before the first World War, and the company was involved in motorsports straight away, competing in some of the earliest iterations of the Targa Florio, with a relative unknown named Enzo Ferrari delivering them a second place finish in the 1920 race over formidable Sicilian mountain roads. Il Commendatore later ascended to team manager, responsible for a stable of drivers that included Tazio Nuvolari, among others. During the latter portion of the interwar era, the European Championship – the predecessor of Formula One – was largely dominated by the Silver Arrows, who enjoyed considerable state-sponsored largesse, although Alfa received support from Mussolini’s regime and found some success, as well.

Nuvolari’s Alfa Romeo leads the Auto Union of eventual victor Bernd Rosemeyer at the 1936 Italian Grand Prix, held at Monza

After the second World War, the marque once more enjoyed motorsports glory, with Giuseppe Farina and Juan Manuel Fangio winning the 1950 and 1951 World Drivers Championships, respectively, in Alfas. Alfa continued its F1 participation in ensuing decades, supplying engines to a variety of teams – including March and Brabham – before returning briefly as a full manufacturer during the turbo era, but met with little success, and so exited after the 1985 season. Afterward, Alfa provided engines to Ligier and Osella, before leaving the sport for good in 1988.

Fangio’s Alfa Romeo 159 “Alfetta” at the 1951 Belgian Grand Prix, a race El Maestro won; note the iconic Quadrifoglio badge

Despite substantial motorsports credibility, Alfa Romeo is remembered in the United States for other reasons, if at all. Alfa began officially importing cars into the US in 1961, taking over from Max Hoffman, who had done so beforehand. An Alfa Romeo Spider featured prominently in the 1967 film The Graduate, with protagonist Ben receiving a Duetto as a graduation present.

Although Americans of a certain generation began to consider the diminutive roadster the appropriate visual accompaniment to the music of Simon and Garfunkel, Alfa Romeos acquired a reputation for mechanical and electrical fragility, and overlord FIAT pulled Alfa out of the domestic market in 1995, due to economic difficulties.

The legendary unreliability of Alfa Romeos and other “interesting” cars helps keep this Atlanta garage quite busy

The genesis of McLaren begins in the Antipodes, courtesy of Kiwi namesake Bruce McLaren. Bruce joined the Cooper F1 team in 1959 and raced for them until 1966, when he struck out on his own. McLaren perished in a Can-Am testing accident at Goodwood in 1970, but his legacy carried on. The McLaren team won its first World Constructors Championship in 1974 with Emerson Fittipaldi, who also won the World Drivers Championship that year. The team struggled through the remainder of the decade, but the course began to turn with the arrival of analytical and calculating boss Ron Dennis in 1980. The team notched two more championships in 1984 and 1985, with Niki Lauda and Alain Prost, respectively, serving as drivers. McLaren has historically relied on purchasing its engines, rather than manufacturing them in-house; the team was a customer of Cosworth Ford, aforementioned Alfa Romeo, and TAG-Porsche in its earlier years. The greatest achievements came through its partnership with Honda, however. For the 1988 season, Dennis secured the best powerplant, as well as the best driver lineup – Prost and Ayrton Senna. The superiority of the McLaren MP4/4 shone clearly, and Dennis’s pair of drivers competed only against each other for the drivers title, winning 15 of 16 races between them.

Senna leads from Prost in the 1988 Hungarian Grand Prix, a race which Senna won

Top McLaren brass were waiting at the Milan airport after the 1988 Italian Grand Prix when discussion of a McLaren road car began. Buoyed by their dominance that season, Ron Dennis, partial TAG-owner Mansour Ojjeh, and engineering extraordinaire Gordon Murray envisioned a lightweight, high-powered supercar that would define the genre and embarrass previous offerings from the likes of Ferrari and Porsche. Production of the uncompromising, price no object McLaren F1 began in the next decade, and approximately 100 cars were built.

The F1 has inspired awe and lust among automotive enthusiasts for the past 20 years, but the car went largely unnoticed by the general public. The rarity and sky-high values prevented them from being used as idle cruisers, and the small footprint, demure silhouette, and unknown badge meant that the rabble would accord more kudos to a Ferrari or Lamborghini anyway. McLaren collaborated with Mercedes-Benz – its engine supplier – to build the McLaren-Mercedes SLR during the oughties, but the heavy GT car is one the Woking concern would probably prefer you forgot.

After absence from the American market as a full manufacturer since the mid-1990s, McLaren returned with its MP4-12C supercar in 2011. Likewise, Alfa Romeo has pledged a return to our shores next year with its forthcoming 4C model, a flyweight car that Alfa hopes will redefine the terminology of the supercar. Both companies are confronted with the difficulties and potential benefits of a tabula rasa in North America; notwithstanding the recent, short-term success of Tesla, there have been vanishingly few successful contemporary (re)-launches of automotive brands, attributable to the costs of (re)-establishing a brand identity and a dealership network. That said, the potential opportunity is immense, with the chance to slough off unfavorable associations and snatch away market share like Sooners rushing into Oklahoma. For both sporting brands, the lack of historical baggage will likely appeal to performance-conscious buyers who wince at the poseur image that other sports car manufacturers have attracted (and, arguably, courted).

There exist striking similarities between the McLaren MP4-12C and the Alfa Romeo 4C. Both of them are mid-engined, rear wheel drive sports cars featuring turbocharged powerplants and the exclusive use of dual-clutch transmissions. Crucially, both cars employ a carbon fiber monocoque as the basis of the chassis; the Alfa represents the first application of this technique in a remotely affordable package (although final pricing is still evolving, the car is intended to compete against the Porsche Boxster and Cayman, so observers expect a similar price point).

Alfa Romeo hopes to deliver its “compact supercar” at a palatable price by harnessing its existing parts bin, as well as the declining expense of composite materials. The alchemical Alfa 4C employs a 1.75 liter 4-cylinder engine mated to a TCT twin-clutch transmission; both are found elsewhere in the existing model line. The carbon fiber monocoque borrows from Dallara’s experience with the KTM X-Bow track day machine. Due to its light weight, the 4C eschews assisted steering in favor of a manual rack. On top of this clever, parsimonious tech and feature fest, the 4C is a beautiful car. It’s not an elegant, lissome design, but there’s more than a whiff of 21st century Lancia Stratos about the proportions; the view of the stern is seductive and sensuous.

Alfa Romeo 4C cruising up Lord March’s driveway at the 2013 Goodwood Festival of Speed

The 4C is similarly stunning from the opposite end. The stance is low and the car improbably broad, with the oversized wheels pushed to the corners. The classical Alfa triangular radiator looks like a woman’s, uh, radiator. Admittedly the interesting headlights are an acquired taste, and the mirrors look like Dumbo’s ears, but even Cindy Crawford has a mole.

So what can Alfa Romeo learn from McLaren as it embarks on producing and selling this remarkable vehicle? The McLaren’s raison d’être is superlative performance figures courtesy of cutting edge F1 technology, and the company has even pledged to update the car from time to time, making the enhancements available to owners of existing cars, thereby offering them even more performance. That’s quite commendable, but the boys in Woking have a small concern over which to fret: the MP4-12C – which has recently had its name shortened to the 12C – has been struggling in the secondary market. A perfunctory perusal of Cars.com returns 64 McLarens for sale, with asking prices already dipping below $200,000. Meanwhile, there are 221 examples of the Ferrari 458 Italia available on Cars.com. Prices for the older, slower, heavier, less powerful, less advanced Ferrari are higher, despite nearly quadruple the supply; you’ll have to pony up about 10% more to get into the cheapest 458 Italia. Apparently, Jack Baruth’s crystal ball was working quite well last summer.

Alfa Romeo can take this observation to heart and sell the 4C not on the numbers, but on emotion. They can mine that deep well of motorsport spoils, that palpable passion running through their nearly century long history to move the metal. Fortunately for Alfa, the back catalog is essentially free, earned and paid for in the past. All they have to do is plunder it now.

David Walton grew up in the North Georgia mountains before moving to Virginia to study Economics, Classics, and Natural Light at Washington and Lee University. Post-graduation, he returned to his home state to work in the financial services industry in Atlanta. A lifelong automotive enthusiast, particular interests include (old) Porsches and sports car racing.

David Walton
David Walton

David Walton grew up in the North Georgia mountains before moving to Virginia to study Economics, Classics, and Natural Light at Washington and Lee University. Post-graduation, he returned to his home state to work in the financial services industry in Atlanta. A lifelong automotive enthusiast, particular interests include (old) Porsches and sports car racing.

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6 of 23 comments
  • Porschespeed Porschespeed on Aug 23, 2013

    Blah, blah, blah... 70s through 90s Alfas had few reliability issues compared to their US competition, if you actually *did the frakkin' maint*. If you were a dolt thinking he was buying a Hondota, well, you got what you deserved. I've had a coupla dozen Fiats and Alfas from that era that all worked 100% of the time - they just needed a tiny bit of taking care of to address their design flaws. All were picked up cheap in the high 5s from idiots who knew nothing about cars. For a few hundred USD, they all made it well into the six figure odo land.

  • GTAm GTAm on Aug 23, 2013

    Being a big time Alfiti I have to tell you that I am alarmed at your lack of research and knowledge regarding Alfa's racing history. From the P2 in 1925 upto the mid 30's Alfa Romeo was 'the' dominant force in Gran Prix racing. They were only out classed because they were out financed by Hitler's streamlined Silver Arrows, while Alfa GP cars were still open-wheeled. And yet the P3 of 1935 gave them 16 race victories that year! How nice of you to also mention Enzo's 2nd place in the 1920 Targa Florio.And you fail to mention the 10 outright victories that is only bettered by Porsche with 11. To put it into better perspective Mercedes has just 3, Maserati 4 and Bugatti 5 and Ferrari 7. And what about the Mille Miglia? Considered to be the toughest race in history? Well here Alfa Romeo won 11 out of the 24 times it was held!Mercedes has won just 2 and BMW 1. The other hilarious post is by th009 who says "Alfa had only a brief foray into Supertouring in early 90s". You failed to mention that this so called "brief" foray was as usual a runaway success dominating not just the WTCC but the DTM and the BTCC as well when they competed. The biggest problem for the team was to decide the order of the podium places of their drivers. Go watch the videos and read the books please. AND...... everyone conveniently forgot the sheer dominance in the 60's and the 70s touring car championships???? The 60's were decimated by the Auto Delta Guilia GTA and later the GTAm in the early 70's often beating bigger engined more powerful cars. Then there were so many other championships won even away from home in the UK, South Africa and Australia where the GTV6 continued the success. There is so much more like the World Sports Car Championship winning Tipo 33, numerous rally wins and thousands of class wins, Hill Climbs and National championship titles that frankly makes the Brand the top Dog in Motorsport Royalty that even Ferrari will find hard to match. In comparison McLaren is a tiny puppy IMHO. Go on and read up the books boys before writing a load of nothing, even though I must say it's slightly better than you previous comparison to Mazda which was seriously a joke. Please do your home work boys. Oh I nearly forgot the 4 successive Le Mans 24 hour victories. The ONLY problem the brand has had is disastrous management of the business side of things first by the Italian Government and then by Fiat. The 4C is the first indication that they've finally realized this.

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    • GTAm GTAm on Aug 26, 2013

      @porschespeed Thanks porschespeed :D