It’s a story that starts in Milan, Italy, on 24 June 1910. On that day, a group of Italian businessmen started Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili (A.L.F.A.) and started building cars. Today, of course, we know that carmaker as Alfa Romeo, a brand that has over the last century-and-a-decade given us some of the most beautiful and evocative cars ever made.
And who better to take us through some of those iconic automotive moments, than the curator of the Museo Storico Alfa Romeo than Lorenzo Ardizio, the curator of the Alfa Romeo museum.
We caught up with Ardizio last week as the company prepares to celebrate its 110th birthday, and the passion he exudes for the brand is palpable, even over the now omnipresent coronavirus-inspired medium of video conferencing.
Ardizio, a noted automotive historian and professor who has authored 10 books on the subject, is a self-described ‘Alfisti’ with four Alfas in his personal garage.
“I personally own four Alfas,” admits Ardizio, “because obviously, if you decide to work in that kind of museum, the knowledge is not going to happen. It's necessary to be an Alfisti.
“I personally drive a Giulia GT, I drive a Duetto. Also a GTV, and a Giulia, nowadays, every day. I think that this is important, because Alfa Romeo is not only something to look in a museum, it's something to drive. It's a complete experience. Probably it's one of the reasons why the brand has so many enthusiasts, so many clubs, so much passion around.”
That passion is true enough. Speak to any Alfa Romeo owner and it quickly becomes apparent they love their cars in a way owners of many other brands don’t. There is something about Alfa Romeo that inspires passion, passion for the art of the cars, passion for the purity of driving. Ardizio agrees.
“I think that one of the important parts of the brand is its ability to be inclusive,” says Ardizio. “It's premium, not exclusive, because everybody is welcome in Alfa Romeo. Everybody can drive, can understand why an Alfa Romeo is different from any other car.
“It's difficult to describe: it's a matter of design, of performance, of driving pleasure, and also because every Alfa is easy to recognise. When you drive an Alfa Romeo, you immediately understand, you immediately feel that [this] is an art. Everything is really passionate, and I think that this passion [is a] part [of] Alfa Romeo.”
Curating a collection of 270 models is no easy task, and as Ardizio describes, his job, and the job of the museum is so much more than keeping the priceless collection roadworthy and an on display. A museum’s job, he says, is to document the history, the people, and yes, the cars.
“Obviously a museum is the place where you can speak about the great moment of the brand, about the crazy stuff, about the legendary models, about the people,” he says. “But a museum is not only a physical place, it's not only a building and is not only the collection inside the building. The museum must be a collection of facts, of milestones and story.
“Then we have something behind the scenes, because under those red covers in our storerooms, they are not only cars, not only prototypes, but also stories, [of things that] that never happened. Secrets, prototypes, [the] dreams of the designers…”
It’s every car enthusiasts’ dream to be let loose in a museum with the keys to a priceless collection of automotive art. For Ardizio, it’s a reality.
“It's part of my job to take care of the collection and sometimes I'm so lucky that… I have to drive them,” he says with a grin.
Not all the cars in the collection are fully functional, however, and for a variety of reasons, as Ardizio explains.
“There are different levels,” he says. “We have some cars that are normally working… Then we have some cars that we decide to maintain static. I give you an example: the Alfa Romeo Carabo, the first wedge-shaped concept car. That car is complete. Every component is working. But probably, running it, the vibrations can damage the paint and prototype part of the bodywork. So the car is complete, but we decide to maintain it perfectly static.
“And then we have some other cars that are not complete, because they are coming from our R’n’D department or are examples of technical development.
“So sometimes we decide to restore them, to make them working. Sometimes we prefer to maintain their original condition. So every car has a different programme, but the cars currently working are more or less 65 per cent of the collection.”
It’s a collection, of course, that covers every single one of the 110 years of Alfa Romeo’s history. Pinpointing the most important cars in that collection is no easy task.
“Obviously, every Alfa Romeo car in the collection is a chapter of our history,” says Ardizio. “There are some cars that are more representative, and for their interest this is a reason to be in love with them. In the pre-war era, probably the most iconic car was the AC 2300, because it was able to win everything in every category and even nowadays the driving pleasure is unbeatable.
“In the post war, probably the Giulia GT, because of the same reason, because it was the perfect balance between performance, design and very... Italian… I think. It's a personal opinion, but based on something that everybody can touch on the car.”
Every museum has its centrepiece, its Mona Lisa if you will. Ask Ardizio what the Mona Lisa of the Museo Storico Alfa Romeo is and the answer is a little surprising.
“It's not just one, but we have some cars that are important because of their role in the history and because they are unique and the only car that are in the museum,” he says. “Obviously the first car, the 24 HP, the first-ever produced. Then the P2, that won the world championship in 1925, the AP 2101, because it was a unique special car, a one-off, with an incredible history and incredible conditions. Then the Alfettas, [Formula 1] world champion in 1950 and ’51. Then of course the Stradale. Then we have another level, with important cars, but not unique. I think that the idea of being the only car is an important part in choosing the Mona Lisa.”
Push him on choosing his favourite car from the collection of over 270 important, and in some cases unique, Alfa Romeos, it's as if we'd asked Ardizio to name his favourite child.
“No, I think that every car is important for our collection,” he states emphatically. “I don't want to choose one.”
For what it’s worth, this writer’s favourite remains the Tipo 33 Stradale, not just the most beautiful Alfa Romeo ever made, but also arguably, one of the most beautiful cars ever made. By anyone.