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Alfa GTV vs. Lancia Fulvia vs. Fiat 124 Sport vs. Maserati Biturbo

Latin temperament doesn’t suit everyone, but once you ‘get’ the soul of Italian cars, it’s hard to go back to anything else as t Published: 14th Jan 2020 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

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The indefinably wonderful Dolce Vita character of Italian hardware is irresistible – and the mere mention of names like Lancia, Alfa Romeo and Maserati conjures up a kaleidoscope of joy. We’ve come with four cultured classics which all overdose on brio and value for money. The Alfa GTV, Lancia Fulvia, Fiat 124 Sport or Maserati Biturbo – what suits you the best?

Which one to buy

1st Alfa | 2nd Lancia | 3rd Fiat | 4th Maserati

Given that you rarely buy an Italian classic with your head rather than your heart, assembling a running order here is purely subjective, although dig some grey matter here all probably place the Alfa first as it’s the most logical choice. If you’re after a sophisticated sporting classic they don’t come anymore neatly formed than Alfa Romeo’s Giulia and GTV. The 105 Series Giulia is available as a saloon or coupé (and very occasionally a convertible) fitted with a variety of engines with the most recent models made up to 1977. For the majority, it’s has to be the suave coupé as the boxy saloon look is too plain although they drive the same and are markedly cheaper.

Common consensus has the 1779cc ‘1750’ the best of the bunch, care of the engine size being the sweetest if not the swiftest – that falls tothe torquier 2-litre ‘2000’ range but don’t ignore the earlier 1600 or even the entry 1300 if performance isn’t that critical as all sport five-speed transmissions and all disc brakes although be aware that many 1300s were up gunned with the larger twincam engines. In itself, that’s fine but while it is a good, logical swap, ancillaries, such as smaller brakes and different gearing, mean it’s not the real deal.

The 1300 and 1600 versions (both badged ‘Juniors’) had singular headlamps, but until the final years of their lives they also gained the 2000GTV look.

If anything, Lancia’s Fulvia is even more exquisite. Produced from 1965, when the company was renowned for its engineering excellence, the car was basically a down-scaled Flavia. It’s a smaller, sharper looking coupé than the Alfa and was produced in a similar boxy saloon format before the Fulvia gave way to the Beta coupé, two years before Alfa’s Giulia was dropped. The engine choice spans from a delightful ohc V4 design ranging from 1.2-1.6-litres, depending upon year but not all sported a five-speed ’box like the Alfa. The suspension was curious, employing transverse leaf spring at the front, cart spring at the stern but brakes are again all discs.

It’s easy to assume that the Fiat 124 is the poor relation but this is not the case. Produced from 1967, the Sport coupé and Spider convertible were both derivatives of the saloons. In common with the Alfa, the range of engines are all twincam, fed through five-speed transmission (except certain base 1400 versions), halted by all round disc brakes and if anything the Fiat has the best suspension (all coil springs) of its more illustrious rivals. It’s generally regarded the original single headlamp models (AC) are the most coveted because of their clean styling and agility and ability – less so the 1970 ‘BC’ replacement which was given a softer nature but most of the wrongs were righted with advent of the CC which ran up to 1975.

The Spider – a sort of sophisticated MGB – is the longest serving, lasting for another decade, mostly on the back of their sheer popularity in the States where a claimed 85 per cent of total production found homes. Unlike the Alfa Spider, you’ll be extremely lucky to find a RHD car. Apart from the drop top there is a four-door saloon that’s worth considering called the Special T which is virtually a 124 Sport but more practical even if it does look like a box on wheels.

The Maserati Biturbo (pronounced Bee Turbo by the way) needs some explaining. Instigated by Alessandro De Tomaso in the late 1970s and launched in 1981, this more affordable Maserati was pitched at the BMW/Mercedes market.

Looking not dissimilar to a 3 Series this all new car was graced with unique 18 valve twin-turbo four cam V6 power (2.0-2.8, depending upon year and model). A four-door saloon and a Spider cabriolet quickly followed. The 192bhp 2.5-litre Biturbo and 425/430 saloon reached the UK in 1986 with right-hand drive; the same year saw a choice of Weber-Marelli fuel injection or carburettors for the home market. The following year saw the demise of carburettors on Italian cars and in 1988 the UK followed suit.

For all its qualities the Biturbo never proved popular, leading to revises such as the restyled Karif (1988-93), the Shamal (1989-95) and the Ghibli II (1992-97) before the 3200GT coupé brought the good times back to the Trident badge.

In terms of values there’s definite splits. The Alfa and Lancia are the dearest posting prices north of 40 grand for concours cars or rarities such as the Fulvia 1.6 HF Rally and the ride wheel arch Monte Carlo, although lesser examples can be bought comfortably for half this and saloons cheaper still. The Fiat is the darling bargain as the best coupés will barely muster more than £10,000 (Spiders are quite a different matter though). The Maserati falls somewhere in-between; you should be able to net a good one for £10,000 but later cars sell for considerably more with Shamals nudging six figures. That’s double the price of a Ghibli II and four times the best Karifs can exchange eager hands for.

What's the best to drive

=1st Alfa & Lancia | 3rd Fiat | 4th Maserati

Despite being the oldest, both the Giulia and Fulvia top the fun factor. What they lack in outright speed, their controllability more than compensates with the GTV displaying all you expect from a classic Alfa, from the sharp sonorous engines, racer-like gearbox to the predictable, pliable handling. The 1750 is the purists’ choice but the 2000 not only has a lustier lope but a limited slip differential is fitted.

The Fulvia is as good and its exceptional front-wheel drive handling and security was way ahead of its time, witness the car’s huge success in rallying. The original 1216cc V4 is only as quick as a 1.3 Escort but wonderfully alert all the same. Better performers are the later 1300cc versions or particularly the 1600 HF which is on par (0-60mph 9.9 sec/106mph (Autocar’s figures) with, say, an Escort XR3 or Golf GTi although road test reports at the time said that as the power went up, their tractability at low speeds went down notably (HFs especially) but all are little gems to drive.

Much the same can be said of the 124 Sport. In Coupé form it can be likened to a sophisticated Capri, as a convertible, a worthwhile advancement of the MGB/TR4 and not to say a serious if less highbrow alternative to Alfa’s Duetto Spider. It may be badged a Fiat but these sporty 124s have the spirit of any Alfa or Lancia care of zesty (if not exactly rapid) twin cam engines and what was regarded as having exceptional road manners, spoiled only on the BC version when the spring rates were altered and the rear anti roll bar deleted promoting strong and very unsporting understeer.

This was mostly corrected for the CC range where a larger 1.8-litre engine (taken from the new 132 saloon) was provided to complement the 1.6 although many maintain the original 1400 has the best character. The Spiders received similar changes but bear in mind as most were sold to the US, imports will probably have raised suspensions, sullying the handling, ugly impact dampers ruining the looks and detoxed engines, downgraded to as little as 77bhp depending upon year, spoiling the fun.

The sparky Sport is typically Fiat to pilot, full of energy on vim but like the Alfa the five-speed transmissions are geared for speed rather than a relaxing touring gait. That’s a shame because it’s a comfortable quite roomy 2+2 where the interior is even nicer than the Alfa’s cabin.

Perhaps the sumptuous interior is the Biturbo’s best feature because for all its promise on paper the car’s failed to register with buyers. The burning question of course has to be is the Biturbo a genuine Maserati or an Italian take on the BMW 3 Series which shares similar size and looks? Well, actually it’s a bit of both! Fire up that twin-turbo V6 up front and it sounds promising. Engage the dog-leg first gear and it’s easy to stall the engine thanks to a surprising lack of low-down torque, you soon get used to it though, as you do with the gearchange, which isn’t one to be hurried. With at least 200bhp on offer (328bhp for the Shamal) performance isn’t an issue and yet the car is at is best in touring mode because the handling is known to be a wee bit too tail happy and all versions lack the sharpness and charisma of cars bearing the Trident badge.

Improvement potential

1st Alfa | 2nd Fiat |3rd Maserati | 4th Fulvia

There’s considerable potential for the Alfas, from simple mods to full recreations. Even the later TwinSpark engine from the 1990s can be made to fit relatively easy and there’s a raft of suspension and brake upgrades. The ultimate has to be the ‘new’ GTA-R made by Alfaholics where the full ‘restomodification’ can run up to in excess of £300,000 but you do get an Alfa 75 unit stretched to 2.3-litres fuelled by modern fuel injection and much more! The Fiat can be tuned and tweaked to some degree with aftermarket parts or by using later mechanicals. The US seems a hot bed for Biturbo improving. Engine performance can be improved by modern engine chipping and fuelling mods plus turbo boost can be raised. There’s suspension and customising gear around as well. Over here try

Fulvias are best dealt by who is one of the UK’s most established Lancia specialists. The engines were already highly tuned for their era as are the chassis and brakes, but one suspension mod the Norfolk-based Omicron Engineering has devised is converting the normal front wishbones to HF specification, and offer such a conversion for normal models.

Owning and running

1st Alfa | =2nd Lancia & Fiat | 4th Maserati

There’s little doubt that the Alfa is the easiest Italian to own and run thanks to their popularity and widespread specialist network. Parts supply is pretty good too but rust is rampant and repairs are expensive. Mechanically, this evergreen twin cam has been around for over half a century and was fundamentally the same when used on fairly recent models. Perhaps the biggest bugbear will be the hydraulics. On RHD cars both the clutch and brake master cylinder are located in a vulnerable position and can get contaminated with muck. Brake callipers can also seize, as well.

Rust is the real worry with Fulvias although they are protected and are far better made than later ‘Fiat’ Lancias. Mechanically, the V4 is robust but expensive to repair. Sturdier Dunlop brakes (similar to Jaguar’s set up) were used on the original Fulvias; from the Series II there were Girling items fitted instead. The biggest hassle (Series II) is their separate handbrake system, being a dedicated set-up requiring special tools.

Poor build blighted the Biturbo so you must buy with care. The engine with their IHI turbos are particularly expensive and the body wasn’t galvanised, so rust is likely, although the Spyder’s sills were reinforced to compensate for the lost stiffness in removing the roof. As a result they are less rot-prone than those on fixedhead cars and by the time this Maserati was officially imported into the UK the cars were much better rust-proofed.

The corduroy fabric used to trim early cars is hard to source and expensive. Similarly, the 425’s interior was produced specially for that model. There are Maserati specialists catering for the car – Bill McGrath is probably the most prominent – but they are not as prevalent as other makes and make no mistake a Biturbo will be a dear challenge to own and run.

And The Winner Is...

1st Alfa | = 2nd Lancia & Fiat | 4th Maserati

Italian classics – a recipe for temperamental strops, electrical glitches and floorpans dropping out through rust, right? Possibly… but there’s something endearing about them all the same. We could have chosen so many others for comparison (something for another month) but felt this diverse quartet highlights the variety on offer. As exclusive as the Biturbo is, and best as a high style convertible for touring, you would have to want one to justify the downsides. In our view, the later 3200GT/4200GT is the far better pick for much the same money. It’s a shame that Lancia never produced the Punto-based Fulvietta back in 2004 as this retro would have been as big a hit as the reborn Fiat 500 we feel. Classic Fulvias are great and so enchanting but running one won’t be Capri easy. The Fiat 124 is grossly underrated in coupé form which is the model we’d opt for. The original AC design is the most fun but it may be a case of what you can find. Which leaves the dazzling Alfas in p’ole position’; cars which you can buy with your head as much as your heart.

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