Steve McQueen didn’t just lust over Fords and Porsches. He was fan of cars both fast and furious. “It is a very forgiving car. Very pretty, too,” McQueen said when describing the Alfa Romeo 1600 in the summer of 1966. He’d been invited by Sports Illustrated to try the Italian car, one of the first Alfa Romeo 1600 Spiders that made their way stateside.
That wasn’t the only encounter that the Duetto had with Hollywood elite. Its popularity was all predicted, and carefully planned, by Max Edwin Hoffman. Hoffman fled Austria for the United States as Nazism rose as World War II picked up steam. Hoffman was a former race car driver who became a vehicle importer for European cars. But, he was more than that.
Alfa Romeo readies Giulietta Spiders for shipment to the U.S. in n1955, 11 years before the Duetto would arrive stateside.Photo courtesy of Alfa Romeo
Companies trusted Hoffman to give advice on the U.S. market. His advice shaped not just the market but also the creation of the cars he would eventually import, including the Duetto. According to the automaker,
“He began asking Alfa Romeo for her in 1954, immediately after the launch of the Giulietta Sprint. He felt it would become the perfect car for the Pacific Coast, convinced that everyone in Hollywood would want one. So confident was he of its success that he said he was willing to buy several hundred, even before he had seen the final designs.”
Hoffmann convinced Francesco Quaroni, the head of Alfa Romeo, and Rudolf Hruska, the company’s engineer, to develop the project. Two Italian automobile design houses competed against each other to create their vision of the car – Bertone and Pinin Farina. Bertone had an extreme vision that featured Franco Scaglione‘s “2000 Sportiva” concept with a pointed front, streamlined headlights and rear fins. Pinin Farina’s proposal was designed by Franco Martinengo.
A 1955 prototype of the car that would become the Duetto .Photo courtesy of Alfa Romeo
Alfa Romeo chose the Pinin Farina design because of its overall elegance and the classic balance of its shapes in keeping with the company’s DNA – “The beautiful young lady”, as Pinin Farina described it. The design began with a panoramic windshield, descending side windows, equipped door panels, folding roof, external handles, and a fresh interior design.
The spider’s version of the car was equipped with the Duetto’s 1,290 cc four-cylinder engine. it delivered 65 horsepower and could achieve up to 96 mph.
To make a splash with the U.S. market, Alfa Romeo’s team organized a transatlantic luxury cruise liner for the car’s launch and they invited some of the most famous celebrities in the worlds of business, sports, and fashion. All told, 1,300 VIPs were on-board including actor Vittorio Gassman, actress Rossella Falk and the soprano Anna Moffo. The Italian cruiseliner sailed from Genoa to New York, with a stopover in Cannes for the annual film festival. During the entire cruise, three examples of the new Spider were displayed on the ship’s bridge: one green, one white and one red.
Aboard the Raffaello ship o the Duetto’s launch cruise.Photo courtesy of Alfa Romeo
Alfa Romeo described the car as flexible, young, and quick.
The same could be said for Muhammad Ali, who rattled off the phrase “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. His hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see. Now you see me, now you don’t. George thinks he will, but I know he won’t,” as he talked to reporters ahead of The Rumble in the Jungle where he fought George Forman in 1974. He memorialized the words by customizing the license plate on his Duetto to read “Ali Bee”.
Seven years earlier Dustin Hoffman filmed “The Graduate” where he drove a Duetto full speed to the music of Simon & Garfunkel. The 1960 Fellini film “La Dolce Vida” starred Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg, and a Duetto. It was Alain Delon’s car in “The Eclipse”.
Flexible, young, quick and beautiful, the Duetto was adored by the cinema. Fellini gave her a role in “La Dolce Vita”, Antonioni chose her as Alain Delon’s car in “L’Éclipse”.
The Alfa Romeo spider’s run lasted several decades. Shown here is a 1990 model.Photo courtesy of Alfa Romeo
Alfa Romeo would end up producing four generations of the Duetto. More than 124,000 models were produced over 28 years making it the longest living car in Alfa Romeo’s history.