Alfa Romeo Matta

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This is Maner Lualdi, son of a composer and former editor of the Italian newspaper La Stampa. A gifted aviator, journalist, and—eventually—even an opera director, Lualdi spent his life telling stories of his exploits, whether as a pilot during the Battle of Britain or crash landing in Sumatra during an attempt to fly from Italy to Australia.

He was idolized across Italy by both men and women…for different reasons, of course.

One particular challenge led to this photo: he flew over the North Pole in 1953 as a tribute to the first explorers to fly over the North Pole in 1926. They—a 16-man expedition led by Umberto Nobile, Lincoln Ellsworth, and Roald Amundsen—flew in an Italian-designed airship called Norge.

The Alfa Romeo Matta would follow him overland as best as possible and provide support. If the daring life of an early aviator sounds a little crazy, well, it's quite fitting: "matta" (from "matto") is the Italian word for crazy.

Yes: if it had been designed in an English-speaking country it would have been called the Alfa Romeo Crazy. 

Ok, ok, its official designation was 1900M but "Matta" came from an impressive early demonstration and has stuck ever since.

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Designed to replace the Willys Jeep that the Italian army had been using, the Matta was first mocked up quite simply—they threw the engine from an Alfa Romeo 1900 Berlina (sedan) into a Willys Jeep. 

I'm positive this was a great choice, simply because when marketing the 1900, Alfa Romeo's slogan for the car was, "The family car that wins races."

Side note: The 1900 was, among other things, also used as the underpinnings for the Alfa Romeo Disco Volante and Bertone BAT 5, 7, and 9.

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Officially introduced in 1952 and fitted from the factory with a 65 horsepower twin cam Alfa Romeo 1900 engine—complete with dry sump lubrication—the Matta must have felt much more lively to the Italian army and police, who were used to the more agricultural Jeep.

Top speed? 105 km/h (65 mph). 

There were two versions, the AR51 and AR52, the latter being a civilian version. AR? Autovettura da Ricognizione, or reconnaissance vehicle. 

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Its 4x4 system and underpinnings are pretty standard for the time: a four-speed manual transmission and a dual-range transfer case got power to where it was needed. 

Suspension up front was independent with double wishbones, and a live rear axle out back. Drum brakes all 'round.

I suppose it isn't an interior feature, but drivers could also clip the suicide doors open to help with ventilation on a hot day. Let's see your Call of Duty Edition Jeep Wrangler do that.

I first came across the Matta in this period photograph of cyclist Fausto Coppi as I was reading about early Tour de France champions. I saw this photo and said, "Wait, isn't that an Alfa Romeo grille on that Jeep behind Coppi?"

I first came across the Matta in this period photograph of cyclist Fausto Coppi as I was reading about early Tour de France champions. I saw this photo and said, "Wait, isn't that an Alfa Romeo grille on that Jeep behind Coppi?"

Just in case you've fallen in love with the Matta, keep in mind that only about 2,000 were made. It became an expensive error for the Italian army, as it was simply too expensive to produce, and they switched to the Fiat Campagnola after only two years!

If you're thinking that few survive today, you're right. But get this: one of those survivors has been fitted with the V8 engine from an Alfa Romeo Montreal.

But that's a story for another day.

Sources / Recommended reading