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Ford's Volvo deal makes Alfa grumblers grateful

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Ford's Volvo deal makes Alfa grumblers grateful

Automotive News -- April 5, 2010 - 12:01 am ET

The significance of Ford's sale of Volvo to the Chinese automaker Geely wasn't lost on Alfa Romeo enthusiasts.

For nearly a quarter-century, some Alfisti have pondered how things might have been different -- maybe much better -- if Ford had acquired control of the brand in 1986. But the Volvo sale seems to have put an end to the pondering.

In 1986, Alfa was a money-bleeding, government-owned sports-car maker, but a company Henry Ford II had always coveted. The Deuce was still bothered by having tried and failed to acquire Ferrari two decades earlier, losing out to Fiat.

Ford Motor offered to buy nearly 20 percent of Alfa, with its stake rising to 100 percent if a turnaround plan succeeded. But the offer didn't go down too well in Italy. Critics noted that Italian taxpayers would finance 80 percent of the turnaround, with Ford having an option -- but not an obligation -- to take over the brand.

Fiat didn't really want Alfa but didn't want Ford getting it, either. So Fiat acquired Alfa from the Italian government in 1987.

Alfa hasn't been a rousing success under Fiat's stewardship. The brand sold 168,000 cars the year before Fiat took control and just 102,000 last year. But Alfa is still European, and its destiny is still decided in Turin. That's something Italian industry watchers were quick to point out last week after Ford agreed to sell Volvo to Geely.

Ford already has sold Aston Martin and Jaguar Land Rover as part of its re-emphasis of the core Ford brand. If Ford had bought Alfa, some said, Alfa Romeo probably would now be owned by a Chinese automaker.

Luca Ciferri, our longtime Italian correspondent, says those in Italy who think Alfa missed the boat in 1986 are changing their tune.

"I wonder how the Alfisti would react to the prospect of decisions on future Alfa cars being taken near Beijing," Ciferri wrote in a blog. "I wonder what the unions would say if they had to learn Chinese?"

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