Is one of Alfa's lesser-known hot hatch creations worth a punt over the more obvious choices?
It's fair to say that the 33 was not one of Alfa Romeo’s best-loved models. It was born to an expectant world of enthusiasts and journos who'd fallen in love with its predecessor, the Alfasud, for its lively driving experience – but it failed to live up to expectations. Actually, that's high praise, to be honest; in truth, the critics lambasted it.
Boxy lines are a bit Marmite, but black suits them
First, its choice of 1.2-, 1.3- or 1.5-litre engines didn't provide enough get-up-and-go to provide any real driving thrills. So Alfa released a new, 1.7-litre version. Problem solved, right? Nope. The new engine was great, but it only served to show up another of the 33's faults: heavy, recalcitrant steering that fed back excessive amounts of torque steer. Alfa went back to the drawing board again, revising the system and adding power steering. So, all sorted now, surely? Well, not exactly – the torque steer woes were reduced, but not eliminated, and the 33 still suffered from poor grip, making any sort of exuberant driving antics distinctly unrewarding.
Alfa's final recourse was to four-wheel-drive. On paper, the result looked tantalising. The 1.7-litre engine – now with a 16v head – pushed out a credible 137bhp, putting it on a par with the Golf GTi 16v and Escort RS Turbo. And while the four-wheel-drive system added weight, it also gave better traction out of the corners, making for an enjoyable driving experience. Well, that was the theory, anyway.
Full body resto means rust is less of an issue
In practise, the four-wheel-drive system didn't actually offer a huge amount of extra traction, meaning that the 33 Permanent 4 still ran out of grip but it did at least sort out the 33's torque steer issues, allowing the driver to exploit the full performance of the boxer engine without worrying about the steering wheel flapping about in his hands. The result was a car which was flawed, but with its warbly engine note and crisp-cornered styling, just as characterful as you'd expect any Alfa to be.
Today, the 33 is certainly an interesting choice for the braver retro hot hatchers among us. It'll never best a Peugeot or VW GTI in the handling stakes, but it should still be an enjoyable thing to sling around, and does have an undeniable charm, especially in a form as rare as this one. It's probably one of the nicest out there, too, having been taken off the road for six years and restored from head to toe. The owner claims there's no rust, as a result, and as that’s going to be one of the main killers of Italian cars of this age, that’s a definite plus point.
Interior looks to be in decent nick
So, would we? Well, quite possibly. There are, of course, the potential transmission issues that an old four-wheel-drive system might throw up. In fact, it’s already showing signs that its gearbox that might throw its toys out in the not-too-dim-and-distant future. Two spare gearboxes are included, which should hopefully solve that problem in the short term, but it also suggests that this might not be an issue which goes away quietly. And we haven’t even started on the traditional Alfa electrical woes which, although not evident now, are likely to crop up at some point during the next owner’s tenure.
All of that said, this is a cheap and interesting way into Alfa ownership for someone who’s looking for a bit of retro fun that’ll stand out from the crowd. Despite its shortcomings, it should provide plenty of entertainment for its next owner, and the price seems reasonable for a little slice of early '90s Italian chic that’ll soon be teetering on the edge of classic territory. So hang the reliability doubts, wave a wad at the owner, and revel in the joys of that classic boxer engine note. And when people wonder why you didn’t choose a Golf or a 205 instead, just turn to them with a look of mild disdain on your face, and tell them in an enigmatic tone that if they have to ask, they wouldn’t understand.
ALFA ROMEO 33S 1.7I 16V PERMANENT 4
Why you should: Sharply creased lines and boxer engine make for a proper Alfa and a characterful hot hatch
Why you shouldn’t: It was never as good as its rivals and there are plenty of things to go wrong.
See the original advert here.