In the late 1950s, before Japanese motorbikes came to our rescue, one of the best bikes on British roads was something you couldn’t buy. It was called a Triton.
No new Tritons were sold. You had to make your own. First, you bought a Triumph, a Norton, a shed, and some large hammers. After reducing both bikes to their constituent parts, you then built a new, third bike using only the best bits from each. That meant the Triumph’s engine and gearbox and the Norton’s chassis.
When the swearing stopped, you found yourself with a fast, neat-handling machine, plus a filthy pile of crappy leftovers. Tight-fisted Tritonists would then try to recoup their build costs by throwing these vile scratchings together to create a fourth bike, which they would then attempt to sell.
If the foul provenance wasn’t a big enough clue, the name of the resulting Frankensteinian outrage should have told even the stupidest prospective buyer that the Norumph was a right fart in a spacesuit, and something to be avoided at all costs.
Very much like the Alfa Romeo Arna, the not-so-lovely love child of a badly misguided marriage between Alfa and Datsun. When the Arna came out in 1983, Datsun had actually become Nissan, but we shouldn’t sully that name with this particular debacle.
The Arna had pure old-school Datsun written right through it, as you would find if you took a chainsaw to a 1980’s Nissan Cherry – a rather more satisfying exercise than driving one.
It was the Cherry which played a major part in the Arna horror. On the face of it, the Arna – or to be accurate, ARNA, standing for Alfa Romeo Nissan Autoveicoli – should have worked. There was an obvious fit between the two companies.
Alfa made great-driving, great-looking cars, with that special, uniquely Italian ingredient of terrible quality. Nissan supposedly had better quality, but no style or ‘character,’ the indefinable automotive value that only Europeans appeared to understand.
For the ARNA, Alfa could supply plenty of bits from its excellent Alfasud, good stuff like perky boxer engines and slick gearboxes. Nissan would chuck in independent rear suspension and Japan-built body panels for assembly in Alfa’s factory, presciently located at a place called Pratola Serra near Naples.
So why, having identified the fit, did both parties then elect to stick with what they knew worst, to persevere with what they were not good at in the relentless pursuit of non-excellence? What kind of corporate obstinacy made them opt for Japanese styling and Italian build quality, rather than the other way round?
Conspiracy theorists point to the kind of welcome those Nissan body bits would have received at Genoa. For proud Italian artisans, the implication that their own top-quality materials and working practices weren’t good enough would have been hard to bear.
The obvious retaliation would have been to ensure that the stamp of superlative Italian engineering was clearly present elsewhere in the car, such as in the electrics or whatever other mechanically sensitive areas they could find to stub their fags out in.
This xenophobia theory makes sense because ‘80s Japanese build quality was nowhere near good enough to survive even the mildest Italian sabotage. If there was anything more depressing than the way the ARNA drove, it was the way it fell apart.
Nowadays of course the ARNA has a certain whimsical appeal, with that faux-value which often attaches itself to objects that didn’t sell like they were supposed to. But don’t be fooled. The ARNA is rightly rare. It was an almost perfect motoring minger.
Production ceased in 1987, four years and 53,000 cars after the first ARNA limped off the Pratola line, prompting huge sighs of relief from boardrooms in Japan and Italy and from anyone with a fluid ounce of motoring passion in their veins.
The only clever thing Nissan did in the whole sorry episode was to let Alfa Romeo put its company name to the ARNA. Thanks for that, lads. But the corporate fallout was immediate and lasting for both companies.
Nissan was pushed into a period of chastened conservatism that lasted for over ten years. It would take even longer for Alfa to re-explore the dangerously expensive path of manufacturing quality which had so nearly done for them in the mid-‘80s.
Moral of the story: never buy a Norumph. No matter what name it goes under.
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