The first gum insert of an Alfa Romeo I found as a child, the first time I saw the 156 on the cover of a car magazine back when I was in high school dreaming of the day I could own such a car, the first road trip across the whole of Europe I made in that 156 I finally bought a couple of years later, the first alfisti meeting on the mighty Transfagarasan, the Centenary celebrations in Milano… Last month I added another unique moment on the list of experiences that Alfa Romeo has given me throughout the years. I always wanted to go to Balocco, for the alfisti and not only this place has an almost mystical importance, this is the holy ground where all Alfas starting with the 60s were tested and developed, this is where Autodelta experienced with cutting edge solutions in order to make its cars unbeatable on racetracks. This is where so many people that have made Alfa Romeo great over the years have lived and breathed, laughed and cried, have shed sweat and blood. Since the day of its inauguration in 1962 the testing ground that make the complex of tracks in Balocco was off limits to the general public, so for me personally it was a dream come true to be able to say that I was there. Life sometimes throws you the most unexpected gifts, as I was about to discover when I was invited to take part in the world premiere of a new Alfa Romeo model, the very first SUV in the brand’s over one hundred years long history. And even now, a month later after it happened, it seems like it was too beautiful to even be true.
The event was attended by 150 people, about 100 of them common mortals, people without any affiliation towards Alfa Romeo or FCA outside the fondness declared online or through social media. About 50 other people there for the day were the affectively called “skunks”, the members of the team that is responsible for the new wave of Alfa Romeo products. Their presence was a surprise addition, as a huge surprise was Marchionne’s arrival accompanied by Altavilla just moments before the unveiling of the Stelvio. But let’s get on with the day from its beginning..
The morning weather wasn’t quite ideal for such a charged day. The sky was cloudy, the air was damp and cold, even if I was the right side of the Alps the winter was still there and could be properly felt. But my alfista heart was urging the mind not to care about any of this and for me the general atmosphere couldn’t be more idyllic.
Balocco Proving Ground (it’s a whole complex, not just one circuit) is located just off the Strada Provinciale 6, a few kilometres away from the main Autostrada A4 connecting Torino to Milano. Access to the premises is gained through a gate with its own security control centre. Yes, security as expected is high, maybe because things which common mortals ought not to imagine can actually be seen. With eyes swirling in my head faster than an electricity meter gone in overdrive I got to see a parking lot full of prototypes, more or less frankensteinian. A quick glance was not enough to be able to tell what they were, but I think I’ve identified some Maserati Levante or Alfa Stelvio silhouettes. Other lower (sportier?) stuff was there too, it’s only my speculation here but I hope they get to work pretty soon on that gorgeous Alfieri, as rumours have it that the Giorgio based Alfa Coupe, call it 6c or project code name 963, is well on its way. But I was quickly guided inside the complex, where I was supposed to actually check in for the day.
The process of registration was swift, I was welcomed and handed a badge indicating the group I belonged to. All the participants were divided into 4 groups, each group would experience the same activities by rotation, only to be reunited with the others for some key moments throughout the day. Prior to the event I was talking to a couple of guys I knew from the automotive forum autopareri.com who were also invited, but somehow I managed to get lost, they were given red badges and I got the green one. I was walking like a zombie out there, but I was overwhelmed with joy.
The centre of Balocco Proving Ground consists of a green area hosting a glazed atrium, surrounded by the former farm buildings, formerly known as Cascina Bella Luigina, later hosting the Autodelta workshops and serving as storage for cars. On this central green area the organizers have installed two large billboards of the Stelvio, and this was also the place where we had breakfast and lunch.
It was just after enjoying my breakfast that I started to take in what was around me. Under the arcades of a side building were resting some past glories belonging to the “Scuderia del Portello”. The “skunks” sure had to endure admiring glances but were walking among us and were socialising with us as we were of theirs or they of ours. Shortly after we have been led to the nearby grandstand Alfa, an amphitheatre dubbing as a scene that was placed right on the track. This was the place where Alfa Romeo Stelvio, the long awaited suv would be unveiled. Perhaps anywhere else, even during an important international auto show, this would have been the highlight of the event, but for us this was the introduction to an unforgettable day.
The dynamic music beats in the background were keeping high our anticipation. Stands were filled rapidly, and I could see that the organisers of the event were rubbing their hands, probably as excited as we are, but for a different reason that we were about to find out. The PR manager Maria Conti made the announcement that the inauguration will begin shortly, but just after a very special person will arrive. Who could have been this person of such importance that without its presence the event could not get on its way? Marchionne himself? Impossible! This man does not participate in all international motorshows he’s expected to attend, how could he have came here to enjoy the presence of some simple alfisti? Well, when the audience started literally cheering Mr. Sergio Marchionne made his entrance with the reception worthy of a rock star.
After a brief introduction from Altavilla, head of FCA for the EMEA region, Stelvio was finally revealed to us. Red is not a colour what was particularly used on suvs before, but then Stelvio is not a regular SUV, so the red colour suits it perfectly. Looking at it from the immediate vicinity it’s quite an impressive beast, a proud and imposing machine. It competes theoretically in a lower segment than the Maserati of suvs, but I’d be very curious to see them side by side. I found the general styling consistent and pleasant, more coherent than the one seen on the Porsche Macan. This model is considered to be Stelvio’s direct rival, although it has been benchmarked against the X3 / X4 or the Q5 too. As with Giulia’s three-dimensional shapes, Stelvio can be better appreciated in real life than in pictures. When you’re standing close enough to observe all its details it gives the impression of a truly premium product. On the inside one can find the same Giulia ambience, although the cabin space seems wider, more airy somehow.
After his presentation Altavilla took to the floor together with other Alfa managers and the “skunks” brought in from their hiding place in Modena where they have been developing the Giorgio platform. Also present were the head of Alfa Romeo for the EMEA region, the project manager and the head of the powertrain department, the later a young alfista who confessed to own several older Alfas, among which a Duetto Osso di Sepia. These were the important people who were making things happen, people who are making others’ dreams come true, people who recognized themselves that they were living a dream, together with their whole team. I was really amazed to get to know them and see that they are young, vibrant and passionate people. Some of them are perhaps younger than me but are holding important positions. I found this to be of extraordinary relevance. And to me it seemed extraordinary to observe the spirit of camaraderie existing between them. If I wouldn’t have know better I could have very well thought that they are a group of students on a school trip. Or if it wasn’t for the Alfa Romeo branded jackets giving them away. All willing to listen to us and to answer our questions.
I would have lingered longer here to study the Stelvio on display, but my group was expected to start the first activity of the day: Giulia Quadrifoglio and the 4C were waiting for us on the Misto Alfa track.