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Rudolf Hruska: Mister Alfasud

Rudolf Hruska belonged to the old aristocratic school of automotive design. His was a simple philosophy – much ignored, he believes, in the creation of modern cars.
“In my opinion,” the tall, elegant and impeccably dressed, Austrian told me in 1990, “when you set out to make a new product, you should start from fundamental principles. You need to decide exactly that it is you want to achieve. Only then should you establish the basic concepts: whether the car should have front or rear drive, where the engine is located, what (engine) layout should you adopt, how big the car should be.

“Today, cars are bigger, heavier and more complicated. They are contrary to what we need. Cars are for people.”
Hruska was a man of strong – some might say despotic – opinions. He was probably the last of the single-minded, genius creators of a volume production car. The modern corporation, mostly run by business management graduates, simply won’t allow so much power to rest in the hands of one man, no matter how brilliant he may be.
Alex Issigonis conceived the Mini, Ferdinand Porsche the original Volkswagen Beetle, Spen King the Range Rover. Rudolf Hruska gave us the Alfasud.

In 1967, the Italian government, through its IRI Corporation – which owned Alfa Romeo – created a plan to build a major new factory in the hope of bringing economic relief to the underdeveloped southern part of the country. Giuseppe Luraghi, the managing director of Alfa, approached Hruska, who was working for Fiat at the time, and asked him to return to Alfa to develop a proposal for a car to built in the new plant at the rate of 1000 per day.

For five months, Hruska worked on defining the concept. All the market research told him Alfa should build a small ‘people’s car’, with front wheel drive, that retained the Alfa character. He was pragmatic enough to know it needed to seat four adults in comfort and carry their holiday luggage. To endow the car with the necessary space, keep dimensions down, allow a low bonnet line and good aerodynamics and to provide the perfect balance for superior roadholding and handling, Hruska insisted it should have a boxer – horizontally-opposed – engine that could later be developed for higher performance.
 
Alfa management approved and Hruska set about clarifying his project. He established firm and exact dimensions for the interior (length under 4.0-metres) and exterior, imposed precise targets for boot capacity, weight (the body-in-white, including moveable parts like the doors, was to weigh no more than 200kg), cost, roominess and even the drag coefficient. Hruska says he also wanted the same platform to be used as a basis for other body styles: coupe, spider (roadster) and wagons.

These explicit objectives were given to Giorgetto Giugiaro, whom Hruska decided should design his car. Giugiaro’s new Italdesign, set up with engineer Aldo Mantovani, was given the task of developing and engineering the project and even the building of prototypes and the tooling. Giugiaro and Hruska had worked together when Rudi was still at Fiat and Giugiaro was at Bertone, in developing the beautiful 1965 Fiat 850 Spider and clearly respected each other’s talents. Giugiaro had just established Italdesign and Alfa Romeo (in reality Hruska) was his first major client.

While Hruska, using the vast knowledge he’d accumulated over 30 years in the motor industry, set about developing his water-cooled, flat-four engine, Giugiaro took just one month to come up with three variants on a single theme. By January 1968, the mock-up was approved. The idea was to produce the sedan initially, with the others to follow in quick succession. (The coupe eventually went into production years later in 1976 as the Sprint, a Spider, which never went beyond the one-off stage, and a wagon.

Giugiaro and Hruska had but one dispute over the Alfasud. Hruska travelled frequently throughout his working life and always took a travel bag containing enough clothes for 10 days away. He insisted the boot of the new Alfa should have room for four such bags and gave two of them to Giugiaro. The brilliant Italian designer complained: “How can I do the body? The rear will be too high; you won’t let me make it any longer.”

Hruska told him to go up, so the bags could be stacked one above the other. As the project developed, Giugiaro gave Hruska the choice of losing a marginal amount of rear seat space or using external, but very visible, gooseneck hinges. True to his beliefs, the Austrian engineers choose to ignore the Italian designer plea. And so the Alfsud was unveiled at the 1972 Turin motor show with exterior hinges for its high boot lid.

Motoring journalists loved the car. The only thing they could find to criticise was, inevitably, the rear hinges, though some questioned why it was not a hatchback( that didn’t happen until 1982). Still, the Sud’s balanced, attractive design, extremely commodious interior, marvellously willing engine and brilliant dynamics set the new benchmark. All that remained was for it to be built to a high quality, in the volumes intended.

But the Alfasud’s intrinsic qualities never had a chance.
 
By this time, Hruska was managing director of the Pomigliano d’Arco plant, near Naples, and was preoccupied with union problems, absenteeism that sometimes reached 100 percent a week, and clashes with management in both Rome and Milan. But his biggest problem, the one that led to the Sud’s reputation was poor paintwork and lousy resistance to corrosion, created by the use of cheap Russian-sourced steel. A production rate that existed on paper could never be reached in reality. The Naples plant stopped and started chaotically and mostly ran at about half its theoretical daily rate.

Alfa began to lose money, quality suffered further, the coupe version of the Sud (remember, designed concurrently with the sedan) was delayed until 1976, the wagon was so tampered with by Alfa that Giugiaro refused to acknowledge it as his design. Although the car’s mechanicals achieved a fine reputation – the engine was later fitted to the 33 and 145/146 and survived until January 1997 –and the handling remained peerless throughout its 12-year life span, Alfa built only 900,000 Suds before it was replaced by the 33. Attempting to run Pomigliano was a “terrible” time in Hruska’s life, but he created a flawed masterpiece.

Rudolf Hruska, who was born in Vienna on 2 July 1915, proved reticent about discussing his family life. It is known that his mother died when he was very young and that he and a brother (who was later killed during the battle of Stalingrad) were raised by an aunt. Hruska finished an engineering diploma, graduating from the Vienna Engineering Institute in 1935, and then moved to southern Germany, where he found work in the technical department of Magirus, in Ulm, the truck manufacturer that also invented the rotary turntable aerial ladder for fire apparatus.

In 1938 he was travelling by train on holiday when he met Karl Rabe, who was setting up production of the VW Beetle for Ferdinand Porsche. The German, impressed by the young man, suggested he join Porsche in the project. Hruska worked as a go-between for the German Nazi government and the Wolfsburg factory. During the war, he visited Fiat in Italy and made a presentation of a revolutionary VW air-cooled engine, but nothing came of the project. Later, in April 1945, he drove to Brescia in his experimental Beetle with another Porsche-designed air-cooled engine for an OM tractor, only to be interned by the Allies. His final work for Porsche involved helping Piero Dusio on the supercharged Cisitalia F1 car (that never raced and ruined the small sports car company). He managed to fix a British officer’s Alfa and this took him to Milan and Alfa, where he became responsible, with Giuseppe Busso, for Alfa’s brilliant ‘bialbero’ twin-cam engine, launched in the 1954 Giulietta, and the Sprint and Spider. Politics drove him out of Alfa in 1959 and he joined Fiat (124 and 128) and also worked for Simca (which built rebodied Fiat variants) on the rear-engined 1000, before being enticed back to Alfa for the Sud.

Was Rudolf Hruska an engineer, a designer, a manufacturing expert or the sum total of all these discplineds? When I spoke to the man he was still working, as a consultant to the IDEA design house, still teaching young designers and engineers who were happy to admit they were learning much from a reflective, intelligent and amiable man. Hruska died in Turin in 1995.

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