There’s a running joke about the Alfa Romeo Arna – the bizarre collaboration between Nissan and Alfa Romeo that paired the boxy body of the Cherry with the running gear of an Alfasud.
It is “one of the worst creations in the whole of history,” according to Jeremy Clarkson, who added that “it might have worked if they’d married Japanese build quality to Italian design flair, but they did it the other way round.”
Well, ask Ian Jephcott and he’ll tell you that Clarkson couldn’t be more wrong. “It’s like driving an Alfasud but better,” he says. “The heater works when you want it to and the doors open and close properly because you’ve got all the Japanese build tolerances and heating and ventilation system with the soundtrack of the Alfa motor in there. What’s not to like?”
Despite Ian’s obvious enthusiasm for the Arna, not many other people had sufficient passion to preserve this Japanese-Italian hybrid. Between 1983 and 1987 more than 53,000 Arnas were built at Alfa’s Pratola Serra plant, but today Ian’s car is one of only three that remain in the UK and the only 1.2-litre model that hasn’t been lost to rust.
“I took it on as a running car, although it had not been on the road for about 15 years, along with another slightly later car strictly as a parts car which was absolutely falling to pieces. The main structure of it was really good and it came with a couple of new old stock panels. Some of the panels had been replaced due to very light crash damage on the driver’s side so they were pretty rough anyway. The rest of it I have just repaired. I completely empty-shelled it and stripped it right out. Then I did all the metalwork, got it painted and recommissioned it,” says Jephcott.
“It runs and drives great now,” he adds. “The engine is original and hasn’t been opened up as far as I can see. There’s a company called Sudshop which caters for Alfasuds and 33s so the drivetrain is all catered for and I managed to get some side mouldings from a company in Italy.”
Narrowly missing the Festival of the Unexceptional in 2021 Jephcott was obviously very happy to be at the 2022 event, and came equipped with a comfy chair from which he could field questions from fellow fans of mundane motoring.
“In the Alfa community, which I’ve had a lot to do with over the years, it has been welcomed quite warmly simply because it’s one of one. It’s been appreciated that someone’s taken the time to save one at least. But when I took it to Daikoku Night at Caffeine and Machine Japanese everyone was a bit lukewarm. There was a lot of curiosity, especially when they realised it was the same as the Nissan Cherry Europe – there’s a few more of those around.”
While Nissan hatchbacks of the 1980s didn’t exactly provide a thrill ride the Arna still had Alfa’s reputation to maintain so it was fettled to make it a decent drive, he explains.
“Theoretically, it should handle better than an Alfasud because it has all-independent coil sprung suspension, whereas the Suds has an H-frame beam at the rear. So it’s got that bit more agility through design. The rear suspension is basically the Nissan setup, but being fabricated in Italy, as they developed the car before it went to full production, they dialled a little bit more negative camber into the rear suspension alignment just to get that a bit more out of it through the through the twisties.”
Jephcott has already done a track day at Goodwood and the test hill at Brooklands, with plans for a few laps of the Curborough sprint course as well.
Even Clarkson might eat his words if he saw that.