Italy in the 1960s, like much of Europe and the rest of the developed world, was booming. Despite the omnipresent threat of the Cold War – the classic East versus West ideological battle – the post-war years of austerity in Europe were finally fading into memory.
As European nations rebuilt following the destruction of World War 2 – a rebuilding funded by momentary policy led by the United States – businesses that had struggled during the period of austerity in the immediate aftermath of the war, were once again thriving.
Italy’s Alfa Romeo, which had been co-opted by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini before and during WW2 to make luxury cars for the ruling classes, was once again building cars for the masses. And business was booming.
But, what Alfa lacked was a test facility, a proving ground where both its production and race cars could undergo rigorous evaluation under the watchful eye of Alfa’s designers and engineers.
Around 60km north of Alfa’s headquarters in Turin, the small comune of Balocco covers an area of just 16.7 square kilometres and home to just a couple of hundred people. For the last 60 years, it’s been also home to Alfa Romeo’s proving ground, Circuito di Balocco.
Opened in 1962, Balocco has expanded over the years and today includes 27 different tracks, including the original Alfa Romeo Track that replicates some of the most iconic corners from the history of grand prix racing.
Other facilities include a recreation of the mountainous roads of the Piedmont region to the high-speed oval with its banked turns, and more recently a Dynamic Platform and, in a sign of the times, several different off-road facilities,
Acquired by the Fiat Group in 1987, Circuito di Balocco today plays host to all brands in the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles stable. Its various tracks and facilities cover some 65km in an area exceeding five million square metres (five square kilometres), or around a third of the comune of Balocco.
Like any circuit where the speeds are enormous and the potential for accidents ever-present, Alfa’s test facility needed first responders and a fleet of emergency vehicles. Of paramount importance are fire tenders.
To ensure safety remained paramount at Balocco, Alfa permanently employed three fire fighters, ready to respond to any incident where fire is a threat. But, the highly-trained individuals also needed vehicles fitted with the appropriate equipment.
We’ll never know why Alfa wanted to stay ‘on brand’ but stay ‘on brand’ it did, over the years converting several of its most popular models into utes loaded with the appropriate equipment. It was a solution as elegant as it is curious.
Little is known about these firefighting Alfas but what we do know is they all followed the same template. Take an existing Alfa Romeo sedan, convert the rear into a ute and load it with the appropriate equipment, such as hoses, pumps and ladders, ready to combat flames.
The first Alfa to get the Vigili del Fuoco (translated literally to Vigilant of Fires, but more commonly meaning ‘firefighter’) treatment was Alfa’s pretty little 1750 Berlina saloon which actually kinda works as a car-based ute.
It was followed by the updated Alfa Romeo Alfetta Berlina before the Turinese company pulled out the big guns, pressing its then flagship Alfa Romeo Alfa 6 into firefighting service at Balocco. Who said firefighters can’t drive around in Italian luxury?
The luxo Alfa 6 was followed by the altogether more common people Giulietta before Alfa Romeo, perhaps saving the best for last, turned to its performance division.
The Alfa Romeo 164, when it was launched in 1987, signalled a change in styling direction for Alfa. Designed by Enrico Fumia at Pininfarina, the wedge-shaped 164 would go on to influence Alfa’s subsequent range.
To help convert the 164 into its latest Vigili del Fuoco vehicle, Alfa enlisted the help of Reparto Esperienze.
The donor car was the most powerful Alfa Romeo 164 in the range, the Quadrifoglio 4. Powered by a 3.0-litre V6 making 171kW and 276Nm sending drive to all four wheels, the 164 Q4 could complete the dash from 0-100km/h in just 7.7 seconds. That was properly fast for the day.
Of course, turning the elegant wedge-shaped sedan into a utility brimming with firefighting equipment would have impacted performance, somewhat. But, that didn’t deter the enthusiasm of Gianfranco Rigolone who had served as a firefighter at the Balocco track for more than 30 years.
When Alfa decided to retire the 164 Q4 Vigili del Fuoco, it was Rigolone (pictured above with his beloved 164 Q4) who insisted the manufacturer save the hi-po fire tender, his favourite car from 30 years of service, from the crushers and instead, restore it and preserve it for the Alfa Romeo Museum.
Grazie molto, Giancarlo!
Rob Margeit has been an automotive journalist for over 20 years, covering both motorsport and the car industry. Rob joined CarAdvice in 2016 after a long career at Australian Consolidated Press. Rob covers automotive news and car reviews while also writing in-depth feature articles on historically significant cars and auto manufacturers. He also loves discovering obscure models and researching their genesis and history.