Alfa's versatile 4x4 left the army and joined civvy street. Martin Buckley tells its story

Matta means "crazy" or "mad" in Italian, and that's the nickname that has stuck with Alfa's 1900M - such were the tricks it could get up to off-road.

A 1900M? You'll be forgiven for admitting you have never head of it. The Matta is one of the most obscure and exotic of off-roaders, and is rarely seen outside Italy as it was mainly intended for the Italian military. But many have survived, and the model has a devoted following in Europe.

It wasn't Alfa's first adventure in off-road four-wheel-drives. The company had produced a utilitarian runabout staff car for Mussolini's army, called the Coloniale, and these were mainly to be found in North and East Africa during the Second World War.

The story of the 1900M began in 1950 when the Italian army asked Alfa to build it a 4x4. The army urgently needed to replace the ageing Jeeps the Allied forces had left behind after the war and had already contracted Fiat to build an off-road vehicle, which eventually went into production as the Campagnolo. All over Europe in the early Fifties, governments were funding new off-roaders for their military. For the French army Delahaye built the VLR, a sophisticated 2-litre lightweight field-car with all independent suspension and an eight-speed splitter syncromesh gearbox. Facel - which would later produce the glamorous Facel Vega GT car - built the bodywork, but the Delahaye drivetrain was not especially dependable and when De Gaulle came back as the head of the government it was his decision that army should once again use the Jeep.

The first drawings of the 1900M date from January 1951 and show that Alfa was thinking in terms of a vehicle with two rigid axles and longitudinal leaf-springs, although torsion-bar independent front suspension was already on the cards. It featured a welded floor-tray with stiffening longitudinal and transverse box sections. The skimpy body could seat six on a track that was an inch narrower than the 1900 saloon and a wheelbase that was a foot shorter than even the 1900 sprint.

A prototype was running only three months later, heavily inspired by the Land-Rover. In fact, the suspension, steering and transmission were Land-Rover, "borrowed" to speed up the development of the Matta. Those who have dismantled Matta transmissions say it is a direct rip-off of a Series 2 Land-Rover.

The only thing that told you this was an Alfa was the grille, just ventilation slots in the shape of the Alfa Romeo shield. The body was simply generic Fifties off-roader: flat split windscreens, cutaway doors, generous ground clearance and very little in the way of overhangs at either end.

As you'd expect, the cabin was equally free of frills. The instruments were grouped together in a painful-looking steel binnacle, and you sat in a commanding position on plastic seats.

Pitched against the Jeep and Campagnola during prototype testing by military specialists, the Alfa's gear ratios were found to be too high. There were problems lubricating the engine, a de-tuned version of the 1,884cc twin-cam unit fitted to Alfa's big 1900 saloon.

It had flatter piston crowns and revised camshaft profiles and developed a still-useful 65bhp at 4,400rpm. The engine was matched to a four-speed gearbox with lower ratios than the saloon in the intermediates, and with the output going to both axles. A separate lever engaged the low ratios and the front-wheel drive: the high ratios couldn't be used in four-wheel-drive mode.

By October 1951, Alfa had designed a gearbox with lower ratios and fitted the engine with dry-sump lubrication, something normally found on exotica. The engine had double the oil capacity of a 1900 saloon unit.

What's more, Alfa's engineers had schemed a torsion-bar front suspension system, truly setting the vehicle apart from its 4x4 contemporaries. This time it passed its army trials easily and the first production examples - designated 1900M (for military) - were coming off the lines by March 1952. Production ended in 1954 after 2,200 had been produced.

Its premature demise is attributable to cost: the 1900M was expensive to build and thus not competitive, as far as the army was concerned, with Fiat's Campagnolo, which was produced until the Seventies.

A few 1900Ms were sold to civilians and kits were available to transform the car into a snowplough, fire engine and a crop-duster - or even a combine harvester. The brochure shows a high-backed canvas-topped pick-up and a neat two-door station wagon variant. Bizarrely, Alfa entered a Matta in the Mille Miglia race in 1952. It came first in the category for military vehicles, against feeble opposition.

On 65bhp, the Matta did not offer up many on-road thrills, but then that was never the point. It plodded along happily at 40 or 50mph and would top 60 given time, although you wouldn't like to have to stop it too quickly from that speed. The handbrake worked on the transmission, which might have helped the four-wheel drums do their job.

The sophisticated twin-cam engine made it sound more energetic and refined than its contemporary competitors and the handling was quite nifty, with fairly light controls by the standards of its day.

There is at least one other Matta in the UK apparently fitted with an Alfa 164 V6, but standard original examples come up for sale quite regularly in Italy. So if you're an Alfa enthusiast who has to have one of everything, go mad and buy a Matta.

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