Prior to WWII Alfa Romeo were world renown for manufacturing supercars of that era. But after the end of the war, and seeing the success of the Willys Jeep in the post war period with farmers and land owners scrambling to purchase the redundant vehicles, they decided to enter the market of the 4×4 with their own creation.
Developed in the late 1940’s, the Matta or AR51 was built to the Italian government requirements for a light 4×4 vehicle, similar to the Willys. The AR51 was first produced in 1951, hence “51” in the title, the letters “AR” however do not stand for Alfa Romeo, but for auto-veicolo ricognitivo translating to “reconnaissance vehicle”. This vehicle had to be versatile, tough and field repairable.
The basics of the vehicle were as with most 4×4’s of that period, a separate ladder chassis and the body being directly mounted on it. Suspension consisted of a live rear beam axle with independent front suspension consisting of double unequal length wishbones, this advanced design gave the little truck a great off road ability. The independent front suspension was the key to this agility and in order to give the suspension maximum travel the lower wishbones were huge with the inner pivot point being as close as possible to the center line of the vehicle. An unusual design was to the doors, with their rear fitted hinges, making them the old style “suicide doors”.
Power was, in typical Alfa Romeo style, from a 1900cc double overhead cam petrol engine, this was by any standards overkill. None of its competition had even got as far as using a single overhead camshaft let alone two of them, and eventually this would be the downfall of the jeep as it was viewed by some military staff as too complicated.
However, the use of such an advanced engine design gave the Matta masses of torque which is exactly what an off road vehicle needs. The engine was de-tuned to 60 bhp for use in the AR51 from the 100 bhp it produced in Alfa Romeo’s road cars of the time, giving the Matta a top speed of 105 km/h. To drive a Matta it feels quite heavy and slow by modern standards, however it is similar to vehicles like the 80” Land Rover and the Willys jeep of the time. The torque of the engine and the low ratio gearbox gave it the ability to tick along at a couple of km/h and this is priceless when off road driving.
Alfa Romeo produced 2007 AR51s however they did produce around 152 AR52s for the civilian market, these were used for such purposes and fire tenders, snowploughs, highway work, ambulances and forestry vehicles, whatever task the AR51 was allocated, it excelled at them all.
The Matta was built from 1951 to 1954. Unfortunately in 1954, the Italian army decided to abandon the AR51 and switched to the Fiat Campagnola, which was preferred due to its mechanical simplicity for field engine repairs and servicing.