For Alfa dealer, the wait is over

Alfredo Gulla kept the faith, welcomes Italian brand back

Gulla at his Larchmont, N.Y., store in 1963; for Fiat or Alfa Romeo, he says, he sold the brand, the history, the Italian heritage.

From his small dealership between New York City and Connecticut, 78-year-old Alfredo Gulla has waited nearly 20 years for his beloved Alfa Romeo to return.

Others might lose faith. But this month, Gulla's long, frustrating vigil will end.

His dealership in Larchmont, N.Y., will receive its first new Alfa since 1995 -- a red, two-seat 4C coupe that already has a buyer. Others will follow, Gulla believes, and within a few years his small showroom will once more bustle with Alfa sales.

"I was always in touch with Italy and Milan, and the rumors were always that Alfa and Fiat would return, so it was always 'Wait and hope, wait and hope,'" Gulla says in his thick Italian accent. "I have loved very, very much to see these two brands come back to America."

Gulla found work in a small import car dealership in Larchmont, and five years later, when that dealership was for sale, he bought it.

Coming to America

As a young man, Gulla immigrated to New York in late 1956 from Catanzaro, Italy -- a city of about 100,000 people on the instep of the Italian boot. He found work in a small import car dealership in Larchmont, and five years later, when that dealership was for sale, he bought it.

At first, sales at what would become Alfredo's Foreign Cars were confined to parts and service. But within months, Gulla had secured an agreement with Fiat to sell new cars. Gulla bought his first two -- a Fiat 500 and an Alfa Romeo Giulietta -- and began decades of selling Italian cars to people in metropolitan New York.

His customers included fellow Italian immigrants and their progeny, who sought a small piece of their native land. It included the famous -- he sold convertibles to Groucho Marx and Henry Kissinger, for example -- and the not-so-famous.

They were good years, for the most part. Always, Gulla says, whether it was a Fiat or an Alfa Romeo, he sold the brand, the history, the Italian heritage.

"You're selling, I hope, the fact that I'm Italian, and it blends a little bit with the product," Gulla explains.

Alfredo Gulla: “It was always ‘Wait and hope, wait and hope.’”

Turning south

But Fiat and Alfa Romeo's troubles grew in the United States as their sales fell in the late 1980s and early 1990s. By 1995, Alfa would pull out of the United States and retreat to Europe, despite the pleas of Gulla and other dealers.

"I stayed until the very end," Gulla recalls. "I was on the dealer council. We tried to convince Alfa Romeo and Fiat to stay in the country. We said we would take a cut, but they were determined to leave on the basis that we did not have a new product."

The decision made, Gulla began slowly to sell off his remaining inventory until his only remaining Alfas were a Spider and a 164 LS. Then they were sold as well.

"It was very sad. I had always been with Alfa Romeo and Fiat. I was offered other dealerships at the time, and I refused them all," Gulla says.

He did remain a dealer. In the 1980s, he opened what is now a Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge-Ram dealership in Larchmont that he still owns. Gulla also picked up Maserati and Isuzu franchises and had Hyundai for a short time.

But Gulla says he still longed to sell the Italian cars of his youth once again.

There were many false hopes of a return after 1995.

Only when Fiat S.p.A. assumed control of a bankrupt Chrysler in 2009 was Gulla truly optimistic.

His was among the first Fiat franchises to be awarded in 2010 when Chrysler began to sell the Fiat 500 in North America. Earlier this year, Gulla's Fiat of Larchmont was on the initial list to receive an Alfa Romeo franchise. His Fiat of Larchmont dealership now averages about 30 new-car sales a month and employs about 15 people.

Even at 78, he is at the dealership and his nearby Chrysler store almost every day.

Gulla says he believes Alfa's return to North America -- starting with the low-volume 4C this month -- will seem slow and regional. "But in the near future, when all the big cars are coming, where you can re-establish the business and proceed in the right way, it will have a big impact."

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles promises that eight high-volume Alfa nameplates will arrive between 2016 and 2018.

Gulla says Alfa will catch on first in some metro areas, such as New York, and eventually "will blend into the rest of the nation."

He says his dealership "already has a number of firm deposits of $2,500 apiece," for Alfa Romeo 4Cs.

"I suppose that they will never give me enough cars to satisfy all of the customers that I have on hold. I personally think that it's the right car because the volume is so small. I think every Fiat dealer is enthusiastic to get Alfa Romeo."

You can reach Larry P. Vellequette at -- Follow Larry P. on Twitter: @LarryVellequett

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