Sighting – Giocattolo Group B

I couldn’t quite believe my luck when I unexpectedly found this Giocattolo Group B at the recent Fiat Nationals event. The Giocattolo is one of my all-time favourite cars as it possesses the unique combination of giant killing performance wrapped in an attractive and very purposeful looking (modified) Alfa Romeo body shell, all built by a group of blokes up in Queensland. So bear with me if I gush a little while we get the rare privilege of studying a Giocattolo up close and delving a little into it’s fascinating history.

Don’t feel bad if you don’t know what a Giocattolo is, not many people do. Giocattolo is Italian for ‘toy’ and in short, a Giocattolo (above right) uses the bodyshell from an Alfa Romeo Sprint (above left). It throws away the Sprint’s front engine, front drive 1500cc boxer 4 and instead replaces it with a mid-mounted 304ci Holden V8 from a VL Walkinshaw, transferring power through a 5 speed ZF transaxle. There were only 15 built in Coloundra, Queensland during (about) 1985-89. As you can imagine it’s significantly faster than the Alfa it once was, and embodies everything that was great about automotive styling in the 80’s.

So, a quick history lesson about a determined man with the financial capacity to realise the kinds of fanatical ideas we can only dream of, and the car he and his mates built.

The Giocattolo was the brainchild of Paul Halstead who made his fortune by creating and then selling the IDAPS computer system (I tried researching what exactly that is, but I simply don’t understand it). With his newfound fortune Halstead did a lot of pretty cool things, including creating the world’s first Lamborghini Countach targa and racing it against an F18 fighter jet according to one report. Halstead also went into the motor business and became an Alfa Romeo dealer as well as owning the Australian distribution rights for DeTomaso vehicles.

At around this time in the early to mid 80’s, also the now famous heyday of the mad Group B racing/rally formula, Alfa Romeo built a show car they called the Sprint 6C. Based on the Sprint coupe, it was fitted with a mid mounted Alfa Romeo 3.0 V6 engine running through a ZF transaxle and was intended to be a kind of group B teaser. It never got off the ground because Alfa Romeo determined that it would be too expensive as a road car, and would never become a race car because it would have been a corporate conflict with Lancia’s Group B program. On a complete side note, seeing the only Sprint 6C in person is listed quite highly on my personal bucket list! It is currently located right up the back in a dusty corner in Alfa Romeo’s ‘Museo Storico’ museum in Milan.

That didn’t stop Halstead from looking at the 6C and thinking it would be a pretty cool car to replicate back in Australia.

Halstead’s idea was to get brand new Sprint’s direct from Alfa Romeo at a reduced price and then fit them with a mid-mounted Alfa Romeo V6, also supplied straight from the factory. The car would then carry a combined Alfa Romeo/Giocattolo warranty and could be serviced at any Alfa Romeo dealership. Unfortunately his enthusiasm wasn’t shared by Alfa Romeo Australia who refused to supply him with Sprint’s. No problem, he decided to pay full price and purchase them individually.

Halstead built one prototype fitted with an Alfa V6 from his Coloundra facility. It was a spectacular success which was only thwarted when Alfa Romeo forbade him the use of their V6 engine, threatening to take his dealership away if he continued despite the fact he was paying full retail for both the donor Sprint’s and V6 engines.

For most people this would have caused them to seriously rethink the project. But Halstead? Nope. He just decided Alfa Romeo could get stuffed and decided to build the car with another engine. After a short search Halstead and his team decided on a modified version of Holden’s 304ci V8 as was currently being used in the limited run VL Walkinshaw – yes, the one with the ridiculous 80’s plastic bodykit. Some (myself included) may call it sacrilege but the Holden engine had a lot going for it – it was cost effective, could easily be serviced and maintained, was relatively light and produced a whole lot of power. It was so fast in fact, that the team attached the ‘Group B’ moniker to the name.

Giocattolo only had one show car for the entire production run, so they painted it a different colour for every major motor show they attended to fool the motoring public into thinking they were exhibiting different cars. That car still exists today, and has been repainted something like 7 different colours.

But there were a few issues, most notably cost. Halstead’s connections with DeTomaso led the team to choose the ZF 5 speed transaxle as was used in the Pantera GT5 at the time. This was a brilliant gearbox, but due to it’s complexity and government import duties (which the team unsuccessfully tried to circumnavigate) it cost nearly $15,000 landed! And that was in the 80’s! The car’s hand-made kevlar/fibreglass bodywork was also very labour intensive and costly to produce. The lack of assistance from Alfa Romeo meant that Giocattolo were purchasing brand new Sprint’s (themselves expensive cars), stripping them back to bare shells and only really using the bodyshell, doors and a few assorted trim and interior pieces. And what’s more, there wasn’t much of a market in selling the unused parts and Alfa Romeo were not interested in buying them back for their spare parts inventory. It doesn’t take a Harvard MBA to spot that as an unsustainable business model.

In the end it seemed like the world was against Halstead and his Giocattolo team. The company closed after just 15 cars had been produced and a dream was over. But the sad part, I think, is that apparently Halstead never ended up with a Giocattolo of his own.

The Giocattolo Group B has been modified from the standard Sprint in most areas. Ignoring the obvious mechanical differences, let’s take a look at the body styling. Looking at the above photo of the rear, you can see that the bodywork is largely unmodified any lower than the horizontal styling line beneath the taillights and the belt line that runs the full side of the car. The sheetmetal under the big grey bumpers of a stock Sprint is very similar – I’m sure they’ve smoothed it over and filled some holes etc, but it’s largely unchanged.

The main changes at the rear have been achieved by extending out further the small kick-up spoiler the Sprint usually has and then bringing it back with a relatively straight line, intersecting with the stock metal at about the ends of that styling line that runs beneath the taillights. A small, unobtrusive bumper has then been incorporated into the sheetmetal to finish it off.

The above photo’s show the extent of the modifications. The stock Sprint hatch is retained.

The rear guards are flared to contain the massive rear wheels.

The Giocattolo has two smaller fuel tanks located just in front of each rear wheel which are connected via a linking pipe so you don’t have to fill each tank separately. There are two motorcycle style fuel fillers worked into each rear fender, meaning a racing style fill up from two bowsers at once is technically possible!

There’s no hiding from the fact that the Giocattolo was designed at the height of the 80’s, the time of the Testarossa and Countach. That means side strakes on the engine air inlets, and lots of them! These ones look surprisingly simple to replicate, as they appear to me to be simple profiles cut from 3 or 4mm white PVC/perspex type plastic. Simple and effective. The doors, handles and mirrors are retained from the Sprint.

The Giocattolo designers heavily altered the front – to my eye the headlights are the only Sprint parts remaining. The front guards have been flared and replicated in kevlar but still maintain the same front profile as the stock guards. The bonnet maintains the same overall shape but has been modified on it’s leading edge for the new grille, which maintains the same overall dimensions as the standard plastic Sprint grille, but looses the famous Alfa Romeo heart. The one-piece integrated front spoiler (with trademark 80’s strakes) is all new and nicely integrated into the guards.

The wheels were Simmons from factory, although in a smaller size. This example has been fitted with larger diameter 18″ Simmons with grippy Continental tyres. The owner told me that the car was quite hairy to drive beforehand and simply needed more mechanical grip. You can see through the wheels that the rear suspension is all new, and was designed by ex-F1 engineer Barry Lock. Front suspension is largely Sprint based, which surprised me. Front brakes are from an Alfa GTV6, rear brakes were mounted inboard on the transaxle.

The front engine bay (can you call it that? It’s not really a boot…) looks remarkably similar to an engineless Sprint. The radiator is from an Alfa GTV6, and feeds its hot air out through vents in the bonnet. Interestingly, the spare wheel is the same 13×5.5″ wheel you’ll find as spare in a Sprint or Sud.

That big top engine mount bracket will look familiar to any Sprint/Sud/33 owner! The stock Sprint steering rack and arms are retained.

The interior is a curious mix of stock Sprint parts and typical 80’s custom pieces. The main dash, clock, swtichgear and steering column is all Sprint, but the leather Recaro seats, shifter knob and MOMO wheel were supplied new to Giocattalo by Bob Roman of Roman Autotek fame (remember those A4 posters you’d get in Wheels and Motor in the early 90’s of a cheesily modified Capri Clubsprint or EB XR6 with Roman Autotek accessories? I had them all over my wall as a kid).

You know you own a very special car when it has a build plate on the console with a single digit build number…

The pedal box is all Sprint. The one major difference, however…

… is that most Sprint’s don’t have a Holden V8 just a few inches behind the front seats! It really is a very, very tight fit.

And no, your eyes were not deceiving you. The tool kit does contain of a bottle of Bundaberg rum and two glasses. The theory was that Giocattolo provided a few small hand tools if it was a minor problem, and something to drink while waiting for the tow truck if it was a major problem. How uniquely Australian. I probably wouldn’t drink this rum however, that’s the original bottle that came new with the car in 1988!

With the covers back on you’d hardly know what lurks beneath!

This particular car was lightly crashed in the mid 90’s during a demonstration run at Calder. The owner was so annoyed by the accident that he literally parked it under a tree and left it there for months. The current owner saw it advertised in a very poor state, covered in moss and tree sap, and seized on it as his one chance to own his dream car. He recommissioned it and fixed the damaged rear quarter and has since been enjoying owning and driving this rare (and very fast) piece of Australian history for the last 15 years or so. It’s also one of the most original Giocattalo’s too – apart from the quarter all of the paint is exactly how it left the factory in Coloundra. And one can’t possibly miss mentioning those plates. I honestly can’t think of a better registration for a Giocattolo.

So what’s it like to drive? Well I can’t answer that question, but I did spend a long time talking to someone who has had the last decade and a half (or so) to find out. This particular car is running a Motec management system so the engine is putting out a little more power than usual. Stock they had a touch over 300hp (230kw), so I’d guess and say this one might be closer to 350hp. That’s gotta be a lot of fun in something that weighs just 1085kg. It’s apparently very loud and brutal in it’s delivery, and as you could imagine it’s very twitchy on the limit. It’s a car that’s blisteringly fast if you know what your doing, but does not suffer fools gladly. My kinda car then!

Many thanks to the owner for sharing his car with me and allowing me to crawl all over it with my camera. We own the red Alfa Sprint in the comparison photographs, and it’s been a long held desire of mine to park our Sprint next to a Giocattolo like we did that day. Thanks.

NOTE: Giocattolo history isn’t exactly thick on the ground, there’s no reference book to go by as most of it probably wasn’t recorded at the time. Information in this post has been gleaned from a variety of sources – word of mouth, talking to owners, websites, forums etc.  I’ve endeavoured to make it as accurate as possible, but please let me know if there’s something I’ve missed, something that’s wrong or some more information you might think is worth adding in.

For those in Adelaide, there was a Giocattolo Group B in the Birdwood Motor Museum last time I was there a few months ago. It’s apparently been sold quite a while ago so it might not still be there, but there’s a good chance it is so it’s certainly worth a look if you just need to see one in the flesh.

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About the author

andrewcoles.eighteleven@gmail.com:


10 Comments

  1. Ray Finkle August 28, 2012 Reply

    Nice article, would be nice if you could do an interview with the electric blue 124 Spider Abarth (replica I am thinking?). Caught my eye more than the Giocattolo!

    • Andrew Coles August 28, 2012 Reply

      Thanks Ray! Yes, that 124 is a particularly nice car. I'll have a look through my archives and see if I've got any decent photos of it

  2. Paul Halstead June 5, 2013 Reply

    Hello Andrew,
    A very nice article on My Giocattolo's, well researched and well written. It would be my pleasure to allow you to drive my Giocattolo. I am now Melbourne based and my car(s) are based at Laverton.
    Regards,
    Paul Halstead

    • Tony November 13, 2013 Reply

      Hi Paul
      I have wanted a Giacottalo since I was a school kid in Toowoomba, and saw Towards 2000 (I think from memory) and they reviewed the car. A local dealer had one for sale used since and I saw him drive it home on occasion. (Bronzey colour) He lived near me. Good to hear you have one of the cars. I love to see Aussie Ingenuity. Pity this amazing car did not sell better too. (I'd have a better chance of affording and finding one!)
      For me it just pips one of my other 80s faves- the Delorean. There is one in a museum not far from here and one for sale in Vic too. The Toowoomba car mentioned before is the only Giacottalo I've seen for sale and it might be getting close to 20 years since that happened. :(
      Best Regards
      Tony

  3. Theo February 21, 2015 Reply

    I work for Paul Halstead in sydney as an apprentice mechanic during the time the groupe b was at its early stages of development
    With 2 cars on the build ,working with some of the best names in Motorsport Barry.
    Paul was not afraid to push the boundaries
    I had live a lot of school boy dreams there and had been the best place I have worked

  4. Sean March 1, 2015 Reply

    I have just come across this article Andrew and found it to be excellent. Many thanks. Informative and accurate from the little I know. It has been endorsed by Paul Halstead himself so it must be pretty good. You gotta just love the ingenuity, commitment and shear guts of these Aussie heroes. Shame our market is so small and our bureaucratic hurdles so numerous that it makes these kind of projects unbelievably difficult. What an amazing concept. The few cars I have seen up close have been very impressive indeed. As a long time Bolwell owner I have a love for these aussie automotive icons. Would really like to own a Giacottalo one day - if any owners out there are ready to part with theirs I would love to hear from them.
    Best wishes
    Sean

  5. Matthew June 27, 2015 Reply

    As a Yr 12 student on the Sunshine Coast in 1989, I was lucky enough to spend three days (more on that in a minute) at the factory in Caloundra for work experience in early July of that year. Knowing I was interested in engineering, my school had initially organised my work experience to be at a small civil engineering firm in Nambour. On the off chance, I asked the school to try Giocattolo just in case i could go there instead, and I was over the moon when they agreed!
    A few weeks prior to the actual work experience period, I visited the factory for an'interview', which was really just a chat and a tour of the factory. I met Paul Halstead that day, I remember his white Countach was parked inside and I probably spent more time ogling that than anything else! Barry Lock was there in his office too, but he was a pretty quiet guy and we only exchanged brief hellos. My main contact there was Tony Green, who drove to work every day (and it was winter at the time, mind you) in a blue Lotus Seven. From memory Tony's title was Production Manager.
    Unfortunately my week of work experience was shortened to three days when the factory actually closed down on the Wednesday of that week. But the three days I did spend there were absolutely incredible for a 17 year old car crazy kid. My main project during my time there was to sort out the rear suspension of a customer's car (don't remember the chassis no, but it was a yellow one) that needed to be fixed. One of the right rear springs didn't sit square to the ground when on a level surface, so it was my job to grind the bottom of the spring until it stood up straight. Once it was all reassembled, came the best part - a test drive with Tony driving! He took it out to a fairly quiet road off Caloundra Rd and really opened it up, the induction roar just over your shoulder was spine tingling! After all these years I think that drive still rates as my best car-related memory ever.
    Of course I was disappointed when they told me that there was no need to come back on Thursday as they were closing down. Was a sombre afternoon for the other guys working there but I suspect they had an idea this was coming. As a consolation, one of the workers (his name was Nigel from memory) let me take a few mementos home, including a wheel centre badge and a full size set of Giocattolo/Group B stickers which were of course no longer needed. I also scored an Alfa badge and I grabbed a bunch of Tony's business cards, which actually folded out with a pic of a car (a red one with red wheels, probably the prototype one) and some specifications inside. Still have all those bits and pieces, they are great memories of a very special time.
    I count myself to be extremely fortunate to have been able to be involved with a small piece of Australian car history like this, however tiny my involvement actually was. They were such amazing cars and it is a crying shame they never progressed any further. Mr Halstead if you ever read this, I would like to say thank you again, 26 years later!

  6. Stephen Kennedy July 13, 2015 Reply

    Hi Andrew,
    I had the pleasure of working in the Giocattolo factory as my first job. I still have a photocopy of my first pay cheque at home with Giocattolo Motori written on it and I think my overalls are still around somewhere too. It was a fantastic place to work, the boys were brilliant at their jobs and took me under their wing showing me how to do things around the factory and letting me assist them do their work. As a 14 yr old, there was no better holiday job. My main role was sweeping and mopping out the factory (which was immaculate anyway), making trays for the spare parts but best of all was washing the cars and being taken on test drives (I'm not sure the people who lived on Sugarbag Road would have loved it unless they were V8 purists). I have very good memories of Paul and Barry who always gave me time to explain to me how things worked and the reason behind particular design aspects.
    My father also saw that article on Towards 2000, which is how he ended up on the board of Giocattolo and how I scored such a great opportunity. Unfortunately I was too young to drive one then but certainly have driving / owning one on my to-do list, but finding one for sale is always difficult.
    Cheers
    Stephen

    • Andrew Coles August 24, 2015 Reply

      Thanks for sharing your story Stephen, very cool. It would have been a fascinating place to be back in the day, and great people. I hear your point on finding one for sale - everybody seems to know where each car is and it's likely sold before it even comes on the market. Maybe one day...

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