Tipo 156 – The Last Alfa Romeo

No, not the one you’re thinking of. This is the last rear-wheel drive Alfa saloon. Or is it?

156.Alfabb.com
A fibreglass styling model of Tipo 156, circa 1983. Image via Alfabb

By 1980, government owned Alfa Romeo was in trouble. The Alfa Sud experiment was unravelling amidst chronic labour unrest and the deteriorating reputation of the model that took its name. In addition, its expensive engineering couldn’t be recouped by its low price and paltry volumes, meaning Alfa was haemorrhaging Lire at a prodigious rate.

Alfa’s heartland models, the 116-series Alfetta and its related Giulietta derivative were also becoming dated and required replacement. Tipo 156 was Alfa Romeo engineer Filippo Surace’s proposal for a modular range of cars, aimed at replacing both models. Rear wheel drive and to be powered by modified versions of their evergreen twin-cam four and Busso v6, it was to be the car to see Alfa through the 1980’s. Styled by centro stile under the leadership of Ermanno Cressoni, Tipo 156 was a thoroughly modern, if rather brutal looking design, featuring an even higher tail than the already startling 1977 Guilietta.

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Brutal is one way to describe Cressoni’s creation

In 1981, with tooling for the body and six-speed gearbox already under way, the Italian government cancelled direct funding, consigning the car in original form to oblivion. Fiat, being second to the Vatican in power and influence, quickly got wind of Alfa’s plight and at their invitation, Surace and Lancia’s Sergio Camuffo discussed a joint-venture, bringing Alfa Romeo into the Tipo Quattro co-operative with Saab. Once on board, Surace modified Tipo 156 to accommodate Lancia’s front-wheel drive transverse architecture, while Cressoni’s team continued to develop the existing styling theme, refining it considerably, but now in direct competition with Pininfarina, whose alternate proposal eventually won the day around 1984.

Nevertheless, early 164 development mules continued to use the modified 156 body, giving engineers a head start on proving, utilising tooling that had already been paid for and confusing journalists and scoop photographers alike; who had us all believe this was the forthcoming Alfa saloon. It’s clear from the few photos that exist that we were not robbed of a styling landmark by the Tipo 156’s cancellation – especially given it also donated most of its visual themes to the contemporary 75 saloon, which wasn’t exactly rapturously received. Nevertheless, it was bracingly modern, and although Pininfarina’s more successful design has been cited as the beginning of the resurgence of Alfa’s Scudetto, in reality Cressoni’s design pre-dated it.

Image: auto.onliner
Image: auto.onliner

Having been responsible for the styling of an entire generation of Alfa Romeo’s, from the 1974 Alfetta through to the 1985 75 model, Ermanno Cressoni went on to lead Fiat’s centro stile following Fiat’s acquisition in 1986; amongst his acolytes a certain Chris Bangle and young Walter de Silva, who as we know was intimately involved with an entirely different Alfa 156. But that’s another story.

Data source: Alfa Romeo Bulletin Board.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

28 thoughts on “Tipo 156 – The Last Alfa Romeo”

  1. Very interesting pictures which had faded from my memory, but I do recall seeing them at the time. You are right, there is something quite brutal about the look of it, with a hint of one of those rather blocky Maserati’s of that era (was it called the Ghibli?) at the rear. The 164 remains a car that I really like (even if the current management recently disowned it as one of the “soul-less”) and had a more elegant and universally acceptable look, even if this Tipo 156 is viually more interesting. Thanks for bringing it out of the archive.

    1. oh, and “visually” – not “viually”; must be tired or just losing it more generally.

  2. I like the “brutal”, no-frills look of the car a lot. My first association of the white car in the middle picture was immediately: BX!

    And who calls my beloved 164 soulless? The same people who now present us a BMW clone?

    1. It was Harald Wester, Alfa Romeo CEO, who raised the ire of open-minded Alfisti when he used the 164 as an example of how the marque lost its way under Fiat ownership. First he implied that Fiat tried to turn the Croma into the 164, then in the following slide called the Arna the ‘original sin’ that led to shared platform Alfas like the 164 onwards. It’s all pointing to the rationale behind Harald’s Hundreds in their Modena Skunkworks, and if the Giulia Cloverleaf actually hits showrooms by the end of the year Mr Wester will have met the promise of his 2014 investor presentation.
      You can access the original investor presentation as a PDF here: http://www.fcagroup.com/investorday/PresentationList/Alfa_Brand.pdf
      Jens Meiners takes issue with Mr Wester’s 164 criticism in his Car & Driver column here: http://blog.caranddriver.com/the-continental-notes-from-vienna-alfa-officially-acknowledges-decades-of-missteps/

    2. If Harald Wester thinks the 164 was that bad, and if the thinks that a power-bloated Cloverleaf is the best way to unveil the new Giulia, then I’d suggest he doesn’t really get Alfa either.

    3. As someone who even likes the 164’s plastic hi-fi system cockpit, it should be pretty clear where I’m standing. Moreover, I believe all Alfas sporting Enrico Fumia’s styling themes will eventually be regarded as classics, including the Spider and GTV models. They may be based upon Fiat underpinnings and FWD, but their style, dated as though it may appear right now, was superb, if very of-its-day. Not to mention the Twin Spark and V6 engines.

      Some people tend to forget that 1960s Giulias used to be graveyard fodder for quite a few decades before they were considered the quintessential Alfas – and that despite (whisper it!) not… being… all that… beautiful. Actually. The 164, 145, Spider and GTV may not be thoroughbreds in engineering terms, but there’s still more than enough of the Alfa spirit present. And their appearance is the epitome of late ’80s/early ’90s high style, which will become appreciated, once the fact is accepted that such a concept is in existence.

    4. On current form, I’d have a 164 over this new Giulia, FWD wheel-fight and all. It’s still a lovely looking car and having spent some time reading about its gestation, I appreciate it all the more. Wester chose his nadir-Alfa rather poorly if you ask me, but then what does he know?

      I also happen to agree with Kris’ comments re: 145/GTV/Spider. Styling-wise they were all superb. I have a particular soft spot for the ‘breadvan’ 145 – Tipo underpinnings and all…

  3. I think we need to attract some new blood to this site – we tend a little to all gently agree and reinforce each other 😊

    1. Sorry, it’s definitely not OK or fantastic, but isn’t “crap” a bit harsh a word?

    2. There are designs that manage the latter without causing headaches from looking at them. So what’s the point of this car?

  4. Had the Tipo 156 prototype been produced how earlier would it have reached production compared to the Alfa Romeo 164 and would its modular design have eventually spawned a smaller RWD Alfa Romeo 75 replacement?

    Also how much longer could Alfa Romeo continue with RWD via the Tipo 156 prototype (and a smaller 75 replacement) before eventually being swallowed up by Fiat and producing FWD models (as it seems the Tipo 156 would be delaying the inevitable at best), given the Alfa Romeo 164’s Type Four platform remained in production for 14 years?

    The ideal would be the RWD Tipo 156 platform mated to the Alfa Romeo 164’s Pininfarina styling, followed by 3.0-3.4-litre Ferrari Dino V8-powered variants in the mold of the Lancia Thema 8.32.

    1. Bob: Given the timeline, the state of Alfa Romeo’s finances and the level of resource they could have given the programme, it’s difficult to see how it could have reached the market before 1985. Had it been green-lighted, it’s moot to speculate as to whether the 75 would have been produced – albeit they still would have needed a car to sit below the larger model. One assumes however that it would have meant the 90 would not have been required.

      Nevertheless, it probably wouldn’t have mattered either way, it is unlikely that the Italian government would have continued to fund Alfa Romeo indefinitely, so a buyer would have to have been found. It was so nearly Ford, which again might have changed a few things. We can only speculate…

  5. Eóin Doyle

    What if Fiat managed to acquire Alfa Romeo slightly earlier yet the Tipo 156 project was further along in terms of development, to the point where Fiat decided they were better off capitalizing on the platform to recoup costs instead of outright scrapping it?

    Similar to how the Alfa Romeo Boxer engine remained in production until 1997 11 years after Alfa Romeo was bought by Fiat, along with similar instances involving Maserati producing Biturbo-based cars until 2001 after being bought by Fiat in 1993.

    Would be interesting seeing a Fiat Uno/Duna-based equivalent of the Alfa Romeo Arna in such a scenario.

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