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