Fiat received most of the credit, but the 1987 Alfa Romeo 164 was a genuine Alfa Romeo, despite what some might retrospectively suggest.
In 2014, then Alfa Romeo chief, Harald Wester illustrated the marque’s latterday decline with an image of the 164, stating that by making it front wheel drive, it had diluted the carmaker’s bloodline. But instead he demonstrated both an eloquent disdain for his forebears and a blind ignorance of history. Dismissing the 164, perhaps the most accomplished and rounded product the troubled Milanese car maker had produced since the 1960s, not only made Wester appear foolish, it belied and diminished Alfa Romeo’s achievement, particularly given the privations surrounding its birth.
Viewed as the first Fiat-era Alfa, in truth the 164 had precious little Turin input. However its launch, in the wake of the Fiat takeover allowed this misapprehension take hold – one which has proven resilient in the thirty years since its introduction. Actually, the 164, fine car that it was, provided Fiat with far more credibility than they actually deserved, since few subsequent Alfa Romeos would be as well-honed, as durable or as superbly styled as this, Arese’s last gasp.
The 1970’s were a torrid period for the Italian motor industry with the shock of the 1973 oil crisis causing an almost fatal paralysis. Alfa Romeo were by the decade’s end, Italy’s sick man, their balance sheet as awash with red as the shopfloor at their strife-riven Pomigliano d’Arco plant. With the Italian Government saddled to the failing car business, and a revolving door of management, setting the storied marque back towards profitability could only be product-led.
By the late ’70s, Alfa’s product line was reliant on the front-drive Alfasud family with the 116-series rear-drive saloons making up the bulk of sales. While modifications to these models were in hand, Alfa Romeo’s engineers, under Fillipo Surace, were also developing a new modular medium/large platform to replace the rear-drive Alfetta/Giulietta models, dubbed Tipo 154/156. However, in 1981, with the programme well advanced, the Italian government slammed the door shut.
Enter Fiat. With the Turin car giant already advanced with the Type Four programme, led by Sergio Camuffo at Lancia, Surace was presented with a way out of the impasse. However, the challenge of re-engineering the almost completed 156-series for an entirely different architecture was to be of the most onerous kind. Lancia’s Thema was taller and its bonnet line higher owing to Camuffo’s adherence to strut suspension, and re-orientated to a transverse location, Alfa’s existing engines would no longer clear the 156-series’ lower bonnet line.
Eventually a solution was found. While the 164 would employ front struts, they would adopt the successful layout of the Alfasud, being inclined, with the bottom link sited below the wide lower wishbones, enabling a bonnet line only 7mm taller than that of the 156. Struts with transverse arms, reaction rods and an anti-roll bar would make up the rear. Installation issues also entailed the redesign of the inlet manifolds for the glorious Busso V6, this exuberant solution becoming one of the 164’s visual highlights. It did mean however that the finished car’s technical specification differed considerably from its Type Four stablemates.
The other major point of departure was visual. The original Tipo 156 had been a rather uncompromising device, styled under the eye of Alfa design chief, Ermanno Cressoni. This shape had been refined considerably during the interim and had remained a strong contender until quite late in the process. From around 1981 however, Pininfarina had also become involved and in 1983, two competing proposals had been created – one from Cressoni’s centro stile, the other from Cambiano.
Both designs adopted similar themes, with a re-establishment of the traditional prominent scudetto grille motif and a dart-like profile with a low, penetrating nose and high tail. However, centro stile’s car was a good deal more ‘industrial’, whereas the Pininfarina proposal, by Enrico Fumia was more classically elegant. One of the defining characteristics of the Fumia design was the groove which ran from the nose, flaring towards the rear, and encompassing the tail lights. Described as the ‘necklace’ which held the ‘jewel’ – the prominent Alfa scudetto – at the nose.
In 1984 the Pininfarina proposal was signed off by Alfa Romeo management; albeit only after a good deal of persuasion over the narrow tail light treatment, which was initially resisted at Arese. With development under way, the original 156 programme was put to good use, prototypes with 164 running gear being used as early development mules, which slashed lead times and had the additional advantage of putting the World’s press off the scent.
One gets the sense Alfa’s engineers knew this was their last hope, even calling on one of their retired proving engineers to help create a powerful front-drive saloon which would behave like a true Alfa Romeo. Meanwhile the company, still incurring huge losses, had reached a tipping point and the Italian government wanted out. Both General Motors and Ford showed interest, with both Alfa management and workforce in favour of a Dearborn takeover. But politics reared its head and in a similar manner to how Ford was rebuffed at Austin Rover, the Italian government turned to Fiat’s Vittorio Ghidella.
After the early collaboration, Fiat’s involvement with the 164 programme proved negligible, and it’s said they had no idea how the car was shaping up until after they had taken over at Arese. It’s alleged that Ghidella was aghast when he saw the car, exclaiming, ‘This will kill the Thema!’ It’s also been suggested that there was some doubt as to whether the car would be proceeded with, but this appears to be speculation.
One aspect where Fiat’s influence did make its mark was the 164’s interior. Designed by Pininfarina, it was a modernist, (and for a contemporary Alfa) logically laid out cabin. Initial proposals were for the use of richer materials, but with Alfa Romeo merging with Lancia, it was felt (and I can scarcely believe I’m writing this) that the interior ambience should be cheapened so as not to hurt the Thema’s prospects. Hence some of the switchgear was criticised for flimsiness and of course the bewildering (and problematic) ventilation controls were almost universally deplored. Overall though, the 164’s interior was modern, inviting, stylish and appropriately plush.
Praise for the car was virtually unanimous when it launched at the 1987 Frankfurt motor show, all the more so because the 164’s elegance of line was such a surprise following generations of polarising shapes from Cressoni’s centro stile. Praise too once driven, since in 3.0 litre V6 form as launched, the Alfa was fast, suave and fine handling, even if the front wheels sometimes struggled with tractive effort.
Soon, engine choice blossomed, ranging from the venerable four cylinder twin-spark 2.0 litre, a Lancia-sourced 2.0 litre turbo, and a VM 2.5 litre diesel powerplant, the 164 quickly became a sales success, not just in its home market, but across Europe, in the UK and even (by Alfa standards at least) in the US.
In the UK, the press were as one in their enthusiasm, Car lauding its exterior and interior style, pace, fine handling (despite provisos regarding torque-steer and occasional tail-happiness), superior body rigidity to its Thema sister (a recurrent Camuffo-era Lancia bugbear) and sheer verve. Only the cabin fittings were severely criticised, and it took the honours over the equally accomplished E34 BMW 525i it was set against. For the first time in generations, here was a large Alfa Romeo saloon for which no excuses were needed and wonder of wonders, it soon developed a reputation for mechanical durability – testament to Alfa’s dogged development.
A facelift arrived 1993, gaining US-spec bumpers with chrome accents and slimmer headlamps which lost Fumia’s elegant dihedral chamfer which sympathised with the body crease and was originally intended to house the indicators in concept form. The interior gained trim improvements and revised switchgear, while mechanically, the Lancia turbo unit was replaced by a rapid blown 2.0 litre variant of the Busso V6. In larger capacity form, the bent six was now available with a 24 valve head and in garish QV livery could also be had with four wheel drive.
There was to have been further 164 bodystyles, Fumia having overseen full-sized prototypes for two door coupe, convertible and estate versions, none of which were sanctioned. Certainly the idea of a 164 coupe is a tantalising one, but Fiat’s largesse would only go so far and with Alfa’s withdrawal from the US in 1995 and its 166 replacement well advanced, it was deemed pointless. 164 production ceased in 1997.
Overshadowed by the advent of more romantically styled cars that came after it, the 164 is largely ignored now. But it was a hugely significant car for Alfa Romeo. It gave them credibility after years of maddeningly uneven product and proved a stylistic trailblazer, heralding a move back towards more angular, dart-like shapes, which would be made flesh in the related Peugeot 405/605 models, Citroën’s XM which (arguably) shared some styling features, if not its overall theme and of course, in-house Alfa designs like the superb 145 hatchback.
Harald Wester ought to have done his homework. If you want an illustration of Alfa’s nadir, the Fiat-developed 155 of 1992 immediately suggests itself. Ungainly, shoddy and mercifully short-lived, it was expedience writ poster-size, ETCC success notwithstanding. The 164 marked a new chapter for Arese, one Fiat in their habitual inconsistent manner failed to capitalise on. Would that today’s much ballyhooed last chance saloon from the Biscione was even a fraction as desirable.