Commonly regarded as the most beautiful Alfa Romeo saloon shape of recent times, the Alfa 156’s svelte lines remain a credit to its designer. But questions remain as to its authorship.
Over the past sixty-odd years, Alfa Romeo berlinas and the notion of ravishing beauty were (for the most part) mutually exclusive. Now of course this doesn’t necessarily mean Arese wasn’t home to some very fine and finely wrought motorcars, but it’s difficult to avoid the view that the habitual centro stile fare hasn’t exactly been an art curator’s dream.
The 1992 Alfa 155 certainly wasn’t. Based on the Tipo-derived Type Three corporate platform, its tall, narrow-looking silhouette combined with skin surfacing endowed with an over-abundance of character lines, and clumsily placed shutlines was a clear evolution of its 75 predecessor, but hardly a car to elicit a backward glance. Both its appearance (believed to have been the result of a highly restrictive brief), its dynamics and its initial sales proved a keen disappointment.
Having begun his professional career at centro stile Fiat, Italian designer, Walter Maria de Silva progressed to Instituto IDEA (who incidentally were responsible for the 155), before joining Alfa Romeo in 1986, later becoming styling chief at Arese. It was under his supervision that the 155’s successor was crafted. As with most creative endeavours, car design is not habitually the work of a gifted solo artist. Certainly not in a company the size of Alfa Romeo and definitely not in the case of a volume-produced car with the development budget the 932-series undoubtedly enjoyed.
With any successful car design, questions of attribution inevitably arise, and in the case of the 156, the party line has always been that it was de Silva’s work. However, there are good reasons to doubt this. In a 2002 article for Automotive News, Italian correspondent, Luca Ciferri hammers several sizeable nails into the de Silva edifice, quoting an eminent Italian carrozzeria chief, who stated; “I didn’t feel any trust from them. [Fiat Auto] We were doing proposals, but not getting any response. When we made our styling model for the Alfa Romeo 156, we discovered what they took and changed only when the car was publicly introduced.”
That designer? One Giorgetto Giugiaro of Ital Design. Indeed, there appears to be a broadly unspoken understanding that it was Giugiaro’s essential shape, which was subsequently refined and developed further by centro stile – believed to have largely been the work of Polish stylist, Zbigniew Maurer under de Silva’s supervision. Make of that what you will.
But leaving aside the question of who, we return to what. Unashamedly romantic and delightfully soft-formed, the 156 design was a total repudiation of the industrial Cressoni influenced themes which had to a greater or lesser extent informed Alfa styling since the early 1970’s. Gone too were the brutalist shutlines and deep scalloping in the bodysides of the outgoing car, replaced by sheer sided, but softly radiused forms.
The 156’s body style was informed by the past, (said to have been inspired by the 750-series Giulietta) but deftly skirted overt nostalgia. So while its styling sat comfortably within the form trends of the late ’90s, it also acknowledged a deepening embrace of past glories. The 156’s nose was dominated by the dramatically enlarged Scudetto which in this instance deeply penetrated the front bumper, forcing the number plate aside – a stylistic device which paid homage to the 1966 Duetto Spider.
Another stylistic flourish manifested itself along the bodysides. Beginning aft of the headlamp units, a deep reverse fold crease ran above the front wheelarch, gradually fading out, before re-emerging over the rear arch. A traditionally styled brushed steel doorhandle was positioned at the notional centre point where the body swage faded out, serving as a visual grace note. This latter feature in fact proved something of a bum note. A contrivance which to some eyes, not only failed to ring true, but was at odds with the innovative (for the time) hidden rear door handles, which were placed at DLO level.
Elsewhere however, surfaces, forms, proportions and decoration were skilfully and tastefully judged. Inside meanwhile, tradition ruled. The driver-orientated cockpit was dominated by a pair of deeply hooded main instruments within the swooping dashboard, with a trio of auxiliary gauges positioned atop the gently sloping centre console. Very Alfa. A wood-rimmed steering wheel and deeply bolstered Recaro seats were also available as options. It was a well finished and in the right colour, warmly inviting environment.
Based on a highly modified version of the Fiat Marea platform, its mechanical specification was in essence a fruitful and well judged raid on the Fiat corporate parts bin and a notable example of how such activity could yield compelling results. Engines were second-generation 16-valve Twin Spark units ranging in capacity from 1.6 to 2.0 litres and with a choice of a 2.5 or 3.2 litre 24-valve version of Alfa’s Busso V6. For the European mainland, two diesel variants were also available.
Suspension was by double wishbones at the front, with a 164-derived strut arrangement at the rear. A technical novelty which debuted with the 156 was the optional (and notoriously problematic) Selespeed semi-automatic transmission. Employing an electronically controlled, hydraulically actuated clutch, but rather than a clutch pedal, drivers could use the sequential shifter, or a pair of buttons mounted on the steering wheel. In city driving, it was also possible for the transmission to shift automatically.
2000 saw the introduction of the Sportwagen variant. Created under the supervision of Andreas Zapatinas who took over from de Silva following the latter’s departure to SEAT, the rakish estate was very much of the ‘lifestyle’ idiom, and to many eyes, even better looking than the saloon. Technically identical apart from the fitment of Boge Nivomat self-levelling dampers, the Sportwagen was available with a full range of engines.
Such was its visual appeal, the 156 proved an hit both with Alfisti’s and non-aficionados alike. Like the larger 164, it proved a credible and reasonably durable ownership proposition. In fact the 156 offered such a complete package that when Alfa Romeo finally did introduce the disappointing 166 flagship, it was utterly eclipsed.
2003 saw the 156 facelifted by Ital Design along the lines of the previous year’s Brera concept. A more aggressive looking car, but while judged a success, it could be said to lack the purity of the original. De Silva apparently thought so, latterly criticising Giugiaro’s work. It did however anticipate the car’s eventual replacement. Sales were strong, with over 650,000 examples made in total.
The 156 began a short phase of continuity and focus within Alfa Romeo and with the thematically similar 159 replacement of 2005, the marque looked set to further the encroach into the German hegemony. That the 159 failed was less a factor of that car’s failings – (it was quite good) – as politics and what can be loosely termed, ‘events’.
The passage of time would illustrate that pennies were pinched with some of the chosen materials, showing the 156 in a poor light as it aged. However, some twenty years on, and notwithstanding its foibles, the comely Alfa remains a stylistic high note – a compelling symphony in expressive restraint.