Heralding a stylistic revolution to follow, the 1996 Alfa Romeo Nuvola would underline in the most eloquent fashion the power of the past.
Alfa Romeo’s mid ’90s output was a mixture of the sublime and, if not entirely ridiculous, the at least unconvincing. On one hand we had the ageing, but still elegant 164, the sharp-looking 145, and the strikingly handsome 916-series GTV / Spider, while on the other, there was the 146 and 155 – hardly Alfa designs for the ages.
But change was in the offing, with both the 936-series 166 and 932-series 156 nearing completion; both designs breaking with the angular aesthetic which had for so long been Alfa’s visual trademark. Now, under Walter de Silva’s design leadership, Alfa Romeo was increasingly looking back to the 1950’s for inspiration.
To signal this impending change, centro stile envisaged a concept for the 1996 Paris Motor show – a year out from their next big reveal. Coupling the development of a welded, modular spaceframe chassis which Alfa claimed could encompass ‘niche and offroad’ vehicles with this newfound creative shift, Fiat Auto chief, Paolo Cantarella sanctioned development, with work beginning during the early months of 1996.
In October 1996, Alfa’s styling chief, Walter de Silva told Autocar’s Peter Robinson how centro stile stylists, Wolfgang Egger and Fillipo Perini developed his rough sketch for a compact two-seater with a body stretched voluptuously over its mechanicals, in this case, Alfa’s 24 valve V6 fitted with twin turbochargers. With a classical cab-rearward silhouette and a low dipping, tapered tail, it was about as far removed from the marque’s modernist ethos possible. “We didn’t want any decoration, but to keep the shape clean and light”, de Silva commented.”
Originally named to honour Tazio Nuvolari, his hometown of Mantova (which held the rights to the great racing driver’s name) refused permission, leaving Alfa Romeo in something of a quandary. So when the car was first shown it was called Nuvola (which translates as ‘cloud’) and rather unsurprisingly caused a sensation. “We are sending strong signals about future Alfa models”, de Silva told Autocar. “This is how the front of Alfas will be changing.”
Of course the passage of time is a great leveller when it comes to most things and there is little more dated than last week’s concept. So having viewed the Nuvola as a delightful breath of fresh air some twenty years ago, I now see something rather more akin to a well executed and considerably more refined version of contemporary TVR form language. Pretty, but like the 8C Competizione that would follow a decade later, essentially something of an empty vessel.
It did however successfully signpost the stylistic shift then about to take place at Arese with the advent of the following year’s 156. And as stylistic revolutions go, it was to prove a durable one – (notwithstanding the occasional aberration) – indeed one could state with reasonable conviction it’s one which has lasted to this day.
That delightful sky blue shade by the way came about in somewhat unusual fashion. Paolo Canterella, when confronted with the traditional red-finished styling model rounded on Alfa’s styling chief demanding why all Alfas had to be painted this colour, suggesting de Silva look into the history books where he’d find another equally true to the marque. The chosen shade of blue originated with the 1938 8C 2900 B. Say what you like about the Fiat Auto chief, but he certainly knew his onions.
O tempora! O mores!