Among the cars that turn 40 this year, there is the most misunderstood and underappreciated Alfa Romeo ever: the Alfa 6. It’s about time to set the record straight on Arese’s failed ammiraglia.
Presented to the international press on the shores of Lake Como in the spring of 1979, the Alfa Romeo Alfa 6 (that is its actual name) has been mostly forgotten by everyone bar the most hardened Alfisti. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that in period the Alfa 6 was mostly ignored by its target market.
Alfa Romeo planned to sell 10,000 Alfa 6 models each year, of which 7000 were expected to be absorbed by the Italian market. However, the company eventually managed only to sell 12,000 over an entire production span of seven years!
Yet there’s much more to the Alfa 6 than its commercial failure, as its story, from design to its demise, is emblematic of Alfa Romeo’s last years as an independent car company. The 119 project started in the late 1960s, when a confident, profitable Alfa Romeo was keen to claim for itself a share of the luxury saloon market, a mission that the previous 2600 6-cylinder cars had largely failed to accomplish.
What is important to note is that, while the 119-series was indeed developed alongside the much better known 116-series (the Alfetta of 1972), parts commonality between the Alfa 6 and its contemporary Alfetta models is very limited: the 119 did not receive its own specific project and chassis code for nothing: bodyshell, suspensions, engine and transmission were all unique to the Alfa Romeo flagship.
And what an engine it was: the famed V6 engine designed by engineer Giuseppe Busso was specifically designed for the 119-series and to this day defines the character of the car, with its unmistakable noise and smooth power delivery. Power that was sent to the rear wheels through a bought-in ZF five speed manual transmission (the same employed on the Montreal) or a three-speed automatic by the same supplier.
Both transmissions were mounted traditionally at the front of the 119, as the troublesome gear lever linkage of the 116-series cars wasn’t deemed suitable for a higher-end offering such as the Sei.
Production of the car was originally intended to start in 1974, but geopolitical events were to force Alfa’s hand: the oil crisis of October 1973 convinced the company that the 119 should wait for better times… which never really came. But too much had already been invested, so the the Alfa 6 was launched in 1979, five years later than planned.
Those intervening years had not been especially kind to the Alfa 6’s exterior design, developed by Alfa’s own Centro Stile: it certainly was elegant and restrained, but the Italian press mercilessly panned it, describing it as old-fashioned and unimaginative. This, together with Alfa Romeo’s increasing company woes routinely making news, hardly helped the case of a car that retailed for about as many Liras as a Mercedes-Benz 280S. That the Alfa 6 drove far better than any competitor model hardly mattered at this point.
As part of Alfa Romeo’s product revival of the early 1980s, the Alfa 6, whose production at Arese was down to a trickle, received a rather heavy-handed restyle courtesy of Bertone for the 1983 model year, together with new engine options aimed at increasing the model’s appeal on the Italian market: a two litre version of the Busso V6 to dodge Italy’s 38% VAT over 2000 cc cars and a new 5 cylinder turbo diesel engine for mile-eaters.
While Italian sales of the Alfa 6 did increase significantly thanks to these moves, overall numbers remained very low, as the Alfa 6’s relative lack of showroom appeal compared to newer models became more acute with each passing year.
Production was quietly stopped in 1987, soon after Alfa Romeo had been swallowed by Fiat Auto. Unsold Alfa 6 models rather uncomfortably got to share showroom space with the striking new 164 model, and were eventually moved on only thanks to generous dealer discounts.
After decades of oblivion however, interest in the Alfa 6 is now growing, and rare survivors fetch considerable prices. Most of the pictures I’ve used in this article were taken last May during the Alfa 6’s birthday party held in the town of Bobbio: a video report can be viewed on my YouTube channel.
If you want to know more about the Alfa 6’s fascinating story, I’ve written a book about it, available at the World’s largest online book retailers.