The Forgotten Alfa

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”.

“Series 1” Alfa Romeo Alfa 6 (picture from the Author)

Presented to the international press on the shores of Lake Como in the spring of 1979, the Alfa Romeo Alfa 6 (yes, 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. The company eventually managed to sell 12,000 over an entire production span of seven years!

“Alfa” was actually repeated as part of the car’s name (picture from the Author)

Yet there’s much more to the Alfa 6’s story than its commercial failure, as its story, from its 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.

The Alfa Romeo 2600 Saloon (c. autoappassionati.it)

What is important to note is that, while the “119” was indeed developed alongside the much better known “116” (The Alfetta of 1972), parts commonality between the Alfa 6 and its contemporary Alfetta models is very limited: the “119” didn’t receive its own specific project and chassis code for nothing: bodyshell, suspensions, engine and transmission were all unique to Alfa Romeo’s flagship.

The Alfa Romeo V6 engine, as it debuted on the Alfa 6 (c. wheelsage.org)

And what an engine it was: the famed V6 engine designed by engineer Giuseppe Busso was specifically designed for the “119” and to this day defines the character of the car, with its unmistakable noise and smooth power delivery. Power that was sent to the 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” cars wasn’t deemed suited to a higher-end offering such as the “119”.

Production of the car was intended to start in 1974, but world 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 “119” became the Alfa 6 and was launched, five years later than planned.

The Alfa 6 briefly used by the Pope, now in the Alfa Romeo Museum (picture from the Author)

Those five years had not been 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’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 quietly stopped in 1987, soon after Alfa Romeo had been swallowed by Fiat Auto. Unsold Alfa 6 models got to rather uncomfortably share showroom space with the striking new 164, and were eventually “moved” only thanks to generous discounts.

After decades of oblivion though, 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 is on my YouTube channel for you to enjoy.

If you want to know more about the Alfa 6’s fascinating story, I’ve written a book about it, available here.

Author: Matteo Licata

I've been obsessed with cars for as long as I can remember, and I started drawing them the very moment I could hold a pencil in my hand. Being born in 1980s Turin, it wasn't long before I realized there were people actually drawing cars for a living: I remember I had a Giugiaro Design school diary, sometime in the late 80s, and every month there was a glossy picture of some of his concept cars: Aspid, Asgard, Capsula, Machimoto... From then on, my path was set: I was going to be a "car designer", come hell or high water, and have now been living the dream for about ten years. I've so far published two books about cars, with more to come. Find out more at roadster-life.com

33 thoughts on “The Forgotten Alfa”

  1. “Those five years had not been 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.”

    Tough crowd !

    When I first saw this car I though it must be a copy of the BMW e28 which was introduced a decade after this car was styled.

  2. Putting aside the fuel crisis (that caused many carmakers to make 2-litre tax specials for Italy, etc) as well as the fact it was originally intended to appear in 1974, were other displacements planned for the Alfa 6 beyond the initial 2.5-lire V6? Also were any other bodystyles or little known variants planned?

  3. Good morning, Matteo, and thanks for the reminder of an enigmatic and underappreciated car. I’m surprised to read that it had a unique bodyshell, and shared so little with its smaller sibling. When it was launched, I recall that it was widely regarded as merely an Alfetta centre section with longer front and rear ends. It didn’t help that the Alfa 6 looked exactly like that caricature. Whereas the Alfetta was an exceptionally handsome and well balanced car, the Alfa 6 looked rather unbalanced in comparison, rather too long and narrow, with a passenger cell and DLO too small for its overall length:

    A 75mm stretch in the wheelbase and a similar increase in overall width would have improved its stance immeasurably. I would suggest that it was its appearance even more than its lateness to market that harmed its prospects so much.

  4. The story of the aptly named (“Be an Alfa!”) and bitterly sold
    flagship Alfa, deserves an article at the very least. I hope there will be more content coming on this one, and I’m grateful for
    this topic-opener by M.Licatta.

    Whilst the Alfetta may appear a better-looking car than
    the Sei overall, in real-world angles / presence, I find that
    the Alfetta has two major objective styling flaws, which are, however, of the character-enhancing type, hence actually contributing to its appeal:

    1. Door-handles are slightly awkwardly angled, and positioned
    way too close to the beltline.

    2. Front overhang is carelessly disproportionate to the rear.
    (the latter does not necessarily prevent a car to be beautiful
    on the street – just take a look at the original A7, eg. – yet
    it does look worrying, when the design is observed
    directly from the profile).

    As it stands, therefore, the Alfetta has the slight problem of its trunk looking just a tad too ‘stuck on’, giving away a hint of those hatch-based quasi-sedan derivatives (which, admittedly, seldom look good, whereas the Alfetta manages to get away with it thanks
    to certain deeper layers of charm it exudes, rather disarmingly).

    The Sei!, on the other hand (exclamation mark here is subliminal, but the word-puzzle nature of its cunning “Alfa Sei” definitely contains a virtual, psychological “!”…), if observed in a cold, architectural manner, is definitely much purer in its essential geometric qualities, and there is hardly ever a proportional
    deficit on it, wherever you look for one.
    It’s just a clean, tidy piece of design.

    It does, admittedly, look a bit too long for its cross-section, as Daniel wrote, but that’s a matter of taste, as the ‘Ammiraglia’ spirit is usually about being as comfortable as possible whilst being aero-sleek at the same time. On the other hand, it’s a matter of facts,
    as, at 2,83 : 1 Length/Width ratio, one cannot dismiss this
    as a ‘subjective impression’ only.

    It’s a vehicle that makes you arrive noticably. In parts.
    Which, in this segment, is what it’s all about.

    I’d make a strong case that much of the buyers’ aversion was due
    to the pompously S/F designed cockpit, and especially the
    passion-deleting way the steering wheel was designed:
    tried hard to visualize a hardcore Alfa fan that looked at
    and thought of buying one, until he/she sat inside and were
    dissuaded by that mechanophobic, cubistic and soul-crushing
    helm that almost screams ‘get out and do not drive me’.
    (as opposed to, say, the later Alfa 90, whose steering wheel
    was so warm and inviting in a typical irresistible Alfa manner…).

    The Sei’s exterior design is definitely not to blame, in my personal opinion. Still, there are several things that strike me particularly :

    1. It has a healthy dose of intimidating grille & headlight ‘grimasse’, which, in this segment, usually helped sell, as the rear-view
    mirror appearance had to be a tough one (Perhaps not
    with the diehard Alfisti, apparently).

    2. The strong shark-nose virtual angling of the grill (achieved by the aggressively shaped turn indicators, but also the objective angle)
    unnecessarily reinforces the above ‘menacing look’, perhaps overly so. The resultant facial aggressiveness just doesn’t ‘click’ as a chemistry with the restrained, elegant and very classy look
    of the rest of the body.

    (Actually, in the way the Sei’s ‘facial features’ are philosophically disconnected to the rest of the car, it reminds me a lot of the
    BMW E60. Perhaps, had the E60 been offered in an era when
    styling was way more relevant, it would be a similar
    flop. Who knows.).

    3. In its central, cabin/doors part, the 6 looks very similar to something that would come from Peugeot/Pininfarina,
    and somehow manages to resemble an exactly halfway
    ‘hybrid’ of 604 and 505. Which is puzzling, indeed.
    Maybe it’s the door handles, but I’d swear
    there’s more to it.

    4. Having seen, in the 80’s, a (now hard-to-locate) Alfa 6 commercial from the french magazine Lui (where the car
    was photographed dead side-on, but from a kneeling photographer angle – pavement perspective), it still amazes me how aggressive
    and modern the 6 can look if observed from lower down, where
    the roof/windscreen is ‘deleted’ from the picture.
    It goes to show, perhaps, that the shape/angle of windscreen might be a culprit, just as well. If the styling is, at all, to blame…

    This was an attempt of briefly investigating any styling-related aspects that might lead to the failure of this (nowadays totally iconic) part of Alfa’s illustrious history. There are, of course,
    a myriad of socio-economic and other factors that need
    to be further investigated about its commercial saga.

  5. I remember this car for two reasons: the fact that it was called the Alfa Romeo Alfa 6 (some people never learn, the DS3/ DS7 are called the DS DS3/ DS DS7 afterall, and I am not sure that Mazda2/ 3/ 6 are not, not called Mazda Mazda2/ 3/ 6?); and that it was the first beneficiary of the Busso V6. Car also managed a witty GBU comment about it at some point, which escapes me, but I do know it was funny.

    It’s the sort of car I’d love to come across casually in a car park, or even at a classic show …

    Not entirely relevant to this, but I saw a Nissan (Datsun?) Cherry (N12 – 4th generation) Turbo in immaculate condition on the A43 this morning, which was a delight to view and I applaud the gentleman in the driver’s seat for the very splendid piece of preservation he had clearly recently completed.

    1. I’m not that sure about the DSs. My understanding was always that it was Citroën DS5, but was then changed to DS 5 (with the “5” as model name) after the carve-out. But I don’t actually know what’s written on the car or in brochures and catalogues.

  6. Hi Alex. Amazingly, you’re right!

    (Oops, that didn’t come out the way I intended. I’ll start again.)

    Hi Alex. You’re right! Amazingly, the Alfa 6 appears to have escaped the gimlet-eyed scrutiny of the DTW Illuminati, despite extensive coverage of the marque and its cars here. It is referred to obliquely in this piece about shared body structures and doors:

    https://driventowrite.com/2017/08/08/alfa-romeo-116-series-saloons-alfetta-giulietta-six-90-75/#more-39108

    And features here, but only referencing an unloved example on a used car lot:

    https://driventowrite.com/2015/05/06/theme-secondhand-forecourt-temptations-1/#more-9866

    What is about Alfa Romeo and delayed launches of its large saloons? Having possibly damaged the Alfa 6’s prospects with a protracted delay, I recall the company repeated the error with the 166, which was apparently designed before the 156 but not launched until 1999, three years after its smaller sibling.

    I’m not sure I entirely agree with you about the Alfetta’s unbalanced overhangs but, in any event, the issue was addressed in the extensively modified Mk2 model, which had 105mm added to the front overhang:

    (A poor photo, but the best side profile shot I could find.)

  7. On the subject of underappreciated Alfas, here’s one of my favourites, the 90:

    I think Eóin and Richard have a sneaking regard for it too, although I fear we may be in a small minority. Apparently, the Alfa 90 fan club holds its annual meeting in a phone box.

    1. Daniel +1. Quirky, smartly presented, interesting engineering. What’s not to like?

    2. As a useless aside, all Series 1 Alfa 6s supplied to the UK market (which were very few indeed) were built in Italy, so rusted in-line with other Italian contemporaries (i.e., about the same pace as Japanese and French rivals in period), but the few facelift Series 2 RHD models imported were assembled in South Africa, meaning these rotted far sooner due to the lack /need of extensive corrosion protection in ZA. The same applies to later Mercedes-Benz C- and E-Class saloons built in South Africa for the UK and other RHD markets; they rust!

    3. I confess to always have preferred the 90’s looks over the 75’s except for its silly LED instrument panel. The 90 was another example of an Alfa aimed at customers who’d never buy an Alfa anyway.
      If you like box shaped Alfas look no further than this one:

      The 166 was delayed because Alfa threw all development capacity at bringing the 156 forward for a 1997 instead of 1998 presentation. This put the 166 on ice for more than a year.

    4. Hi Dave. That’s one I’ve never seen before, an undeveloped prototype, I assume. Could you tell us more about it?

    5. I also wonder what that silver car is. Weren’t there some special Alfas outside Europe that never made it to the home market?

      Regarding the 90, I guess my participation in the fan club will finally make the phone box an unsuitable meeting point. I had an unexplicable love for this car from the beginning, although admittedly I don’t even find it that attractive. It might rather be some sort of underdog fondness that’s popping up here. I remember the extendable front spoiler that was a big topic in all magazines (for lack of other selling points? although I guess the engines were one). If I remember correctly it was moved against a spring by the oncoming air pressure.

    6. The silver Alfa is an FNM 2300 Rio from Brazil. It has nothing to do with Alfettas but is a modernized version of the old 1900/2000 Berlina with the cast iron block engine with separate cam covers bored out to 2300 cc and 130 hp.

      In the late Seventies Alfa Frankfurt who seem to have had a lot of freedom to do their own commercial decisions wanted to import the Rio to have a cheaper car than Alfettas, seemingly before anyone had seen the car in the metal. Sales material was printed and press announcements were made before the first truckload of Rios arrived in Frankfurt. When they saw the car all activities were immediately stopped and all Rios were sold to used car dealers where they were on offer for pocket money until the mid Eighties. Customers signed an agreement stating that they were informed the cars came without any kind of warranty and no spare parts were available and no parts from other Alfas could be used.

    7. That’s a cracking story, Dave! Just how bad must the car have been? Did nobody think it was worth flying to Brazil to try one out before committing to the order? Very funny, and a rather ungermanic blunder.

      Simon K, thanks for the link. Embarrassingly, I read that piece not so long ago, then promptly forgot all about it.

      Simon S, never mind the retractable front spoiler, you’re forgetting the 90’s true USP, the removable briefcase contained within the dashboard:

      Bonkers, but brilliant!

      As we’re having fun identifying obscure cars of Italian origin, but manufactured elsewhere, here’s one from me:

    8. Alfa’s Frankfurt steward at that time was Ettore Massacesi who told the press at the Alfetta’s German debut that the true Alfa driver was the one with a Giulia…
      It indeed is amazing that nobody bothered to check what cars they were going to import with the Rios.
      Some/most of Alfa’s product strategy decisions are near impossible to understand. I don’t know whether Giuseppe Luraghi is the one to blame or the Fiat managers in the IRI board who had to sign off any decisions made by their competitor.

      My only near-experience with Rios is from 1982 or 1983 when a chap I knew called me one evening and told me he was standing at [insert name of used car dealer of your choice] and they had a brand new Alfa for just 5,000 Deutschmarks – less than half of what a new Lada would have cost. I told him what it was and that he better shouldn’t buy it. He took it for a short test drive and was astonished how agricultural it felt but would have bought it nevertheless because it was an Alfa and dirt cheap. But when he saw the paper he was supposed to sign (no warranty, no spares) he immediately dropped the idea.

  8. Beyond the racing derived 2.6-litre Montreal V8 used by Autodelta in the smaller Alfetta GTV (with a 3-litre version planned at one point), did Alfa Romeo look at developing a larger engine above the V6 prior to the fuel crisis?

    Sure the V6 was one of the best engines of its type, yet it is difficult to see why Alfa Romeo thought they could get away with just a 2.5-litre V6 in the Alfa 6 by the time it belatedly reached production compared to other rivals in the luxury saloon market.

    1. Seemingly Alfa intended to put the Montreal V8 in top of the range versions of this family of cars. Fuel crisis and Alfa’s economic turmoil killed this engine – a 119 ‘Otto’ with three litre V8 would have given BMW’s E12 M535 or E28 M5 a good run for their money.
      Originally there was no need for a larger engine than the 2.5. The Sei didn’t sell and the Alfetta’s gearbox couldn’t take the torque of any larger engine so a larger engine wouldn’t have sense and Alfa needed the money to pay for other things anway.
      The first enlarged V6s came from German tuner Gleich (who’d also built one or two Alfetta GTVs with Montreal engines as well as offered the first ‘Sud engines with the later Ti four carburettor setup) with 2.8 litres and 190 hp which went unnoticed by Alfa since that capacity never found its way in the official cars.

    2. Understand the 3-litre V8 prototype from Autodelta put out significantly more power in motorsport tune, though using the 197 hp 2.6 V8 as a rough guide a 3-litre version would be putting out around 228 hp. Which is competitive against the BMW E12 M535’s 215 hp, though would likely need further enlargement (if feasible) to a 3.5 V8 putting out around 250-270 hp to be competitive against the 256-286 hp BMW E28 M5 or if failing that a 242-266 hp 2.9-3.2 Ferrari Dino V8 as used in both the Ferrari Mondial as well as the Lancia Thema 8.32 in detuned 215 hp 2.9 V8 form.

    3. The Alfa V8 was able to deliver serious power.
      In two litre flat crank form in the 33 Stradale it had 220 hp to 240 hp, only depending on how far the test dyno could be revved.
      Seemingly the standard Montreal engine with cross plane crank could be tuned to around 300 hp without much problems. Autodelta engines derived from the Montral unit were successful in boat racing with three litres and up to 340 hp.

      The Alfetta gearbox always was the car’s Achilles heel – not only because of its terrible gearshift quality but also because it was too fragile to take the power/torque of anything bigger than the 2.5 (please also remember the GTV6 needed a twin disc clutch because the unit was too small in diameter in order to fit under the car without making ground contact on every bump). A larger engine only became possible after the gearbox was reworked for the 75 with better gear linkage and somewhat sturdier internals.

    4. Understand. The V8 would have been worth it for the Alfa 6 had it featured a better gearbox, albeit some stretch beyond 3-litres.

      It is disappointing the Alfa 6 was both a victim of circumstance thanks to its belated launch as well as a compromised design due to the gearbox, it kind of reminds one of the Chrysler 180 in some respects such as the British version of Project 929 originally being intended to feature a 2-2.5-litre Rootes V6 and itself being an unhappily compromised design.

    5. There was nothing wrong with the Alfa 6’s front mounted ZF gearbox.
      It was the Alfetta’s rear mounted homebrew gearbox that couldn’t take more power.

      If Giancarlo Catarsi (‘vetture che hanno fatto la storia: Alfetta’ Giorgio Nada editore. Highly recommended reading) is right, the whole project started with 119 dimensions. The decision to move the gearbox to the rear wheels was made later and as a consequence the wheelbase was shortened because without a gearbox tunnel there was enough room for passengers up front with a shorter wheelbase.
      The front suspension of all 166/119 cars had torsion bars to make room under the bonnet for big engines like the V8.
      There were to be three versions with entry level models featuring the trusty four cylinder engine, the mid range with the new V6 and top versions getting derivatives of the Montreal V8. The mid range cars were meant to bring the money and the base range was for production volume.
      The energy crisis and resulting economic collapse in Italy together with Alfa’s own problems (many, but not all of them ‘Sud-related) put an end to these ambitious plans, leaving only the low profit base versions which got a crap interior to save some money and create a minimum of profit.

    1. Correct, Charles, well done! I thought that might have taken longer to expose.

      Despite its Fiat Regata style uptick to the window line, it’s actually a rebodied Fiat 131. Here’s a rather more flattering photo, emphasising the Regata-esque styling:

      They even did an estate version, the Kartal, with a raised roof line:

      I’m not sure exactly how that rain gutter is meant to work.

  9. It seems the delay of the Alfa Romeo 6 also impacted the Brazilian built Alfa Romeo 2300, since the Alfa Romeo V6 was at one point also planned for the latter before receiving an enlarged 2310cc version of the Alfa Twin-Cam engine.

    To be honest while being aware of the Alfa Twin-Cam also reputedly forming the basis of the inline-6 used in the Alfa Romeo 2600, am fascinated by the fact the Alfa Twin-Cam was capable of growing above 2-litres to around 2132-2310cc in the Brazilian market and wonder how much further scope for enlargement the Twin-Cam engine had left?

    Also is it known whether Alfa Romeo themselves had plans to fit the 2.3-litre Twin-Cam or other enlarged Twin-Cam derivative into any of its non-Brazilian market cars like the Giulia, Berlina, Alfaetta and Spider?

    1. The Alfa Rio (planned German model designation) strictly speaking wasn’t even an Alfa but an FNM Alfa 2300.

      It was based on the old 1900/2000 platform, the car that re-started Alfa as a car manufacturer after the war.
      Its engine is based on the 1900/2000’s engine with an iron block and has absolutely nothing to do with the all-aluminium later Alfa engines. This engine is easily identified by its individual cam covers
      https://www.alfabb.com/bb/forums/attachment.php?attachmentid=105206&stc=1&d=1212792992
      The later 750-series 1300cc Giulietta engine with its thermostat housing between cylinders 2 and 3

      as well as the 101/105 series 1600cc and larger Giulia engines with thermostat housing next to the cam chain box
      https://i1.wp.com/viaretro.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Alfa-Romeo-Nord-twincam.jpg?fit=533%2C400&ssl=1
      are completely different engines.
      The inline six from the 2300/2600 was based on the later 101 series four, not the 1900 as a simple look at its cam cover and the fact that it has an aluminium block should show

      Alfa never had intentions to fit the Brazilian cast iron lump of an engine into the Milan made cars.

      You probably bought Matteo’s book after reading this article. The book should be seen as what it is, a collection of rare pictures but the text should be taken with a pinch of salt because it contains far too many factual errors. If you want to know more about these cars try to get one of these

    2. Dave

      Thanks for clearing things up. will look out for Giancarlo Catarsi’s book on the Alfetta (are there any plans for an English language print?).

      It is unfortunate the Alfa Romeo 2600 could not have been made to handle better nor could the 2584cc inline-6 be made lighter. More intrigued by the prospect of a near-200 hp 2943cc inline-6 derived from the 1962cc Twin-Cam, unless that was the original plan for the Alfa Romeo 2600 (to carry it into the 1970s prior to being replaced by the Alfa Romeo 6) had it been a success.

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