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 (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!
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.
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.
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.
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.