The tale of CEM, Alfa Romeo’s in-house electronic engine management system, which redefined what was ‘state of the art’ in engine technology, outdoing Bosch with a fraction of its research budget. To no avail.
The history of tailpipe emissions regulations started, as many may know, with the USA’s Clean Air Act of 1966. Alfa Romeo’s share of the US market was minuscule, but the engineers at the Milan HQ could see the writing on the wall: it was now just a matter of time before similar measures would be enacted in Europe as well.
The Italian company needed to find ways to preserve the power and torque characteristics that Alfa’s customers had come to expect from its engines, into a future of pressing societal and regulatory demands. Alfa Romeo’s first response to the American regulations was a mechanical fuel injection system it co-developed with the controlled supplier company Spica. Still, the Italian engineers also worked with the eponymous German supplier Bosch, the pioneer in electronic fuel injection systems.
Yet the Alfa Romeo’s proud, competent, and passionate engineers weren’t entirely satisfied with Bosch’s systems, considered too crude to achieve the engine performance they were after: more of a necessary evil than an elegant engineering solution. As those who read my book about the Alfa 6 may remember, that’s the reason why Alfa’s flagship initially used a set of six carburettors: European legislation at the time still lagged considerably behind the American’s.
Alfa Romeo’s research and development budget could only stretch so much, though, given the Italian company’s small size and its steadily declining fortunes. Enter the CNR (Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche), Italy’s largest public research institution: in 1979, it awarded a massive 23 Billion Liras contract to the CRF (Centro Ricerche Fiat), the research branch of Fiat, for the development of advanced technology for the transportation sector. Alfa Romeo (remember, still state-owned at the time) saw an opportunity: it became a subcontractor for the CRF, charged with the development of electronic engine management systems and hybrid vehicle technologies.
One of the secrets of Alfa Romeo engines was the Alimentazione Singola, or the use of one throttle body for each cylinder, as it allowed more overlap in the engine’s timing. This wasn’t deemed possible with the Bosch fuel injection systems then available, so Alfa Romeo set out developing its own, the CEM (Controllo Elettronico Motore). The engine used as a base platform was the classic 1962cc inline-four twin-cam engine then used on the Alfetta.
Its pair of double-choke side-draught Weber 40 DCOE carbs and distribution ignition was replaced by a fully integrated electronic engine management system that utilized one throttle body for each cylinder and allowed “modular” operation. The CEM-equipped Alfetta 2.0 could run on just two cylinders at light engine loads and smoothly transition back to four cylinders, saving fuel yet retaining the power (130HP) and drivability of the standard carburetted engine.
Alfa Romeo then took the technology out of the laboratory to place it on Milan’s roads: ten Alfetta 2.0 CEM were put into the hands of local taxi drivers for six months during 1983, during which each car clocked around 40,000 closely monitored kilometres. The small fleet performed admirably, and the modular function proved to reduce fuel consumption by around 12%.
The success of the taxi experiment led to a wider one, involving a fleet of 1000 Alfetta 2.0 CEM that were sold to actual Alfa Romeo customers, picked among the marque’s faithful. This was no small commitment, though: 1000 cars meant the CEM became a production reality, one that involved Alfa’s supplier network and cost-benefit evaluations for the future. That’s where things began to unravel.
It was calculated that, if fitted in series production to 10,000 Alfetta 2.0 each year, the production cost of the CEM added around 50% to the cost of the 1962cc engine, which would then translate in a showroom price difference far too high for the customer to accept. Alfa Romeo had redefined what was state of the art in engine technology, outdone Bosch with a fraction of its research budget, but the commercial viability of the CEM was questionable, at best.
Bosch was a specialized company that supplied everyone in the business, including Alfa Romeo itself, while the Italian company was a loss-making specialist manufacturer that built less than 200,000 cars each year: the economies of scale simply didn’t work. It’s unclear whether all the planned 1000 Alfetta CEM were built, but the car did become available in 1983, with quite a few surviving today in enthusiast’s hands.
The last hurrah of the CEM would be the Alfa 90 2.0 V6, an Italian-Tax-Break-Special made from 1985 to 1987: its engine was a CEM-equipped 1996cc version of the beloved Busso V6 engine, but devoid of the ‘modular’ function. Around 1500 cars were produced. Meanwhile, in late 1986 Fiat had taken over Alfa Romeo, and profitability was to take precedence over costly feats of engineering, no matter how clever. But that’s another story.