Under the Knife – Racing Certainty

Despite being an all-conquering touring car champion, the Alfa Romeo 155 wasn’t the commercial or critical success its masters intended. But a subtle, if significant facelift salved its reputation.

1992 Alfa Romeo 155. Image: pistonudos

Despite its long-in-the-tooth underpinnings and carryover passenger compartment, the Alfa Romeo 75 became a relatively successful and well-regarded sporting saloon until its commercial demise in 1992. The ultimate evolution of the 116-series which made its production debut with the 1972 Alfetta, the 75 excised many (if not all) of the earlier models’ inherent design flaws – most notably a lengthy, tortuous and unwieldy gear linkage owing to its rear transaxle layout.

In 1986, Fiat Auto acquired the Alfa Romeo business from the state-owned body who had been administering it in ever-decreasing circles, and with a successor to the 75 by then a priority, the 167-series 155 model was hastily developed, entering production in 1992 at the former Alfa Sud plant at Pomigliano d’Arco in Campania.

The 155 was based on a modular group architecture, in this case, the Tipo Tre platform shared with Lancia’s Dedra and a number of similarly dimensioned Fiat models – bringing the mid-range model into line with the remainder of the Alfa Romeo saloon range. Another formal shift was the choice of an external styling house instead of an out of favour centro stile Alfa Romeo – the I.D.E.A institute, led by Ercole Spada being the parent’s consultancy of choice at the time.

Former Alfa Romeo Design Director, Ermano Cressoni had by then transferred to centro stile Fiat at Mirafiori, and it’s fair to say that his influence was strongly felt on the chosen 167-series design theme – very much in the idiom of the outgoing 75, with its uncompromising mix of overt shutlines, light lines and body swages – all of which sat rather unhappily with the tall and narrow Tipo Tre base unit.

The resultant design was one which probably looked quite purposeful in its initial styling sketches, but suffered from an unfortunate tall and narrow appearance and a tip-toes stance. This was in some ways a nod back to Alfas of yore, and it has been suggested that this was something of the party line offered up at the time, and while the 155 as initially offered was almost cohesive, for what was to have been the sporting model of the group, its appearance was, let’s just say, a matter of opinion.

(c) autoevolution

The 155 made some friends, but many Alfisti were aghast, not only at its appearance (a major disappointment in the wake of the supremely elegant 164 model), but at the loss of the time-honoured Alfa Romeo rear-drive layout, which the 155’s distinctly fwd-oriented road behaviour did little to assuage – although a four-wheel drive Q4 version offered some solace in this respect.

In 1995 a series of quite comprehensive revisions were made to the model. These were mostly of a technical nature, with significant revisions taking place forward of the bulkhead. Suspension and steering were now shared with the 916-series GTV/ Spider, while engines were new Fiat-developed Twin Spark units, replacing Alfa Romeo’s own long-lived and well-proven (Alfa-Nord) in-line twin-plug fours, in addition to the carried over 2.5 litre Busso V6. A quicker steering rack was also part of the revisions (on the four cylinder cars), and this in conjunction with wider wheel-tracks front and rear made the 155 into the Alfa Romeo it perhaps wasn’t quite at launch.

These changes also necessitated some quite subtle bodywork changes, most notably flared front wheelarches. This, along with a subtle bodykit and new, more attractive wheel designs had a transformational effect, lending the 155 a more planted, purposeful mien. Still no oil painting, the Alfa Romeo midliner now at least looked the foursquare pugilist it was intended to be. In a very similar manner to its predecessor, following its midlife revisions, the facelifted 155 was transformed both from a stance and visual poise perspective.

Always a shape which lent itself to go-faster addenda, as seen in its Alfa Corse incarnations – it has been suggested that the wider track widths were driven from motorsport necessity – FIA regulations stipulating production in excess of 25,000 units of the revised car in order to homologate it for track use. It certainly can be said to have an effect on the circuit, the 155 winning the Italian, German, Spanish, and British touring car championships in the hands of, amongst such luminaries as Giancarlo Fisichella, Nicola Larini, Adrian Campos and Gabriele Tarquini.

Unfortunately, this didn’t necessarily translate into showroom traffic – the 155 fizzling out in commercial terms, a matter which is believed to have necessitated the rushed introduction of its 156 replacement in 1997.

Nevertheless, from an inauspicious beginning, the 155 became if not exactly a swan, a more purposeful, and far more desirable motor car – especially it’s said, in well-balanced 2-litre Twin-Spark form. In this case at least, racing certainly appears to have improved the breed.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

28 thoughts on “Under the Knife – Racing Certainty”

  1. The 155 was a cobbled together stop gap solution to get the 75 out of production which followed antediluvian processes – the 75 was the last car in European production with the engine fitted from above.
    The 155 went through all iterations of the Tipo Tre platform. It also went through the platform change afterv the disastrous crash test of the Fiat Tipo when Fiat put additional fifty to sixty kilograms of material in the front without getting any better crash results. It once also got an interior made from significantly better materials like the 145/146 (LHD cars only).
    At a certain point Fiat gave up trying to earn money with the 155 and used it as a showcase for their technology. Fiat and Ford at that time were the only manufacturers having an early kind of 3D printing facility made from a container filled with resin which was hardened using 3D focussed laser rays. This could be and was used to create plastic press tools directly from CAD drawings that were good enough to press ten to twenty prototype parts, speeding up prototype construction significantly and making it cheaper at the same time. Without this the large facelift wouldn’t have been possible.
    These last 155s were acceptable cars with much of the 156’s mechanicals.
    The AWD 155s were unloved by Alfisti because they shared their drivetrain with the Lancia Integrale, including Lampredi engine.
    The 155 V6 TI racers used in German DTM had longitudinally mounted engines that were cut down from a V8 availe somewhere in the Fiat warehouse.

    1. It hardly matters in the scheme of things, but I note here for completeness: there were two different engines used in the DTM 155s. The original ones were (loosely) based on the Arese V6, 60-degree V6, etc, as the rules mandated production semblance in some vague form. Later on, from memory early in 1996, this was replaced with a 90-degree V6 that Alfa briefed to the press was based on the Montreal unit, since the V-angle was a bit of a giveaway. In fact it was (highly loosely) based on the PRV used in the Thema, allowed under homologation because at that time Alfa-Lancia Industriale had been agglomerated as a single business entity. The PRV link was kept hidden for ‘prestige’ reasons and it not being Italian, etc. I gather these later engines are the ones to have if you are a collector, now – since so few were produced they are highly desirable and worth an absolute fortune.

  2. Good morning Eóin. The 155 facelift was so subtle that it had passed me by, but it certainly was effective in improving the stance of the car. Unfortunately, I suspect I was amongst the great majority who had already dismissed the 155 as a Fiat Tempra in a party frock, so it was beyond salvation in the market.

    That said, its predecessor the 75 really did fall into the “what we’re they thinking” category as regards its exterior design. The nasty upward break in the body side crease aft of the rear door made it look like it had been rear-ended by an HGV. The plastic capping that ran from the tip of the front wing right around the car was just horrible and served no useful purpose:

    It’s hardly surprising that the Alfa Romeo centro stile was shuttered after that, but Ermanno Cressoni managed to survive the embarassment. Interestingly, the 33 had a more subtle (i.e. less brutal) interpretation of the tail treatment and looked rather nice, so Cressoni might have been emboldened by its reception.

    1. The black plastic strip was there for a reason. On the Giulietta the door window seals were notorious traps for moisture and filth, resulting in unsightly growth of moss and premature corrosion. For the 75 the cheap solution was to hide the critical area under a wide strip of black plastic, intended to guide moisture away from the panel seam along the window opening. It was Cressoni’s idea to simply continue this block of black plastic on the wings where it indeed served absolutely no purpose.

    2. Daniel: My sources tell me that centro stile Alfa Romeo was not in fact closed until Alfa’s Arese facility was shut and demolished about a decade ago. In fact, the MiTo was the final Alfa designed there. In light of this, I have amended the relevant portion of the article. Additionally, I’m not sure Alfa’s designs under Cressoni were viewed in a particularly negative light – certainly, had they been, it’s unlikely he would have secured such a senior post at Fiat, with oversight over a wide range of products.

      Dave: In fairness, by the close of the ’80s the 75 was pretty antediluvian, being (however loosely) based on a twenty-year old platform and powertrain. So not only was it a time-consuming and inefficient (ergo expensive) car to build, it was also by then an outlier, sharing no commonality with the remainder of the AR range. As much as we might deplore the switch to a corporate platform, it was the only thing Fiat could reasonably afford to do – or indeed was prepared to do by then.

  3. One of the styling features that the 155 shared with the 75 was the general shape of the headlamps – that reversed inner edge that contradicts the direction of movement and airflow over the car. I can’t think of any other cars that used this styling feature, although I’m sure they exist. It adds some character and aggression that would otherwise be quite absent.

    I agree that the updated cars were much improved, although an original 155 ordered with slightly lowered suspension and wider Alfa wheels significantly improved the styling . A base pre-facelift 1.8 on narrow wheels certainly looked quite unappealing.

  4. Now, this is interesting (at least to me, having mentioned the 33 above).

    The original 1983 Series 1 Alfa 33 had the same sharp upward break in the tail that was reprised on the 75:

    However, I think it works on the 33 because the lines seem to radiate out from a single point:

    On the 1985 Alfa 75, the same feature lines are roughly parallel, which doesn’t seem to work:

    In any event, on the 1990 Alfa 33 Series 2 facelift, the tail is much more conventionally handled:

    Perhaps this was a result of the poor reception afforded to the 75? The timings would fit.

    1. Argh, the 33, the car that could have been an Alfasud without the rust but was (again) an Alfa for people who wouldn’t buy an Alfa in the first place. Cressoni called the upward kink in the rear ‘La Linea’, one of his personal obsessions just like front door windows with a kink at their bottom, a feature he always wanted to do and couldn’t on the Fiat Cinquecento for cost reasons but on the Alfa 145 he finally got what he wanted.

    2. Quite like the proposed 3-door version of the 33 (which could have been an expident replacement for both the 3-door Alfasud and Alfasud Sprint) yet the 33 was not truly an Alfasud replacement, there was also a Giugiaro 3/5-door hatchback proposal that was arguably more like the original Alfasud in being a proper hatchback unlike the notchback on the 33.

      Am more intrigued as to what Alfa Romeo’s original plans were for what eventually became the Arna prior to its ill-fated collaboration with Nissan. While it is likely the Arna was simply conceived as a quick stop-gap to replace the Alfasud prior to the arrival of the 33, cannot shake off the impression Alfa Romeo at some point originally wanted to split the Alfasud replacement into two cars with the smaller of the two being a more direct Alfasud replacement (possibly envisaged as a larger B-segment car kind of like the Ritmo/Ronda-based mk1 Seat Ibiza) and the larger 33 slotting above it.

      Had Alfa Romeo been in a better position to indeed replace the Alfasud with two cars without relying on Nissan, would have loved to have seen an in-house analogue of the Arna carry over an evolution of the Alfasud Series 3 exterior styling.

  5. Perhaps I am an outlier here. The 75 always appealed to me because of its stridently unlovely form. You could call it anti-design. It´s purposefully not beautiful and 3-plus years later is still really interesting to gaze at. And it drove well to boot. I have similar feelings for the 155 and indeed I saw one in motion last week. You could not mistake it for anything else – it´s so Italian and technological. You could say both are the kinds of unsettling designs designers love.
    Good analyses by the way, Daniel. I use the same method and in principle you are right. I had not seen the underlying structure of the 33 before. Neat!

  6. Well, one can call me a hard boiled alfista, which is why it is difficult for me to say anything negative about the brand and their products.

    It should also be mentioned that our garage is completely full – we only have 3 parking spaces, so we have to be very homeopathic with our purchase decisions.

    I would like a 75. Neither the shutline gaps nor the critical design decisions bother me. It’s just a wonderful package of useless engineering. And if the transaxle arrangement means that the transmission is installed far back in the vehicle – the best weight distribution that I could never fathom with my lousy driving ability – and the shift travel is rather spongy because of the large distance, then that simply means there is no advantage without a disadvantage.

    At the beginning of the 90s I failed to buy an Alfetta GT (no, no GTV, 1st series, Italian import with a 1.6 liter engine not offered in Germany) in blue with a brown interior. Every now and then I get annoyed about it, but – no disadvantage without an advantage – otherwise the Alfasud Sprint from the 1st series (red with brown interior) would never have come to us.

    Well the main reason I never stumbled upon a worth buying 75 later was the interior design. The dashboard in black, the fabrics in three colors: dark black, medium black or light black.

    The reason why I was never interested in a 155, it was only available in one interior color: black. Light-colored leather was still available for an extra charge, but I generally don’t sit on leather seats, not at home in my living room, and certainly not in a car. I think the 155 is pretty good, despite the Fiat base. But that was contemporary fashion back then, sporty meant it had to be a black interior. (The peak of tastelessness and boredom was one of my boss’s vehicles, a MB 190 E 2.5-16 Evolution in black outside, and, needless to say, inside all black leather – every kilometer driven was a waste of a lifetime)

    No, the 75 and 155 really have not be not my cup of tea. Then rather the earlier models, where the inside was not all covered with leather or plastic and at least a bit of color can be seen by the painted sheet metal – but as I said, the parking spaces in the garage are occupied anyway …

    1. Fred: I understand your point. Starting in 1985 colour went out the door. The Alfa 75 would be sublime with a metallic brown exterior and beige velour interior; or a light metallic grey exterior and light blue cloth; or metallic green and an oatmeal cloth plus brown hard trim. By 1988 colour had gone and Citroen found themselves with dark brown and dark blue versions of the XM interior that nobody wanted. That´s how I ended up with my coal-hole XM. It was a lovely car but the interior is killed by the uniform blackess.
      I will now see if one can find a single blue or brown XM interior on sale. I have seen one example of both in real life. They did make them.

  7. The 75’s plastic strip also serves as a way of integrating (Or not depending on how you feel about the effect) the small tail spoiler on the larger engined cars, this wasn’t available on the 1.8 but the strip implied that it was thus making it look less of a pauper’s car. The 75 was the imaginary car I tried to doodle on my school exercise books. The 155’s extreme FWD stance and soft edges were actually startlingly similar to my free-hand efforts; I think I deserved a royalty payment for that design.
    Even in first series form the 155 looked like a higher value car than the 75, due to it’s well finished nose that avoided the Giulietta and 75’s overt plasticyness. I once saw a book with some of IDEA’s sketches in it and they featured a silver Alfa-Romeo script in the air inlet right of the shield and that looked even better.
    I’m minded to think that this was the last new car to launch with the original twin cam engine (In non- UK 1.7L* guise). If that is the case then there is something to be said for the early 155 been the last true Alfa. Especially as it bravely cleaved to the wedge shaped school of motoring which went right back to the Montreal, flying in the face of the 1990’s increasingly blobby conventions.

    *Not to be confused with the Alfa Twin Spark engine- that was derived from it but had few parts on common; engines that could mate together but not produce fertile offspring- or the later FIAT derived twin sparks.

    1. The Alfa 155 never had anything but engines with two spark plugs per cylinder, called Twin Spark in Alfa speak.
      The early engines were based on the narrow angle GTA/Autodelta engine with two valves per cylinder, two plugs firing at the same time and an aluminium block with wet liners and chain driven cams. Later engines had a cast iron block based on Fiat’s ‘modulare’ engine family and absolutely nothing in common with the old Alfa lump with four valves per cylinder and two plugs with one being there for marketing reasons, firing on the exhaust stroke and belt driven cams.

  8. Apart from the tail-lights of the Giulietta Type 116 and the weird styling of the GTV/GTV6 from the B-pillar to the rear-end (that is further exaggerated by the non-integrated bumpers and resolved by the integrated bumpers of the Alfasud Sprint 6C), generally like the look of Alfa Romeos in this period.

    Then it seems Alfa Romeo went downhill with the funny tail-lights of the 90, general look of the 75 as well as the SZ. With only the 33 and Spider fairing pretty decently to avoid the bad styling trends within the company even if both have their flaws.

    Even though the company has returned to making RWD saloons, would have to say the 26 year gap between the 75 and the Giulia Type 952 was something that along with other factors did much damage to Alfa Romeo’s reputation from which they never really recovered from (while also irreparably compromising Lancia’s status upon Fiat’s acquisition of Alfa Romeo).

    1. I’m unable to see how a one-off mid engined prototype based on the Alfasud can improve on the looks of a series production Alfetta based car.
      In reality I’ve never been a fan of the Alfetta GT with a hippo’s rear combined with an ant eater’s nose. Alfa’s market research (whatever that might have been) suggested that customers wanted a proper four seater with a large boot when Alfisti wanted a nimble sports car with usable gear change.

    2. A matter of taste. Was referring to the exterior elements of the Alfasud Sprint 6C including the more modern integrated bumpers as being better suited for the GTV/GTV6 in remedying the vexing aspects of its hippo-like rear, not the Alfasud Sprint 6C prototype’s mid-engined layout.

      Chronologically unless the Giulietta Type 116 was originally intended to appear much earlier then it did (like the Alfa 6), not sure how it could have formed a suitable nimbler 2-door coupe sportscar alternative to the Alfetta-based GTV/GTV6. Was a coupe bodystyle ever considered for the Giulietta Type 116?

      Perhaps Alfa Romeo planned to produce both Alfetta and Giuletta coupes, only for either the fuel crisis to force them to prioritize the Alfetta GTV/GTV6 or the company deciding to push further upmarket with the GTV/GTV6, somewhat reminiscent of Jaguar choosing the XJ-S as an E-Type replacement instead of the more direct XJ21 project.

    3. No, am merely saying that IMHO elements of Alfasud 6C’s exterior styling in non-motorsport guise would have been an improvement had it been upscaled to the GTV/GTV6.

    4. The ES30 had beautiful taillights.
      The rest of the design is, to say the least, questionable, but I would give nearly everything to own one, maybe because it is so beautifully ugly.

      I don’t want to say anything about the rear lights of the Spider, we have one (a Series 4) and therefore I´m totally biased.

      The Giulia Tipo 952 shows how dead the brand is, an overweight Bimmer-look-alike with a Scudetto. Even a 75 with its plastic strips or the 155 with its big “no, I don´t say it” is comparable a beauty.

  9. Cressoni must have felt both blessed and cursed to have been surrounded by such greatness, his career having intersected with that of Fumia (among others including Battista Pininfarina) at Pininfarina, Giugiaro (Alfetta/GTV6), Spada, De Silva, and the notorious CB.

    The 1977 116 Giulia is the only non-French car I recall seeing during my time in Normandy in 1979, and it was quite striking in that context. Some may not have liked the rear treatment, but one must grant that many others certainly did, even many years later its influence can be detected.

    What better compliment can a designer accrue?

    Since the 75/Milano debacle resulted in the still independent Alfa removing Cressoni from the helm for the 164 (and the 155), I think it is reasonable to ponder whether Toyota’s tribute contributed to his resurrection and ultimate promotion at Fiat.

    1. I should have said “apparently and likely resulted” as I am speculating based on the incomprehensible ugliness [not speculation!] of said vehicle.

    2. Gooddog: That is an interesting observation regarding the Corolla – one I never noticed before, but now that it’s pointed out, I can definitely see a resemblance. Homage or coincidence? Little happens at Toyota City by accident, not when it comes to a model line like the Corolla.

      Regarding Cressoni, I think we should remember that the 75 was a successful model line and did a lot to rehabilitate Alfa Romeo after a particularly fallow patch, productwise. Its styling was controversial and while not conventionally attractive, was highly distinctive. So to say he was ‘removed’ from the 164 programme doesn’t really bear scrutiny. His ‘164’ proposal was in the running until quite late in the process and was favoured by some within AR management over Fumia’s winning Pininfarina scheme. By the time the 155 came into being, Fiat were using I.D.E.A almost exclusively – Arese probably wouldn’t have got a look in.

      However, (as you suggest), Cressoni helped nurture the career of a certain American designer while at Mirafiori, so is perhaps in some infinitesimal way responsible for the whole ‘Flame Surfacing’ phenomenon.

    3. Good morning Gooddog. That’s a very astute observation regarding the Corolla. The resemblance had also passed me by. The 1977 Giuiletta’s ‘Manx’ tail was a really nice design with its high mounted lights. I liked the way the bright strip carrying the badging connected the reversing lamps:

      Of course, Alfa being Alfa, they couldn’t leave well alone. Here’s the facelifted version, incorporating rear fog lamps in a swathe of ribbed grey plastic:

  10. BTW, I see what you “hippo” guys are up to. In the spirit of the “clown shoe” brigade, good on you for helping to keep prices down.

  11. Hello and may I express my sincerest kudos to the content of this site. Your articles inspire lesser people like myself to dive deeper into automotive history and the sociological significance of design and development of the motorcar.

    In the subject of the tipo 161/162B 75: the Cressoni design language carry-over from the tipo 116 Nuova Giulietta was necessitated from the miserable lack of development funds, and the strict brief of incorporating the Italian equivalent of “those doors” in all their glory. While the general look and stance of the 75 didn’t depart from the facelifted Alfetta/Giulietta lines, the newly penned nose and tail signalled a new design direction, further investigated and refined on the mish-mashed 33, possibly the greatest ALFA missed opportunity, even though it still remains the highest grossing scudetto.

    In my opinion and experience, the 75 was hampered by indiffirent build quality (especially in the interior fit and finish), unresolved styling throughout its life span, poorly designed drivetrain linkages with the infamous and notoriously fragile “guibo” rubber donuts, and a general tin-like construction. The electric and electronic equipment were no better, with Veglia and Marelli instrument panels mated with Bosch sensors, most of the time unable to work seamlessly (the common “Christmas tree” ALFA check panel). It is clear that the design was rushed and unproven, and in hindsight justifiable by the economic collapse of IRI. The tipo 167 was a logical evolution and switch to FWD which, as much as disappointed the ur-alfisti, was a step to the right direction of platform and drivetrain sharing, and for many years worked well, mostly in the form of GTV/156/147.

    But the seeds of disaster were visible as early as 1977, with the resignation of Ing. Busso, after ironing out the Alfetta’s drivetrain problems. In his letter to the Board, he expressed his fears of the company’s direction, and coupled with the Sud disaster already unfolding, his concerns were justified and prophetic. It was an unfair turn of events, and sadly the successors of the successful tipo 105/115 Giulia were not up to par with the standards ALFA had set in the sixties and early seventies.

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