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.
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.
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.