Keeping the Seat Warm

The 1984 Alfa 90 was to all intents and purposes something of a placeholder. But does it deserve a better epitaph?

Alfa 90. Image: viaretro

The early 1980s were difficult years for Alfa Romeo. Having abandoned its patrician pre-war roots for a more populist reimagining throughout the 1950s and ’60s, this once successful market realignment had started to unravel; partly due to its own failings as a business, both internally from a product, management and labour perspective, and also externally, owing to its close proximity in market terms to Lancia.

Unlike its Borgo San Paolo rival, who was by then reliant upon the financial support of the Fiat car giant, Alfa Romeo depended upon the largesse of the often reluctant Italian IRI state body for funding, while battling a depressed home market, ageing model lines and by consequence, little by way of genuinely new product.

What there was, fell very much into the make do and mend category. The 33 model would come to market in 1983 as essentially a rationalised, reskinned Alfasud, while the stillborn 156-series was intended to replace the 116-series Alfetta and Giulietta models, not to mention the 119-series Alfa 6. But as the 156 programme became increasingly embattled, culminating in the IRI cancelling funding, it became clear that a stopgap would have to be contrived.

While at this stage in proceedings, it might have been deemed expedient to rationalise the mid-sized saloons around a single model offering, once again, Portello’s product planners seemed content to propose two cars of near-identical dimensions, co-developed along broadly similar technical lines and a shared, pre-existing platform. But while the 161-series 75 would be a more overt sports saloon, à la Giulietta, the 162-series (christened Alfa 90) would be a softer-riding, more luxurious bolide, aimed more towards the executive market. Furthermore, the 75 would be engineered to meet US import regulations, while the 90 would be a solely European market offering.

Clearly, Alfa Romeo’s management were convinced the market was there; the argument being perhaps for the 90 to mop up buyers who baulked at the Alfa 6, (to say nothing of fading rival, Lancia Gamma) but favoured a patrician, subtle-looking saloon, which the 75 with its polarising wedge shape was not going to provide. But on the other, perhaps the reason the late-to-market Alfa flagship didn’t sell was that it too was a rather patrician and subtle-looking saloon.

While the 75 would be in an-house, centro stile design carried out under the guidance of Ermanno Cressoni, the 90’s design was outsourced to stile Bertone. Widely attributed to Marcello Gandini, the timelines suggest that were this to be so, it would have to have been completed before Gandini’s departure from Gruppo Bertone in 1980 to pursue a freelance career.

More probable then, is that the car was either created (or completed) under the purview of Gandini’s successor, Marc Deschamps. Regardless of attribution however, it can be said that Bertone’s designers did a fine job, especially given the decade-old hard points dictated upon them.

That the 90 is based squarely upon the Alfetta internal structure, floorpan and technical layout is beyond dispute, yet Bertone managed to craft a well proportioned bodyshell, which lent the car a quiet dignity, much at odds with the bracing modernism of Cressoni’s 75. These styling themes would be reprised once more in 1985 with Volvo’s elegant 780 Coupé, again from the Caprie studio – both cars clearly being designed around a similar timescale.

There is a pleasing sense of the well cut suit to the 90’s sharply defined lines, quiet surfaces and sober detailing. Some genuinely nice touches too – notably the treatment of the roof to C-pillar join, which in this case, neatly incorporates the air extractor into a pleasing feature, one sorely lacking in its immediate predecessor. Another neat touch was its deployable front air dam, which was lowered by air pressure at speed, retracting as the car slowed.

The defining bodyside swage line not only carried reflections of previous Bertone designs, but also the forthcoming Citroen XM from the same studio. Only the shallow pressings of the bodysides lent it a slightly insubstantial air, the 90 being a slightly longer, narrower and taller car than its more muscular 75 sibling.

While externally the 90 was all sobriety and rectitude, the cabin style, especially in top of the range Gold Cloverleaf form was a symphony of Italian modernism. Sharing a good deal of dashboard architecture with the 75, the top-line 90 however employed a novel digital instrument display, where both speed and engine revs were displayed in graph form. Another unique feature was the inset briefcase embedded in the passenger side facia. Also shared with the 75 was the unusual U-shaped handbrake release and the highly logical overhead console housing the electric window switches.

The engine range was suitably extensive: 1.8 and 2 litre versions of the 4 cylinder Alfa Nord twin-cam, a pair of Busso V6’s (the 2.0 litre was for the Italian market only and was fitted with a non-modular version of Alfa’s Controllo Elettronico Motore engine management), and a 2.4 litre VM diesel. And while the chassis design was identical in layout to that of the 75, the 90 would be criticised for its soft suspension settings and underpowered brakes.

The 90 was introduced in 1984, directly replacing the Alfetta, and placing further pressure upon the already embattled Alfa 6. However, the 90’s debut also coincided with the introduction of Lancia’s rivalling Thema. The Lancia was a clean-sheet, contemporary front-wheel drive design, more commodious internally, and chiming better with the direction in which the market was moving. Unlike the Alfa Romeo, the Lancia was a fully rounded, pan-European product, and an immediate sales success.

Timing is everything, and sales of the 90 were not stellar, a matter which was exacerbated by the 75’s announcement a year later. Here was a car which was similarly sized, available with a similar range of powertrains, was more incisive to drive, and was cheaper to purchase, assuming one could get past the styling. It was quickly apparent which was the successful model line.

With Portello putting the bulk of its resources into the 164 programme, which eventually saw the light of day in 1987, the 90, never intended to be a lasting product was retired (along with the slow-selling Alfa 6) that year. Only 56,428 were produced, which compares rather unfavourably with 386,767 Alfa 75’s built, admittedly over a longer model cycle.

(c) honestjohn

Three years – not a long time for an expensive reskin, but the logic was clearly to maintain a place in the market until the 164 was ready, and in that (if little else) the 90 succeeded. In retrospect, perhaps the 75’s striking appearance was the more successful approach to that of the 90’s quieter aesthetic. Yet today it is the 90’s shape that better stand the test of time. Certainly, the 75 maintains its striking visual appeal, but one that first requires an appreciation of Cressoni’s stark modernism.

Would the Alfa 90’s Bertone-penned styling theme have served the Alfa 6 platform better in product differentiation terms, one wonders? Perhaps now is a bit late to play amateur product planner, but one cannot rightly say Alfa Romeo’s boys did much better. After all, surely there are better ways of keeping a seat warm than simply sitting on one’s hands?

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

39 thoughts on “Keeping the Seat Warm”

  1. The 90 is a car that I have an interesting relationship with, and a slightly complicated one, despite not having ever owned one or even had particularly proximity to it.

    Plus or minus, the 90 and I are around the same age. Yet I really have no particular childhood memories of them despite European metal still being relatively rare, and thus ‘exotic’ and consequently noticeable, in Japstralian-dominated 1980s Australia. As far as Italian stuff was concerned, it was all about Regatas, 75s, 33s and the odd Croma.

    And yet, sometime around when I was an undergrad in the early- to mid-2000s, 90s seemed, if anything, to proliferate around my regular haunts in inner-western Sydney. For a few years they seemed almost common (relatively speaking, that is), even as 33s and 75s dwindled to near-invisibility. I mentioned this phenomenon to a Alfisti of my acquaintance a while back and he reckoned the 90s were generally fairly rot-resistant and decently-built by Alfa standards, noticeably more so than 75s, so that may have partially accounted for it. But perhaps also they tended to sell new to slightly more conservative buyers in the first place.

    The styling, which for many years I had found rather overly-sober, dated and unenticing, is a design that I have really come to appreciate and admire in more recent times. Part of it, I think, is that it packages the tidy 1970s dimensions of the Alfetta platform in a package that bridges the gap between 1970s ‘obviously old car’ with non-integrated bumpers, separate roof channels, non-flush glass and all the rest, and the 1980s aero era that can really be regarded as the last major bridge in automotive aesthetics to the current day. The fact it looked dated next to an Audi 100 or even a Mercedes 190 then doesn’t matter in 2020 so it’s much easier to look at the design for what it is, rather than how it compared. I agree that Bertone did a great job with what was presumably a vanishingly small development budget and I have come to think over the years it’s one of their most underrated efforts, which is saying something considering the quality of the back catalogue. I think that, if I was to buy a transaxle Alfa, it would be a Giulietta, but I have a lot of time for the 90 and certainly wouldn’t say no to one if the opportunity came up.

    But really, this is all dancing around the elephant in the room. The level of collective 90 interest/expertise here means this is surely the best opportunity to answer one of the most elusive questions in all of automotivedom.

    The Briefcase.

    The first story I recall reading that mentioned its purpose was that it was that it was intended, in Italy, to carry the portable radio as a counter to theft. Later, speaking to a British Alfisti, he referred to it as a ‘vanity case’ – the origin of this being like something out of a spy thriller and shrouded in mystery, but supposedly legend had it that originally they came with various personal grooming bits and bobs inside. I have never seen anything to suggest this is the case and every single one I have ever seen on the bay of E has been empty, but the ‘vanity case’ nomenclature does seem to persist in various quarters, at least in the UK.

    Does anyone know, definitively, what the purpose of the case (per Alfa) was originally intended to be?

  2. Terrifically-trimmed interior in these, too, especially for the era. I have always liked the L-door pull and finely-woven cloth door trim, and the dual-tone blue is just lovely:

    The dedicated 90 aficionado will note that this one comes complete with series 1 digital dash (incorporating two speedo readouts, which didn’t necessarily agree with each other) and, of course, The Briefcase. Contrast with this series 2 finished in sand, with (presumably less troublesome) analogue dials that Alfa had already reverted back to on the 75:

    1. Good morning Stradale, and thanks for posting two excellent comparative photos of the 90’s interior. Although they were of dubious accuracy and reliability, I really like the digital/linear instruments. They suit the overall geometric styling theme better than the conventional dials.

      Note the positioning of the warning lights in a panel amusingly labelled ‘Alfa Romeo Control’ low down on the right, where they’re probably obscured by the driver’s right hand on the steering wheel!

  3. Here’s a look inside a brand new unused briefcase (yours for 890 Swiss Francs):

    It was just that: something to carry around your paperwork.

    Had it been for the looks alone, I’d always preferred the 90 over the 75.
    A 90 with twin circular headlamps, a scudetto reaching into the bumper like later Alfas and something different than those oversize US-style rear lamps with the number plate properly aligned with the lights would have been my favourite.
    That movable front spoiler was operated by air pressure and springs. When it got older the mechanism started to creak and crunch like an old ghost. It was thankfully omitted when the 90 was facelifted – another Alfa madness.

  4. “That movable front spoiler was operated by air pressure and springs.”

    Gas struts as well, for the retraction mechanism, if memory serves.

  5. Good morning Eóin. I’ve always much preferred the 90 to the 75. It’s a really handsome design. The only problem with it is one of proportion that, given its underpinnings, was insoluble. If it had something like 75mm added to both its width and its wheelbase, its stance would have been much stronger. Photoshop beckons.

    Producing two very similarly size cars, one formal, the other sporting an interesting proposition, and an ambitious one for a company with the limited resources of Alfa Romeo. It’s an idea that has been revisited by BMW and Mercedes-Benz with its Gran Coupé and CLA/S versions of its mainstream saloons. Unfortunately, Mercedes-Benz in particular has wasted the opportunity by not making the ‘formal’ models formal enough. Here is a photo comparing the A-Class saloon and CLA.

    Is the difference between these two really worth the expense of tooling up for both?

    1. They are pretty damn similar. This is reminiscent of that period in the US when there were two and four door hardtops, sedans and convertibles. In particular, the distinction between the 4 door hardtops and 4 door sedans seemed hard to parse. MB has a lot of money and by throwing more products into the market they can hoover up more customers.

      It´s interesting that most here think the 90 nicer than the 75. I consider the 90 to be a stop-gap and a curio more than anything else. The interior is a bit nicer than the 75, though. The bootlid and rear wing are brutal – is that really “classic”?

  6. Right, my tweaks to make the Alfa 90 just perfect! First, a small stretch in the wheelbase (in both directions) before and after:

    A small stretch in the width, before and after:

    And a tidied up rear end, before and after:

    1. I suppose the changes are under 3% to the dimensions. And like the Tagora I remodelled, the effect is profound.
      That said, in side view, the original is acceptable. I notice it has a “broken” Hofmeister kink: neither a clear curve or a clear chamfer but a chamfer in two parts with only a small angular difference between them. That´s where BMW got their idea from!

    2. That modified rear end is perfect.
      Now it only needs pairs of round headlamps…

    3. Hi Richard. Yes, isn’t it extraordinary how such a marginal change in the wheelbase ( I would guess 50-60mm in total, mainly to the front.) has imroved the stance so significantly. It’s that Gestalt thing in action again, I would guess.

      Yes, the ‘non-Hofmeister kink’ is uncannily similar to that employed on the latest BMWs. I think the issue with the Alfa 90 is the change in angle aligned with the break in the bright trim. It would be better as a smooth curve, but best as a ‘proper’ Hofmeister-kink.

    4. The rear headlights on the altered version are an improvement over the exiting 90, the same goes with the widen 90’s front in both regular and twin-headlight forms.

      Outside the scope of this article, though would be interesting to see whether exterior improvements could have been made to the Alfa Romeo Giulietta Type 116 both generally as well as specifically at the rear headlights (perhaps even a version with twin-headlights or a 2-door three-box saloon/coupe).

    1. oo-v-oo

      Thank you, Daniel.
      But you did something bad: Now I want one looking like the one you did and can´t get one.
      Life´s a beach…

  7. The door shutline and DLO would need to be reworked as a whole to avoid the not-quite bent chamfer. It´s about how the lines meet (there are oblique meetings which are always bad news in sheet metal junctions).

  8. Wouldn´t a head-to-head comparison of the Trevi and 90 be informative? Two cars based on ancient designs, of short production runs and made by ailing Italian manufacturers. They also differ in that the Trevi is fwd and the 90 rwd. But were they aiming for the same customers? I see the Trevi as a slightly smaller and less overtly sporting car; however much the sober styling downplays Alfa´s sports heritage, it is still an Alfa Romeo with all that that entails. The 90 has a more elaborated interior which is one major difference. The Trevi´s is much the most interesting but also more compromised and indicative of detail deficiencies. I wonder is there someone who has or does own both cars? Or am I the person on planet Earth most likely to claim that crown should I put my mind to it?

    1. Go for it, Richard! We need a new DTW road tester now that Archie Vicar has retired to St. Clabbert’s Home for the Bewildered on Craggy Island

    2. I’ll race you for the Trevi, Richard, but you can keep the 90. My theoretical garage has an original 33 in it, the same as I drove for a couple of years in the early 90s. A lovely car with a lovely interior.

  9. Hi Richard, How about this? Original vs two alternative new proposals for comparison, the second (added subsequently) is as suggested by you:

    Now the break in the bright trim is hidden at the trailing corner the base of the DLO.

    1. Maybe have a look at my revised Tagora because the two cars are now better for the same reason (though the Alfa 90 C is much more distinctive)

    2. That change would have only required minor alterations to the door skins and frame, and a short extension to the roof gutter and bright trim covering. The angle and height of the remaining kink is such that it’s not a facsimile of BMW’s Hofmeister kink either. A good result, I think.

    3. Is this car turning into a Bertone version of the 80s BMW 5-series? Also, I think many of the changes Daniel is making are not led by fashion or the smartness of hindsight but are pretty basic design choices: neaten some details and alter some proportions. Given the generally small scale of these changes it´s amazing Alfa didn´t get to them themselves. The same goes for the Tagora – the revised car is 98% the same as the actual car but dramatically nicer. It seems there are generally pleasing proportions and deviations from them, however small, are deleterious. Since the difference %age wise between nice and nasty is so small it´s a wonder so many car firms have made the same choices to miss the dimensions by a small and essentially unimportant amount.

    4. Assuming automotive designers are actually design-literate, is the drive to do things ‘differently’ stronger than the desire to find the optimum and most pleasing result?

      The final iteration of the adjusted 90 above, with a more rationally organised tail, twin circular headlamps and neater resolution to the C-pillar would have been hardly if at all more expensive build than the production car. (I understand that lengthening the wheelbase is far more straightforward than widening the platform.) I don’t think it would have been confused with a contemporary BMW 5 Series and it would have been a strikingly handsome car, instead of the appealing but slightly oddball 90.

      Defeat plucked from the jaws of victory? We’ll never know, sadly.

    5. The likely answer is shortage of time and shortage of will-power. Maybe the DLO was seen as good enough and maybe even achieving that was hard work. We see an athlete run 500 metres in 45.45666 seconds and think, well, why didn´t they do it in 44.0 seconds? It was because they were flat out out and there was no more reserves to draw on. And I suppose in the 90s case this was just all that they thought they could do. I blame the studio managers.

    6. The answer is of course Alfa Romeo’s chronic lack of resources. Now, do this exercise again, using ONLY the body hardpoints of the Alfetta?

    7. My preferred version is the one without the Fakemeister Kink. The car doesn´t look like a BMW then and doesn´t look much like anything else.
      The deep sideglass of cars from this period are rather nice, aren´t they? I like the overall look (silhouette) and proportions of the period. Presumably the interiors had lots of light and a feeling of space.
      Parked next to my car in the carpark yesterday was an AR Giulia. While the interior looked great from a materials and colour point of view (lovely wooden console) I could not help think how much less agreeable it was than a 2000 I saw in Innsbruck a few years back. Again, the deep side glass helped out – something lost with these high-sided cars we have now.
      Look at this Giulia interior, particularly the rear:

    8. Ingvar: some hardpoints are harder than others. The key ones are probably the relation of the engine to the bulkhead; the scuttle height, the driver´s H-point (or range of these from forward to back). The width is hard to change much so I think we have to scrap Daniel´s modified-width proposals. I think one can easily add a bit of length between the front and back axle by stretching the floorpan; the driveshaft can be revised to be a bit longer and the rear transaxle is carry-over as can the rear suspension. The most costly and problematic element might be the door bodies, the whole assembly of bits between the outer and inner panels and with it the A-B line which is the line in space where the outer body meets the inner body (the door aperture line in layman´s speak, I guess).

    9. There’s an interesting optical illusion in that the DLO of the version without the kinked rear window looks deeper, although it’s exactly the same.

      Ingvar, the only change to the original hardpoints is the small stretch in the wheelbase. I’ll undo that but leave the other changes, and we’ll see how the two versions look.

    10. I’ll go further than Ingvar. The issue as I see it, was not only Alfa Romeo’s chronic lack of resource, but the decision to spread this already thin resource across two model lines, to the probable detriment of both. In reality, there was no case for both 75 and 90, only that perhaps to replace two models with one might have been read in the Italian press at the time as retrenchment, and Alfa Romeo management perhaps wanted to present an upbeat appearance to possible investors. Furthermore, as I posit above, management most likely felt it necessary to retain a car in that sector of the market until an all-new replacement was developed.

      It would be interesting to know the timelines on the 90’s styling. Had it been developed under Gandini for instance (pre-1980), that could conceivably have given Portello management the opportunity to place it instead upon the slightly more generous proportions of the 119-series Alfa 6, which might have answered at least some of the criticisms levelled at its style. How this would have worked in cost terms is another question of course, and what we do know is that money was in very short supply.

      However, had Alfa Romeo sanctioned only one of these cars (75 or 90), and opinions will probably differ as to which would have been the correct choice, there would theoretically have been a larger budget to develop it further and perhaps sort out more of the inherent legacy issues both cars were saddled with throughout their lives.

      A few questions worth considering. Would the 90 alone have succeeded had the 75 not existed? Would the 75 alone have mopped up the customers who had plumped for the 90 instead? Was the 90’s compact size a detrimental factor in the market it was pitched into? It was (as a compact and narrow body) very well sized for Italian needs, which probably mattered more. What would the US Alfa Romeo customer have made of it, versus the Milano (75)?

      Fine work on the photoshop renders Daniel, by the way.

    11. Thank you, Eóin. It’s interesting playing around within the constraints of an existing design (as designers often have to do within the existing hard points to create a supposedly ‘new’ model) to see what alternative solutions might have been available.

  10. Here you go, Ingvar. The original 90 and the two alternative DLOs on the standard wheelbase:

    1. Y’all convinced me, it is possible to tweak the design within those parameters, I didn’t think it was possible. But I also think it shows what a fine job Bertone really did with the 90, this article has gotten me to appreciate it in a way I didn’t before. It really is a marvel of sensible refinement, considering what they had to work with.

      If the 90 hadn’t been, those buyers would’ve migrate to the Sei or 75. If the 75 hadn’t been, I’m not sure those buyers would’ve migrated towards the 33 or 90. Most likely they would’ve leaned towards BMW.

      Strategically, I think the 90-update would’ve made better sense on the Sei-platform, that would’ve differentiated it enough against the 75.

      So, a world with the Alfetta and Giulietta ending with model year 1984 in 1985 and the introduction of the 75 as a successor to both. Instead of the 1983 refresh of the Sei a complete re-skin is introduced as model year 1983 based on the 90-proposal, but a little longer and lower and wider in every direction. That would get it enough ooomph to have it hold the fort until the 164 in 1987.

  11. We can at least say this is more attention than the 90 has received in decades. DTW scores again for the breadth and depth of its analyses. I am also now recurringly having flashbacks to Mount St Upr, Dublin where I saw the one and only 90 in my whole time on earth. All I can recall is the badge with its chrome lettering on black plastic.
    (Mount St Upr is oddly the southern one. Mount St Lower is the northern one; the streets are parallel and run roughly east-west. I wonder does anyone know how this came to be?)

  12. And finally, a few alternate reality suggestions as to what Alfa Romeo might have spent the money saved by not developing the 75:

    Thank you and goodnight!

    1. I think the Pininfarina-way is the way to go with Alfa Romeo station wagons, as seen on the 33 and 75. Using the original Hofmeister door and the side window almost a perfect parallelogram following the lines of the sedan.

  13. Eoin asks some very valid questions about the 90’s design origins.

    Bertone and Gandini parted ways in ’79, when Marc Deschamps was already working at Caprie, attending to those projects Gandini couldn’t or wouldn’t concern himself with. Bertone’s concept car that year was the Volvo Tundra:

    Like the Alfa, the Tundra wasn’t as blunt a design as some of Gandini’s previous, ‘brutalist’ output (Rainbow, Ascot, Navajo), featuring softer radii, but also very ‘literal’ graphics. The first concept car officially attributed to Deschamps, the Athlon from 1980, toned down those graphics ever so slightly and featured even ‘softer’ surfaces:

    In Gautam Sen’s exhaustive/-ing Gandini biography, the Alfa 90 is credited to him, rather than Deschamps, but then again, that book takes considerable liberties in that regard anyway. To me, the question isn’t so much whether one or the other was in charge, but who did how much – did Deschamps evolve the style set by his predecessor? Or was he already involved in the design of the Tundra, 90 et al to such an extent that his influence made itself apparent even before Nuccio Bertone’s and Gandini’s final clash?

  14. Great to see one of my favorite Alfas getting this attention. In Australia, they were quite well reviewed when they came out, criticisms focused on high gearing and softish suspension for what was an executive model (only high spec V6s with all the literal bells and whistles came in) rather than any of the more typical Alfa vagaries. Those alloy wheels make a difference to its appearance (and seem very similar to the BMW wheels of the era), lower spec models without them look very plan.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: