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