Both Sides Now

The 1996 Alfa Romeo Nuvola would underline in eloquent fashion the power of the past.

Image: autodesignmagazine

Editor’s note: This article first appeared on DTW in December 2017.

History has always weighed heavily upon the Biscione of Milan. Few carmakers with such an illustrious past could remain immune to its siren call, although throughout the 1970s and ’80s its centro stile denizens seemed bent on ignoring it; bracing modernity being more the Alfa Romeo design leitmotif throughout this period.

During the pre-Millennial decade, Alfa Romeo’s stylistic output had become a combination of the sublime and, if not entirely ridiculous, at least unconvincing. On one hand we had the ageing, but still elegant Pininfarina-designed 164, the equally sharp-looking (in-house) 145, and the striking 916-series GTV / Spider, while on the other, there was the 146 and 155 saloons – more akin to the stark product design inflected Ermanno Cressoni era.

But change was in the offing, and with a new generation of Alfa Romeo saloons nearing completion, these designs would break with the angular aesthetic which had for so long been Arese’s visual calling card. Under Design Director, Walter de Silva’s purview, the Biscione would increasingly look towards the past for inspiration.

To signal this impending creative shift, centro stile Alfa Romeo envisaged a concept for the 1996 Paris Motor show – a year out from the impending production debut of the 156. Mating the development of a welded, modular spaceframe chassis which Alfa claimed could encompass “niche and offroad” vehicles with this newfound creative shift in direction, FIAT Auto CEO, Paolo Cantarella sanctioned development, with work beginning during the early months of 1996.

Image: MOTOR1

That October, Alfa Romeo Design Director, Walter de Silva outlined  to Autocar’s Peter Robinson how centro stile stylists, Wolfgang Egger and Fillipo Perini had developed his rough sketch for a compact two-seater with a body stretched voluptuously over its mechanicals; in this case, Alfa’s 24 valve V6 fitted with twin turbochargers. With a classical cab-rearward silhouette and a low dipping, tapered tail, it was about as far removed from the marque’s modernist ethos imaginable. “We didn’t want any decoration, but to keep the shape clean and light”, de Silva commented.”

What Alfa Romeo’s design chief failed to mention was the car’s close resemblance to the 1954 2000 Sportiva concept – courtesy of Stile Bertone – from which it was clearly inspired. It must have slipped his mind[1]. Originally intended to honour of the immortal Tazio Nuvolari, his hometown of Mantova[2] prevented Alfa Romeo from using the late champion’s name, leaving them in something of a quandary.

But necessity is often the mother of invention – or in this case, a fevered scrabble through a lexicon or two, so when the concept made its show debut it was christened Nuvola (which translates as cloud) and rather unsurprisingly caused something of a sensation at the time. “We are sending strong signals about future Alfa models”, de Silva declared to the gentlemen of the press. “This is how the front of Alfas will be changing.”

Of course the passage of time is a great leveller when it comes to most things in life and there are few things more stale than last week’s oven-fresh concept. Having viewed the Nuvola as a delightful breath of fresh air some twenty years ago, we can now observe something rather more akin to a well executed and considerably more refined version of contemporary TVR form ‘language’[3]. Pretty, undoubtedly, but like the 8C Competizione that would follow a decade later, essentially something of an empty vessel.

It did however serve its purpose; that of a successful palate cleanser, signposting the stylistic shift then about to take place at Arese with the advent of the following year’s 156. And as stylistic revolutions go, it was to prove a durable one (notwithstanding the occasional aberration); indeed one could state with reasonable conviction that it is one which has lasted to this day.

Image: moto.onet

By the way, that delightful sky blue shade, came about in somewhat unusual fashion. According to de Silva’s account, Paolo Canterella, when confronted with the traditional Rosso-finished styling model rounded on Alfa Romeo’s styling chief, demanding why all Alfa Romeos had to be painted red? The FIAT Auto supremo instead suggested he look into the history books where he’d find an alternative hue equally true to the marque. The chosen shade of blue originated with the 1938 8C 2900 B. Say what you will about Canterella, but he certainly knew his onions.

For illustrious marques like Alfa Romeo, the heel of history presses with an inexorable force. It is of course, both blessing and curse, for while it can provide a wealth of reference material, it can obscure as much as reveal. Much like clouds, really.

[1] Walter de Silva has some form in this matter, quite often ‘forgetting’ to correctly attribute designs created by other individuals under his purview. 

[2] The town of Mantova, it seems, holds the rights to the great racing driver’s name and identity. 

[3] Reflections too of the 1992 third-series Mazda RX7 in the body surfacing and overall ‘feeling’.


Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

19 thoughts on “Both Sides Now”

  1. The Nuvola never quite struck a chord with me. It’s a bit too much on the soft side of the ’90s soft design spectrum, without the required sharpness to offset all that voluptuousness (which the 156 possessed). The grilles flanking the Scudetto also appear to be ever so slightly sagging, which is emphasised by the lack of alignment with the lights. The (exceedingly) flat boot and rather steep roofline clash in similar fashion. All those factors considered, I think Eoin’s TVR comparison is spot on – the Nuvola is charismatic, rather than beautiful.

    Say about de’ Silva what you like, but he’s certainly loyal to those who’ve proven their mettle to his eyes. Eventually, Perrini would end up running Lamborghini’s centro stile for 12 years, whereas Egger (a man never held in particularly high esteem by his peers/underlings) succeeded de’ Silva at the helm of Audi design.

    1. I agree about the front. The moustaches needed to be nudged slightly so they didn´t droop. They put me in mind of baguettes. The resemblance to TVR is probably an accident. I don´t think Alfa had binoculars that could see as far as Blackpool. Still, they might reasonably have known what other small, old-school roadsters were on the market, no matter how fragile and unreliable. Looking back to the sunny mid-90s: that´s a long time and Alfas have not moved much further from the retro grills and soft-shape that the 156 showcased. It has also been a quarter century of almost pure struggle despite some quite competent cars. The 147 deserved more success than it received. And what else? The latest Giulia has simply not reached beyond the core market. The firm now has three cars: Tonale, Stelvio and the Giulia. It must be gushing red ink at Alfa HQ. One wonders if customers will be able to overlook/not buy Alfa products by choice in ten years or whether someone at Stellantis decides to end a fifty year run of near-misses, also-rans and duds (most of them pretty and pleasant all the same).

    2. In the late Nineties the 156 achieved about 90,000 yearly sales before they screwed the company leasing market.
      The 147 which was clearly aimed at the private buyer sold around 90,000 per year for the first couple of years and around 65,000 later – numbers they currently can only dream of and which aren’t too bad compared to Audi A3 at the same time of around 125,000 per year.
      Of the range 147/156/166/916 the 147 was easily the one with the best build quality and it was a brave move to offer a car in this class with the smallest engine having 105/120 PS.
      But then again they were’t able to hold the momentum and lost the plot with the next generation of cars. 156 and closely related 147 together sold around 1.2 million and yet they managed to lose money – what did they do wrong? It can’t all have been down to the failure of the 916s.

  2. I never liked this car. For me it looked like a Morgan Plus 4 Plus with Alfa grille

  3. Thanks for the article, Eoin. I must say, I was never much of a fan of this concept. Even at the time, it felt like a badly drawn attempt at a Mazda RX-7 FD, with none of that car’s elegance and poise.

  4. I remember the excitement the Nuvola engendered when it was introduced, which was not surprising given the then-current state of Alfa design (nice-but-not-extraordinary cars like the 164 and 145 notwithstanding). Looking back at it now, I share the opinion of others: it’s a bit empty and bland. The 156 – maybe because it’s an actual product – is much more convincing to me. I always liked that the 156 very clearly referenced the past, but wasn’t a pastiche of it like the New Beetle, Mini or 500 (even though the last two turned out to be quite successful).

    But, as you concluded over five years ago, Eóin: it served its purpose. It was never meant for production, even if it was slightly less far removed from Alfa’s reality as Peugeot’s various supercar-concepts were from Peugeot’s production reality.

    Richard: yes, the Giulia is now end-of-life. Which probably means it’ll be with us for another twenty years.

    Dave: I didn’t know about the Morgan Plus 4 Plus, thanks. The resemblance is indeed striking.

    1. Here’s a Plus 4 Plus in a colour that makes it look even more similar.
      Just change the lights and put on the Alfa grille –

      It’s strange that Alfa made a car so openly oriented at its past. For a very long time Alfa wasn’t interested in its past and didn’t even have a proper museum because they looked forward.
      A similar mentality like the one at Maranello where Mauro Forghieri when asked why they didn’t have a museum answered they were only interested in the next car, not in the one before.

    2. They needn´t replace the Giulia wholesale. Like the Panther/GM BOF cars, they are a niche and only need facelifting. The days when the C-class mid-sized saloon needed 6 year replacement are gone. Poeple will buy the Giulia basically forever if it´s refreshed as production methods change. New fabrics, new paint, some new bumperer, maybe a new interior every nine years – that´s all they need to do.

    3. That canopy just screams ‘kitcar’. I always wonder whether designers know when they’re creating something eerily similar to something earlier. I doubt the Plus 4 Plus would have been on the team’s radar.

      Richard: that would require rational product planning…

  5. That plastic Morgan always looked wrong – they should have moved the ‘A’ pillars forward a bit, to improve the proportions of the side windows.

  6. Well, with the Nuvola a new design direction was introduced, but the product itself seemed very half-baked to me at the time.

    The headlights look – except directly from the front – as if they were spread across the front with a pepper shaker. In addition, it always looks as if they are not uniform in size.

    The rear end with the different hole shapes (elongated tail light, round tail light underneath, exhaust opening with different diameters underneath) looks, to put it diplomatically, a bit rushed. (TVR, to stick with this comparison, has done a much better job with considerably less money).

    It almost doesn’t matter that the side view looks a bit colourless, to avoid the word “boring”. And if the silhouette really was a Sportiva quote, I would say the goal was missed with flying colours.

    I couldn’t quite understand the hype at the time – and I already had the Alfista rose-coloured glasses on back then.

    At least they got the Scudetto right.
    But already the baffi are only so-so. Except when looking directly from the front, they do indeed have the appearance of hanging. At least they have the right height for the Scudetto.
    (On today’s cars, they always look like they’ve fallen off the shelf. That inverted “T” is just scurrilous).

    The only unqualified praise goes to the colour. A 100% hit.
    If it had been painted red, no visitor to the museum would even notice it today.

    1. Pepper shaker… Could access to Stellantis’ tech avail them of a proper grinder (à la Opel)?

  7. Lea-Francis Lynx, anyone?

    A design which didn’t just “miss the marque”, it sunk it forever, despite the mid to late -70s and late-90s attempts to revive it.

    1. That Rover 75 door / sill junction detail looks to me like a Honda carry-over, starting with the fifth generation (’91-on) Civic, and continuing through to the CE7-9 Accord and the Rover 600.

      The 75 added the brightwork on the sill, from the leading edge of the front door aperture to the trailing edge of the rear. It’s a distinctive feature, but seems to serve no useful function.

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