Fast, luxurious, and stylish, with a thoroughly modern platform shared with Saab, Fiat, and Lancia, the 1988-1997 Alfa Romeo 164 could have been the hit to resuscitate Alfa’s flailing business and put the company on the map in the German-dominated executive car market. Unfortunately, it was the last model Alfa developed before falling into the arms of Fiat, and it had the dubious distinction of being the last Alfa sold in the U.S. This week, we look at the 164 and its “Type Four” siblings: the Fiat Croma, Lancia Thema, and Saab 9000.
The 1970s were a difficult time for all automakers, but particularly for smaller, more upscale European brands like Jaguar and Alfa Romeo. Their modest volume made for higher per-unit costs, which in turn left them very vulnerable to inflation and market fluctuations. Some small automakers could barely survive even in healthy economic times; Italy’s venerable Lancia was faced with such a mountain of debt that Fiat bought it for a pittance in 1969.
The economic conditions of the seventies, of course, were anything but healthy. Skyrocketing inflation, political unrest, and energy crises hit auto sales hard, particularly in Europe. Manufacturers responded with layoffs and wage cuts, which in turn became a casus belli for the unions, whose members were already suffering the impact of inflation. The result was a long string of contentious and occasionally violent labor disputes.
Alfa’s popularity was at its height in the late sixties, but its financial health had never been particularly robust. The Milanese automaker had been forced to seek government assistance in the 1930s, and since 1948, it had operated under the auspices of Finmeccanica (a contraction of Società Finanziaria Meccanica, roughly “financial engineering company”), a government-owned industrial conglomerate. Alfa’s sales — about 109,000 units in 1970 — were decent, but it was still at a competitive disadvantage in an increasingly difficult marketplace.
Hoping to increase its volume while also stimulating the moribund economy of southern Italy, Alfa launched the “Alfasud” (“southern Alfa”) project, a new subcompact built in a newly refurbished factory in Pomigliano d’Arco, near Naples. Unfortunately, training an inexperienced workforce to build an entirely new car — Alfa Romeo’s first front-wheel-drive model — proved more challenging than anticipated. The Alfasud was fun to drive, but suffered grievous quality control and corrosion problems. It sold well (893,719 units between 1972 and 1984), but never in the volumes Alfa had hoped.
In 1978, Ettore Massacesi became chairman of Alfa Romeo, with Corrado Innocenti (formerly of the aviation company Aeritalia) as deputy chairman and managing director. Massacesi and Innocenti grandly proclaimed that they would restore Alfa to profitability within four years, while raising market share to 8%. The company never managed to sustain such numbers for more than brief periods, however, and it remained dangerously overcapacity. The Pomigliano factory alone had been designed to build 450,000 cars a year, but Alfa’s annual volume was seldom much more than half that figure. An ill-fated joint venture with Nissan, ARNA (Alfa Romeo Nissan Autoveicoli), did little to help. The company continued to flounder and in early 1982, Massacesi and Innocenti laid off nearly a third of the workforce.
THE SAAB-LANCIA CONNECTION
While Alfa Romeo struggled, their longtime rival, Lancia — which, as we mentioned above, was now owned by Fiat, paired with Autobianchi — was beginning an affair with the Swedish automaker Saab-Scania AB. Like Alfa Romeo, Saab was a brand with a great deal of character but limited resources. The first step of the Lancia-Saab partnership was an agreement for Saab dealers in certain markets to sell the Autobianchi A112 badged as a Lancia. The two companies also pooled engineering resources in the design of the 1980 Lancia Delta, which sold in some markets as the Saab-Lancia 600.
Saab hoped to follow its new 900 with a somewhat bigger, more luxurious model that would take it into the thick of the European executive-car market. The company had done some preliminary studies for such a car, only to discover that they could not afford to develop it alone. Consultation with Lancia soon revealed that Saab’s Italian partner had similar ambitions and a common dilemma. A joint venture was the natural solution; it would allow both companies to split much of the design and engineering costs, making the new models far more economically viable.
In October 1978, Fiat and Saab signed a memo of understanding regarding the development of a new platform for a large, front-wheel-drive car, which would be built in Saab, Fiat, and Lancia versions. The platform would eventually become known as the “Tipo Quattro,” or “Type Four.”
The first three of the Type Four cars were the Fiat Croma, the Lancia Thema, and the Saab 9000, all of which debuted in the 1985 model year. Giorgetto Giugiaro’s ItalDesign created the basic design for all three cars, although each company finalized the interior and exterior details in-house, subject to Giugiaro’s approval. It was not a simple process, compounded by cultural and philosophical differences. Saab design chief Björn Envall, for example, was used to putting practicality above looks, while the Italians’ first priority was aesthetics.
The dimensions of all three cars were very similar, and they all shared the same 104.7-inch (2,660mm) wheelbase. The Saab and Fiat were initially only available in five-door hatchback form, albeit with a traditional “three-box” profile that made them look like notchback sedans. (A true notchback version of the Saab 9000 was added later in the model run.) The Lancia Thema was offered only as a four-door sedan, in keeping with its executive-car ambitions. All had MacPherson strut front suspensions and four-wheel disc brakes, although their rear suspensions and engines were different.
Both Saab and Fiat later admitted that the shared platform hadn’t resulted in the kind of cost savings they had hoped for. Although the structure of the three cars was similar enough that doors and other components were interchangeable, the actual number of shared components was very small. Part of the reason was that the cars were not aimed at the same market segment: While the Thema was pitched as an executive car, the Croma was aimed at the large family car market, competing with the likes of the Ford Sierra, Opel Ascona, and Vauxhall Cavalier. Saab, meanwhile, was taking aim at BMW. The Swedish company was also unwilling to compromise its traditional interest in safety, which led to some structural improvements to the 9000 relative to its Italian brethren.
THREE INTO FOUR
Alfa Romeo engineers had been working since the end of the seventies on a new executive car to replace the big Alfetta and Alfa 6 sedans. Initially, the plan was for an all-new, rear-drive car, but with the company sinking ever further into red ink, Alfa could not afford a new platform. The Type Four platform was not exactly what Alfa wanted, but it was close enough under the circumstances. In 1982, Massacesi and Innocenti decided to sign onto the Tipo Quattro project.
ENGULF AND DEVOUR, S.P.A.
As the Alfa Romeo 164 took shape, its maker’s financial problems grew worse. In October 1985, the Italian newspaper La Repubblica exposed an internal memorandum written by Ettore Massacesi that painted a grim picture of Alfa Romeo’s financial health. In the memo, Massacesi frankly admitted that his goals of a financial turnaround had been based on overly optimistic assumptions. Moreover, he alluded to a contentious relationship with Finmeccanica management, which had been publicly critical of Alfa’s policies.
By early 1986, Finmeccanica was looking to divest itself of Alfa Romeo. The greatest interest in the ailing automaker came from the Ford Motor Company, which signed a letter of understanding to purchase a controlling interest in Alfa Romeo over a five-year period for a total investment of about $1.75 billion. To Ford’s frustration, Finmeccanica announced that fall that Alfa would instead be sold to Fiat Group, for the same price Ford had offered. The sale, which was effective January 1, 1987, made Alfa Romeo a wholly owned subsidiary of Fiat. It was paired with Lancia in a new organization called Alfa Lancia S.p.A, chaired by Fiat Auto managing director Vittorio Ghidella.
The transition to Fiat control was not a gentle one. Automotive writer Karl Ludvigsen noted in 2008 that not only were the two firms traditional rivals, the cities of Milan and Turin (where Lancia was founded) had a longstanding animosity. (Ironically, Alfa’s current B-segment car, designed in Milan and built in Turin, is called MiTo — Milano Torino.) Fiat eventually invested more than $1 billion in Alfa, but the cultural impact was less happy. According to Ludvigsen, Fiat management was not interested in being gentle; they had not forgotten that the Alfasud had been a direct assault on Fiat’s traditional bread-and-butter market. Not long after the merger, Ghidella told the press that Alfa’s financial problems were a direct result of the company’s dabbling in the compact-car market.
ALFA ROMEO 164: A GERMAN CAR WITH PERSONALITY
At the time of the Fiat acquisition, the Alfa Romeo 164 was nearly ready for introduction. Its launch was delayed by Fiat management, which cited potentially serious build-quality problems. That charge was particularly ironic because Fiat’s own Type Four car, the Fiat Croma, had at best a mediocre repair record and Fiat quality control had been the subject of cruel humor on both sides of the Atlantic for many years.
In any case, the 164 finally made its public debut at the Frankfurt auto show in the spring of 1987. It went on sale that fall as a 1988 model, about a year and a half behind schedule. RHD drive models for the U.K. didn’t arrive until a year after that.
The last of the Type Four cars, the 164 was also the most distinctive. Its exterior design was a good deal more rakish than its cousins and more aerodynamic, as well, with a Cd of 0.30. Although spoiled somewhat by the plastic body kit applied to top-spec models, it remains one of the sharpest-looking sedans of its era. Its interior was stylish, as well, although it had a typically Italian (i.e., awkward) driving position and its dash was adorned with a daunting array of nigh-identical buttons that made the climate control a head-scratcher.
The 164′s raffish appearance was backed by ample performance. The base engine was Alfa’s excellent 1,995 cc (121 cu. in.) Twin Spark four with 144 hp DIN (106 kW) or a turbocharged version with 175 hp (129 kW). Even the Twin Spark engines provided good performance, but the real star was the optional SOHC V6, widely acclaimed as one of the world’s charismatic engines. In June 1990, Car and Driver clocked a 200 hp (149 kW) Alfa Romeo 164S from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in just under 7 seconds, going on to an actual top speed of 142 mph (229 km/h). The 164′s braking and handling were of a similar order, although torque steer was a constant problem, particularly with V6 models. It was tamed somewhat later in the model run, but the V6′s torque remained capable of wrenching the front wheels off course if not handled with caution.
Still, the 164 looked like a compelling alternative to its Teutonic rivals. It was fast, nimble, well-equipped, and had tremendous character. In a 1993 comparison test, Performance Car‘s David Vivian judged it superior to both the BMW 530i and Jaguar XJ6 3.2S.
Alfa Romeo cars had seldom lacked charisma, but assembly quality and reliability were another matter. The 164 was mechanically robust if properly maintained, but fit and finish was not up to German standards, let alone those of the increasingly proficient Japanese. To its credit, the 164 had some of the most extensive corrosion protection Alfa Romeo had ever offered, but its complex electronics — including an LCD dash display and computerized automatic climate control — could be troublesome. Its biggest maintenance headache was the need to change the timing belt every 30,000 miles (48,000 km), an expensive headache that would become more so if neglected.
THE AMERICAN PROBLEM
The Alfa Romeo 164 did not come to the U.S. until 1990, thanks mostly to the decision to overhaul Alfa’s U.S. distribution system. In 1989, Fiat established ARDONA, Alfa Romeo Distributors of North America, as a joint venture with Chrysler, hoping that Chrysler’s familiarity with the American market would help to increase Alfa’s U.S. market penetration. Chrysler soon became frustrated with the factory’s delays in introducing the new model; in 1989, Alfa dealers had nothing to sell but the dated and unreliable Milano sedan and the ancient Spyder convertible. Chrysler withdrew from ARDONA in 1991, leaving Alfa to go it alone.
It was an uphill battle. As BMW and Mercedes sales skyrocketed and Honda got into the luxury market with its Acura brand, Alfa Romeo had languished, selling only 8,201 cars in the 1986 model year. By 1990, U.S. sales had dropped to under 3,500. At the Alfa Romeo 164′s U.S. introduction, ARDONA president Darrell Davis admitted to Car and Driver‘s John Phillips III that the company desperately needed at least one viable mainstream product.
Sadly, the 164 was not that product. Its most direct rivals in size and price were the Audi 100, the Acura Legend, and its own Saab 9000 cousin, but against those competitors, it came in a distant fourth. It was better-looking than its foes, was equally comfortable, and had vastly more personality, but it simply couldn’t match their stronger dealer networks and better marketing. Moreover, buyers looking to stretch a little further in price could now opt for the Lexus LS400 or Infiniti Q45, which offered Japanese reliability and V8 power. As a result, 164 sales in America were anemic. Only 1,549 were sold stateside in 1990, 2,155 in calendar year 1991, and 1,721 for 1992.
By then, Fiat was prepared to throw in the towel. Both Fiat and Lancia had withdrawn from the U.S. in the early 1980s and Fiat’s willingness to invest more money into that unfamiliar market — particularly on behalf of Alfa Romeo, which still suffered from red-headed-stepchild status within the corporation — was limited. Alfa Romeo held out until 1995, but 164 sales for the combined 1993-1995 period totaled only 1,484. The U.S. would not get subsequent new Alfa models like the striking GTV or 155 sedan at all.
DOWN BUT NOT OUT
Even as its U.S. sales were sputtering, the Alfa Romeo 164′s performance received several shots in the arm. First was a new DOHC 24-valve version of the familiar 2,959 cc (181 cu. in.) V6, offering up to 228 hp DIN (168 kW) and a top speed of 152 mph (245 km/h). Second was the Q4, which addressed the standard car’s torque steer with all-wheel drive, mated to a new six-speed gearbox. (The Q4 was never offered in the U.S.) For the Italian market and other areas with restrictive taxable horsepower rules, there was also a 1,996 cc (122 cu. in.) turbocharged V6 with 202 hp DIN (148 kW). The 1993 and later models also received a modest facelift, most recognizable by a somewhat tacky strip of anodized aluminum circling the entire car just above bumper height.
None of this helped Alfa Romeo’s total sales, which sank 24% for 1993. Alfa had done reasonably well just after the Fiat acquisition, reaching about 225,000 units in 1989 and 1990, but by 1993, it was down to 109,598 units, almost where it had been back in 1970. Alfa wouldn’t cross the 200,000-unit mark again until 1997, with the introduction of the 156. In recent years, it has again been struggling, although Fiat, to its credit, has made a great effort to preserve Alfa’s unique character.
The 164 remained in production until June 1997, outliving both the Fiat Croma and Lancia Thema. Total production was 273,857 — decent, but far less than Alfa had hoped. Significantly, it was also well below the 503,087 units ultimately sold by the Saab 9000, a sign of how much the 164 had been hurt by Alfa Romeo’s tarnished reputation, limited sales network, and anemic marketing.
The 164′s successor, the 166, was also a disappointment. Although it had the same inspiring engines and an even sharper suspension, it suffered from dowdy styling and a generally unfinished feel. A 2003 facelift helped, but it was too little, too late; it was dropped in 2007. As of this writing, Alfa has yet to field a replacement, although CEO Luca De Meo said in June 2008 that a successor, the 169, would be launched by mid-2011. Alfa has also talked seriously about returning to the U.S. market, but with the state of the economy, when or if that will happen is anybody’s guess.
Karl Ludvigsen suggests that the failings of the 164 and 166 stem from a deep-seated Italian ambivalence about the class — or, more to the point, about the sort of plutocrats who buy and drive them. We consider that a terrible shame. The modern executive class is full of highly competent vehicles of limited aesthetic appeal (to our mind, former BMW design chief Chris Bangle has much to answer for in that regard), often with about as much personality as an office furniture catalog. In such a market, cars as vivid as the Alfa Romeo 164 — risky though they may be — are sorely missed.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources on Alfa’s travails included the Alfa Romeo company history on Answers.com (www.answers.com/topic/alfa-romeo, accessed 16 April 2009); Giorgio Lonard, “‘Sforzi Insufficienti L’Alfa ‘Fuori Mercato,’” La Repubblica 12 October 1985, Sezione: ECONOMIA, p. 45, ricerca.repubblica. it/ repubblica/archivio/repubblica/1985/10/12/sforzi-insufficienti-alfa-fuori-mercato.html, accessed 19 April 2009, which seriously tested your author’s linguistic skills; Karl Ludvigsen, “Four-Leaf Clover: Lucky This Time?” NextAutos, 16 July 2008, www.nextautos. com/ winding-road-issue-1/four-leaf-clover-lucky-this-time, accessed 19 April 2009; and David Owen, Alfa Romeo: Always with Passion (Haynes Classic Makes) (Sparkford, Nr. Yeovil, Somerset: Haynes Publishing, 1999).
Information on the Type Four cars came from “Alfa Romeo 164 3.0 Lusso,” Autocar & Motor 12 October 1988, pp. 46-53; “Autocar Road Test: Lancia Thema 8.32,” Autocar 27 July 1988, pp. 44-51; Richard Bremner, “Ferraris for Four,” CAR July 1988, pp. 106-113; “Brief Test: Fiat Croma ie Turbo,” Motor 12 July 1986, pp. 22-25; “Brief Test: Lancia Thema V6,” Motor 9 August 1986, pp. 50-52; the Cars from Italy pages on the Croma, Thema, and 164 (www.carsfromitaly. net/ fiat/index.html, www.carsfromitaly. net/ lancia/index.html, www.carsfromitaly.net/alfaromeo/index.html, accessed 16 April 2009); Rich Ceppos, “Saab 9000 Turbo: A car for all reasons,” Car and Driver Vol. 31, No. 6 (December 1985), pp. 79-83; James Cleary, “Starfighter,” Modern Motor,September 1988, reprinted in BMW 5 Series Gold Portfolio 1988-1995, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, Surrey: Brooklands Books Ltd., 1999); “Giant Test: Alfa Romeo 164 Super v BMW 530i v Volvo 850 T-5 Turbo,” CAR January 1994, pp. 98-105; “Giant Test: Fast Risers,” CAR January 1986, pp. 114-123; “Group Test: Type Four Trio,” Motor 28 June 1986, pp. 44-50; Jean Lindamood, “Björn Envall and the Saab 9000: The maverick from Trollhättan meets the toast of Turin,” Car and Driver Vol. 31, No. 6 (December 1985), pp. 85-87; Salvatore Loiacono, “Progetto Fiat Tipo: Errore nell’applicazione,” OmniAuto, 12 November 2002, www.omniauto. it/magazine/211/ progetto-fiat-tipo, 11 May 2013; John Phillips III, “Alfa Romeo 164S,” Car and Driver Vol. 35, No. 12 (June 1990), pp. 72-79; Productioncars.com, Book of Automobile Production and Sales Figures, 1945-2005 (N.p.: Productioncars.com, 2006); Kevin Smith, “Foreigners in the Fast Lane: Seven pricey sedans undergo our acid test,”Car and Driver Vol. 37, No. 1 (July 1991, pp. 54-70; “Test Update: Fiat Croma ie Super: Good Yes, Super No,” Autocar 18 August 1987, pp. 42-45; “Tipo 4,” International Alfa Romeo 164 Register, n.d., www.alfaromeo164register. com/history/ history.php?page=2, accessed 11 May 2013; Colin Verrilli, the Alfa Romeo 164 Home Page, 1998, www.digest.net/alfa/FAQ/164/, accessed 16 April 2009; David Vivian, “All Change: Alfa Romeo 164 Cloverleaf, BMW 530i, Jaguar XJ6 3.2S,” Performance Car, August 1993, reprinted in Jaguar XJ6 1986-94 Gold Portfolio, e.d. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, Surrey: Brooklands Books Ltd., 1995); Mark Wan, “Fiat Croma,” AutoZine, 25 May 2005, www.autozine.org/Archive/Fiat/old/Croma.html, accessed 3 May 2013; and the Type Four entry on Wikipedia® (en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Type_Four_chassis, accessed 15 April 2009). Although the Peugeot 605 was not a Type Four car, we also consulted William Jeanes, “Peugeot 605 SR3.0: A new executive-length tourer from France,” Car and Driver Vol. 36, No. 9 (March 1991), pp. 84-91.