Sacred Cow

“You can’t be a true petrol head until you’ve owned an Alfa”

Jeremy Clarkson.

Absolute crap. The virtue that you are willing to forsake reliability and resale value for gorgeous looks and an engaging driving experience is the essence of petrol headedness. It’s absolute nonsense however to suggest that Alfa has any sort of monopoly on beautiful unreliable cars or that just by having an Alfa you are guaranteed to look good while standing at the side of the road peering through a cloud of steam at your car. Being a petrol head is a gift you are either born with or not. I remember being able to identify a written off car at 5 years of age by its wheels. This doesn’t imply any great degree of intelligence or interpretation on my part, merely an compulsive interest that has continued to rear it’s head consistently for forty years.

Claiming that ownership of any model at all of one of the most unreliable and unpredictable marques of all time confers upon you the status of petrol head (and conversely non ownership excludes you) is completely ridiculous. It must be said that my experience of Alfas is by no means exhaustive (having personal experience of only the 145,147,156,mito and an occasional lift in the incredibly dreary 164). My girlfriend owned an Alfa 147 for six years and in fairness it never exploded on the motorway nor was it ever enveloped in a cloud of steam like you might have expected it to. In fact apart from the gear linkage once breaking meaning it was completely stuck in reverse (driving home that day was interesting!) the car was pretty reliable.

Obviously it was her car, I often drove it but I never ever chose to drive it over my Golf. Alfas are of course meant to be stylish, sporty cars that have a little extra Italian panache not to be found in your typical eurobox. Actually I always quite liked how the 147 looked especially how they integrated the traditional Alfa V into the front grille. The interior was also that little bit nicer especially the bucket seats and the display binnacle which was nice and sporty and only visible to the driver.

Things started to go a little wrong with the gearstick though. The 145, 147 and 156 all had a big long gearstick a bit like you might have expected to see in a British Leyland coach produced sometime in the mid 1970’s. For me a sporty car needs a small short throw shift and I found cog swopping in any Alfa I drove a bit like stirring soup – mushy and imprecise, a deeply dissatisfying experience. The car drove well but always felt a little light and skittish to me, never as planted nor handling as well as even a standard Focus. Performance from the 1.6 was fine but overtaking required careful thought and planning and the poke available certainly didn’t match it’s looks.

Alfa Romeo 33 Stradale
Alfa’s 33 Stradale – Their most beautiful ever creation?

I’m not trying to do down Alfas. They have a deserved place at the top table. A blind man on a horse could tell that the 33 Stradale is one of the most beautifully designed cars ever (no two are exactly the same due to being hand-built). I’ve never seen one in the flesh (along with 99.9% of the world’s population) but it does look exquisite. The list of iconic cars produced by these Italians is far too long to mention here but personal favourites would include the Montreal, the Spider Duetto and the new 4C.

Alfa Romeo Montreal
The Montreal really did look that good!
Alfa Romeo Duetto
Dustin’s runabout in “The Graduate”
Red Alfa Romeo 4C
Drop dead gorgeous 4C

 

Obviously looks are only part of the equation and Alfa have also given us some very special engines. Just opening the bonnet they even look special with polished chrome and red lettering hinting at what they might be capable of.

Alfa Romeo chrome polished engine
It certainly looks the part.         Alfa was famous for producing inline engines up to the late sixties (including a straight 8) but they succumbed (along with almost everyone else) to the evils of  the more easily packaged V6 (and front wheel drive) in the late ’70s. Hardly the actions of a company that only cared about how their cars drove. I have never experienced an early Alfa V6 but the 2.5 fitted to the 156 (among others) did sound like an absolute peach although the only time I drove one, it didn’t feel all that quick.

 

Alfa Romeos have also given us some unforgettable scenes in the movies. In the first Godfather Michael Corleone teaches Appollonia to drive (and she later dies in) a black 6C 2500. Would Dustin Hoffman have enjoyed his summer quite so much without his gorgeous Spider Duetto and how about Edward Fox driving north through France in his deliciously delicate Giulietta Spider on his way to assassinate De Gaulle. Let’s not dwell too long on the ridiculous opening sequence of Quantum of Solace where two 159s have no trouble keeping up with Daniel Craig’s V12 DBS!

So it’s clear that Alfa have made many beautiful cars with engines that sometimes sound better than any symphony. Some of them have even shown signs of reliability and it is possible to drive one and not have it explode unexpectedly on the motorway. They have also made some crap. A relatively recent example of this is the 145. It was launched in 1995, was based on the already 8 year old Fiat Tipo and looks a little like a shrunken MPV . It was designed by Chris Bangle (who had just designed the Fiat Coupe, a strange looking sports car with tiny wheels and who subsequently designed pretty much every terrible looking BMW of the noughties including some with tiny wheels, most notably the E90 3 Series ). Even the 1.6 TSpark engine couldn’t reach 60 in under 10 seconds and the 1.4 really was slow.

Red Alfa Romeo 145
Does owning this mini MPV make you a petrol head?

So Jeremy Clarkson would have us believe that owning a 1.4 145 qualifies you as a petrol head as does owning any one of numerous other disappointing Alfas (including but not limited to the terrible looking 90, the most uninspiring Alfa of all time – the 164 and the absolutely tragic Arna). The Arna was a joint venture with Nissan. It was launched in 1983 promising to mix Japanese reliability and build quality with Italian flair and style…. You know where this is going! 1970’s Alfa electrics and reliability mixed with a Nissan Cherry body made this the nadir for Alfa forcing their sale to Fiat and a quiet discontinuation of this truly horrible, unreliable rust bucket in 1987. Many of the mainstream Alfas sold have nothing but a badge in common with their superstar siblings. The really special Alfas are almost never seen on the roads and maybe it is this mystique that makes people feel that the mediocrity they foist on the general public (who can’t afford the reputed $10,000,000 price tag of a Stradale) is actually something special.

Alfa Romeo Arna sales brochure
It even looks dreadful in the sales brochure

Maybe it’s a cheap shot to finish this post with the absolutely worst ever car to carry the famous Milanese cross and crowned viper logo but it surely proves my point. Not even the most ardent Alfista could love this car, could they?

8 thoughts on “Sacred Cow”

  1. Was the 164 dreary? I’ve never driven one but have imagined they drove as well as they looked. The 145 and 146 are the Alfa equivalents of the Ford Escort and without their original boxer motors are kicked into the verge by any mk1 Focus.
    The Alfa 90 is one of the few Italian saloons more obscure than the Trevi and for that reason I can’t hate it. However, I know I am being contrary here. I had a look on the web and discovered they still cost real money. Someone likes them.
    The 166: I saw one the other day and realised how badly they’ve aged. 164s still looks fresh and solid while the 166 seems like a design they never polished.
    By the way, why isn’t the Duetto in the Lights, Carmera post? I didn’t think of it until I read this.

    And Clarkson is a berk.

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    1. Good call on the duetto, it would have worked well in “Lights Carmera”. I always felt that the 164 was dreary. Dark plasticky interior with styling that fell between a wedge and bluff. It really didn’t work for me, had no real road presence and certainly didn’t look like a top of the range car from a sporty marque. The pre facelift 166 truly does look droopy and dated but the runout model is a big improvement.
      Glad we agree on Clarkson

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  2. The facelifted 166 also had a smashing interior, like Maserati on a good day.
    The 164 could be seen as a bit plain, I agree. The Germans used to do plain yet managed to convey quality. Have you noticed the chrome window frames on a Mk2 5-series? The Alfa needed that level of polish. A coupe model would have been splendid.
    For another Q-car can I suggest the Lancia Thema with the Ferrari motor? Or at a much lower level, the five-cylinder Fiat Marea?

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  3. Both perfect Q cars, especially the Marea as no one will expect anything from it. Absolutely loved the E28-would definitely take it way ahead of the 164. Alfa really upped their game when it came to interiors from the turn of the century. Any 80’s/90’s Alfa I was in had a pretty disappointing interior. Paul Bracq could really have helped out!

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