Parting Shot

Silver Alfa Romeo 156

“For me, the Audi A5 was close to perfection”

Walter de Silva.

There are perhaps 80 cars that we all know well which Walter de Silva has played a (greater or lesser) part in bringing to a street near you. His personal favourite was the 2007 Audi A5. From his early days at Fiat up until his very quiet retirement a little over a year ago it’s very hard not to respect the quiet, patient professional way he went about his business. That’s not to say everything’s rosy in the garden, in fact I have a bone to pick with Mr de Silva. A very serious bone.

His endurance and tenacity are beyond question. He worked as a designer for almost a quarter of a century before his name was definitively placed beside a car – the Alfa GTV and Spider we saw in the mid nineties. It is likely he was involved with the Mirafiori’s facelift and the Ritmo before he joined the IDEA design house in ’79. However once he joined Alfa in the mid ’80s the fuse that had been lit in 1972 at Fiat finally reached the gunpowder. It would be far quicker to list the Seats, Audis and VWs that don’t have his hand in them since the turn of the millenium than those which don’t.

Hyperbole aside there are a serious whack of cars that have Walter’s fingerprints all over them. Most of them do nothing for me. Some I even dislike strongly. The 2004 pair of Altea and Toledo from Seat at best leave me nonplussed. The 2005 Audi Q7 still wakes me in a cold sweat and VW’s Amarok must take the prize for the most comically undersized wheels of all time. The less said about his Beetle the better. I did quite like his 2008 CC and the second gen A3 (in 3 door format) still looks sharp.

Silver Alfa Romeo 156
Look closely. I’m right aren’t I?

My beef with Mr de Silva relates to none of these cars. There are many car designers out there who’s output veers towards the mundane and I haven’t time to be getting grumpy with all of them. 1997’s 156 is the real issue here. I’m not going to go completely against the grain and say I disliked how it looked. I’m also willing to overlook it’s truly terrible overlong gearstick and imprecise gearchange. Both the motoring press and the public loved it and one of the things they especially loved was how de Silva hid the rear door handles in the C pillar making it “look” like a sporty two door car. It never worked for me. I always felt that it just appeared that someone had stolen the rear door handles. The shut lines and B pillars were in the wrong place and this made what should have been a beautiful car look a little out of proportion when viewed side on. Have a really good look the next time you see one and you’ll see I’m right. He then went and did the same on the 5 door 147. It actually took me almost a decade to realise the true import of what he had done. He had stylistically legitimised the death of mainstream two and three door cars. Sure the process had begun and was likely to have continued without his unwanted intervention but what a catalyst this seemingly innocuous design feature proved to be.

Honda Civic hatchback brown
One of the worst offenders.

The very fact that you are hiding the door handles is tacit admission that a two door car looks better. This subterfuge truly makes the proportions look wrong. Not even the 156 can carry it off. As for Renault, Nissan, Toyota, Citroen and Honda who have all pinched this money saving idea my thoughts aren’t fit to publish on these restrained and moderate pages. I really liked the cost effective and stylish way the original Renault 5 discreetly made the door handles flush with the car but Walter’s “bright idea” is a step too far.


Perhaps inspiration came from here?
Perhaps inspiration came from here?


R.I.P. Three Door Cars, Thanks Walter.

P.s. That A5? Definitely not perfection, not even close. (I do see the irony in this!)




9 thoughts on “Parting Shot”

  1. Hi Mick..
    Agree with you on the A5.
    Not so sure about the 156….I kinda liked the look, mind you, there was plenty else wrong with it as evidenced by how few of them are left on the road these days.


    1. Don’t get me wrong Greg. I do like the 156. It would have been an even nicer car with proper rear door handles and a proper gearstick and no 1.6l engine and less thirst for oil and less fault lights on the dash. The only one of these I can blame on the designer is the door handle however.


  2. Indeed: a good observation is the one making what is unseen in plain sight. For 20 years I’ve not questioned the 156’s hidden handles. How was I so wrong. The car would be perfect if it didn’t dishonestly pretend to be a coupe. The annoying thing is that thought sat ignored in my mind, drowned out by the received wisdom. Well done for giving a voice to the idea that the hidden door-handles/cod coupe thing is a kind of nonsense.

    I still like the 156: a properly sized sports saloon is what it is. Just not perfect.

    The absence of these cars says more about Irish conditions than the car. I still see them often enough in Denmark. They can’t be that badly made.

    Vis a vis the A5, I have to say it’s a good as is the A7. Their comparative rarity is more down to fashion than their qualities.


    1. Richard, thanks for that. I agree the 156 would be the perfectly designed sports saloon if they had those nice chrome handles at the rear. Like a sore tooth every time I see one my eyes are drawn to the profile that should be pleasing but isn’t. This car would surely have been his best with that very small change. I have to say I’m not so sure about the rear of the A7 but from the rear wheels forward I’m with you.


      1. Mick – looks like you may have started something! An anti-hidden door handle movement. If you think the 156 is slightly out of proportion what do you think of the 155?! I had one in the ’90s. Really gawky in the looks department but I loved it. Partly because it was so rare in the UK at the time and partly because of that gorgeous enamel Alfa badge staring at me everytime I drove it. And it had honest door handles!


      2. Not everyone was happy with the observation! Your 155 certainly had the correct complement of door handles. It might have been a little gawky but I quite like some of the less “pretty” Alfas e.g. the SZ and the early GTs.


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