One of the sometimes depressing, occasionally pleasing and always curious facets of this job is that, if you do it for long enough, you find yourself driving classic cars you very clearly remember testing when they were new.
The first car launch I attended was of the Alfa Romeo 164 in 1988 and you may remember it was the car that was going to save Alfa Romeo. After execrable large saloon efforts like the Alfa 6 and Alfa 90, the 164 was one four cars based on the same structure (Lancia Thema, Fiat Croma and Saab 9000 as you’re asking) in an early example of platform sharing. But each manufacturer could clothe and power their car any way they liked. So Alfa commissioned Pininfarina to come up with a knockout shape while Alfa itself would provide the same gorgeous 3.0-litre V6 motor already seen in the smaller Alfa 75, turned through 90 degrees so it could drive the front wheels.
“The 164 was just the first of what turned out to be a whole series of Alfa Romeos all of which were going to return the Milanese to its rightful place in the firmament right up until the moment they didn’t quite manage it”
And it was nearly, so very nearly excellent. It looked right, sounded right went hard and was even reasonably spacious. But its quality was still decades behind the Germans and its torque steer so bad that when I tried to record its acceleration figures it leapt straight into the lane intended for oncoming traffic at the mercifully deserted test track.
I mention it now because the 164 was just the first of what turned out to be a whole series of Alfa Romeos all of which were going to return the Milanese to its rightful place in the firmament right up until the moment they didn’t quite manage it. There was the 155 which became (and remains) the only non-German car to win the DTM touring car championship but was way too ugly to command the affections of the Alfisti. If the 145 had been as good at the start of its life as it became towards the end it could have done good work and while if either the 156 or 159 had been even half as good to drive as they were to look at they could have transformed our view of Alfa. The GTV of 1995 was a genuinely fine and fine looking car and the best Alfa of the last two decades but the Spider version was far too wobbly and as a coupé alone it was unable to make the difference its talents deserved. The GT was better than you’d think, the Brera far worse.
Ah, you say, what about the fast and gorgeous 8C? Fine, save the slightly awkward point that it wasn’t actually an Alfa Romeo, but a Maserati imposter using a Maserati platform, engine, gearbox and so on. It even needed servicing at a Maserati dealer.
So there have been few indeed that I have revisited as true classics. The SZ coupé is a clearly one and a wonderful car (though buy with extreme care because their plastic bodies often provide a highly unreliable guide to the condition of the car beneath) while clunky gearbox and insane ergonomics apart, a 3.0-litre 75 is a car that retains a very special place in my heart. But these combined with the GTV are mere punctuation marks in the Alfa Romeo narrative of the last quarter century where so many cars have promised so much, but ultimately failed to deliver. And yes, though I’d count myself as a fan, the current 4C suffers the same affliction of being nothing like as good as it could and, indeed, should have been.
So our eyes turn to Alfa’s next apparent saviour, next year’s mid-sized saloon we understand will now not be called Giulia. Except the stakes are higher than ever: Alfa Romeo is a central plank in the plan of Sergio Marchionne to revive the fortunes of the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles empire. And after sending a scout into America in the form of the 4C, the not-Giulia and its variants will make up the main invasion force tasked with recapturing hearts and minds in the long-abandoned US market where its potentially highest volumes lie.
But for now, what remotely affordable Alfa would you have? I adore 1950s Giuliettas and have a great fondness for Giulia Supers and ‘Suds, but to own it would be either a 1965 step front Sprint GT or a Mk1 1750 GTV from about 1968. To me their looks, their technology, the driving pleasure they offer and still reasonable financial accessibility make them everything an Alfa should be.