Storie Alfa Romeo: Episode 8
Brian Joss – Almost a million people visited dealerships on the first “open doors” Sunday. Over 100,000 orders were taken in a few months. 680,000 total sales recorded between 1997 and 2005. These numbers make the 156 one of the most successful Alfa Romeo models in history.
The 156 was presented to the international press in 1997 at the Centro Cultural de Belém in Lisbon. The company’s intentions were clear: to create a sedan that combined style, excellence, and impeccable dynamic behavior, with a perfect balance of performance and handling. A 100% Alfa Romeo product formula.
The goal was highly ambitious – and the result was one of the best front-wheel drive cars ever.
The first ever cars were all rear-wheel drive, but the concept of front-wheel drive fascinated designers. The idea appeared in Alfa Romeo minds immediately after the second world war. Satta Puliga and Busso had been convinced of this solution’s potential and started a development programme that aimed to make the 1900 the brand’s first front wheel drive car. However, the company decided to head in a different direction. At the beginning of the 1950s, the idea of creating a smaller Alfa Romeo was considered, with front-wheel drive, leading to studies of various kinds of powertrains.
While none of these projects got off the ground, Alfa Romeo hadn’t written the idea off. Alfa Romeo decided to expand its range with a model positioned below the Giulietta: a compact car out to boost sales.
The new project was entrusted to Rudolf Hruska, the ‘father’ of the Giulietta. Alfa Romeo commissioned him to simultaneously design both the new car and the factory where it would be built. The result was the Alfasud, the first front-wheel drive Alfa Romeo.
Alfasud was born both “from a white sheet” and “from green fields”: it was one of the rare cases where a car factory had been designed and built to produce a specific model. The car had no technical constraints to respect, apart from being faithful to its product objectives.
“It obviously had to be a front-wheel drive. And it had to be a luxury sub-compact, a five-seater car with a very large boot.” That’s how Hruska described the project a few years later.
The 1.2-litre “boxer” engine (with opposing cylinders) allowed a more compact drivetrain solution than a more-conventional in-line four-cylinder engine with the added benefit of a lower centre of gravity. The unprecedented “two-volume” body was created to improve access to the boot – a massive 400 litres of luggage space thanks to the fuel tank being under the rear seat rather than behind the rear seat or under the boot floor. This made for an innovative, functional and safe approach which was immediately widely imitated.
Alfasud was the first important order taken on by Giorgetto Giugiaro and proved to be a huge commercial success. To respect all the constraints of space and size, the young stylist invented the characteristic “high tail”, and connected it to the aerodynamic front through a simple streamlined line.
The Alfasud went into production in 1972, the year when Alfa Romeo production exceeded one million units since its foundation. The Alfasud almost matched this record on its own, with 900,925 units produced between 1972 and 1984 (not to mention the Sprint versions). It became the best-selling Alfa Romeo ever.
In 1986, IRI (state owner of Alfa Romeo since 1933) sold the brand to the Fiat Group and, as in all industrial integration processes, the first years were devoted mainly to the rationalisation of production and supply chains.
In the 1980s, the watchword for all carmakers was “synergies”. Process and product were increasingly standardised. Many components were shared for cost reasons. Designers were obliged to respect rigid constraints (such as the size of the doors), which smothered creativity.
These restrictive rules were gradually loosened as customers pushed back against boxy look-alikes and began looking for more identifiable cars. The personality of the Brand resumed its lost importance, influencing public choices – a turning point for turn-of-the-century car design.
For Alfa Romeo, this meant a return to its origins. The first big step to relaunch the distinctive characteristics of the brand was to revive Alfa Corse, the glorious racing team where the young Enzo Ferrari had taken his first steps. In 1993, the 155 GTA participated in the DTM, the German Touring Car championship, driven by Nicola Larini – who won by finishing first in 11 out of 20 races, carrying Alfa Romeo back to the top step of the Nürburgring podium for the first time.
The contribution of design was paramount. The 164 of 1987, the brand’s first front-wheel drive flagship, was designed by Pininfarina, but from that moment on, the role of the internal Centro Stile Alfa Romeo became increasingly important.
In Arese, technologies changed, people changed, and processes changed. New computer-assisted systems were introduced for design and prototyping. The Centro Stile team was integrated with the design platforms, and participated in technical decisions too – after all, what is functional must also be beautiful, and vice versa. Form and substance always go together: that’s the “necessary beauty” of Alfa Romeo.
The Centro Stile created not only the style of a model… it designed a complete range. And a few years later, the dream came true. In 1995, the brand brought an original hatchback (the 145) to the “C” segment, and the following year this was joined by the notchback 146. The GTV and Spider sports cars followed, created in collaboration with Pininfarina. But the real turning point came with the 156.
The 156’s styling was an extraordinary mix of strength, innovation and class. The front shield reclaimed its dominance and projected its lines onto the bonnet. Seen from the front, the mudguards seemed “clamped onto the wheels”, flush with the bodywork, radiating strength and road grip. The relationship between glass and metal surfaces resembled a coupé more than a sedan. The rear door handles disappeared, integrated almost invisibly with the window frames, and the clean flanks highlighted the car’s sleek and dynamic profile. “It seems to be moving even when it’s still,” commented de’ Silva.
The 156 returned to the kind of colour influences previously glimpsed in the Carabo and the Montreal. The Alfa Romeo designers found inspiration in the Museum collection, in the same building where it is today: observing the colour of the 8C 2900 B of 1938 they invented “Nuvola” blue, obtained with a multiple layer mica effect that endowed the car with iridescent glints.
The 156 was an astonishing car from a technical perspecitve, too. The designers had been tasked to develop the concept of “advanced sportiness” by combining power, lightness and control. This has always been the formula expressing Alfa Romeo driving.
To achieve this goal, new materials were introduced (like magnesium and “tailored blank” steels), highly refined suspension systems were designed (such as the high front quadrilateral), and particular care was devoted to mechanical tuning in order to enhance handling performance and stability.
The 156 convinced everyone: it was the most thrilling sedan to drive of its entire generation. The sporting version was a winner: in 10 years of Touring Car championships, it won 13 titles.
At launch there were six engines. The Busso V6 was accompanied by three “Twin Spark” engines which for the first time combined dual ignition (a technology previously used by Giuseppe Merosi in 1914) with four valves per cylinder.
At the time, petrol was the prevailing fuel across the European market; but these rules were about to change. And it was Alfa Romeo who launched the revolution: the 156 was the first car in the world to launch the “common rail” fuel system.
Journalists testing the diesel 1.9 and 2.4 JTD versions in Lisbon were amazed: for the first time, diesel engines were offering petrol-level performance and refinement.
The 156 won the hearts of the public and critics and in 1998 delivered the international “Car of the Year” award to Alfa Romeo for the very first time.
Its younger sister, the 147 (which shared not only the stylistic “family feeling” but also the base, suspension and engines) followed up a few years later, winning the same award in 2001.
CAPTION: Game-changer: the 156 mixed strength and innovation. Picture: Quickpic