(Curbside Classics paid a quick visit to TTAC Command Central in Portland on Saturday, and came away with a few goodies to share from that CC Elysian Fields this week)
With the presumed return of Alfa to our shores, its easy to forget that it seems like just yesterday (to us oldsters) that Alfa was selling its handsome 164 sedan hereabouts until 1995. To the more youthful here, the 164 may have been something you ogled from the back of the family Caravan on the way to grade school. Regardless; it’s a quickly disappearing part of the street-scape, and has some fascinating history behind that tasty exterior.
The 164 was the last new car developed by an independent Alfa Romeo before they were bought by Fiat. But that doesn’t mean Fiat wasn’t already a major player in the 164’s genesis by another means: the 164 was one of four cars developed on the joint “Type 4” platform, which included the Fiat Croma, the Lancia Thema, and the Saab 9000. Even a grade schooler could see that the Fiat, Lancia and Saab were the chummy trio of the foursome. The doors from a Croma will install right on the Saab; etc. Obviously, the Alfa got special treatment; up to a point.
While the 164 certainly benefited from the distinctive styling from the other three, courtesy of Pininfarina, it failed to make sure there was an exclusivity clause in its contract with the storied design house. The 164 and the concurrently Pinin designed Peugeot 605 show a remarkable degree of familial similarity, perhaps even more so when they’re not right together like in this picture.
The 164 was a serious effort to move Alfa upscale, which had failed badly in its previous efforts to expand beyond its roots as sporty brand. Its prior effort, the Alfa 6, was about as successful in the larger sedan category as Fiat’s interesting but also unsuccessful 130. The Italians have never been able to crack the stranglehold of the German bigger sedans, even on their home turf. The “type 4” platform cars were to be the big breakthrough.
I don’t have all the sales stats and contemporary reviews in front of me, but my recollection is that the Croma and Thema may have been, at best, only marginally successful for Fiat in holding off BMW, Audi and Mercedes’ inroads further. The Thema 8.32 was a wild variant, featuring a Ferrari -sourced V8 mounted transversely, and a very high-grade interior; an Italian version of the Taurus SHO (not the interior part, that is).
I’m getting off topic again, as usual. The 164 and the Saab 9000 were probably the most successful of the four; the Saab’s fairly strong presence in the US being a major contributor. The 164 was taken quite seriously in Europe as a competitor in the executive saloon sector, and enjoyed a degree of success, both critically and commercially, that was unprecedented for a larger Alfa, at least since the days of the 2600 in the fifties and sixties.
In Europe, the 164 came with a variety of engines; the twin-spark 2.0 fours, both normally aspirated and turbo; a small-bore 2.0 turbo V6 (primarily for markets with a heavy displacement tax); a 2.5 diesel; and the beautiful 3.0 V6 which solely powered the US versions: a 12 valve version until ’93; then a 24 valver until the end. The power ratings were pretty healthy for the times too: from 183 hp (12 valve) to 230 hp for the 24 valve S version. The 3.0 was a sweet sounding and fine running motor, and went a long way to dispel any lingering doubts about a FWD Alfa, at least in a sedan.
I can’t claim any seat time in one of these cars, but maybe some of you can add your experiences. And although the 164 doesn’t (or does it?) have “Italian Reliability Nightmare” written all over it, it may still be included in the fine print. Any 164 sob stories out there?