Cohort Outtake: 1995-98 Alfa Romeo 155 1.8TS – Fiat’s First Alfa, Alfa’s First Fiat

Whenever you need whatever you’re missing, look in the Cohort. Like many, I always need a red Alfa Romeo saloon, and Roshake 17 has provided these shots of a 1995-98 Alfa Romeo 155 1.8TS series 2, from Budapest, Hungary. As I say frequently, the Cohort is truly the source of all you may need.

The Alfa Romeo 155, which first came to market in 1992, was the first Fiat defined and funded car. The larger 164, whilst a joint project with Fiat, Lancia and Saab, was a product of the old independent Alfa Romeo in that four way partnership.

The 155 was different. It was developed fully after the Fiat takeover – Fiat bought Alfa in 1987 – and replaced the by then aging Alfa Romeo 75 (or Milano in North America). The 75 had, and has, a huge appeal. Rear wheel drive, rear mounted five speed transaxle for weight distribution, de Dion tube rear suspension, inboard rear discs, and a true sports saloon ethos, fuelled in no small way by the twin cam four cylinder engine or, even more so, the 2.5 litre and 3.0 litre V6 options. Open the bonnet on a 75 and want to walk away…you’re unlikely to be a petrolhead or a Curbivore.

Cohort photo by Yohai Rodin

The disadvantage that the 75 had was its age – it may have said 1988 on the birth certificate but it was really a rejigged 1977 Giulietta, which was a slightly cut down 1972 Alfetta. The V6 engine (known as the Busso V6) was first seen in the 1979 Alfa 6, and has a claim to be one of the great engines of time. Not least because of the most wonderful noises it makes.

The 75 was phased out in 1992, in favour of the 155, a car with a very different character. For a start, it was a transverse engine front wheel car, based heavily on the Fiat Tipo hatchback and Tempra saloon. The Tipo and Tempra were Fiat’s competitors to the Golf and Jetta, making a bit more size a selling point. If a VW can make an Audi, why can’t a Fiat make a Lancia or an Alfa? Especially when you add an Alfa engine?

It was therefore also closely linked also to the Lancia Delta hatchback and saloon derivative, the Dedra.

Once you know the Fiat origins are there, you can see then in the centre section, wedge nose and high tail. These allowed the wedge style of the 75 to be carried over, without the distinctive black plastic capping on the belt line.

Engine wise, the original 155 took the four cylinder classic Alfa Romeo twin cam engines from the 75, in 1.7 (actually 1749cc, and for tax sensitive markets, mostly), 1.8 (or 1779cc) and 2.0 litre (1995cc) forms, which gave up to 150bhp, and the 2.5 litre V6 with 166bhp and more torque.

There wasn’t a huge performance difference, but only the V6 had the noise. The sort of noise for which you change down and open the windows in tunnels. U-turn and repeat.

The car was visually, gently, facelifted in 1995, with gently flared front wings (fenders), losing the lip around the front wheel arch, to cover a widened front track and revised steering, and fitting with the styling of the smaller Alfa 145 and 146.

But the maim part of the facelift was not the steering or suspension changes, but the use of Fiat engines, with bespoke Alfa cylinder heads with 16 valves and the customary Alfa twin spark (two plugs in each cylinder) system. The feature car is one of the second series models, fitted with a 1.8 litre twin spark four cylinder engine.

The interior was not one of the greatest ever, with a plain, almost Fiat, style, which was lifted on some models by leather seats and wood rim steering wheels. But, it was the 1990s…and Alfa have got better at locating stalk controls since.

The car was built at Pomigliano, near Naples and the original home of Alfa’s first front wheel drive car, the Alfasud, and then at Arese, Alfa’s Milanese home. And. also true to tradition, Alfa Romeo took the 155 racing, memorably entering it in saloon car racing in Europe and the UK, where the 1.8 litre 8V series 1 won the British Touring Car Championship in 1994, driven by Gabriele Tarquini.

Italian Tarquini could not be charged with not putting his heart and soul into winning in an Alfa.  Murray Walker was as calm as ever, of course.

The 155 V6 Ti competed in FIA class 1 Touring Cars, driven by Alessandro Nannini and Nicola Larini amongst others, winning the championship in 1993 and came third in the 1994 and 1996 championships.  Don’t tell anyone, but the engine in these cars was base do the Peugeot-Renault-Volvo Douvrin V6, borrowed from the Lancia Thema and selected because of the wider angle giving more space for turbochargers. Alfa fans are nothing if not tolerant of winners….

The V6 version took the plaudits for the being the fastest version until the Q4 was launched in 1994. This car was, in the eyes of some, not an Alfa but a bit of a mongrel, as the 2.0 litre turbocharged engine and 4wd drivetrain came the Lancia Delta Integrale. Yes, it had 190bhp, it was a terrific engine in a very satisfying package, but was it an Alfa? That’s one of the things platform sharing on this scale can do.

But there’s something else platform sharing can do – enable cars like the Alfa Romeo 155 to be built in the first place. Without the Fiat Group platform sharing, where would Alfa be? The fact that the 75 was still using the 20 year platform of the Alfetta tells you that.

And numbers built? In total, around 195,000, over six years, with fewer than 5,000 sold in the UK, of which fewer than 100 are still on the roads. There may be some non-Alfa genes in there but even so this car’s better than those numbers might suggest.

And these guys liked the 155. After all, they are Alfa Romeo’s most loyal customer.