(First Posted November 4, 2013) With Alfa’s return to our shores delayed once again (to mid 2014), 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 minivan 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 (above),
the Lancia Thema,
and the Saab 9000 (COAL here). 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 Pininfarina designed Peugeot 605 show a remarkable degree of familial similarity, perhaps even more so when they’re not right together like in this picture. Well, that had been happening for decades, but Peugeot got sick of it finally, and ditched Pininfarina after so many decades together. This would never happen with an in-house design studio. But Peugeots didn’t look this good again either.
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 (above), was about as successful in the larger sedan category as Fiat’s interesting but also unsuccessful 130. The Italians had 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).
So 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 (above) 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 fine running motor, and as sweet-sounding as it gets. It went a long way to dispel any lingering doubts about a FWD Alfa, at least in a sedan.
These were fine handling cars too, although torque steer could raise its ugly head. Its ultimate limits weren’t exactly in M5 territory, but up to that point it, it was engaging, satisfying, and comfortable to boot.
Not surprisingly, the 164 had its shadow sides: reliability. It’s not as fragile as one might think, but certain issues tended to make it challenging for its owners. the stepper motor for the HVAC is notorious. Timing belt changes at 30k miles are essential, as a failure is catastrophic (to the wallet). Tire life is short. Paint can be iffy. And so on. Its drivers inevitably experience strong emotions, on both ends of the spectrum. Not an uncommon experience with a red-blooded Italian, even if it does share some genes with a Saab.
That engine is absolutely gorgeous! I remember having seen it in the Spyder they sold in Venezuela.
They sold very few of these, even less of the 166. I sat briefly in a 166 and it was very nice.
Gorgeous cars. That’s a great engine too; my brother has the 2.5 liter variant in his GTV6. They have a funny valvetrain, the exhaust valves are pushrod-activated, while the intake valves sit right under the overhead cams. I have only very limited knowledge of engine design, but that struck me as odd.
I think the Lancia variant is the most refined-looking of the family, but those are really, really scarce (although I did see one at a junkyard about two weeks ago).
Never a big seller in the UK,Italian cars & British weather don’t mix well.Lancias stopped being imported many years ago.It looks good but I wouldn’t have the nerve to own one for a daily driver.
I think perceptions had more to do with the low sales than the weather: There are a couple of these still around on the streets here in Edinburgh and they’re wearing very well.
Oddly (if I’m reading the stats right) the FIAT Chroma massively outsold its Alfa sibling back then… strange now to think of a large FIAT selling in any numbers.
After the Alfa Sud didnt Fiat discover galvanising as a rust preventative after corrosion warranties were introduced
Alfa Sud: a combination of inexperienced and insufficiently trained workers in the south (hence: Sud) of Italy and crap quality Russian steel. Mixed with the famous “southern” rust proofing from those days….But oh man, was that little thing agile or what ?? And it sure looked great too !
But don’t worry, nothing wrong anymore with the rust proofing of southern European cars. On par with the rest. And Fiat and VM Motori diesels are among the best of the world.
You mean Alfadud?
You mean the Seat Leon ?
Beautiful car, I’ve been tempted by a couple of them over the past decade and a half but have always backed off over the potential maintenance costs.
By the way, remembering that Alfa sold the 164 is not the mark of a oldster, watching Dustin Hoffman drive an Alfa in a first run movie in a theatre (because there was no other way to see it) is the mark of an oldster.
Great looking sedan. I’ve always thought of the late-’90s Camry as a bad photocopy of this design. Of course, the Camry was probably a much easier car to actually own.
Till the Fiat model Croma was something we only used in the kitchen.
No more Fiat Croma, but the original is still alive and kicking…
Can’t recall Alfa Romeos still having rust issues in the nineties.
If you want to have a 164 with an agricultural/industrial twist (surprise everybody !), it was also available with a 2.5 liter 4 cylinder turbo diesel from VM Motori. Same engine was in the Chrysler Voyager and Jeep Cherokee.
I think Pininfarina let Alfa down with these. Aside from the slightly odd front and rear, the rest of the car seemed sort of generic to me. I guess generic was an improvement over the previous larger Alfa sedan that had that really odd beltline, but I never saw this as a beautiful car. The BMW 5 series was a much better looking car.
that engine is a work of art and sounds sublime. The car itself is okay…I don’t love the styling and I think the interior came out of someone’s head in the Balkans.
DD’d a ’91 164L until it had 204k miles on it.
Did Chrysler have a stake in Alfa at the time or did they make parts for Alfa? That radio in the 1993 Alfa that was photographed looked familiar and then it dawned on my that I had seen that same type of radio(sans the Alfa Romeo script) in a few late 1980’s Dodge and Chryslers in the junk yard recently.
Here is a pic of said radio in Chrysler guise. It is an Infinity 1 radio that both Chrysler and Infinity collaborated on.
Here is a closeup of the Alfa version from eBay
Yes, and yes. That radio was in my ’91 anyway…
Euro radios are a different spec than North American. Although we share a common modulation and stereo system, the pre-emphasis curves and modulation levels and bandwidth are different for EU countries. And the EU AM band uses different channel bandwidth, frequency response and station spacings.
North American spec head units are installed in U.S. bound cars, just like North American spec units replace the JDM units. Japan uses a slightly different frequency band for FM than North America.
Same digitally-controlled radio worldwide, different jumpers for different regions.
Sort of. Alfa’s last stab at U.S. distribution, ARDONA (Alfa Romeo Distributors of N.A.), was a JV with Chrysler.
And now that Fiat, who owns Alfa Romeo now also owns Chrysler, they’ll be doing it again.
One of these parks daily out side a school near me, not many about though it seems most of Alfas rust issues had been solved by this time nobody rushed out to buy them.
I see the VM Motori diesel was available in these too we still get those in the Chrysler 300 and of course Jeeps.
Not seen there anymore either it died and got replaced or the driver moved jobs.
“The doors from a Croma will install right on the Saab; etc. Obviously, the Alfa got special treatment; up to a point.”
Actually you’re wrong about that. Even though the doors look the same the Saab 9000 is the only one of the bunch that has specially framed doors designed to do better in a car crash. They are heavier and will not fit the other cars of this platform. Saab was more safety and build quality conscious than the other manufacturers and that made it difficult to work together on the platform. A foreshadowing of the GM days..
A very good find. I’m surprised to see an Alfa sedan of that vintage in such good shape. I don’t see a dent anywhere, and no blistering paint! It’s nice to see one being taken care of.
I’m curious about the need to change the timing belt so frequently. I mean, every 30,000 miles? Is that based primarily on how people who buy Alfas tend to drive? Even on an interference engine it sounds a bit odd.
When Volvo first introduced its all-alloy inline-6 engine in the 1992 960, the timing belt change interval was at every 30k miles. Unfortunately, most owners didn’t adhere to the recommendation, thus cooking their motors when the belt broke (which was often). That’s why you don’t see many 960s from the first two years – ’92 and ’93 – on the road a lot.
Because of this, Volvo was forced to redesign the motor and increase the interval to every 50k starting in ’94. It was extended once more to 70k for ’95 and continuing all the way through the end in ’98.
I don’t know about the other makes, but Honda in 1992 went from a 60K belt change interval to a 90K belt interval, I know as I had the belt changed in my ’83 Civic, shortly after I bought it (and did the water pump while at it since they are normally done together), and got a 90K mile belt on that car. When I sold it in 1998, I had put something like 75K on the car, and it was on the original belt I put in it back in ’92.
Today, most companies will do over 100K intervals on their timing belts. My 03 Mazda Protege5 has a 105K mile interval, Fiat currently has a 150K mile interval on their belts, and I am assuming others do too.
30k miles is based on the use by Fiat group cars of plastic tensioner pulleys for the timing belt. The belt itself could do 60k+ no problem, but the plastic pulley could not.
Am I the only one who the side-on views reminded of the contemporary GM cars where Chevrolet would get unique sheetmetal while Buick-Olds-Pontiac had to share?
To the more youthful here, the 164 may have been something you ogled on the way to grade school
I remember seeing exactly one from the family minivan, with my dad pointing it out, and my exact reaction was “THAT’S an Alpha?!?!”. I think heckled from the the family minivan would more accurately describe it.
Seriously, my Mom’s 85 Jetta(which was really just a tweaked 70s Giugiaro design) looked about as exotic as the Alpha 164 did to me, it even had the bodyside crease that Pininfarina lazily slapped onto seemingly every design they rolled out during this period. My rose tinted glasses towards that overrated design firm got scuffed up a long time ago. it’s just another business that figured out that they could coast off their past accolades or high end work(Ferrari) and command a premium for the rest because their badge is supposedly so meaningful.
Well… you represent your generation very well then.
Heh, that’s the first I’ve been accused of that! My lack of smartphone, and my gravitation towards old iron usually gets me accused of being a relic by my generation. 🙂
We got all four variants of the Type 4 here. The Fiat was the least seen when new, followed by the Lancia (although having a Fiat-Lancia specialist in town means I still see both occasionally). The Saab and Alfa weren’t big sellers when new either, but both are more often seen today than their Type 4 siblings. The Alfas seemed have been dirt cheap for years, and often go for very little on trademe. Such a glorious engine, such a glorious shape, such a glorious way for owners to go bankrupt…
The Saab 9000 was the biggest seller of the Tipo 4 project: over 503,000 were produced.
Next was the Fiat Croma, which was the most affordable: 438,000.
Then its subbling Lancia Thema: over 336,000 sedans plus 21,000 stationwagons.
The Alfa 164 remained the most exclusive one with 278,000 units.
This means that the Fiat Auto Group made over 1,050,000 Tipo 4 cars in total, not a bad number after all.
Owned one of the last, a ’95 164 Quadrifoglio. Spot-on with the issues, but I’d add steering rack, the disappearing HVAC display, and the now-unobtanium electronic adjustable struts.
The engine is simply glorious, makes the most beautiful noises this side of a Ferrari. The intake runners are a thing of beauty.
But the 24 valve engine has a serious design flaw that put too much stress on the timing belt teeth. As my mechanic told me, “Theres are two kinds of 24 valve engines…those that have jumped timing, and those that will.” And when they go, it is catastrophic. Like $7K catastrophic. But when it runs, oh, the joy…
The Quad was the only car I’ve owned that had people call out to me at stoplights, parking lots, and everywhere else. It ALWAYS got front row’d by valets.
Like any good Italian mistress, it was achingly beautiful, maddenly unreliable, hideously expensive to maintain, and worth every penny of the pain you knew was coming. I was glad to sell it, but I miss it to this day.
In a day when most cars are committee’d to death, the 164 is a testament to how poor planning, corporate egos, and Italian obstinacy can result in a car brimming with personality.
Or at least, a personality disorder.
I’m not inclined to hate on FWD, but this is one car that might have been better served by a RWD platform. It looks fabulous, it sounds great, but at least in the more powerful iterations, the engine and chassis end up being at odds if you pushed it hard. (Fiat managed to quell the torque steer for the Lancia Thema 8.32, but according to most contemporary tests, it sucked the life out of the steering feel as well.)
Last week I was delivering a echo and a civic to a junk yard a little out of the way and as I made the turn onto highway on ramp there was a 164l making the turn off the highway. It was white and grey and in very nice shape for the saltiest place on earth. Looked like it had dark red leather but that could have just been my imagination.
Actually the Lancia Thema and the 164 caused a renaissance of the large Italian autobahncruisers in th eNetherlands and Belgium.
They were quite popular with their fast Diesel versions.
Personally I always like th edifferences between the Thema and the 164.
Thema people were more conventional and modest while 164 people were more hot blooded so to say.
I’ll have a 164 anytime, I love the shape of the car and it looks brilliant in metallic grey, the Pininfarina design just shows good tasten nothing over the top, but just enough stuff (like the red taillight lense) to make it stick out of the crowd.
My current 159 is much, much more screaming “I amma Anna Alfa Romeo, getta outta the waya ” and they do.
nice, well written piece ! These cars were enormously popular here in Italy (the 164 but even the Thema and the Croma…) and they truly represent an era to me both for the good (they were good looking cars and perfect late ’80s period pieces plus they aged very well) and the bad (all the political scandals and the tragic mafia state massacres that took place in our country between the ’80s and the ’90s have one of these in the original footage…)
Matt, if you think the Alfa 164 resembles your mom’s ancient appliance Jetta… Then you never drove one.
Even the best Jetta couldn’t keep up on the autobahn with one of these. What a joke.
You open the bonnet and it says it all.
Big heart and personality.
Reminds me of a very, very powerful Lancia Flavia 2000 Sedan, except it has the bitch factor.
Eats long distances with great contempt.
The white car pictured is identical to mine.
I think in some Asian countries, they had to change the numerical designation to 168, because 164 when pronounced in Chinese (whether Mandarin or Cantonese) sounds like “will die en route”. 168 however, sounds like “on the road to prosperity” .
That looks pretty much like the one I had. While my Milano’s were true sports sedans this was a gentleman’s express. Fast, comfortable, able to gobble up the expressway but not out of place in the twistys.
I remember the first time I drove to an event at the kid’s preschool. Hey, what’s that? Pop the hood and – oooh aaah – those chrome runners and cast valve covers were the Armani suit that made everything else look like Men’s Wearhouse.
Great car, great memories.
When my son was about 8, he used to collect the emblems from the junkyard cars.
We had a lot of fun finding them. Most yards were cool about letting him take all the good stuff. At $5 a pop it did add up when he started to get a LOT of them.
Alfas were virtually non-existent in Northwest Indiana by then, but we came across one of these in the corner of a pick ‘n’ pull, covered in weeds. It was also white. All of the emblems and markings, even the interior ones, were gone. I had only seen them in magazines, and was quite surprised when we came across it.
So we took the brake pedal pad, with the Alfa logo, just to tide him over. Never did get a real emblem, but still have the pedal pad, along with a door handle from a Porsche 944, because we never found a real emblem from one of the those either. Those were always picked bare, along with any old Datsun “Z” car.
EBay has everything, but just like with my diecast car hobby, most of the fun was in the treasure hunting, instead of just getting them in the mail. But he has lots from that, too.
He still has his gigantic box of emblems. He’s 16 now and says he might sell them.
I told him some of them could make great over-the-top belt buckles, like the giant gold Infiniti badge or the old metal Pontiac “Indian”. Serious car bling!
This has put me in the mood to go look at the contents of the giant box of memories.
Anyone else remember Alfa’s advertising campaign in the 1990’s. Infiniti had their rocks, and Alfa had their paintings.
Here’s one available on eBay: