“Alfa Romeo Stories”, eighth episode – design, sportiness and innovation: the 156 is a very successful authentic Alfa Romeo
Saloon with a sporty heart
Almost one million people in the dealership on the first Sunday of “open doors”. Over 100 thousand orders in a few months. 680 thousand total sales between 1997 and 2005. Numbers that make the 156 one of the most successful Alfa Romeos in history.
The 156 was presented to the international press in 1997 at the Centro Cultural de Belém in Lisbon. The company’s intentions are stated: to create a sedan that combines style excellence with impeccable dynamic behavior, in perfect balance between performance and handling. A 100% Alfa Romeo product formula.
The goal is very ambitious – and the result is one of the best front-wheel drive cars ever.
Alfa Romeo and front-wheel drive
The car was born with rear-wheel drive – but from the beginning, the front-wheel drive hypothesis fascinates designers. The idea appears in Alfa Romeo in the first post-war period. Satta Puliga and Busso are convinced of the potential of this solution, and start a development program that aims to make the 1900 the first front wheel drive of the house. However, the company decides to go in another direction: At the beginning of the 1950s, an Alfa Romeo “vetturetta”, the “V”, a front-wheel drive for which different types of engines are studied, began to be thought of.
However, none of these projects will come to industrialization. The decision is only postponed. Alfa Romeo wants to extend the range with a model below the Giulietta: a compact “all forward” capable of taking off the volumes.
Following the new project, the company recalls Rudolf Hruska, the “father” of the Giuliette. Alfa Romeo entrusts him with a double responsibility: to design the new car and the factory in which it is to be built at the same time. Thus was born the Alfasud, the first Alfa Romeo front-wheel drive
Alfasud was born “from white sheet” and “from green lawn”: it is one of the infrequent cases in which a car factory is designed and built to produce a specific model. The car has no technical constraints to respect, if not to be faithful to its product objectives.
“It was obvious that it was front-wheel drive. And it had to be a luxury subcompact, a 5-seater car with a very large trunk. ” So Hruska describes the project a few years later.
The 1.2 liter “boxer” engine (with opposing cylinders) is preferred to the 4-cylinder in-line because it is lower and more suitable for an aerodynamic profile. The unprecedented two-volume body was created to improve access to the boot, which reaches 400 liters thanks to the position of the tank – located under the rear seat instead of between the seat and the luggage compartment. An innovative, functional and safe approach that immediately makes school.
Alfasud is the first important order of Giorgetto Giugiaro and will prove to be a great commercial success. To respect all the constraints of space and size, the young stylist invents the characteristic “high tail”, and connects it to the aerodynamic front with a simple and streamlined line.
Alfasud went into production in 1972, the year in which the brand exceeded one million units since its foundation. By itself it will almost equal this record, with 900,925 units produced between 1972 and 1984 (not to mention the Sprint versions). It is the best selling Alfa Romeo ever.
From production rationalization to the centrality of the Brand
In 1986, IRI (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 to the rationalization of production and supply chains.
In the 1980s, the watchword for all houses was “synergies”. Process and product are increasingly standardized. Many components are shared for cost reasons. Designers are asked to respect rigid constraints (such as the size of the door ring), which strongly influence creativity.
In the following years, these rules are loosened. Customers do not like excess homologation, and are looking for more recognizable cars. The personality of the Brand returns to weigh in the choice. It is a turning point that changes the history of turn-of-the-century car design.
Sporty driving, performance, innovation (and style)
For Alfa Romeo, it is a return to the origins. The first step to relaunch the distinctive characteristics of the brand is to revive Alfa Corse, the glorious team where the young Enzo Ferrari had taken his first steps. In 1993, the 155 GTA participates in the DTM, the tourism championship in Germany, and wins it with Nicola Larini – who finishes first in 11 out of 20 races, and brings Alfa Romeo back to the top step of the Nürburgring podium.
Even more important is the contribution of design. The 1987 1987 164, the brand’s first front-wheel drive flagship, is signed by Pininfarina – but from then on the role of the Alfa Romeo Style Center is becoming increasingly important.
In Arese, technologies change, people change, the process changes. New “computer-assisted” systems are introduced for design and prototyping. The Style Center team is integrated into the design platforms, and participates in all technological choices – because what is functional must also be beautiful, and vice versa. Form and substance always go together: it is the “necessary beauty” Alfa Romeo.
Draw a new range
At Centro Stile, not only a model is commissioned, but the design of a complete range. And in a few years the dream comes true. In 1995, the brand brought an unprecedented two-volume (the 145) to the “C” segment, which the following year was joined by the two-and-a-half-volume version (the 146). The GTV and Spider sports cars follow, created in collaboration with Pininfarina. But the real turning point is with the 156.
The style of the 156 is a surprising mix of strength, innovation and classicism. The shield regains importance, and projects its lines on the hood. In front view, the mudguards “fall on the wheels” flush with the bodywork, to communicate strength and grip on the ground. The relationship between glass surfaces and metal is more of a coupe than a sedan. The rear handles disappear, integrated almost invisibly into the frame of the windows, and the clean side highlights the sleek and dynamic profile of the car. “It seems to move even when standing still,” says de ‘Silva.
The 156 resumes the chromatic research that had already been characteristic of Carabo and Montreal. Alfa Romeo designers find inspiration in the Museum’s collection, preserved in the same building today: observing the color of the 8C 2900 B of 1938 they invent the blue “Nuvola”, obtained with a multi-layered mica paint that gives the car iridescent reflections.
156 is an extraordinary car also from a technical point of view. The designers are asked to develop the concept of “advanced sportiness” by combining power, lightness and control. It has always been the formula of the Alfa Romeo guide.
To achieve this goal, new materials are introduced (such as magnesium and “tailored blank” steels), very refined suspension systems are designed (such as the high front quadrilateral), particular attention is especially paid to mechanical tuning, for enhance the handling and precision of the trajectories.
The 156 puts everyone in agreement: it is the most fun to drive sedan of its generation. And its sports version wins 13 titles in 10 years in the tourism championships.
The birth of the “common rail”
At launch there are six engines. The Busso V6 is flanked by three “Twin Spark” engines which for the first time combine dual ignition (a technology already used by Giuseppe Merosi in 1914) with four valves per cylinder.
According to the rules of the then European market, the petrol offer prevails; but these rules are about to change. Alfa Romeo will start the revolution: the 156 is the first car in the world to launch the “common rail”.
Journalists who test the 1.9 and 2.4 JTD versions in Lisbon are amazed: for the first time, diesel engines offer performance, quietness and “petrol” comfort.
“Car of the Year”
The 156 convinces the public and critics, and in 1998 brings the international recognition “Auto of the Year” to Alfa Romeo for the first time. Her younger sister 147 (who shares not only the stylistic “family feeling” but also the platform, suspension and engines) will follow her a few years later, winning the same prize in 2001.