Home Blog Test Drive 1988 Alfa Romeo 164 Pro-Car SE046

1988 Alfa Romeo 164 Pro-Car SE046

2020 Michael Ward and Drive-My EN/UK
1988 Alfa Romeo 164 Pro-Car SE046 - road test
2020 Michael Ward and Drive-My EN/UK

Hidden Intent. This 215mph Alfa Romeo 164 has a mid-mounted V10 and a Formula 1 chassis, but it never once raced. We get up close and personal with it at Arese and ask: why ever not? Story by Peter Collins. Photography by Michael Ward.


Full story of Alfa’s amazing V10-powered racer

G[/dropcap]athering together the various strands that go together to make up the back story of the Alfa Romeo 164 Procar is rather like herding cats. There is very little tangible fact on which to base any story, and yet there are a lot of circumstantial facts. How reliable they are depends on who you talk to and what you read.

1988 Alfa Romeo 164 Pro-Car SE046

1988 Alfa Romeo 164 Pro-Car SE046

So let’s start with some hard facts. Back in 1978, BMW decided to build a sports car called the M1. It also decided that it could go racing with the M1 in the World Sportscar Championship under what were then Group 5 regulations. These allowed considerable performance modifications but, as so often happened, the governing body of motorsport, the Federation Internationale du Sport Automobile (FISA) made a last-minute decision to create new rules and force would-be manufacturers to build 400 Group 4 examples of their sports cars before they could embark on constructing a Group 5 version.

“This car is what we thought was the one and only 164 Procar – there are in fact two”

This led to much consternation at BMW, because it would obviously be difficult to find guaranteed clients for so many M1s.

Therefore Jochen Neerpasch, who was in charge of the project, approached Max Mosley, a member of the Formula One Constructors Association (FOCA) through his being boss of March Engineering, and suggested he use his influence on other members in order to get their agreement to running a one-make race series for BMW M1 E26 cars supporting some of the European rounds of the 1979 Formula 1 season. If successful, Neerpasch saw this as a way of contributing towards his 400-car quota required by the FISA. Remarkably, the ploy worked. Under the title of ‘Procar’, BMW effectively enjoyed two years’ free advertising by having a race at many F1 Grands Prix during 1979-1980 purely for itself.

This car is what we thought was the one and only 164 Procar – there are in fact two ”

1988 Alfa Romeo 164 Pro-Car SE046

The effect of all this had not been lost on one Bernard Ecclestone who, by the mid- 1980s, was joining the hierarchy of F1. But before we go further in that direction, we next need to turn our attention to the fate of the Ligier F1 team in early 1987.

During the mid-1980s, Alfa Romeo had utilised turbo V8s in its and subsequent Osella and Euroracing F1 Grand Prix chassis but, as well as being relatively uncompetitive, they were also very thirsty. So by 1986 an alternative was designed by Fiat’s in-house turbo racing engine man, Gianni Tonti, no doubt using some lessons learnt racing the Lancia Beta Montecarlo Turbos, LC1s and LC2s. At the same time, a normally-aspirated power unit was developed as well, but more about that later.

Tonti’s unit was a four-cylinder turbo designated 415T, which probably had plenty of development potential, but it arrived at the wrong time. The engine was destined for the Ligier F1 team in its JS39 cars, but after only one test session at Imola, in March 1987, the Ligier lead driver, René Arnoux, was outspoken about the unit’s potential and Ligier’s progress because of this. He said that the engine constantly had problems and the car never left the pits without, it seemed, a piston or turbo breakage on every lap.

This was on a Thursday evening and by 11.00 the following morning, Alfa Corse issued a statement which said that, “Driver Rene Arnoux believes that the correct conditions for collaboration, written into the contract, no longer exist and for that reason Alfa Corse has decided to end collaboration with Ligier.” That left the French GP team high and dry with no engines and the GP season only two weeks ahead.

Alfa Romeo had only just been taken over by Fiat at that time and it was apparently no secret that the latter was less than happy about Alfa going down the F1 route. Fiat wanted Ferrari to represent the company in that category, while Lancia would compete in rallies and Alfa in Touring Cars. What very few knew at the time (and even now) was that Alfa Romeo was also being considered for World Sportscar Racing.

In 1985-1986, Alfa Romeo had begun design work on a 3.5-litre V10 engine. This would have been the very first V10 in F1 Grand Prix racing, a configuration that has became very popular as the rules changed, in 1989, to a requirement for normally aspirated units of this capacity. The first test unit, designed in-house by Pino d’Agostino, ran in 1986. Many consider that it was meant for use by the Ligier Grand Prix team but considerable research does not back this up, especially considering the Imola 1987 debacle and Fiat’s disinclination to allow Alfa to become involved.

If we look at alternatives, we find that World Sportscar Championship racing was also to be run to a 3.5-litre formula. But first, let’s go back to the aforementioned Bernie Ecclestone who had, by early 1987, been appointed Formula 1 Vice President of Promotional Affairs and had announced, with the FISA, the promotion of a proposed Production Car Championship and, with a flourish, said that it would be called Procar, or Formula S. According to Terry Lovell in his book on Ecclestone, entitled King of Sport, the head of the FISA, Jean Marie Balestre, stated in October 1987 that the racing would be as spectacular as NASCAR-style stock car racing.

The regulations were published in March 1988 but, at the same time, the proposed series was postponed until 1990 “at the request of the 12 manufacturers” who, according to Max Mosley “had shown genuine interest”. However when asked who these interested teams were, he replied that he couldn’t make any announcements as “they wished to do so themselves individually”.

The models that a manufacturer could choose to run in Procar had to be homologated in Group A, and at least 25,000 examples had to be built. Externally the cars should have the same dimensions, shape and general appearance of the base model. The wheelbase had to be the same as the original car so it was effectively a ‘silhouette’ formula. The engine and gearbox location was free, but the power unit had to be built by the entering manufacturer. No forced induction was to be allowed.

At the announcement of all this, FISA’s Gabrielle Cadringher said that the regulation engine capacity would be 3.5 litres, which he himself had previously announced was to be the capacity for both F1 and World Sportscars, “thus creating what amounts to a whole new future for motor racing”. No mention was made of the numerous objections to this capacity limit that were coming in from the sportscar entrants. The basic idea of Procar was that 50- minute races for these cars would be held throughout Europe on those weekends when F1 wasn’t happening, and that massive TV coverage would take place. None of this happened, of course. The main reason, Terry Lovell suggests, was that the manufacturers could foresee Ecclestone subsequently railroading them into F1 if they took part in Procar.

So back to our feature car. Alfa Romeo had been involved with Ecclestone in the shape of F1 for some years back in the 1970s. In April 1988, some 24 Alfa 164s arrived at an Ecclestone-owned workshop near Heathrow. These would be prepared to virtually standard specification, except for safety equipment, as race cars for a Celebrity Challenge series using the big Alfa saloons, accompanying each F1 Grand Prix during 1988. So it was clear there was an Alfa/Ecclestone connection, and although the latter had shut down the Brabham/Motor Racing Developments workshop in Chessington where all the eponymous single-seaters had been constructed, it transpired that the premises had been sold to Alfa Romeo (allegedly for £2 million). But why?

A news piece in Autosport magazine on 21 April 1988 stated that the factory was being gutted and totally re-equipped inside for a supposed new F1 start for Brabham in 1989. However, it also mentioned that ”the majority of the workforce is working on the Alfa Romeo Procar project”. It had even been given a Brabham chassis designation: it was to be known as the BT57.

Then, on 28 April, Autosport reported that the Alfa Romeo 3.5-litre V10 engine “for Procar” had broken cover at the Turin Motor Show. No mention of Ligier was made and it was apparently clear from Fiat that it would not be used in any Grand Prix car. However, it had been extensively tested in a racing car and that car was a Lancia LC2 Group C sportscar. The V10 unit itself weighed around 150kg and on its first run around 650hp was developed at a screaming 13,300rpm. But there was a major snag. As Sergio Limone put it when I was researching one of my books: “It was useless as a top-level competition racing engine. It used belt-driven camshafts.”

It seems that one intended destination for the powerplant was World Sportscar Racing, since a Group C car had been designed and built (designated Abarth SE048). However, after the LC2 tests, the engine never went into the car. Instead, an equivalent-capacity Ferrari V12 was inserted instead, but with ‘Alfa Romeo’ on the cam covers.

The car pictured here is what we thought was the one and only 164 Procar (there are in fact two – see next page). The Alfa Romeo Museum at Arese has pushed it out of its cossetted home for us to have a good look around. As well as being called BT57 in Brabham-speak, it was also Abarth SE046 back at home, but story goes that most of the construction work on the car was done in Chessington in the UK.

According to a leaflet that Alfa Romeo GB produced at the time, the car was based on a Grand Prix-style chassis of composite aluminium/Nomex honeycomb material with the stress-bearing V10 engine mounted amidships, coupled to a longitudinally mounted Hewland six-speed competition gearbox. As fitted to the 164 Procar, the 72- degree V10 had a capacity of 3.5 litres, four overhead camshafts (two per bank) with four-valve actuation by belts. The cam covers were of cast magnesium; the heads, crankcase and sump pan were aluminium; the conrods were titanium and the crank and camshafts were steel. A Bosch management system controlled the ignition and fuelling, the latter by one injector per cylinder.

The bodywork was formed in three sections. The cockpit was fixed in the middle of the car, while the one-piece tail (with fake rear doors) and nose-cum-bonnet sections were entirely removable. The body panels were made from composite carbonfibre and Kevlar and accurately reproduced the road car’s silhouette shape, even including its badges, bumpers, indicators and wipers. The rear spoiler was permitted by the regulations, but how effective it was, if at all, was up for discussion.

Suspension was the then-fashionable F1 set up of wishbones and pushrod spring/damper units. Tyres were Michelin slicks mounted on 17-inch rims. Stopping the whole plot were carbon discs with AP callipers. The 100-litre fuel tank was mounted centrally, next to the driver. Claimed performance figures were 0-60mph in 2.1 seconds, standing 400 metres in 9.7 seconds, standing kilometre in 17.5 seconds, and a top speed of 215mph.

The Chessington workshop was sold on by Alfa within a year and almost immediately sold on again. The 164 Procar was shown off at the Paris and Birmingham Motor Shows, and apparently was tested, albeit briefly, at Alfa Romeo’s Balocco test track. But it had one more ace to play – and a spectacular one. After the end of Friday qualifying for the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in September 1988, an amazing sound erupted out of one of the pit garages as Riccardo Patrese slowly edged out on to the track with SE046/BT57.

He had apparently been told to take it easy but he did do a proper, full-on blat out of Parabolica and down the straight. Past the pits, the incredible machine you see here was wound up to no less than 330km/h (206mph). Max Mosley later related that, “At Monza the 164 was spectacular. When it came down the main straight the entire grandstand stood up”.

Alfa’s info sheet on the 164 Procar stated: “Although the new Procar formula has yet to be given a firm starting date, Alfa Romeo are the first manufacturers to exploit the potential of the new regulations and produce a proper, running feasibility study to establish the formula’s performance benchmark.” As it turned out, no one else stepped up to the plate and Procar/Formula S was never adopted. Sadly Alfa’s 164 Procar never ran again in any sort of anger following its sole Monza demo session. But just to see it in the flesh after so many years is something very special indeed.

Hewland gearbox sticks out of the back of the V10. Pushrod suspension and carbon brakes all round. Silhouette and badging say Alfa 164, but under it all lie an F1 chassis and mighty V10 engine. Bonkers!

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