Alfa Romeo Alfetta. The forgotten 116 series classic. The Forgotten Alfa. Over shadowed by its GTV coupe relatives, the Alfetta saloon surely deserves recognition as an Alfa Romeo classic. Story and Archive pictures by Ruoteclassiche. UK Photography Michael Ward.
Asquashed flat nose, a short yet strong tail and large wheels left partly exposed by the wings. This is how the Tipo 116 appeared in the first design sketches. Research on what would later become the Alfetta began at the Alfa Romeo Progetti ed Esperienze department at the end of 1967. The team was headed by Orazio Satta and the design was the responsibility of Ivo Colucci, the mechanics were in the hands of Giuseppe Busso. Their task was to develop a comfortable and impressive high-end saloon that would sell along with, and eventually replace, the Giulia and 2000 berlina models – and to compete directly with BMW. The new model would be wider and higher than the 2000 (but not longer), and would look more ‘impressive’.
Instead of the conventional front engine and gearbox coupled to a rear axle, the engineers focused on a different suspension setup. They moved the gearbox to the rear axle in order to increase space in the front passenger compartment and to obtain a better weight distribution. Ultimately, they opted for a complicated and expensive De Dion rear axle, which had already been tested on two Alfa Romeo racing cars; the single-seater 159 of 1951 (the famous Alfetta), the 6C 3000 CM of 1952-53, and 2000 Sportiva prototypes of 1954. This system had never been tested on Alfa’s production cars before, although Lancia and Rover had done so with the 1954 Aurelia B20 and on the 1963 2000 respectively. However, Alfa Romeo had used a rear mounted gearbox before, on its racing 8C 2900 of 1935 and the glorious 1951 Grand Prix 159 Alfetta, the latter being the inspiration for the saloon car’s title.
As for the engine, the classic four-cylinder twin-cam with its five bearing crankshaft and hemispherical combustion chambers was a development of the earlier 1900, although with different displacements. This engine design still represented a model of efficiency, in particular fitted with a twin choke carburettor. The 1779cc version was basically the same unit as in the 1750 berlina of 1968, which was a sensible compromise between the 1570cc 105 series engine – but promised better performance – and the 1962cc from the 2000 berlina. The upper limit would easily discourage many Italians from buying the model because of the heavy tax and insurance costs levied on powerful cars, as well as the higher fuel consumption.
The 116 series Alfetta was in production until 1984, which included the subsequent 1600, 2000 petrol, and 2000 and 2400 diesel engine versions. The body only underwent slight changes inside and out, each time finding favour with customers. Opinions by today’s standards suggest that the true spirit of Alfa Romeo is more evident in the early versions, which were manufactured over 30 years ago and indeed can now be regarded as classic cars.
ALFETTA 1.8 1972-1975
The technical gestation of the Alfetta was relatively simple. The only serious problem detected on the prototypes was the excessive torque vibration of the transmission shaft occasionally causing it to break apart. This inconvenience was due to the fact that the gearbox was mounted on the rear-axle, consequently the transmission shaft ran at engine speed. This is one of the reasons why the Alfetta, contrary to expectations, was withdrawn from the launch at the Turin Motor Show in 1971. Engineers subsequently solved the problem by adding an extra joint between the two halves of the transmission shaft, which was manufactured with a special material in order to reduce vibration. The Alfetta was eventually presented in Grignano (Trieste) one year later, in 1972. The last minor fine tuning faults were fixed before the delivery of the first orders.
In Alfa Romeo’s range, the Alfetta was placed between the Giulia Super 1.6 and the 2000 berlina in terms of displacement, performance and price. Technically speaking, however, the modernity of the car was clearly evident with the clean cut styling and well appointed interior for passenger comfort. The wide roof featured large glass surfaces, and newly designed curved side windows, never seen before in an Alfa Romeo.
The pastel colour range included Biancospino (Hawthorn white) Grigio indaco (indigo grey), Cava beige (sand beige), Bleu olandese (Dutch blue), Azzurro Le Mans (light blue), Prugna (plum burgundy), Rosso Alfa (Alfa red), Giallo Piper (Piper yellow) and Verde pino (pine green). Black was available at an extra cost of 100,000 Lire. Metallic finishes were also available at an extra 100,000 Lire that included medium grey, light grey and olive green. The car presented in the official brochure was in a captivating Le Mans light blue. Most of the first series customers, however, eventually opted for the more conservative shades (Hawthorn white, Dutch blue and metallic light grey).
Everything looked typically Alfa Romeo inside the passenger compartment with real wood used for the steering wheel and dashboard details. The seats and head rests were in cloth. On the other hand, the dashboard design and the adjustable steering wheel were new. Apart from the colours, the range of options was limited to Texalfa (leather effect) trim for an extra 15,000 Lire. Adjustable headrests and a heated rear windscreen were also priced at 15,000 Lire.
The quality of finish was rather disappointing when compared with the competition’s equivalent models and even compared to the 2000 berlina. Evidently refined mechanics were expensive, so Alfa Romeo as forced to economise elsewhere to control manufacturing costs. Initially the Alfetta did not convince the more traditional Alfisti. Although they praised the high technical content of the car, they missed the Giulia’s transmission. However, the Alfetta gained favour with new customers. The first series, offered solely as an 1800, was manufactured up to 1975 with just a few minor changes.
ALFETTA 1.6/1.8 1975-1981
When the Alfetta was conceived, the European automobile industry was in serious crisis. Labour unrest was part of the daily agenda and particularly at Alfa Romeo’s plant where strikes and absenteeism added to the economic and management problems affecting most of Italy’s state-controlled enterprises during those years. The situation became worse when the energy crisis exploded in 1973 and car sales fell dramatically. Arese’s managers decided to set aside the project for an upgraded Alfetta for a while and opted for the launch of a cheaper version in the hope it would meet the needs of an impoverished market.
The Alfetta 1.6 was presented in Rome in January 1976 and featured a less powerful engine, lowered to 1570cc. Although the displacement was the same of the Giulia 1.6, which was almost at the end of its career, this engine was derived from Alfetta’s 1800 and had an output of 125hp SAE, nine more than Giulia’s 1600. The Alfetta 1.6 cost 162,000 Lire less than the Alfetta, although it retained all the mechanical refinement of its 1800cc elder sister.
Cheaper details and equipment characterised the new model’s launch. The steering wheel rim was trimmed with imitation leather now, there were no wooden inserts in the dashboard and the instruments were black-framed against a light blue background. The boot floor was not carpeted. Lower torque and nimbleness distinguished the new 1.6 engine, which was meeker to drive. More sporting driving required maximum revs in every gear, which obviously meant higher fuel consumption and more noise.
The basic version, now called Alfetta 1.8, had a slight grille and bumper revamp in spring 1975. The dashboard and instruments were the same as the 1.6 and the wooden steering wheel rim was still present. The engine power was reduced, to lower consumption but without altering performance. Although not a sparkling performer, the 1.6 sold well with over 44,000 units being manufactured up to 1976. This compared to the almost 45,700 units for the 1.8. However, when the energy crisis ended Arese’s managers decided to make the 1.6 appear similar to the 1.8 in order to standardise production. Outwardly, the two models only differed in the tail badging.
The tachometer and rev counters were transposed on both models. Pre-tensioned rear seat belts were also available. By the end of 1979 the dashboard, instruments, steering wheel (covered with imitation leather) and wooden gear lever knob were identical on the two models.
Next in line in the standardisation process were the doors, which were now identical with the doors of the 2.0 launched in 1977, which had sunken handles and without window quarter lights. The series equipment included front belts and hazard warning lights. An airconditioning system could be ordered as an extra on the 1.8, which also had the same engine output of 140hp SAE as in the first series. Around 31,700 units of the 1.6 and a little over 21,000 of the 1.8 were manufactured from 1977 to 1981.
ALFETTA 2.0/TURBO D 1977-1981
The Alfetta 2.0 was presented in Bordighera (Imperia) on 26th February 1977. The wheelbase was 10.5cm longer in the front to confer the car a more elegant look, while the paint range now also included Ivory, Metallic beige and Periwinkle blue. Quality and details were improved, although the competitors were still better. The passenger compartment was also improved and offered a new seat design. Softer suspension and better soundproofing added to the passengers’ comfort. The engine was derived from the previous 2000 berlina, although the power was reduced from 150hp down to 140hp SAE to lower fuel consumption and make the new car more environmentally friendly. The 2.0 was a less vigorous performer although it gained in stability.
In July 1978 the 2.0 stepped back to allow a more refined 2.0 L to come in. New colours included Capodimonte white, Grey, dark chocolate brown, Venetian red and Luci di Bosco (Woodland Lights). The body shell was more effectively treated against corrosion and the engine was more powerful due to a different camshaft profile and a new ignition system. The 2.0 L was faster than the 2.0 although in the end the handling was less precise around bends because the suspension had been adjusted to improve comfort. The 2.0 L had a gear lever knob in imitation brier wood and the dashboard details were now in two colours. Optional equipment included alloy wheels with low profile tyres and leather seats. Over 84,000 units of the 2.0 L were manufactured.
USA versions were the 111hp 2.0i (1978) and 128hp 2.o Li (1981), which were fitted with Spica injection for emission reasons. They also had anti-shock plastic bumpers and USA style side lights.
Autumn 1979 saw the launch of the 2.0 Turbo D, it was well prepared and was one of the sharpest diesel cars available on the market at the time. It sold quite well, despite the high price. Around 10,500 units were manufactured until 1981.
EXTENDED RANGE 1982-1983
At the end of 1981 the Alfetta was still selling well despite it being almost ten years old, so Arese’s managers decided to keep it on the market and carried out some rationalisation which affected the whole range. The bodywork of the of the 2.0 was shortened and the bumpers, side trims and electric rear view mirror were now the same across the range. The dashboard of the 2.0 was re-designed with new air vents. The steering wheel and the seats were completely new.
The other models only differed in a few details and equipment. The 1.6, the 1.8 and the 2.0 turbodiesel could be identified only by the rear nameplates. They featured black grilles, imitation leather steering wheels, gearbox lever knobs and the dashboard plastic detail had a aluminium silk-like finish. Front electric windows were part of the series equipment only in the turbodiesel version. The 2.0 featured a polished aluminium grille, headlight wipers, stainless steel window frames and central wheel end caps. The steering wheel, gearbox lever knob and some dashboard inserts were in imitation mahogany wood.
The petrol models featured electronic fuel injection and a higher axle ratio, consequently fifth became a useful gear for long journeys and to achieve lower fuel consumption. Further changes included a stainless steel exhaust and a more effective anti-corrosion treatment for the bodyshell. Regardless of the engine type, the Alfetta sadly lost its sporting temperament and the nimbleness which were so dear to the Alfisti. After the suspension was re-calibrated to increase comfort, undesirable understeer became evident. The car, especially the turbodiesel, was heavy to drive.
The 2.0i Quadrifoglio Oro was launched in June 1982. Some of the features were typical of the US export models. Spica injection engine was a bonus and enhanced equipment included four headlights, exclusive alloy wheels, central locking, electric front and rear windows and electric front seats. The range remained on sale until April 1983. The least popular were the 1.6 (around 4800 units sold) and the 1.8 (around 4900 units sold). The 2.0 Turbodiesel had better sales of about 10,500 units and the 2.0 exceeded 28,700 examples. The least popular was the 2.0i Quadrifoglio Oro selling just 2800 units.
FINAL PRODUCTION 1983-1984
The last season for the legendary Alfa Romeo sedan started with the range presented in April 1983. Plastic elements were widely used at this time and the body of the restyled version carried plenty of it. The dashboard featured new, angular instruments.
A second 2.4 turbo diesel engine was added to the range and the 2.0i Quadrifoglio Oro engine underwent considerable changes. The new diesel was equipped with an efficient 2.4-litre VM unit, identical to the 2.0-litre with regard to architecture, but featuring fast heating spark plugs. This engine promised excellent performance and lower fuel consumption. The 2.0-litre of the Quadrifoglio Oro featured an integrated Bosch Motronic injection system as well as a hydraulic camshaft timing variator made by Alfa Romeo. Thanks to a lively, flexible engine and first class equipment, the Quadrifoglio Oro was a top seller with over 17,800 orders. The 1.6 sold about 1900 units, the 1.8 2700, the 2.0 8400, the 2.0 turbodiesel sold 1200 and the 2.4 turbodiesel sold 7600 units. Alfetta production was discontinued in 1984.
ABOVE: 1982 Alfettas on test for Quattroruote. BELOW: While the Alfetta inherited its name from the 159 Grand Prix car it had no sporting pretensions.
ABOVE: A rare UK survivor showing just 13,891 miles. This 1983 2.0L is currently for sale at the Southwood Motor Company.
ABOVE: Early press picture of the Alfetta in rare bright blue. A two-door version was planned but didn’t get past the prototype stage.