I went for a wander to the supermarket on Sunday afternoon and spotted this well-preserved Alfa 75 at the side of the road. The K-plate indicates that this example was one of the last models registered in the UK.
The 75 is not just a roadside rarity, but it’s also something of a landmark production car for the brand. It was the last mainstream rear-drive Alfa Romeo and was developed while the company was still independent of Fiat.
The 75 had a transaxle layout – the gearbox is mounted on the rear axle – which gives a car tremendous inherent balance, something that was supercar-exotic back then. The 75 also had a de Dion rear axle, which gives most of the advantages of independent suspension, without the cost and complexity.
The 75’s rear brakes were mounted inboard – reducing the weight of the wheel and hub assembly – and the front suspension system was a decidedly unusual mix of torsion bars and conventional dampers.
In the embryonic ‘premium’ car market that existed in the mid-1980s, this made the 75 a much more sophisticated car than the competition.
First, there was the beautifully engineered but ageing rear-drive BMW E30 3-series, which rode on notoriously unpredictable semi-trailing arm suspension.Second, there was Audi’s 80 and 90 models. Sleekly modern and with superb build quality inside and out, they rode on a spectacularly nose-heavy and crude chassis. Finally, Mercedes’ 190E had both the sophisticated chassis and the engineering class and finish, but no pretence of sporting or enjoyable handling.
True, the Alfa 75 had the chassis and the engines to beat other premium brands, but fell down on styling fitness, interior finish and build quality.
However, the 75 – which was also sold in the US as the Milano – sold pretty well by the standards of the premium compact market of those days. But at the beginning of the 1990s Alfa was being hobbled by Fiat ownership just as BMW and Audi took a big step up with the E36 3 Series (which got the new Z-axle true independent rear suspension and super-modern styling) and the Audi A4 (same beautiful interior with slick double wishbone front suspension).
The Fiat-overseen replacement for the 75 was the Tipo-family based 155, which marked a significant technical step backwards. One can hardly blame Fiat. At the time, all it had in the parts bin was a basic front-drive chassis designed for mainstream cars such as the Tipo hatchback.
The other mass carmakers of the time had similar problems with the premium brands they had bought up. GM tried to use Cavalier bits to make the Saab 900, and even Ford’s Mondeo components set – the best of the mainstream bunch – did not make a convincing baby Jaguar.
So it was probably the launch of the 155 – at around the same time as the BMW E36 and Audi A4 – which ensured Alfa missed the premium boom. But it’s hard to work out why the technically sophisticated 1997 156 – probably the best piece of mass-market styling in the last 20 years – didn’t gain traction in the premium market. Or the closely related 147 compact, for which Alfa had very high hopes.
Any lingering doubts about bullet-proof build and reliability should have been laid to rest by the underrated 159, but perhaps too few were sold to change Alfa’s reputation.