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If at First You Don't Succeed...Part Three

Published on Sat, Jan 1, 1994

By: Len Frank

Len Frank on the 1994 Alfa Romeo 164LS and Quadrifoglio

We’re outside of Phoenix moving along at a smart pace enjoying the Alfa 164 and Arizona 177 but mostly listening to Morningstar, Alfa’s PR guy, telling us about the wonders of living in Orlando (where Alfa relocated during their short-lived romance with Chrysler).

Remarkable Thing #1: I’m sitting in the back.

Remarkable Thing #2: Andy Bornhop (of R&T) is driving with Morningstar riding shotgun. Placed end to end, Bornhop and Morningstar stretch about thirteen feet and weigh something (well) over 500 pounds. They have leg room, knee room, head room.

Remarkable Thing #3: See #2.

Remarkable Thing #4: I have knee room, foot room, head room, and, while not nearly so oversized as Bornhop and Morningstar, I’m well up in the ninety-percentile range

1994 Alfa Romeo 164 LS and Len Frank
(Les Bidrawn, European Car Magazine)

Ride is good, road noise subdued. Generally, decibel levels are higher in the rear, sometimes annoyingly so. But in this case, I can easily hear the conversation in the front. A mixed blessing but impressive anyway. This is, after all, a passenger car designed to move four or five people quietly, quickly and safely through a hostile world. The Alfa is doing all of that with the added bonus of being pleasurable to drive. I’m even enjoying the unaccustomed passenger role.

But I could well have been doing this in the 1992 version of the 164 which had fewer camshafts, valves, horsepower, or the European versions which might have used a Twinspark two liter four or the Fiat-based turbo two-liter twin cam. It has always been roomy, comfortable.

Once-upon-a-time the gross specifications of the ’93 164 would have been exceptional. The three liter, 230bhp Quadrifoglio (four-leaf clover—Alfa Corse’s racing symbol) version of the Alfa V6, finally decorated with the long-promised extra cams, valves, horsepower, and torque, is only bested, if I remember correctly, by two normally aspirated three-liters—the Porsche 968 (236bhp) and the Acura NSX (270).

But now one can buy more than a dozen different nameplates with 24-valve OHC V6s—and this doesn’t include 24-valve inline sixes.

The Hudson Analogy: a long, long time ago, a friend of my father’s always drove Hudsons (my father and all of my uncles, neighbors, etc. drove cars built by the Big Three). When all American cars were getting OHV engines, Hudson stuck with simple, reliable flatheads. When automatic transmissions became a necessity, GM and Borg-Warner were willing to sell to all but Hudson chose to come up with their own, called Drivemaster. Hudsons didn’t look like anything else, handled better than their contemporaries, and had more interior room. My father’s friend who always drove them reasoned that the only way a little company like Hudson could sell against the likes of GM, Ford, and Chrysler was by building a better car. Is this analogous to Alfa Romeo?

Not to explain an analogy with an analogy, but I should mention a conversation with Dr. Wolfgang Peter, ex-head of passenger car development at Mercedes and board member of Daimler-Benz, in which he said (about Mercedes),”I don’t know how long we’re going to be able to go on building cars with the same materials and processes as everyone else and charging twice as much for them.” Rare honesty, and I have to wonder if it might not have some bearing on why he no longer works for D-B.

Back to Alfa. In the ‘twenties and ‘thirties Alfa made extraordinary sports cars that might well have been the best in a world populated with the likes of Bugatti, Mercedes, Bentley, etc. In the `fifties and ‘sixties, they built cars with twin cams, five speeds, Weber carbs (fuel injection in ’69), great brakes, styling by Farina and Bertone and Guigiaro and Scaglione when those names really meant something, all of this available at a realistic price.

When the 164 was first shown to the press (in Italy), it too was extraordinary. It combined a chassis platform so good that General Motors considering buying Alfa Romeo (it was then owned by a division of the Italian government) just to get it.

The V6, originally with SOHC and 2V heads, still made more bhp/liter than most of the other two/three liter production engines. Styling was pretty good, quality control, at least for early cars, seemed OK… But Alfa said that this time everything would be right—no—perfect before the 164 came to the U.S.

It could have been the Hudson story all over again—to counter the stronger dealership network, bigger advertising budget, etc. of your competitors, you offer things that they don’t—tangible things, a better car. But by the time the 164 actually got to this country, it offered little not available elsewhere except the Alfa cross-and-snake badge on the grill.

Then there was the deal with Chrysler, then in its last stages of Iacocca. Fresh from their overwhelming success with Chrysler’s TC by Maserati (surely the clumsiest name ever on a production car), Chrysler put together a deal with Alfa to form a new company (ARDONA) to distribute Alfas in the U.S. through Chrysler “International” dealers–the same guys who were going to be rewarded for quality (and being in the right place) by being allowed to sell the TC.

There was not much wrong with the car—Chrysler put a fair amount of product development into it making sure that all of the American icons—sound system, air conditioning, like that—were in place but the expected sales curve remained depressingly flat. In fact, the TC outsold the Alfas (164, Spider, and any leftover Milanos) nearly 3:1. Exit Chrysler (and the TC). Ironically, Chrysler’s own North American products now do very well in Europe.

The former three levels of 164 have been replaced by two—the LS and Quadrifoglio. Only the LS has the optional ZF automatic available. The LS also has a new, restyled nose with five mph bumper. Wheels are different (but the same size—15X6) on LS and Quad.

What’s really new? The aforementioned four cam version of the engine (who will be first to use one in a GTV6?)—a beautiful piece. It has the same alloy block, same forged, nitrided crankshaft, as its sohc predecessor. But now, along with its new alloy heads and hydraulic cam followers, is the latest version of the Bosch Motronic (1.7) with a knock sensor for each cylinder bank. It uses six coils that fire platinum plugs that need changing at around 60,000 miles—my first Alfa required a plug change closer to every 60 minutes.

Pistons have oil jets playing on them for cooling, cooling passages around plugs and exhaust ports are larger than normal, and an oil cooler is standard. The entire exhaust system is stainless, including the beautiful headers, unfortunately hidden by heat shields. Fluid levels are easy to check but everything else is transverse modern. I don’t want to think about changing the cam belt let alone repairing anything.

The Quad has 230bhp, the LS 210. The only differences are in inlet and exhaust tube diameters. Makes one wonder what tubes larger than the Quads might do combined with an increased rev limit.

The five speed has been revised to include synchro reverse—Lamborghini also did that—ZF auto is now electronic with performance, economy and ice modes.

Suspension is as before with fully independent suspension spung by coils, sway bars front and rear, and two position driver-adjustable dampers on the Quad. And did we mention that the 164 is a front drive car, or that it shares a common beginning with the Saab 9000 and the Lancia Thema? The Alfa was always the nicest of the three with the least torque steer and the best chance of getting most of its power to the ground. ABS is standard and rather objectionable—like Corvette and a few others, it really makes its presence felt and makes trail braking and other desperate maneuvers dicy. Power steering is great.

Other little things: Alfa uses perhaps three times as much leather in its interior as most of its competitors—no euphemisms like “leather seating surfaces” here. Door panels, seat backs, even the pockets on the seat backs are leather—and it’s all standard. The front electric window switches are now on the door grab handles—a dubious benefit as far as I’m concerned since the switches are small and uncomfortable to use and those for the rear doors are on the revised instrument panel.

I have objected to the fussy, plastic look of the 164’s ip since I first saw it in Milan. The steering wheel (adjustable in/out but not up/down) cuts off the top of the instruments for some drivers, and while the HVAC controls have been redone, they should have let Trevor Creed over at Chrysler (ex-Ford) moonlight. Of course I never did figure out what some of the switches on my 1959 Giulietta Veloce did but that didn’t stop me from loving it. The 164 has a driver’s side air bag and will get a passenger’s side bag sometime, but not too soon (’95? ’96?)

Misgivings: when I was driving the Quad for photography there were a few problems. It was 105o/108oF outside and I was making short first and second gear passes back and forth in front of Bidrawn’s camera. Bidrawn must be part camel. The Alfa wasn’t. It began to run hot, oil pressure dropped, the A/C stopped putting out cold air.

After Bidrawn had exposed a mile of film, we headed toward the airport and everything returned to normal. My concern is that when Alfa converts their Freon A/C to R134a, which has higher power requirements and is less efficient, problems will multiply. There aren’t any cars in Alfa’s class that still have marginal comfort systems, and although the average Alfiste wouldn’t admit it, most, I think, would trade .2g and fifteen mph top speed for a/c performance.

The sound system, hidden behind a little door, is also new (Chrysler had supplied the originals). Unfortunately, Trevor Creed didn’t design this either and it’s a mass of tiny buttons and knobs never designed for adult fingers.

July ’92: I took a 7000 mile trip in a 164S from Los Angeles to the Alfa Romeo Owners Clubs national convention in St. Louis. Sometime soon I’ll write the whole chronicle but for now, it was a pleasant trip with hours of cruising at over a hundred, an overall trip average of near 20mpg, ran over 10,000 feet, saw an indicated 142 mph (it would have gone faster) and never really had any trouble…except on the track for the time trial (solo I) event. The ABS objected strenuously, the car was undertired for this exercise and understeer was fierce.

Eventually the ABS warning light came on and stayed on for the rest of the trip. There was no discernible brake problem. I was disappointed only with those aspects of the car that relate to its use in a non-sedan, non-transportation way. If I had wanted only a sedan, if I had wanted only transportation, I probably wouldn’t have looked at an Alfa.

Len Frank
Len Frank

The late Len Frank was the legendary co-host of “The Car Show”—the first and longest-running automotive broadcast program on the airwaves. Len was also a highly regarded journalist, having served in editorial roles with Motor Trend, Sports Car Graphic, Popular Mechanics, and a number of other publications. LA Car is proud to once again host “Look Down the Road – The Writings of Len Frank” within its pages. Special thanks to another long-time automotive journalist, Matt Stone, who has been serving as the curator of Len Frank’s archives since his passing in 1996 at the age of 60. During the next few months, we will be re-posting the entire collection of “Look Down the Road”, and you’ll be able to view them all in one location under the simple search term “Len Frank”. – Roy Nakano

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