Disposable Sports Sedan #1: 1991 Alfa Romeo 164
Poking around BaseFook the other day, one of the ads from which they thought I would derive tremendous value from was a t-shirt for The Manual Gearbox Preservation Society. “Pfft!” I thought, hating the fact that technology thinks it knows me better than I know myself. Then I started thinking that maybe the Interwebs were onto something. We’ve talked before about the gradual disappearance of the stick shift, and there’s no denying its days are numbered. So I took it upon myself to poke around looking at assorted manual cars that 1) I’d be stupid enough to buy, and 2) wouldn’t break the bank. Enter the Alfa 164, and this solid example located in Tulsa, OK for a paltry $2,500.
I have always loved the 164, largely because when it came out it looked like absolutely nothing else on the road – and yet distinctly Italian. Bear in mind this was the time when contemporary cars included the BMW E34 5-series, Mercedes W124, Volvo 240, and a whole lotta mediocrity out of Detroit. The 164 was angular and muscular, but in a slightly delicate way. After all, it was designed by Pininfarina, the Italian design house responsible for damn near every Ferrari ever built.
Based on a platform jointly developed among Fiat (Croma), Lancia (Thema), Saab (9000), and Alfa, the 164 was arguably the sportiest of the lot (if you take aside the EXTREMELY limited Ferrari V8-powered 8.32) – even is base form. It had the most aggressive stance and gave the impression of high speed even at a standstill. It is not a big stretch to imagine this car with Ferrari badges, although I have always been just a tad disappointed that it was front-wheel drive. But then, when you drive one, you kind of forget that.
The 164’s “Arese” motor was a work of art, and a far cry from today’s plastic-cladding to hide the mechanical glory that lies beneath. Originally designed for the old Alfa 6 sedan, the 3.0 liter 12 valve version seen here was good for 184hp and 192 lb-ft of torque, translating to 0-60 times in the mid-7 second range and a top speed of 140mph – not Earth-shattering by modern standards, but not too shabby, either. But that was only half of the story: the glory of this motor is the sound it makes. It’s without equal in the world of V6s, and it feels a lot faster than the numbers would suggest. The downside of them is that they require love. Lots and lots of love. One of my first memories of the 164 goes back to about 91-92 when the TTS team paid a visit to Alfredo’s Alfa Romeo in Larchmont, NY, where the very attractive daughter of the owner showed us around a showroom cramed with assorted Alfas and Maserati Biturbos, and a shop containing not one, but two 164s with the cylinder heads removed. Timing belts every 40K, folks. You have to care about this motor.
But we’re car enthusiasts here, right? That means that we’re not averse to a little bit of preventive maintenance, right? Especially with the prospect of rowing 5 cogs attached to that motor! This car delivers the experience, and for half the cost of a business-class ticket to Europe. Heck, to paraphrase Sally Struthers, for just the cost of an elaborate Starbucks coffee drink a day for a year, you could have this car – and not feel bad about using it. Frankly, driving these cars only makes them happier. Ever heard of the “Italian tuneup”..? It’s a real thing. And fun, too.
Sure, it’s got some wear, but this is a tremendous amount of sports sedan for the price. 164s also came nicely equipped, with sunroofs, power windows, power locks, air conditioning, and more gauges than a small airplane – most of which appears to work in this case. It’s got a few bumps and bruises, but frankly that’s part of what makes it an ideal winter driver in my book. Car Geeks among us who have lived in the snow belt know darned well that you really want a stick in the snow – it makes the process of rocking and applying throttle in moderation a lot easier than clunking a car into “D” and hoping for the best. If you’re really ambitious, there is a little room to make it nicer as you drive it, but I don’t think I’d be exchanging my 401K for 164 bits anytime soon.
The fact of the matter is that this car is of a time gone by. It was designed and built with passion, which as we all know means that it is flawed. The control layout is confusing at best, but looks fantastic. The styling is like none other (and do NOT compare it to a 1997 Toyota Camry!), especially with this car’s added “S” model spoilers, side skirts, and alloy wheels. People will ask you what it is, and as the joke goes the stick shift is a built-in anti-theft device. I love that the toolkit and original owner’s books come with it. This car was loved. Driven, but loved. Need something for the days when you don’t want to drive the “good” car? Want something where you can row your own gears and pound the back roads and make really cool racing motor noises? Here’s your ticket.
Cheap way to get into the Alfa game! But I haven’t heard of the “Italian tune-up.” Is that code for “engine removal and replacement”? Nice little example right here. Let’s hope it goes to a good home.
“Italian tune-up” refers to exercising the motor and the chassis, and to drive the car as the universe intended. Hard and fast. Rev the motor, match the rpms on downshift, and become one with the car…..
I was always of the opinion that an “Italian tune-up” consisted of using a motor in such a way that the entire range of the tachometer from idle to red line was covered, along with a bit of sustained upper-range RPM bursts to clean out the carbon. I like TTS’s definition better, though.