Opinion : Anything we can do… they can do worse? – Alfa Romeo Alfa 6

Keith Adams ruminates about some of the not-so-great cars sold by British Leyland’s competitors – and wonders why it’s still so fashionable to knock our once-great nationalised carmaker even though its mistakes were echoed across the wider industry.

Here, in the second article of this occasional series, we look at the Alfa 6 and compare its fortunes with the Rover SD1. Were we really that bad?


Alfa 6: Nice legs, shame about the face

Alfa Romeo Alfa 6

If you think that the UK was in perilous shape in the the 1970s, and still describe that decade using sentences which include the words, ‘strikes’, ‘unions’, ‘inflation’ and the ‘International Monetary Fund’, may I introduce you to Italy. Simply put, in modern parlance, if the you were trying to promote the UK’s ‘sick man of Europe’ status in any kind of political debate, Italy would elbow its way to the front of the line shouting loudly, ‘hold my beer’.

Things were so bad in Italy between 1970 and 1980, that the era became known as the ‘Years of Lead’. As well as economic disaster, social unrest, violence and mass unemployment – especially for the under 25s. The effects of the 1973 Energy Crisis cut deep and, by the end of the decade, Italy’s budget deficit was higher than that of any other industrialised country. Not really a good time for an Italian carmaker to be launching a six-cylinder luxury car, then. Indeed…

All of the above might go some way to explaining why the Alfa Romeo Alfa 6 spent so long in gestation. It was designed as a showcase for the new ‘Busso’ V6 engine and planned to replace the company’s elegant previous flagship, the 2600. It was designed to use the Alfetta’s centre section, including its doors, and had the plan come to fruition on time, the Alfa 6 would have launched in the mid-1970s.

You can see the car’s Alfetta roots quite plainly, especially in profile, where it literally is an Alfetta with longer breeze block-style front- and rear-ends grafted on. Imagine if BMC had done that with the 1800 or Peugeot the 504. Oh! However, the programme was repeatedly put on ice as Alfa Romeo lurched from one setback to another in the wake of the Energy Crisis and the ‘Years of Lead’ – these were not good times…

In the end, the Alfa 6 staggered into production in 1979, with the company struggling to put a positive spin on its launch, and the press giving it at best a lukewarm welcome. These troubles were compounded doubly as this thirsty saloon hit the market just as the second Energy Crisis was really taking hold in Europe, with sales of large cars falling off a cliff.

Model development was limited to a light facelift in 1983 where it lost its appealing quad headlights, and the Gold Cloverleaf and turbodiesel models were introduced – as if the market cared. Amazingly, it remained in production until 1986, although UK dealers would beg the importer not to bring any in. In the end, 12,288 were built before it fizzled out in anticipation of sanity and the Alfa Romeo 164…

So, Rover SD1 or Alfa 6?

Easy win for the SD1? Pretty much, yes. But that doesn’t take any of the Alfa 6’s appeal away from it. For one, its V6 engine is an absolute masterpiece and makes any journey feel just that little bit more special. With a ZF power steering set-up, it also felt pretty good on the road, although it lacked the handling balance of the transaxle-equipped Alfetta is was based on.

But, yes, the Alfa 6 serves to remind one just how well us Brits do large cars. The SD1 was saddled with plenty of its own issues, not least build quality that served to shame the company in those early years. However, whereas the Alfa 6 sits alongside the Austin 3 Litre, Citroën C6 and Talbot Tagora as one of the least successful executive cars of all time, its rival the Rover SD1 did relatively well, with 303,345 examples sold between 1976-1986.

That said, the SD1 wasn’t perfect, even if it was a relative commercial success, especially compared with the Alfa 6. It was lacking in the sophisticated engineering that marked its predecessor the P6, which led to our man Denis Chick describing the SD1 as ‘Rover’s Cortina’ and, aside from poor quality, the engine line-up had no answer to the Busso V6 – not even the excellent Rover V8 power unit.

So, was the Alfa 6 worse than the SD1? Without any doubt, yes. Personally, though, I’d plump for the Alfa because of its individuality – you’ve got to love them for sticking with it, especially with the odds stacked against it as they were.

Alfa Romeo Alfa 6

Keith Adams

44 Comments

  1. From the front the Alfa 6 reminds me of a BMW 7 series and isn’t too bad looking a car, just a bit forgettable and big Italian cars always struggled outside Italy, although even in its homeland, the 6 seems to have failed, However, the ill fated 6 was the warm up act for the excellent 164, where Alfa really shone.

    • To me the Alfa 6 has shades of a mid1970s BMW 5 series (particularly round the rear pillars and the twin round headlamps). Not a bad looker for a big car, but I still preferred the BMW designs from that era.

      • How dare-you compare the Alfa 6 to a Paul Bracq design ?

        The genius who designed the W111/112 220/250/280.300SE coupé/convertible, W113 230/250/280SL Pagoda, W100 600 Limo, W108/109 250/280/300SE, W114/115 200/220/230/250/280E Mercedes and the 5,3,7,6 series for BMW

        Monsieur Bracq would not turn around in his grave as he is still alive and healthy however :

  2. “Imagine if BMC had done that with the 1800 or Peugeot the 504”. Joke ? Or really forgot the Austin 3 litre flop or the unbalanced and relatively unsuccessful 604 ?
    True, the state-owned Alfa did not have the money to invest onto a new platform.
    So they had the Alfetta, Giulietta, Six, all 3 on the same platform and even sharing body panels between Alfetta and Six.
    The Six had conventionnal front box and clutch hopefully instead of that pemanently shaking transaxle.
    I have had a 75V6 so cannot criticize the Busso = best serial engine on earth.
    As for the body, the problem is same as for the 604 : narrow tracks and short wheelbase.
    Unlike Peugeot Alfa did not try to oversize the body’s width but then oversized its length.
    Result is no better externally and probably worse in term of interior space.
    At this period Alfa’s Magnetti Marelli electricals were no better than Lucas production.
    SD1 sold better because of its excellent Bache design and the remembrance of the good P5/P6 and V8 reliability.
    The Alfa got a de Dion rear axle like a P6 unlike the SD1 which had sadly came back to conventional heavy live axle.
    As for executives company-cars I guess a 3.5 V8 was more appealing than a 2.5 Formula One sounding Busso.
    Even though we now know which was the sexiest engine, due to 1 litre displacement difference, even though as powerful the V6 gave much less torque.

  3. Speaking Talbot Tagora, it was a really good car but the Talbot image was definitely dead, the Rootes and Simca dealers were not able to sell such a car while having failed selling the Chrysler 160/180/2 litre and making their business with the Horizon.

  4. I would remind you all the Lancia Gamma as being SD1’s real italian rival… similar shape, similar brand background maybe meant to attract same buyers… sadly, same destiny…. Shame, though, Lancia had its coupe (a design masterpiece, btw) while SD1 did not..

    • AFAIK it was totally new, no Fiat nor previous Lancia carry-over. Would have sold with a six but big flat-four was not really appealing. C-Pillar would have needed a longer window as on the CX, that’s all ! Maybe the Lancia image was a little down too following the dull Beta, maybe people were expecting better engined from a firm which was so successfull in rallying and was developping the Stratos in parallel with a Dino V6.

      • Good points raised, but keep in mind a 2.5 litres, at that time, was considered a very large engine in Italy, mostly because of the VAT (38%). Gamma was meant to inherit the old Lancia V6 (Flaminia 2.5) but such engine was largely outdated in the beginnig of the ’70s. Flat-four was a revised “Flavia” engine now featuring an OHC for each bank of cylinders. Unfortunately it was launched without a proper testing period… huge noise meant huge camshaft and vales wear (wrong tolerances) a problem which was never totally rectified. At least a flat engine allowed the sheer lines of the Gamma coupe!!

  5. Could have been a 2.0 and 2.5 six. The Dino 206GT, Maserati turbo or even the Busso V6 existed in 2.0 as well as 2.4 or 2.5 form.
    Moreover supercharging did not increase the taxes reason why Lancia issued the Beta Volumex !

    • Engines you listed are from Fiat group range and, while Lancia was already part of It as 1969, It still had a own engines production department. Now we know why It was closed….

      • Like BL the Fiat Group could have at that time multiple engines overlapping each-other, Triumph 1500, E-Series 1500, B-Series, E-Series 1750, Triumph TR7 engine, Triumph 2000, Rover 2000/2200, E-Series six 2200 and even 2600 in Australia … Moreover I wonder why Lancia could not develop a compact flat or V6 (the Busso is compact, shoe-horned in a 147 for example), they could have developped a VR6 from the very compact Fulvia engine that would be imitated by VAG with their VR6 later-on, I doubt they reused anything from the Flavia old and tired 1500-2000 OHV engine.

  6. Not bad really. But for me, it comes down to the doors.
    The Alfa’s doors are clean with taut surfacing, and a crease in ‘just the right place’ (or, where everybody else put one!). Funky handles, okay, but they’re Italian, but best of all, those thin window frames! If the 1800’s doors had used light thin frames like these (as the Mini and 1100 did), we wouldn’t be complaining about the carryover doors being used on other cars so much. Here it’s not so obvious they’re Alfetta doors. But then, the Alfetta was always uncommon here (Australia), and I don’t think we ever got the 6.
    This or an SD1 though? While I’d give this a nod for the engineering (like old Henry Ford, I’d raise my hat), I’d think I’d sleep easier with an SD1 in the garage.

  7. I attended the Scottish Motor Show at Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall in ’79 or’ 80, can’t remember which now. At the Alfa stand I asked where the 6 was, as I could only see a V6 GTV. The guy manning the stand regarded me with a mixture of pity and contempt, as though only a fool would expect to find an example of this car on display. I was disappointed as I was keen to see under the bonnet because, if I’m remembering correctly, this car had six carburettors. I’m not imagining that, am I?

  8. Just the other day, I unearthed a 604 brochure while looking for something else. I still say it was a very elegant car; and probably the only car which Harrison Ford drove from the passenger seat in a movie (Frantic). A colleague in Wales owned one, which he had bought for £250 as the autobox was on the way out. He graffiti’d the bootlid with the following message:
    Incidentally, the 604 sired the 505V6, brilliant to drive but unreliable. The only one I ever saw in the metal had broken down.

    • LJK Setright was qualifying the 604 as “the French Jaguar”, never understood why ? And it was not because of the rust ..

  9. About VTA, who can tell me whether Germany revised the collection standard in the 1980s?

    German companies would deliberately provide 2.8L engine , but Opel gave up this displacement in 1981, Mercedes in 1984 and Ford in 1987

  10. You must also take into account that in those days owning a car with a displacement of more than 2000 cc was a gamble in Italy, because their equivalent of the DVLA provided the Guardia di Finanza (their equivalent of HMRC) with a list of owners of such vehicles so that the latter could check whether the declared income of these owners could support the cost of running such cars.

  11. Before this was replaced by the 164, we got the Alfa 90, which was sized halfway between the 6 and the Alfetta. One of its features was a briefcase that slid out of the dashboard – how Italian. It was only made for three years, and I don’t think I ever saw one on the road, just one sitting in H W Stones Westcliff dealership – now the site of Aldi!

  12. We got some in France, there was a converntionnal 4 cylinder bialbero Twin-Spark and a 2.5 V6 (even a 2.0 V6 in Italy) under the bonnet.
    it was a Bertone-revamped Alfetta just to wait for the 164. It looked ok, better than the SIX but the interior (and the briefcase, gauges …) were too “eighties”, awful !
    Otherwise a correct looking Alfetta with the fine Busso V6.
    Maybe it was available with the terribly noisy 2.4 VM diesel in France too but did-it sell ?

  13. Quite versatile, those Alfetta doors…….they found their way into the Alfa 6, Giulietta, Alfa 75 and Alfa 90 (albeit with new doorskins)…..I didn’t know about the 604 (a car I like a lot) using the 504’s doors……everyday a school day!

  14. To me (and I know I need help having owned many Alfas) I’d still rather have the Busso engine even if fitted to a soap box with rope steering and no brakes. Not the SD1 V8 wasn’t nice – its just all about engines and all about degrees of niceness!

  15. I had it in a soap box with rope steering, it was called a 75V6 3.0L. The problem was also Magnetti-Marelli, Lucas’Italien cousin and some other cheap fittings … No rust anyway, as for the rest not much better that my current XJC (just missing the veneer).

  16. Great observation by Dennis Chick that the SD1 was Rovers Cortina, in engineering terms it certainly was. The tragedy is this means Rover had all the hardware to actually make a Cortina challenger, but instead wasted time, money and engineering effort on blind alleys like the Princess. A chopped down saloon SD1 styled and marketed as an Austin or Rover would have hit the 70s company car market head on sold massively better than the Princess/Marina/Maxi and given huge economies of scale that would have also improved the SD1s business case.

    • Also a Triumph version to replace the Dolomite.

      Had BL done their homework properly they wouldn’t have needed the Princess, as they could have replaced the Landcrab with the Maxi 1750 saloon.

      They were caught out by designing the Marina to compete with the Mk2 Cortina only for the bigger Mk3 launched by ford. Even worse was remaking tooling to make 1940s components rather than spend the money on newer parts.

  17. A little bit unfair to compare the Alfa 6 to the SD1 as this is a cheap development made by a broke company, whereas the SD1 was a massive investment in an all new car (only carrying over the V8 engine) in a new factory, which helped to break the company…

    The Alfa 6 is more like the Austin 3 litre, or perhaps more flatteringly the (1963) Jaguar S-type and 420, topped and tailed versions of an existing and successful car.

  18. @maestrowoff : totally agree SD1 could have been a World championship, even 2 fully new (Triumph developped) sixes.
    Yes you can compare tjhe Alfa to the Jaguar “S” model (note “type’ please) I own a 1967 one and it’s a lovely car.
    The Austin 3 litre could not be compared, its C-Series derived OHV was neither Le Mans winner nor Giuseppe Busso-all-alloy OHC designed, the landcrab was not as a pretty basis as both the Alfetta and Mk2.

  19. Rather like the conservative looks of the Alfa 6, the facelift in particularly (despite likely being in the minority). Had it been launched earlier in the early/mid-1970s there was also the possibly the 6 could have spawned a Montreal V8 powered variant. An engine that at one time grew from 2.6-litres to 3-litres in the Autodelta Alfetta GTV8 before the plan to produce 400 road-going units for homologation was abandoned.

    In some ways the Alfa approach of creating a related family of cars via the Alfa 6, Alfetta, GTV and Giulietta (116) roughly parallels the abandoned BL plan for commonalties between the Rover SD1, Triumph SD2 (later TM1) and the TR7/TR8/Lynx (later Broadside). Unfortunate the latter was also compromised and burdened with a comparably less then ideal Six.

    Am more intrigued by the at the time projected K-Series V6 (unrelated to later KV6) that the ADO77 project was said to have been packaged to use prior to fading into obscurity, whether it was to have been widely utilized in the likes of the Rover SD1 or other models (on top of likely replacing BL’s other Sixes) and how it would have likely fared against the Alfa Romeo V6.

    • Nate, re. that reputed K-series ADO77 V6: strictly speculating I’d guess there are two likely options. Either a Rover V8-derived 2.649 cc one, comparable to the one in the later Metro 6R4, or a Jaguar V12-deprived 2.673 cc one that was considered as basis for the Jaguar AJ6.

      Hard to imagine though BL were considering another midsize six besides the SD1’s and E6. If any V6 was deemed necessary, it would probably have been in small numbers. Perhaps the best option would have been to buy those from outside suppliers such as PRV or even Alfa Romeo; one should hope that was seriously considered instead of developing another six in house…

      • Zebo

        Kev, the commenter who first brought up ADO77 being packaged to use a projected K-Series V6 below, pretty much rules out the engine being based from the Rover V8 on the basis it was viewed as obsolete and tough to make it emissions compliant in the US. – https://www.aronline.co.uk/concepts-and-prototypes/triumph-sd2/

        A Jaguar V12-based V6 does make some sense provided the production line was capable of producing enough engines to meet peak SD1 Six production. If that option can also be safely ruled out as the K-Series V6 candidate, short of BL seriously considering a Stag V8-based V6 it begs the question as to what design influences (from other engines) the engineers at BL were drawing upon in scheming the project K-Series V6 engine at the time during the ADO77 project in the early/mid-1970s if it was indeed to be an all-new design.

        Since the projected K-Series V6 was apparently conceived before the Alfa Romeo V6 belatedly arrived from 1979 in the Alfa 6, leaving only the discontinued Lancia V6 and Ford Essex/Cologne V6 engines as the only 60-degree V6 designs present during that period.

        • Kev, over to you, please enlighten us!

          Nate, you seem to assume this early K-series would have been a 60 degrees engine, is that correct? If so, why? Simply because it would be easier to make it run smoothly and install it in RWD applications, or (perhaps also) because there is some evidence to support this?

          Also: the K-series designation begs the question if it was related to the four cylinder H/K-series that was being developed for ADO74 around the same time (early 1970s). If so, would this K V6 have been around 2 litres, as this site states that according to Roy Battersley “neither the bore nor the stroke of the K-Series 1300cc engine could be increased”? That would have made this K V6 overlapping with O-series in size, making it perhaps less likely?

          BTW: would you happen to know Bob from DTW and/or a guy called Masked Grizly??

          • Zebo

            Seconded, the projected engine for whatever reason must have been considered promising enough by the company to warrant the ADO77 project being packaged for said V6 before it was abandoned in place using an existing 6-cylinder engine.

            Am assuming (rightly or wrongly) the V6 likely featured 60-degrees based largely on the Ford influence or thinking that remained at the company (on top of the previously mentioned Jaguar V12-based development). Also had the likes of Fiat with the 128 SOHC / 130 V6 and even Chrysler UK’s stillborn Avenger-based V6 in mind, which appeared to reflect something of a trend in the UK/Europe for 60-degree V6s that preceded the Alfa Romeo V6 (notwithstanding other European V6s such as the PRV or from Maserati).

            It is not completely out of the question for the K-Series V6 to be linked to the H/K-Series 4-cylinder or inexplicably feature a 90-degree angle, let alone be yet another duplicate inline-6 (since this is BL after all). However if BL were intent on moving on from the Issigonis era with a new slate under Harry Webster, (outside of the 1973 fuel crisis) why would they suddenly return to embracing an approach they rejected (with the Issigonis influenced E-Series and stillborn DX units) by needlessly developing (or proposing) yet another compromised capacity-limited 4-cylinder / 6-cylinder engine family to overlap with the upcoming 2-litre O-Series 4-cylinder and 2-litre Triumph Slant-Four?

    • Clutch and gearbox back under bonnet would not have allowed shoe-horning the V8. And if they had changed from the transaxle to the conservative setup it’s to enhance lever linkage, reduce dramatically shaft speed (down to zero when idling, oppositely to the shaky 800 rev/mn of an Alfetta, Giulietta or 75.
      And finally refresh clutch and box.
      With clutch box and inboard discs under rear seat the rear passengers in my 75V6 3.0 had no need for any heating. So imagine with the V8 power and torque !
      I understand that some GTVs were produced that way but for homologation only, I do not think the transmission would have coped with that for long.

      • @Nate just about the continental 90° V6, they were all designed to make a V8 derivate : Maserati, PRV and … the 1st 3 valves per cylinder Mercedes V6
        GM US 231 3.8 V6 was also a 90°, truncated small block V8 like the current … Jaguar V6

  20. It’s a pity. Like Keith says “Nice legs, shame about the face”. It’s an Alfetta lengthened by 50 cm. The rear overhang is huge. The engine a beauty. It was a rre beast when new, and now even more. It was also conceived in the dark ’70’s. Not a good car and a bad Alfa Romeo.

  21. To be fair, the Alfa 6 was crippled by the Italian car tax system, that really hurt cars with engines over 2 litres, and the manufacturer was never seen as a producer of large luxury saloons, so sales were always low. Also Alfa Romeo in northern Europe meant rust and more rust, which counted against the 6.

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