Alfa Romeo 75 (1986-92)

words - Joe Kenwright
Alfa Romeo had a strong following in Australia built on relatively quick and efficient rear-drive sedans and coupes that were fun to drive. Joe Kenwright looks at the final and most refined expression of an Alfa philosophy that is sorely missed

HISTORY
It is not often that Australian buyers have access to an imported European model that marque experts describe as the best of its kind for less than $10,000. In fact, some go further than that. They suggest that the Alfa Romeo 75 is quite possibly the best modern Alfa ever made although they qualify this by narrowing it down to the Twin Spark model released locally in 1988.

This is not only a reflection of how good the 75 was but how far the quality of the Alfa Romeo range had been allowed to slip prior to its launch in October 1986. It also reflects how Alfa Romeos following the 75's 1992 withdrawal in Australia have been reduced to yet another generic front-drive range based on someone else's floorpan.

Local Alfa Romeo fans are quite adamant that if Fiat is serious about reviving the marque, the company needs to move forward from the Alfa 75, not later models built on platforms shared with Saabs and later Fiats. A loyal band of owners backed by a specialist service network keep the 75 alive as a used car while they wait for the lights to go back on in Italy. Younger buyers are also discovering that the BMW 3-series is not the only hip and affordable rear-drive performance saloon. There will be a time when they too will want a new compact and sporty rear-drive family sedan with soul as an alternative to the generic Lexus IS200 and clinically effective BMW 3-series.

The Alfa 75 allows a family buyer on a budget to drive something interesting, even exciting, with four-door accommodation to double up as family transport. How the 75 evolved provides an insight into its pluses and limitations.

By 1986, cash-strapped Alfa Romeo was limited to developing new models from its 1970s Alfasud and Alfetta platforms, a strategy that was doomed when they were so different. The front-drive Alfasud with its boxer-engine mounted Subaru-style ahead of the front wheels evolved into the Alfa 33, an attractive but flawed model that lost the Alfasud's verve and character.

The Alfetta platform at least kept the company's famous, race-proven twin-cam inline fours facing the right direction up front but moved the transmission to the rear leaving a transaxle under the rear floor for optimum balance. This layout mirrored the great Ferraris and Lancias and later front-engined Porsches. Introduced as the defining new feature in the stunning Alfetta coupe of the mid-1970s, Alfa confounded the enthusiast world by incorporating this elite GT layout into a range of sporty new family sedans.

In a GT coupe like a Daytona Ferrari or Porsche 928, the underfloor space behind the driver is not an issue but fitting a transmission and differential below a full width rear seat is another matter. Getting the gear linkages to the rear without a high centre tunnel also dictated compromises. The Alfa 75 reflected the almost 15 years of development that it took to refine these issues.

Because the Alfetta platform started life under a small and nimble GT coupe, Alfa Romeo was left to build its sedan range on a wheelbase smaller than today's Corolla and narrower than an early Ford Laser. Just prior to the 75 launch, buyers thought they had the choice of a small Giulietta sedan, the mid-size 75 and the large luxury Alfa 90.

In reality, all were built on the same 2500mm wheelbase and were less than 1650mm wide; well under most narrow-bodied Japanese cars. Alfa stylists had to trick the eye into seeing three different sizes, just as Japanese designers do under their 1700mm limit. The Giulietta was made to look short and stumpy with a high bootline while the Alfa 90's deep side and front panels made it look tall and imposing. Because the Alfa 75 took the middle line, it ended up with the smoothest and most balanced lines. The narrow bodies of these Alfas ensure that grey Japanse imports are more common than most Australians think.

On release, the local 75 initially shared the 90's 2.5-litre V6 mechanical package lifted from the GTV6 coupe. How do you separate two four-door sedans with identical mechanical packages on identical wheelbases and similar widths that cost the same? The fitter one survives and by 1988 the Alfa 90 had followed the Giulietta's 1986 exit from Australian pricelists. This left Alfa Romeo highly exposed with only one 75 V6 model at the top end and a fading Alfa 33 at the entry level.

It prompted Alfa Romeo to launch three definitive new 75 models in 1988 which included a revised twin spark plug version of the long-lived 2.0-litre twin-cam four; an automatic-only version of the 2.5-litre V6 and a new 3.0-litre performance V6 based on the engine from the new front-drive 164.

The first 75 had already arrived after new "isostatic" gear linkages had cured the dreadfully vague and baulky linkages of all earlier Alfetta-based models. The 75 then marked the introduction of a single plate clutch, new gear ratios and revised synchromesh. These were further refined for 1988 and the auto option was a first for Australian pricelists on an Alfetta-derived model.

The 75's auto option was restricted to the 2.5-litre V6 and the 3HP22 ZF three-speed auto shared with early BMW and Peugeot fours, because the heftier four-speed auto that could take the 3.0-litre's extra grunt wouldn't fit under the floor. There are reports that 50 automatic Executive versions of the 1981 Alfetta 2.0-litre four were slipped onto the Australian market but were not officially listed. This makes the Alfa 75 auto unusual and the only way that an automatic driver can enjoy a rear-drive Alfa V6.

The media always focused on the V6 models, mainly because it was a particularly smooth and musical engine. In doing so, they overlooked the jewel in the crown. The cylinder head of Alfa's time-honoured twin-cam four was totally re-engineered with shallow hemi-shaped combustion chambers, revised valve angles, flat top pistons and a high compression ratio that could run on Australia's poor unleaded fuel because of its twin spark plugs. Although BMW and Honda are more often associated with variable valve timing, the Twin Spark engine had variable inlet valve timing as early as 1988. This advanced engine equalled the 2.5-litre V6 power output and reduced weight over the nose. It was also very fuel efficient (6lt/100km highway use), quick (standing 400m of 16.7 secs) and runs even better on today's premium fuels.

The suspension on the 75 was most often described as near perfect, thanks to double wishbones at the front and a de Dion tube and Watts linkage at the rear. Inboard rear brakes also played a role. Only poor cabin ergonomics, dead brake pedal feel and oddball driving position detracted from what should have been the complete driver package.

Although the Twin Spark marked a return to 1986 pricing in the mid-$30,000 range, the V6 models rocketed up closer to $50,000. By 1990, the Twin Spark approached $40,000 as new prices for the V6 models had to be cut back to the mid-$40,000 range after V6 reliability problems emerged. The 75's angular lines were also starting to date and the 164 struggled against the Australian preference for rear drive, especially in a large Alfa Romeo. Alfa then pulled the pin at the end of 1992 on a shocked Australian dealer network and left the country.

The company wisely waited until 1998 before returning with a very different front-drive range, its shared Fiat origins less obvious than in Europe after Fiat passenger cars left Australia in 1989. Hardcore Alfa owners claim you could put a Mitsubishi or Hyundai badge on some of these models and you would struggle to feel the difference. Flawed and aging as the 75 may be, it has the soul missing from so many of today's cars and its sporty rear-drive feel has no direct replacement in today's new car market.

MODEL TIMELINE
BMW sold the E30 3 Series in Australia from May 1983 to March 1991.

  • Oct 1986: Alfa 75 launched as 2.5-litre V6 with five-speed manual only.
  • Jan 1988: Major facelift with extended front spoiler and side skirts. Range includes 115kW Twin Spark 2.0-litre manual, 115 kW 2.5-litre V6 auto, 136 kW 3-litre V6 manual.
  • May 1988: Manual 2.5-litre stocks cleared
  • Jan 1989: Chunkier open-mouthed grille.
  • May 1990: Limited edition 3.0-litre Pontenziata. 2.5-litre V6 auto dropped.
  • Sep 1990: 3.0-litre V6 mechanical upgrade including suspension, 139 kW engine, transmission, 15-inch alloys.
  • Dec 1992: All Alfa models withdrawn from Australia.

BUYER'S CHECKLIST:

ENGINE & TRANSMISSION
The V6 engine, so desirable when new, now brings extra headaches especially if it has been through a sequence of owners who haven't kept up the maintenance. The main problem is head gasket failure which causes them to leak oil. Wrongly described as a twin-cam, the V6 has a single cam per bank which dictates a rocker arm, pushrod and follower to operate the exhaust valves. Failed exhaust valve cam lobes are common and with ongoing head gasket replacements, most engines will have required a partial tear down. V6 cam belts must be replaced every 50,000km. It is one of those engines that goes bang if the belt breaks so a verifiable cam belt history is vital. Although it appeared that the later 3.0-litre may have avoided these problems, they are now showing up.

The Twin Spark by contrast seems to be reliable and long-lived providing its oil and filters are kept up to date. All Alfa engines with their high aluminium content require their coolant to be flushed and replaced with approved coolant on a regular basis. The Twin Spark also has a long-life timing chain so its tensioner is the main item that needs to be monitored.

Some very early Alfa 75 examples had the twin plate clutch. Its twin stage take-up forced owners to slip it more than desired generating an overhaul bill that is $600 more than the single plate on a more regular basis. If drivers don't allow for the time delay between the rear-mounted gear box and other controls, they may be changing gears with the clutch partially engaged which would explain why some 75 gearboxes require regular synchro attention while others never give trouble. Test for a metallic snick during changes, most often third gear. Rear-engine Porsches and VWs are vulnerable to the same problem.

The 75's latest isostatic linkages brought extra complexity thus require extra labour and parts to get them right again. Only just good enough when new, the state of the gear linkages on any 75 will make or break the enjoyment of the car so allow the full overhaul cost if they are not right. A faulty hydraulic clutch circuit can also generate baulky changes so check it first.

High mileage engines may be smoky but look for hardened valve stem seals first before spending big money on an overhaul.

In the early days of automotive electronics, the Twin Spark relied on two completely separate distributors driven by totally different engine components to feed each circuit of spark plugs. Their synchronising is critical for smooth and efficient running. It also doubles the number of wear and tear components including plugs and leads, distributor caps and other parts.

The optional ZF auto brings no surprises for local overhaulers but its removal and replacement is more involved than other rear-drive models.

SUSPENSION & BRAKES
Apart from wear and tear items like bushes and joints, the front and rear suspension are fairly reliable with no real problems. The de Dion tube has a few extra moving parts that need to be monitored and the transaxle's mounting bushes are important. Check rear-drive shaft joints and centre tail shaft couplings if there is vibration or shunt under load.

Undersized brake rotors will be due for replacement. The inboard rear discs need closer inspection as the extra work required may have forced the owner to put it off. Fluid changes are vital so check the master cylinder for weeping if it has dirty fluid. Check all linkages and rods as wear can remove what was left of pedal feel.

The 75's outstanding ride and handling balance depend on quality shockers. Because the originals last so well, they may now be due. If you don't want to go down the original route, at least pick a quality European alternative such as Koni.

The most common fault is power steering failure and steering rack leaks. The whole system needs to be checked thoroughly.

The correct tyres and wheels are also critical. While big wheels and low profile tyres can make the 75 look sharp, they can also destroy the geometry and ride/handling balance which is the 75's most endearing feature.

BODY
The 75 is so highly regarded because it missed out on the serious body deterioration problems that made Alfetta and GTV ownership a nightmare. The six-year corrosion warranty sticker on original cars says it all. Some examples will show rust but only those that have been smashed and poorly repaired. As for other Europeans from this period, the original paint will have faded on exposed examples.

Not so long-lasting are the myriad of plastic trim items inside and out. They are now getting expensive and hard to source. Even when it was relatively new, the 75 was forced off the road prematurely by the cost of plastic bumpers and other body trim items. The 75's distinctive waist-level infill, bumper fascias, door handles and other items may require refinishing if sun-damaged.

Cracked dash pads are not as common as on previous Alfas but as the first examples approach 20 years old, expect some deterioration on cars left outside. If it matters, check out what it will cost to rectify before buying.

Cabin trim seems to last much better than the typical Italian offering but the carpet was rubbishy and a constant source of disappointment when the car was new. At least it's an item that can be replaced with better quality local carpet but removing cabin fittings to get at it is the main cost.

For any imported car of this age, check the operation of all accessories including all gauges and warning lights, switch gear, air-conditioning. Watch the temperature gauge during a test run and observe whether the cooling system is coping with the extra load of the air-conditioner.

Headlights can fill with condensation which will rot the base of the reflector. The usual culprit is a rear cover that has been disturbed by the owner when replacing a globe. Make sure it is fitting correctly otherwise the light may need replacing and it's expensive.

Service data confirmed by early Alfa experts Monza Repairs (03) 9578 4911

 

 

 

Published : Tuesday, 1 March 2005
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