In October 1978, Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Lancia and Saab jointly agreed to each develop an executive saloon based on their shared Type Four platform, to eventually compete against the likes of the Ford Granada and Opel Rekord as well as more premium saloons by BMW and Mercedes-Benz in the form of the 5 Series and E-Class, respectively.
Project 164 started life as Project 156 (Not to be confused with Alfa Romeo 156) and was completed in 1981, then still under Alfa Romeo. A year later, that project morphed into the 164 based on the Type Four platform. This new model was designed by Enrico Fumia of Pininfarina, with a wedge shape that afforded it a leading drag coefficient of Cd=0.30. The design would later influence the rest of the Alfa Romeo range starting in 1990 with the major redesign of the 33 and culminating with the 155, and also see Pininfarina adapt it for the 1987 Peugeot 405 and the 1989 Peugeot 605 sedans.
Key milestones in the development of this new vehicle:
Initial testing of the 164's dynamic elements (engine and drivetrain) began in 1984, where mules based on the then contemporary Giulietta were used. Initial handling characteristics were honed on the factory's "Balocco" test track in Arese.
In 1985, the first pre-production 164s were put through their paces on the road. Heavily disguised, with many false panels and even a false nose design (borrowing heavily from the then equally undeveloped 155) sporting four round headlamps, these vehicle mules served to test the 164 for the grueling 1 million kilometre static and road testing demanded of the design.
In 1986 and 1987, the first 150 164s were given their pre-production testing. In terms of engineering demands, these exceeded every Alfa before, and by quite a substantial margin.
In Morocco, desert testing saw five grey 164 Twinsparks and V6s undergo the equivalent of the Paris-Dakar rally. Road conditions varied from good tarmac to off-road conditions, and accelerometers confirmed the superiority of the 164 in terms of passenger comfort. This data was cross-confirmed in the engineering laboratory with a sophisticated dummy in the driver's seat, with accelerometers both in its seat, and in its ears to mimic that of the semi-circular canals of the ear.
The Twinspark and the V6 underwent handling trials at Arese. The Twinspark displayed very mature driving manners at the limit, with minimal skid. The V6 displayed a 25% increase in at-the-limit skid, a natural consequence of its greater nose weight.
ABS testing confirmed that the Twinspark has superior braking to the V6. Brake linings of the 164s were run at maximum braking until they literally glowed with heat, and displayed no deviation in form. The 164 was the first Alfa to feature slotted double-walled disc brakes. At no point were the discs drilled to release excess heat, the original design being demonstrated to be excellent.
Sound production was tested in an anechoic chamber, the car being subjected to stress and road noise testing, with instruments and with live subjects at the wheel, on a specially designed rig.
Ultimately unveiled at the 1987 Frankfurt Motor Show, the 164 was the last model to be developed while the Alfa Romeo was still a fully independent company, and was formally launched a few months after the takeover by Fiat.
The Design of the 164
Enrico Fumia of Pininfarina was responsible for the 164 design, with the first 1:1 scale model produced in 1982. Design cues were publicly revealed on the Alfa Romeo Vivace concept car, which was exhibited at the 1986 Turin Motorshow that went on to influence the design of the Alfa Romeo GTV and Spider (916 series) launched in 1994.
The 164 became the first Alfa to benefit from extensive use of computer aided design, used to calculate structural stresses that resulted in a very rigid but still relatively lightweight chassis. Although sharing the same platform as that of the Lancia Thema, Fiat Croma and Saab 9000, by virtue of the fact that it was the last of the four to enter production, it featured unique front suspension geometry and the most distinctive styling of the lot. In fact, for example, the other cars all shared identical side door panels. Though still voluminous, the 164 had the tightest aperture to the rear boot, which had a 510-Litre capacity.
Overall, the 164 also benefited from improved build quality relative to previous Alfas, thanks to the extensive use of galvanised steel for the frame and various body panels for the first time in the brand's history. Moreover, the car featured advanced (but notoriously troublesome) electronics thanks to the most complex wiring harness fitted to any Alfa Romeo.
For example: it had three onboard computers (one for air conditioning, one for instrumentation, and one for the engine management); air conditioning and instrument functions shared a multiple-mode coded Zilog Z80-class microcontroller for dashboard functioning). The instrumentation included a full range of gauges including an advanced check-panel.
Its interior was spacious and modern, available with standard velour seating or leather trim depending on the model. Its dashboard continued the avantgarde design of the exterior with a centre dashboard that was dominated by a large number of seemingly identical buttons arranged in rows. Air-direction within the ventilation system was controlled by a pair of servomechanisms, which were constructed using notoriously fragile plastic gears that were prone to failure (prompting at least one aftermarket company to develop metal replacement parts).
Again depending on the model, the 164 could feature automatic climate control and electronically controlled damping suspension - the latter, for example, in the sports-oriented Quadrifoglio Verde ("Green Cloverleaf ") and 164S models. This suspension actively reduced damping in response to conditions to provide a dynamic compromise between road holding and comfort.