Thinking Outside the Box
In a just world, the striking Alfa Romeo GTV (916) would be considered an undisputed modern classic. Unfortunately, it happened to originate from Italy.
Bella Italia. Bosom of all that’s pretty and tasteful. Hotbed of aesthetic creativity. Home country of soulful motor cars.
It is immensely difficult to assess why a country with such creative vigour and an overabundance of talent and heritage struggles to remain relevant within a sector it used to set trends for more than a mere brief period.
The downfall of the Italian automotive industry in general and Alfa Romeo in particular remains a baffling subject. More baffling still when one considers how many intermediate hight points and/or false dawns have occurred over the past three decades - brief eclipses, that have come and gone.
Only in this context can the lack of respect the Alfa Romeo GTV of 1995 vintage receives today be satisfactorily explained. For, judged on its own terms, this Alfa has a tremendous amount going for it. Fine engines, very good handling and, first and foremost, the kind of styling that remains striking to this day.
Of course, Alfa Romeo has survived several bleak stretches, one of which occurred during the 1980s, when a plethora of Alfetta- and Alfasud-based vehicles of brutalist or outright clumsy stylistic value did their best to banish memories of the joyful Alfa designs of the post-war years. It was only when styling duties on behalf of Arese were outsourced to Pininfarina once again that Alfa regained proper esprit.
Pininfarina’s Wunderkind designer back in those days went by the name of Enrico Fumia. Like his immediate spiritual predecessors, Paolo Martin and Aldo Brovarone (to name but two), Fumia is one of those immensely influential designers who chose to perform their magic tricks clandestinely. And just like those fine stylists, Fumia helped shape a design era - the late 1980’s and ‘90s in his instance.
Starting with the Audi Quartz concept car unveiled in 1981, Fumia established himself as one of the pioneers of the sleek, aerodynamic, industrial design-inspired form language that formed the pinnacle of contemporary automotive design trends. As penned by Fumia, the Alfa Romeo 164 changed the troubled Milanese brand’s fortunes in a heartbeat. Unveiled in 1987, after a decade of stylistically underwhelming new product, the 164 re-established Alfa as a stylistic force to be reckoned with.
This obviously is the result of its front wheel drive layout, which had been first introduced with the Flavia in 1961 and was considered a rather avant-garde engineering solution at this point. As was the Lancia’s power unit, a narrow-angle V4 engine, and its all-disc brakes.
The Fulvia berlina’s styling - courtesy of Lancia’s chief designer, Pietro Castagnero - doesn’t shout about this distinction, but is more upfront about the build quality at the core of this little saloon. In an age before panel gaps and shutlines became main indicators of superior construction and manufacturing facilities, the Lancia had to rely on the volumes and radii of its sheetmetal to convey its robust ‘premium’ nature. As a result, the Fulvia berlina’s sheetmetal appears solid, rather then elegant, substantial instead of delicate.
There is not a trace of flimsiness to be found on the Fulvia’s body. The chrome decorum is both abundant and heavy, yet without appearing heavy-handed (one could even argue that Castagnero’s skills in this area were of such importance that this capable stylist was somewhat lost once shiny metal surfaces were considered dégoûtant in the 1970s). In fact, the Fulvia’s appearance truly comes into its own as soon as its detailing is concerned. The badging, for example, is of impeccable quality, both in stylistic and manufacturing terms: the three-dimensional, hollow logo on the grille; the rich enamel ‘GT’ label right next to it; the gloriously contemporary lettering on the rear, which could still teach a great many typographers a lesson about balancing timeless formality and period verve. Not to mention the wonderfully elegant rear lights. However, these owe a great deal to the smartly placed oval welt, which prevents both the rear lights and the faint fins on the upper edges of the boot from jarring with the blocky shape of the Fulvia’s rear.
All new Alfa models following in the 164’s wake employed elements of Fumia’s style, but the man himself would eventually supervise one more Alfa model himself. Or rather: two, for the Alfa Romeo 916 Spider and GTV twins were both thoroughbred Fumia efforts.
Like the 164 saloon before them, the 916 models were initially very well received, only to descend into relative obscurity over time. The contemporary nature of the original Fumia style cannot be the sole reason for this. Obviously, designs as bold and of-their-time as these are prone to going out of fashion faster than more subdued - some might claim ‘timeless’ - efforts. But this process is usually the domain of the kind of trendy design that lacks craftsmanship - an accusation neither of these cars warrants.
It is among the more difficult tasks for a stylist to shape a sports car that is not only based on front-wheel drive architecture, but also intended to offer space for two regular, as well as two occasional or child-size occupants. And instead of trying to distract from this basic layout, the 916 GTV actually embraces it. Employing one of the most daring clamshell bonnet shapes in automotive history, Fumia knowingly emphasised the relatively short bonnet, relatively long overhang and centrally located cabin. His design thus eschews the traditional long bonnet/cabin at the back silhouette that is the easiest way of conveying an impression of athleticism. As a result, this Alfa GTV takes some getting used to.
A process that proves to be rewarded. For the Alfa’s starkly geometrical, semi-conical shapes remain highly original and refreshing to this day. Just like another ‘90s icon (albeit one that’s held in higher esteem by the public), the original Audi TT, the 916 GTV is all about geometrical boldness. The extreme wedge line of its profile, the horizontal light bar at its back, the circular headlights and the almost triangular scudetto at its front are just as radical in their own respective rights as the Audi’s semi circles. In fact, the Alfa’s extreme conical profile and Kamm tail would usually suggest much more exquisite an origin than the vast Arese factory - Carrozzeria Zagato, for example.
Mind you, unlike the Audi, the Alfa is somewhat let down by a cabin that cannot hope to match the exterior’s flair. Not even remotely. While some of the usual Alfa trademarks are there - the hooded instruments, the extensive auxiliary gauges -, the overall flair is rather underwhelming, rather than characterful. Some of the blame for this ought to be shouldered by the insubstantial materials used (a typical issue with most Italian post-oil crisis mass-market cars), as well as the unimpressive fit & finish. There’s also an overabundance of different, haptically unsatisfying plastics, as exemplified by the untidy door grab handle or the laughably lumpen driver’s side air bag lid. Not to mention the rather silly addition of conspicuous fake stitching on the instruments’ vinyl hood.
Yet all of this could be excused, if the Alfa’s interior had more of the spirit of a Fiat Barchetta or Fiat Coupé to it. Yet for some reason, the powers that be (namely Alfa Centro Stile director, Ermanno Cressoni and his successor, Walter de’ Silva) decided the 916 models could do without any such fripperies.
Apart from the Italian malaise of sub-standard interiors (and a rather cack-handed facelift effort, late in the GTV’s life), another typical ill also befell the 916 models, even before they’d been brought to market: a prolonged development process. Even taking into account the longer development periods of that time, the seven year gap between the finish of the 916 models’ styling process and their eventual market introduction appears excessive.
Let’s imagine, for argument’s sake, that the GTV had been brought to market in 1992 then. In that case it could be safely assumed that its clean, geometrical looks would have enjoyed a longer period of undivided appreciation, before the ‘90s trend of ‘soft design’, with its preference for organic shapes, became prevalent. An earlier start would have made the 916 twins trend-setters, rather than the last bounce of a form language on the wane.
Of course, these considerations do not really matter anymore, more than two decades later. With Alfa Romeo’s situation being as precarious as it’s ever been, the period during the 1990s when the 916 models were brought to market appear rather fruitful and calm in hindsight.
But no matter how tempestuous Alfa’s fortunes have been or still are, or indeed which set of wheels happens to be powered, one thing unquestionably is certain: Fumia’s Alfa GTV is among the most consistent, daring and inimitable cars one could imagine. From any decade or manufacturer.
Thanks to Movisti Classic Automobiles for supplying the demonstrator car
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