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2017-10-10 09:00:00
by Christopher Butt
(comments: 4)

Hard Edge

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. 


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 stitching on the instruments’ leatherette 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. Once production of the 916 models moved to Pininfarina, the cabin received a refresh that somewhat lifted spirits, but couldn't hope to lend it a truly pleasing appearance.  


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. The seven year gap between the finish of the 916 models’ styling process and their eventual market introduction appears not only excessive, but means that the car was greenlit by completely different management than the one that had to bring the car to market. 

So 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

©, all rights reserved

Christopher Butt


car enthusiast, writer, critic

biased, elitist, German 

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Comment by Dave |

The very moment I first saw the 916 I knew I’d have to have one.
It took a short time to persuade my wife but in April 1995 I got my GTV TB, the one with the turbo V6 engine with two litres and 204 hp. It looked very similar to the car in the above photographs but had black leather interior.

The car was a typical Alfa.
It had a marvellous engine, incredible road manners and absolutely stunning looks.
At the same time, it was thoroughly impractical in everyday use as there was nearly no boot (mine had a spare wheel, later cars had a tyre kit freeing some boot space), push button door locks that invariably froze up in winter, and a windscreen so low that in order to see traffic lights you had to put your head close to the gear lever and look up. Inside, you also got toasted because the exhaust heated it up to sauna temperatures and the air con was very inefficient. Very off putting was the parts bin interior with air vents, interior lights and complete HVAC head unit from the Fiat Punto and seat adjusters, ashtray and many more details from the Cinquecento. Hardly an inspiring interior for a car that sold at very ambitious prices. In addition, the 916s were almost criminally badly built with very bad fit & finish in the interior in particular.
Just looking inside a 916 and comparing it with an Audi TT interior It’s obvious that the Alfa stood no chance in the market.
Alfa originally planned for yearly sales numbers in excess of 20,000 and therefore did not subcontract production to Pininfarina whose production capacities weren’t sufficient for such numbers.
How anybody in their right mind could arrive at such numbers is beyond my recognition.
When it became clear that actual sales didn’t even come close to these exaggerated expectations production was moved to Pininfarina. There the cars got an urgently needed interior facelift and were also vastly better built.

Reply by Christopher Butt

Thanks for the insight, Dave. 

An ardent Alfa supporter took exception to my portrayal of the interior, pointing his finger at the shoddy interiors of BMW's E36 3 Series instead. Having experienced both, I completely stand by my judgement, even though the E36's cabin is hardly the paragon of perceived quality. It's just a shame the 916's excellent basic recipe was thus spoiled by awkward detail solutions and manufacturing deficiencies. 

The TT did all that right, yet it similarly failed to inspire as a sports car. Isn't it strange that the TT is considered a modern icon nonetheless, whereas the 916 is, if not forgotten, than at the very least half ignored?


Comment by Dave |

PS: the stitching on the instrument hood is not fake, it's real as the cover is made from two pieces. The only thing that is fake is the leather on the instrument cowl, the arm rests in the doors and the centre console cushion. Alfa didn't even bother to use real leather for these parts in cars with the otherwise beautiful and high quality Momo leather interior. Momo equipped cars also got carpets made from much better material, as the standard felt wore through in no time. But even the higher quality carpets followed the contours underneath only very remotely and therefore were hanging loose, squashy and had creases in most unsightly places.

Reply by Christopher Butt

Please excuse the lack of precision in my writing in this instance. The stitching is real, of course, unlike the 'leather'. 

Comment by Dave |

Audi‘s marketing department got their homework just as wrong with the TT as Alfa’s did with the 916, only the other way round.
The TT was intended bo be seen as a hardcore sports car which led Audi to give the 225 hp quattro version a chassis setup with behaviour intentionally very similar to an air cooled 911’s, which meant snap oversteer truly big time when driven carelessly.
As the TT didn’t appeal to hardcore sports car enthusiasts but rather became a poser’s icon (“hairdresser’s car” in the UK) predominantly bought by young people who had no driving experience beyond a forgiving Golf or Pug 205 GTI this inevitably led to a row of terrible accidents. The chassis modifications quickly introduced by Audi fixed this by transforming the TT into a stolidly understeering car but did driving fun no favour (and no, the accidents were not the result of aerodynamic deficiencies and the retrofit spoiler was definitely unnecessary. But at that time, a proper discussion was not possible as Audi faced a fierce media campaign against the TT, led by a certain Hamburg weekly news magazine, who insisted on a spoiler be fitted to the TT, so Audi duly obliged, even if it was not necessary).
As a driving experience, the TT could not hold a candle to a V6-engined 916.

The Audi TT probably became an icon because it fitted with the image Audi tried to achieve at that time as keeper of the Bauhaus tradition as well as continuing the Silver Arrow ethos. Concept cars like the Avus strongly pointed in that direction and the TT looked like a perfect modern day Silver Arrow. The Alfa looked like – what exactly? Another piece of fabulous Italian sculptural art?

Reply by Christopher Butt

The TT and 916's strengths and weaknesses were mutually exclusive, in a sense, apart from both being drastic stylistic statements. 

The Audi got build quality, cabin ambience and marketing right, whereas Alfa lent the GTV proper handling and engines. The combination of both would've resulted in decade-defining sports car. 

Comment by Alexander |

As a GTV 2.0 TB phase II ( not a lot of these were built!) owner, I want to correct something. The phase II that was introduced in 1998 already got the much improved interior and was still built by Alfa themselves in their Arese factory (the 916 was the last Alfa that came out of the factory). It was only later on that production moved to Pininfarina. Pininfarina build cars can be recognized by the added Pininfarina shields on the sides. Arese build cars only had the Pininfarina script.