Alfa Romeo has made cunning use of its existing mechanical platforms to modernise its range in the most cost-effective way – the 33 grew out of the ‘Sud, the angular 90 saloon out of the Alfetta. One of the surprises has been the success of the mid-size 75 which has carried the flag, or perhaps the shield, for the marque during a difficult recovery period while the larger front-drive 164 was undergoing a protracted development. The Giulietta of the Seventies did not sound a promising source for the floorpan and internal structure of a performance saloon, but it was in effect a second chance to execute some of the mechanical and suspension development work that the company so often seems to run out of time for.
It has been a brave attempt to disguise the older car beneath; but with such a strong shape as the tall wedge of the Giulietta that was particularly difficult. Making the grille slope back instead of forwards was the easy part; altering the high kick-up tail was a stiffer challenge, and the result looks like a committee decision. But if it is not beautiful, the 75 Twin Spark nevertheless has a presence, an athletic look to it, and comes with all the outward signs of performance: even the standard car as tested here has its colour-keyed air-dam, wheel arch extensions and boot-lip, while for an extra 1900 Alfa supplies the car in Veloce form with yet more fibreglass similar to that worn by the track version which contests the European Touring Car championship.
It is not a had package for £12,199: a sensible 127mph four-door which contrives to look exciting and worthy of one of the finest sporting heritages of any marque, all the push-button indulgences (locks, windows, mirror, headlamp washers), a beautifully engineered De Dion system suspending the back of the car, integrated with a five-speed transaxle and inboard discs, and best of all that engine.
We have seen so many variations on Alfa’s twin-cam from the Fifties on that it has become a touchstone of motor engineering, one of those comforting symbols which goes on and on. Differing capacities and states of tune, Webers, Solexes and fuel injection, twin plug heads, superchargers, turbochargers, and Variable Inlet Valve Timing (VIVT) have all emerged from the factory at some time, to say nothing of the outside tuners like Conrero or Autodelta.
Latterly, increasing, sophistication amongst more ordinary cars has brought the four-valve twin-cam to a very much wider ownership, eroding Alfa’s place in the bhp per litre stakes. In answer, the Milanese company, never one to follow fads blindly, has side-stepped the multi-valve route and gone back to one of the racing solutions of the Sixties, the twin-plug head.
Firing the cylinderful of fuel/air mixture from two points simultaneously speeds up the explosion, allowing a higher compression ratio (10.1:1 for the Twin Spark) before risking detonation, and burning up more of each charge of fuel. So, more power per bang, and less polluting leftovers. In 1965, the 1570cc GTA raced by the works had 170 bhp; today’s Twin Spark is not that far behind at 148 bhp, though more relaxed in tune because of its 1962cc capacity. Alfa says this approach has the power benefits of a four-valve engine without the mechanical complexity, and the unit certainly has a high specific output – over 75 bhp/litre, the highest in Alfa’s repertoire and well ahead of the 3-litre V6 which powers the top Alfa saloons.
Obviously two distributors are needed, and Alfa’s engineers have kept one in the old position low clown on the block, driven by a skew-gear off the crank, and added another or, the end of one camshaft. Unconventional, but perfectly sound. For those used to frequent oil checks on their own Alfas, the big surprise is new head casting. The Twin Spark’, narrow 46° valve angle results in a flat square ribbed cam-cover which is nothing like as evocative as the individual smooth alloy cam-covers of the old 80° layout. And the intake trunking for the Bosch Motronic injection system lacks the purposeful look of the more usual pair of side draught Webers. The Twin Spark’s flexibility is boosted by the VIVT device (I much prefer the translation which reads “distribution phase variator”) which first appeared on the Alfetta saloon some years ago. This ingenious system alters the cam timing according to how heavy-footed the driver is being, combining the open-throttle benefits of wide-overlap intake and exhaust periods with the low-speed advantage of more conservative cam timing. Only the inlet camshaft is affected, rotating up to 16° ahead of its normal position relative to the exhaust cam when the throttle is fully open, and this extra movement is achieved by a sliding collar on the driven end of the shaft. Pegs in the collar engage spiral grooves in the camshaft, so that fore-and-aft movement of the collar causes the shaft to rotate in relation to the timing-chain; the movement of the collar itself is controlled hydraulically by the vacuum in the throttle. This fattens the torque curve in the lower regions and makes the highly-tuned engine less peaky. Torque actually tops out as high as 4700 rpm, but a good percentage of that 137 lb ft is on hand when the needle is twitching around 3000. Translated onto the road, the Twin Spark engine feels relaxed and flexible when pottering, but becomes markedly harder and more urgent under pressure, the familiar but more abrasive rasp distantly penetrating the interior.
Only one thing stops this car feeling very quick indeed-the gear change. Alfa claims to have improved the connection to the rear mounted box, but the difference is small; perhaps there is less slop, but first to second still means a long pause, preferably in neutral. As a hardened Alfa owner I have grown used to this, even enjoy the challenge of turning in it fast 3-2 double-declutch to get the power ready before the corner, but it really should he better.
Power steering is standard for Twin Sparks, and something of a blessing; the old Giulietta was a strain to park. Fitted with a luxurious leather Momo wheel, the rack and pinion system has above-average feedback, though it might be geared a shade higher.
Perversely enough, although it does not have exceptional handling, the 75 can be a lot of fun to drive for that very reason. The grip is there, but it takes a good swing of the wheel and a strong dose of right foot to make the front tyres work properly and cancel the understeer – the sort of car which makes its driver think ahead to get the best out of it. It rolls a good deal, but on sinuous roads it is rapid without drama, its nicely-spaced gears (closed up for this and the V6) letting the engine spin to a smooth 5500 or a rasping six-and-a-half. And during some laps of the Donington circuit, its 195/60 Michelin MXV tyres stuck pretty closely to the intended line, with superlative traction available from the De Dion rear plus LSD.
A fair amount of noise movement when either of the two right pedals is in use suggests that the front damping at least, if not spring-rates, could profitably be stiffer, helping to flatten out that diagonal pitch typical of Alfettas, though it is pleasant to sail over the top of today’s careless road-mendings without cursing the County Council. Stability at high speeds is very good, and wind-noise (and therefore drag) is kept down by the addition of plastic deflectors around the front windows, effective as an aerodynamic stop-gap but distorting and distracting for the driver’s view around the A-post. Good news for those drivers who have failed to fit comfortably into a 75 so far is that Alfa has made serious ergonomic efforts, spurred by ARGB which responded quickly to early Press criticism, making the car just about acceptable for normally-shaped Britons. The once ankle-breaking pedals are now within reach of the floor, while a tilt and extend steering column and extra rearward seat movement allow legs and arms to relax, though the seats themselves were too short to support my legs comfortably. And a gold star to Alfa for clear instruments which are visible through the whole range of wheel adjustment. Elsewhere, the fascia is less successful, with much space devoted to warning lights and smoking accessories, leaving the radio tucked behind the gear lever, though the passenger has a usefully large tray and sliding drawer in front of him. No-one has ever managed to explain to me the reason for the novel U-shaped handbrake lever, one of Alfa’s periodic eccentricities, but it works perfectly well and provides a sure-fire talking point for first-time passengers.
Another oddity is the placing of the window controls in a panel above the interior mirror, which I quickly came to approve of when I borrowed one of the first 75s on an earlier occasion – though not before an embarrassing moment at the fights when a policeman strolled over to discuss my tax-disc (it had fallen onto the floor). He was very polite about having to shout through the glass while I desperately searched for the window switch. Behind the well-shaped rear seat for three is an enormous boot capable of consuming a family’s holiday wherewithal and of course the Twin Spark has the virtue, rare in many ranges of sports-saloons, of being a proper four-door.
Already pointing the way ahead with a new look and new life for the famous engine, the 75 will be the last Alfa Romeo to use the Alfetta rear-gearbox layout: the 90 saloon came and went rather quickly, and the GTV coupes have sadly gone too; the new 75 will be front-drive like the 164. The Twin Spark engine, currently powering the top European Formula Three cars, will figure largely and deservedly in that range; it is a delightful and willing power-unit. Might we see the same technology applied to the superb V6? GC