Long-term Report: Alfa Romeo GTV6

When I took over ULD 274X from another employee of Standard House it was as a replacement for another Alfa, a Giulietta 2.0. I had been very pleased with the latter in spite of its understeer and odd ergonomics, for that famous four-cylinder twin-cam remains one of the most exciting engines to drive behind. The only problems I had had were the high consumption of brake pads and on one occasion the breakage of the throttle linkage, something which early Giuliettas were prone to. That, however, was a simple repair, and overall I would have been sorry to see it go had its successor not been a more sporting Alfa. The Alfetta GT has been with us since 1974 and has been equipped with several differing capacities of the four-cylinder engine, starting with the 1750 and including 1600 and 2000 cc. With these different engine sizes went a confusing variety of designations: all were Alfetta GTs, as distinct from the Alfetta saloon, but only the top models were called GTVs. It was undoubtedly underpowered with the small engine (just as the current Giulietta returns better fuel consumption with the 2.0 than with the 1.6) but the 2.0 became a favourite sporting car, especially in its home country. There were detail changes, particularly with regard to the controversial instrumentation, but in the meantime Alfa had developed a new large luxury saloon, the Six, powered by a new all alloy V6 of 2.5-litres. Though this was intended as a flexible, torquey unit for the heavy saloon, it was quickly decided that the GTV should also be equipped with it. What was surprising when the GTV6 was announced towards the end of 1980 was that it was equipped with Bosch fuel injection; the Six saloon had breathed through six single carburetters and continued to do so up until the beginning of 1984. Installing the wide but compact block in the GTV meant some engineering changes underneath, but the more obvious change is the prominent bonnet bulge necessary to clear the intake manifold sited in between the two cylinder banks. Otherwise there is only a badge to distinguish the V6 from its 2-litre brother, both models having been updated with new bumpers, front spoiler, and exterior plastic trim replacing all brightwork. In some ways this is a pity: the latest version certainly looks fashionable, but as with so many cars the original was the most beautiful. The factory-backed Autodelta rally team were the first to use the V6 engine in competition, with notable success, and since 1980 the GTV6 has become successful in Production Racing particularly on the continent. But oddly enough, one of the fastest Alfa men, Dany Snobek, was using six single carburetters on his car last year…

My first impression on climbing into ULD was of that oft repeated myth, the Typical Italian Driving Position. The crux of this is that the steering wheel and the pedals are simply too close to each other, so that when the legs are comfortably extended, the wheel is out of reach. Move closer, and splayed knees are necessary to clear the wheel. It took a long time to achieve a usable compromise, and in the end I had to ask the service agents, Hexagon of Highate, to make a couple of modifications which improved things. These were firstly to insert spacers under the front of the seat to help support the thighs, and secondly to bend the gear lever back somewhat to bring it within my reach. Previously first had been so far away that my seat-belt would lock when I reached for it.

However, I was pleased to learn, while recently driving a new GTV 2.0, that new seats now give very good support indeed. Another improvement to recent models is a much improved dash. Mine is one of the earliest V6s, and is fitted with the original two-part dashboard in which the speedometer sits by itself in front of the driver, and all other instruments are in a binnacle on the centreline of the car. Since 1980 there have been two revisions in this area and the current layout is much more legible.

Accommodation is actually very generous for a 2+2 — the rear seats are almost full-size, unlike most cars in this category, and it is quite possible to carry five people for a short distance. What the car does lack is luggage space: whereas the 2.0 has an underfloor 11.9 gallon fuel tank and a good boot, the 2.5’s larger spare tyre and boot-mounted battery mean that the huge 16.7 gallon tank has to go behind the rear seat, leaving a short and shallow boot. Nevertheless, there is enough luggage space for touring two-up if one includes the rear seat. The heart of the car is undoubtedly the engine. It fires up immediately every morning, and produces usable torque even at idling speeds, which helps on its daily trip across central London. It is not a quiet engine, but the noise it produces when hard at work is delightful, a sort of hard wail which announces its pedigree to all around. With a single camshaft per bank plus short horizontal push-rods and rocker arms it is not a high revver — 4,000 rpm sees maximum torque, 6,000 gives the peak power of 160 bhp, while at 6,200 rpm a very alarming rev-limiter shuts everything down. If a sharp eye is kept on the tachometer, 60 mph comes up in just over 8 sec, and Alfa claim a top speed of 128 mph, though I have never caused the limiter to operate in fifth. What gets in the way of this lovely engine is the gear linkage. Because all Alfettas have a transaxle gearbox unit, a remote linkage is attached to the basically excellent Alfa five-speed ‘box, and on ULD the change is both heavy and vague. A new gear lever has helped a little, but the amount of play is still far too high. Added to this, synchromesh has long since disappeared from first and second, which means double-declutching all the time. Luckily, in true Italian style, the pedals are ideal for heeling-and-toeing. Once the change has been mastered, the tremendous dynamic qualities of the car show themselves. The supple ride swallows road blemishes without disturbing the driver, and the grip from the 195/60 Pirelli P6 tyres on 15 in magnesium alloy wheels is terrific. It is hard work making use of this cornering ability, though, because the chassis is a strong understeerer, aided by the superlative traction that the De Dion axle gives. The limited slip diff. tends to drive the car straight under power, so fast corners have to be entered with a lot of lock on, which is unwound as the throttle is opened. The standard wooden steering wheel is rather large for all the twiddling required, and has such a slippery finish that I quickly replaced it with a smaller leather Momo, which has made driving a lot easier without appearing to add to parking effort. Reversing is tricky because of the high tail, but rear three-quarter visibility is excellent for a coupe.

Overall, the pleasure of driving the GTV6 on fast roads outweighs the effort of coping with the heavy clutch and laborious gearshift in town, but sadly this particular example, now approaching three years and 46,000 miles, has been let down by a number of mechanical problems, mostly of an irritating rather than disastrous nature, but all of them expensive to rectify. The most difficult to deal with was a mysterious oil leak which covered the engine in a fine spray of oil. First the rocker cover gaskets were replaced, but when oil smoke continued to rise from under the bonnet, the entire engine was removed and a crankshaft seal replaced. That stopped the leak, but the oil had by this time rotted the rubber hoses, one of which burst leaving the car stranded, wreathed in steam, at Silverstone. Installing new hoses cost £320.

Since this time the car has continued to lose water at the rate of about a pint a week, something which has puzzled two different Alfa agents and Alfa’s own workshop, despite pressure tests and a new radiator (£119) at 34,000 miles.

Brake pad consumption is an eternal feature of driving an Alfa Romeo (partly due to the type of driver who choose an Alfa?) and the heavy GTV6 has large ventilated discs up front to cope with the heat. Nevertheless, I have not yet managed to make a set last for the suggested 6,000 miles, and as there is no pad wear warning light, it is easy to be caught out. On a continental tour, despite having had the car serviced just beforehand, the rear pads (inboard and uncheckable without a service ramp) wore right through and damaged a disc (£61 a Pair). Mintex have now provided a set of their M171 pads, claimed to offer better wear. On the same trip the car went on to five cylinders approaching the Moulin du Roc, the famous restaurant near Brantome in France. As usual it was a small problem — a connector had pulled out of the long extension piece leading to one of the recessed spark-plugs — but it took a lot of time and fiddling to replace. `Je regrette, Monsieur, que le restaurant est complet. . . .”

The day after returning from France a seal in the clutch slave cylinder went (Sorry,. we have to replace the whole cylinder — £29.50). That was at 39,000 miles; 1,000 miles later the master cylinder went too. Then, after a night in a Heathrow car park, the huge 66 A/hr battery proved to be completely flat; the brake light switch had stuck on and drained it.

Only two sections of the exhaust have so far required to be replaced (£66 for the rear, £92 for the centre box) but the clutch will need to be renewed soon and being a twin-plate unit will not be cheap.

A lot of the expenditure has been simple wear and tear (exhaust, hydraulics, brakes), but other costs are commensurate: tyres are about £75 each while fuel disappears at about 19 mpg in town and perhaps 26 mpg on a long run. But to be quite fair to Alfa Romeo (GB) Ltd., ULD, one of the earliest V6s to come to Britain, seems not to be typical of other GTV6s as regards reliability. Certainly, the other example on the strength at Standard House (a 1982 model) has never missed a beat.

So, having accepted that mine is a “Friday car”, my criticisms centre around the sloppy and difficult gearchange, and the driving position. A study of ergonometric tables will show that members of Latin races actually do have shorter legs and longer arms than the average Briton, so it is a disadvantage that the steering column, already adjustable for height, cannot be altered for reach. That of course would not bring other controls any closer — just for interest I measured the gap between the radio controls and the clutch pedal: 9 inches! It is to be hoped that the new Alfetta, due late 1985, benefits ergonomically from being a joint project with Peugeot and Saab.

Yet there is something about Italian cars that seems to exude driving excitement. With its smooth ride, powerful brakes, high road adhesion and that lovely engine, I can forgive its shortcomings, and at £10,950 it compares well with its rivals. What might replace it? The RX7, Celica Supra, even the Porsche 924 match it on price and are all admirable coupes. Well, thanks very much, but I’d like another GTV6. — G.C.