Alfa in the Family: The 75

Finally - the big 'un. Possibly the best V6 production engine ever made, underneath the bonnet of a true sports saloon - and it's red(Published in the Feb 2001 issue of the Magazine).

It's been quite some time since the last installment of Alfa in the Family - six years, in fact. Part I of the saga dealt with our beloved Alfasud, while Part II introduced our Alfa 33 Super. The 33 proved to be a sound and reliable family member, despite being purchased as a high-mileage unit. Four years after we drove it home, with now almost a quarter of a million kilometers under its wheels, the 33 was traded back to the car yard from where we bought it.

Alfa 75The 33's replacement was a 1988 Alfa 75 Super - one of the 2.5 litre V6 models, equipped with a (gasp!) ZF automatic transmission. What prompted the change? After all, the 33 was still in excellent condition. Apart from a few minor electrical gremlins, it had given no problems. Sure, there were the usual consumable items - brake pads, water pump, etc, - but the engine was basically untouched and still strong. All that was needed was a regular maintenance schedule, including ensuring cam belts were replaced religiously. Our regular mechanic, Angelo from APF Motors, thought we were mad to get rid of the 33 - he knew what a fine example of the model it was.

However, there was no escaping the fact that, in its restricted anti-pollution configuration, the 1.5 litre carburetor-fed boxer engine just didn't have the oomph needed for comfortable country touring with a full family load onboard and the air-con flat out. The 1.7 litre fuel-injected 33 is a much more enjoyable car to drive in these conditions. In fact, the 1.7 had been our first choice when we were in the market for a 33, but there had been none available (the Sud had been written off and we needed a new Alfa - quick!).

Of course, one option was to re-motor the 33 with a 1.7 litre engine. This wasn't terribly attractive - been there, done that, got the T-shirt, with the Sud. I have since developed a philosophy, supported by Angelo and his crew, of trying to keep things pretty much as they were designed by the factory. There are always exceptions to this, of course, but basically I like to see road-going Alfas as close to original trim as possible.

So, with the need clear for a bigger car, which Alfa to choose? A 2 litre Alfetta sedan or maybe even a 1.8 litre Giulietta? Then I remembered having once asked Alfa guru, Richard Anderson, at a club meeting, what was his favourite Alfa. Quite a difficult question, I suppose, to ask someone who has driven all types of Alfas for all types of reasons. After some thought (never one to give a hasty answer, is Richard) he replied that, overall, his favourite was probably the 3 litre Alfa 75.

I figured I wasn't going to get a much higher recommendation than this, so we started searching in earnest for a good 75. First preference was for a Twin Spark - the elegant simplicity of wringing additional power out of the four-pot engine by adding extra sparking plugs was appealing, and the registration was certainly cheaper. Unfortunately, the market proved to be quite devoid of Twin Sparks. In fact, we were to learn that good (and even not so good) Alfa 75s of any engine capacity do not come on to the market too often - owners tend to hang on to them for a long time.

Giving up on a Twin Spark, we started considering a V6. Now, despite having been, at the time, an AROCA member for about eight years, I had not really paid much attention to club members who had sung the praises of the Alfa V6 engine. The two litre motor seemed much more well known and loved. There were a few horror stories of V6 engines throwing cam belts with the resultant mess making a large hole in the owner's wallet. More expensive to register and run, it just didn't seem worth it.

And then I drove one. Or more correctly, just turned it over.

Some motoring writers have called the Alfa V6 motor one of the sweetest and smoothest production engines of all time. You certainly won't get an argument out of me. I am willing to bet that the Alfa V6 owners reading this would be lying if they denied occasionally firing up the engine while in the garage just to listen to it!

Ok, so I was hooked. Our Alfa 75 had to be a V6. The search for a good one continued; however, it seemed that the only ones on the market were very neglected examples needing considerable work. While we continued our hunt, I countered my impatience by undertaking some research.

The 75 was part of Alfa Romeo's revitalisation plans in the mid 1980s. The company's experience with the Alfa 6 Saloon led it to believe that the time was right for combining the brilliant V6 engine from the GTV with an updated Alfetta sedan equipped with a host of creature comforts. The result, the Alfa 90, was favourably received and a Sports Saloon variant was subsequently developed. The new model was named the Alfa 75, to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of Alfa Romeo (the 75 was renamed Milano for the United States market).

The 90 and the 75 are virtually identical mechanically. Although based on a chassis design dating back to the 1970s, the front engine, rear gearbox/transaxle setup was so ahead of its time for a mass-produced car it more than held its own against market competitors.

While the styling of the 90 was placed in the hands of design stalwart Bertone, Ermanno Cressoni was handed the 75 project. Cressoni had been responsible for the Alfa 33 design and the "La Linear" wedge philosophy is evident in both it and the 75. The high, notchy boot with flexible spoiler, narrow body styling and low frontal area incorporating another spoiler resulted in a drag coefficient of 0.36. (While this is reasonable for a car of its bulk, it is interesting to note that the 1966 Giulia Super had a claimed drag coefficient of 0.34!)

Alfa Romeo had been stung by previous criticism regarding build quality and body corrosion of its cars, so the company gave Cressoni a strict instruction for the 75 project: Quality first! For the first time at Alfa Romeo, extensive computer aided design (CAD) was used in the overall design and structural modeling. Great attention was paid to anti-corrosion treatment and interior materials. Each 75 that rolled of the production line destined for overseas markets was given a thorough pre-delivery inspection by a small army of mechanics and panel beaters, which included a 45 kilometre test drive.

All this effort paid off. The new Alfa 75 was received very well by motoring critics of the day. Body styling aside, commentators enthused about the sure-footed, balanced handling, the impressive list of interior features and, of course, the performance of the magnificent V6. The 2492cc engine put out 115kW at 5800rpm and 211 Nm of torque at 3200rpm. With a specific power output of over 46.6 kW per litre, this engine is among the most efficient single OHC, non forced-induction production engines in history. While some felt that first gear was a bit too low for city driving, the ample torque provided by the V6 allowed the 75 to amble along in second if required.

Six Alfa 75 models were officially imported into Australia between 1986 and 1992:





Alfa 75 2.5 V6




Alfa 75 Super 2.0 TS




Alfa 75 Super 2.5 V6 Auto




Alfa 75 Super 3.0 V6




Alfa 75 Ed 88 2.0 TS




Alfa 75 Ed 88 3.0 V6




Source: Alfa Romeo Downunder (David Wright, 1992)

While the Alfa 75 was undeniably a technical triumph for Alfa Romeo, it was probably not the commercial success it should have been in Australia. Selling in the mid AUD$40,000 range, at a time when the future of Alfa Romeo was uncertain, it was soon overshadowed by the release of the new Alfa 164 from the now FIAT-controlled company. Thus the 75 became the last "true" Alfa to be produced by the independent Alfa Romeo company (although given the nature of Italian politics, the term "independent company" is used loosely). The front wheel drive 164 - brilliant car that it is - was the result of the "FIAT-Lancia-Saab-Alfa Type 4 cooperative floor plan project" and was designed from scratch to suit the needs of the partner companies.

With this history, it is not surprising that the 75 has become an Alfa classic. Although not imported in huge numbers, it is a robust vehicle and most are probably still on the road. While its GTV Coupe cousin enjoyed some success on the racetrack, the 75 only had brief competition outings in the form of the Group A Caltex-sponsored turbo-boosted car. This car was also mooted for the 1987 Bathurst endurance race, but the campaign was canceled at the last moment.

However, enough of the research and background - back to the search for our very own Alfa 75. After a couple of months of looking, I received a phone call from a 75 owner who was looking to "downsize" to a smaller Alfa for suburban commuting - say, something like a 33. Sounded perfect: we had a 33 and were looking for a 75; they had a 75 and were looking for a 33! There was a catch (isn't there always?) - the 75 was an automatic.

My enthusiasm level dropped immediately, but we decided it was worth a look anyway. The 75 turned out to be a very tidy, low mileage unit and a drive convinced me that I could probably live with an auto - I wasn't going to be the person doing the daily driving, anyway. Unfortunately, the owner of the 75 and I couldn't come to an agreement regarding changeover price, so we passed up on the deal (probably a case of two people who overvalued their own cars because they didn't really want to sell them anyway).

A couple of weeks later, I received a phone call from Jim Adness, the owner of the car yard from where we'd bought our Alfa 33. He knew we were in the market for a 75 and had just acquired a red one from a Volvo dealer. But, it was an automatic. A few questions later and I told Jim I was certainly interested and that I didn't really even need to take it for a test drive to be sure, provide the price was suitable (it was the very same car I had drive a few weeks earlier). A couple of days later and the 75 was in our garage.

The parting with the 33 was not easy. A family car gets filled with all sorts of memories and history, and the little Alfa had been a fine vehicle. The car dealer was amazed that the car was in better condition that when he'd sold it to us! Not surprisingly, the 33 didn't last long on the dealer's lot. The new owner of the 33 actually approached our mechanic for a pre-purchase inspection - Angelo told her exactly what a great car she was getting! For weeks after we sold the 33, friends (mostly non-Alfistis) were coming up to us and telling us they would have made an offer for the 33 if they'd known we were that serious about getting rid of it.

As with any belt-driven OHC engine, the first order of business with the 75 was to have all the belts replaced; cheap insurance when you consider the cost of a V6 engine rebuild. Even if I had a sworn affidavit from the previous owner that the cam belts had been changed the day before, I think I'd still get them redone! At the same time, the car was given a full service with all the fluids, filters and plugs replaced. The previous owner had maintained the car well, so there was little else to do, apart from the inevitable electronic faultfinding.

Like the 33s and 90s, the Alfa 75 is fitted with a computer controlled diagnostic display in the dash. This device is hooked up to an array of sensors located in strategic places - front brake pads, radiator overflow tank, brake light circuits, etc. The purpose is to provide a comprehensive status of all the important bits and pieces. For a variety of reasons, most owner of cars fitted with this display end up with a very pretty, but quite distracting, Christmas-tree effect. Sometimes they cope with this by taping a rectangle of cardboard over the display, however, I prefer to try and actually sort the problems. Some are easy to find and fix yourself; replacing blown bulbs, checking the ground connections around the rear light clusters, and even removing the centre console to clean and lubricate the handbrake sensor switch. Some may require the services of your Alfa auto electrician, such as replacing the brake peddle switch (with a Fiat part!) or bypassing the oil-level sensor (unless you want to spring for the expense of a new one).

While our 75 was at the auto electrician, we also took the opportunity to install an immobiliser. I must admit, this was as much for the convenience of having the central locking extended to keyless entry as any theft deterrent effect.

A 75 owner probably learns to keep a reasonable supply on hand of the small 12 volt bulbs used in most of the internal switches, courtesy lights, spot lights, map lights and sundry other illuminated accessories. The bulbs in some of the switches (such as the rocker switches for the electric windows) appear not to replaceable, but the switch can actually be disassembled and a suitable replacement bulb (sourced from Jaycar or Dick Smith) soldered in place. All the effort is worthwhile, as at night the interior of a 75 looks like the cockpit of the space shuttle!

The factory stereo fitted to the 75 was an improvement on the one in the 33, but had an annoying ground hum. I spent a fruitless hour under the dash testing and checking before I did the obvious and removed the front left door trim. It turned out to simply be the speaker wire trapped between the door trim and the metalwork - the raw edge of the metal had sliced through the wire insulation. A bit of tape and all was well. While I was working on the car in the driveway, with the doors open and the door trims off, a neighbour from across the road wandered over for a chat. It turned out he ran a business known as The Vinyl Doctor and before I knew it, he had whipped out his repair kit and fixed a number of gouges and holes in the plastic door trims.

The rest of the interior was in excellent condition, except for the headlining, which was sagging badly over the rear seats. This seems to be a reasonably common fault with 75s, but as the rest of the interior seems to wear quite well, it's bearable, I guess. A day at the auto trimmer, and $300 dollars later, everything was trim, taut and terrific.

With all these little things sorted, our 75 settled nicely into its role as a daily driver along the Bruce Highway to and from Caboolture. Our junior Alfisti, Rowan, decided that the 75 needed a name and, as he liked to call the Alfa 33 "Felix", it seemed only logical the the 75 be known as "Big Felix". The extra rear-seat room was welcomed, especially when Grandma came along on weekend drives. The convenience of the hatchback was missed, but the boot of the 75 was able to swallow huge quantities of luggage and had no trouble handling all the Club Shop merchandise.

The big Alfa proved to be very reliable. The only mechanical weaknesses to rear their head were the hydraulic cam-belt tensioner and a leaky seal between the torque converter and the transaxle to leak, allowing automatic fluid to seep into the differential. Peculiar to Alfa 75 V6 Automatic models was the self-leveling rear suspension that operated off the power steering pump. While admirable in theory, most autos seem to have been retrofitted by their owners with a more conventional setup over time - no doubt once the cost of replacement original parts was discovered. Alfa 75 and 90 power steering racks should be watched as well, according to articles posted on the Internet.

I eventually learnt to accept - even enjoy - the self-shifter. Although the ample torque offered by the V6 meant the transmission was happy to spend most of it's life ambling along in top gear (even up the Maleny ranges), a firm kick down would unleash considerable acceleration and very satisfying Alfa sonics from the exhaust. Fuel economy for the small six did not seem to suffer too much from the auto - in fact it was not much worse than the 1.5 litre 33! The V6 was beautifully smooth, although on the open road, I noticed a harmonic hum from the driveshaft when passing through 90kph; I suspected that the driveshaft had not been balanced correctly when the donuts had been replaced previously, a problem common to transaxle Alfas worked upon by mechanics unaware of the quirky way the shafts were balanced in the factory.

Handling was excellent on a set of Pirellis, and the car cornered flatly - the most immediate noticeable difference to the 33. The 75, probably like most of the transaxle Alfas with near 50/50 weight distribution, gives the impression of being able to go around any corner at any speed. I'm told that when they let go, they really let go, but I don't push any car that hard on public roads. The V6 engine probably places a bit more weight forward than the two-litre version, but the extra power on tap to accelerate out of corners more than compensates. In short, the 75 was an absolute joy and I looked forward to many years of motoring happiness.

This could have very well been the end of the story, but life is always full of twists and turns. A couple of years later, and the 75 was no longer parked in the garage (although it remains owned by an Alfa lover) and Rowan and I were searching for another Alfa. Now, if you ask an eight-year-old what car his dad should buy and he suggests a Spider round-tail, you know you've got a lifelong Alfisti on your hands! However, with Spider prices dropping, this didn't seem like such an outrageous idea, so we checked out a few likely ones on offer. But, once again, fate intervened.

Skimming through the car advertisements in the newspaper one Saturday morning, I noticed a listing for a 1989 Alfa 75. The low price looked like a misprint, but I thought it was worth a phone call. The car dealer confirmed that the price was correct, so I made an appointment to drop by and check it out, fully expecting to find a car only suitable for spare parts. When I arrived, what confronted me was the twin of "Big Felix", the only difference being the lack of a sunroof and a lot more k's on the clock. The car dealers - a couple of young brothers starting out in the wholesale trade - were keen to sell the car and had priced it accordingly. They handed me the keys and I returned an hour later with a huge grin on my face and handed them a deposit cheque. An inspection by Angelo at APF Motors confirmed my initial feelings and the deal was sealed, subject to a few minor items to be fixed. The only real question mark was regarding the steering rack, but it was cleaned up and passed the Safety Certificate, although I fully expect to be up for a proper rebuild in six months or so.

The similarities between this 75 and the first are amazing. The two cars had originally been sold by Albion Car Centre in the same month - they probably would have been sitting together on the show room floor. Apart from the hood lining, which remained in good condition, the list of minor repairs needed on the new 75 was almost a carbon copy of the first car. When we turned up at the next Club event - the Christmas party - most Club members in fact thought it was the old car.

Having now had two 75s, It's hard to think of ever owning anything else as a regular car. Sure it would be terrific to also have a Spider or a Giulia Super for special occasions, but the 75 is an excellent blend of late 1970s sportscar with all the modern conveniences that make urban driving comfortable. The new 156, 166 and 147 may be impressive cars, but I'm content owning the last of the real Alfas!

| Alfa in the Family 1: The Sud | Alfa in the Family 2: The 33 |