Guest contributor: Dara Gannon on his 1991 Alfa Romeo 164
I first came across the Alfa Romeo 164 while I was still in college. The first female president of Ireland had broken with tradition and refused a Mercedes-Benz as her official car. The presidential everyday ‘limo’ she chose was the Alfa Romeo 164 3.0L, back in 1990. I thought it a beautiful car, but as a student it was way beyond my financial capabilities.
In 2000, a friend of mine mentioned that a work colleague was selling his well-maintained Alfa 164 2.0L because he was going to buy a 3.0. I had at this stage a job and some cash in the bank, so I went to test drive it, loved it, and bought it.
This was my first real introduction to the prevailing myths of owning an Alfa, two of which are typical: that they are lots of fun to drive, but will break your heart to own. I can only confirm the former, because a 2.0L 164 is not only a joy to drive, but it’s also been an absolute pleasure to own: big, fast (particularly from a standing start), and with plenty of low-end torque that just propels you down the road.
Not only is it quick, it also sounds great. And with the 2.0L Twinspark engine it’s not too expensive to run or maintain, either— my car does around 5000 miles per year.
When I bought the 164, the previous owner not only took me for a spin in his 1998 3.0L 164 Super (which was a beautiful car, with many of the Super’s foibles), he also told me to keep polishing his car (a good sign I thought), and to keep going to his mechanic who had looked after the car— not only for him but also for the previous two owners!
I never regretted taking that advice— Gerry at TI Autos in Dublin has looked after me and the 164 with great care and attention. Not only that, I’ve also really enjoyed learning about a car and a marque which is now way off the mainstream. It’s a joy to visit his workshop and to see the other Alfas that have turned up for care and attention.
From being someone who hadn’t a breeze about Alfas, I am now probably one of the last people driving one regularly around Dublin and probably even Ireland. Apart from the community feel you get from owning the 164, when visiting mechanics or classic car events you feel like you’re a part of something. I don’t know if you get that with other cars or marques.
It’s funny sometimes, the reaction I get while driving around. Mainly people are interested in this unusual car. I often meet past owners, mainly elderly men (but not former president Mary Robinson— so far!). They usually touch the bonnet fondly and tell me it was the best car they had ever owned.
I even met an American lady in Dingle who came up to me in a petrol station to say she had owned one and to ask, had my air conditioner broken? I told her mine was a simple 2.0L— no air con, no problems. She, too, said ruefully that it had been her favorite car.
Not to call the 164 a classic car – it’s not for me to say – but with only 285,000 ever built and production ending in 1998, the numbers left on the road are limited. Also, being the last Alfa developed and launched before the Fiat takeover, and being the first big Alfa with front-wheel drive (yet still getting a galvanised chassis and vast panels) meant the bane of ‘classic’ Alfa’s rust wasn’t quite as big a problem.
The 164 had a long pre-production testing schedule as it had to succeed in order to save the brand from the foibles of past classics. It needed not only to compete with the BMW 5-series and similar big Mercs of the era, it also needed to deliver a better drive and comparable comfort for a cheaper price.
I’ve never driven a Merc or a 5-series, but I am on my second Alfa 164 2.0L— another 1991 veteran. I had been told parts weren’t about and that the frame behind the rear wheels was beginning to rust. With an NCT (Ireland’s compulsory vehicle inspection) due, it would most likely not pass.
I was gutted. It wasn’t worth spending big money to weld sections into the chassis, so I took the natural upgrade route and had a look at a 2004 Alfa 166 2.0L— 13 years newer and the successor to the 164.
Alfa Romeo 166
To say I was disappointed is an understatement— no oomph, no torque, no growl, no burble! It was far too ‘pleasant’. I rang Gerry and asked him if this was just a bad 166, and he replied no, it was just that I was spoiled by the 164!
In a desperate last ditch effort to save the 164, I went looking for parts on the Internet. Eventually, and much to my relief, I found a 164 in an enthusiast’s garden— same colour, same spec bar a sports chip in the engine management box and leather upholstery. And that’s how I came to own two Alfa Romeo 164s.
I love it. It’s great fun— a four-door, five-dearer I can throw around country roads or use to take three elderly relatives to a funeral five hours away. It performs both roles brilliantly.
2010 was the centenary of Alfa Romeo and over a hundred Alfas of all eras and models assembled at Mondello Park, mine being the only 164 in attendance. The highlight for me was leaving the race track in a convoy of six classic Alfas, including a 1930s 6C. That spin back to Dublin on a sunny day in the presence of classic cars and the pure fun of it will stay with me for a long time!
The cost of being able to keep the company of such classic cars at these events? My ‘new’ 1991 164 – which passed its NCT on the first try – cost me €700. Not bad for exclusivity and a bit of fun! I just wish chicks would dig it…
Words and images: Dara Gannon
166 image by the manufacturer.