Amid the on-again, off-again speculation of the return of Alfa Romeo to the U.S. market through the auspices of General Motors, it might be fun to look back at one of the Italian company's tragically flawed but very charismatic cars from the 1980s. The Alfa Romeo GTV6 came to North America in 1981 and only stayed around until 1986. It was a derivation of the original Alfa Romeo Alfetta Coupe from 1975, designed by Giugiaro and powered by Alfa's familiar twin-cam, four-cylinder engine. The Alfetta was a pleasant enough car with excellent handling, but the GTV6, with its 155-bhp 2.5-liter V6 gave Alfa's coupe real authority. It had power, performance and sparkling handling, thanks to its rear-wheel-drive layout, rear transaxle and sophisticated de Dion rear suspension system. But as we shall see, this sophistication ultimately led to the car's downfall.
The engineAlfas have always been about engines. The V6 engine Alfa Romeo introduced in 1981 was the company's first engine with pushrods since 1926. The engine was actually designed in 1971, but a lack of funds prevented its production for almost a decade. It was a short-stroke, 60-degree V6 with steel cylinder liners in an aluminum block. Each of the two cylinder heads had its own overhead camshaft, turned by a toothed belt, that acted directly upon the intake valves. The exhaust valves were opened by short transverse pushrods operating from the same overhead cams. The design was compact and effective and still allowed Alfa to use a hemispherically-shaped combustion chamber for maximum efficiency. With a 9.0:1 compression ratio, the engine developed 155 bhp at 5600 rpm and 157 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm on regular unleaded fuel.
The transaxleTo obtain an even 50/50 front-to-rear weight distribution, Alfa built the transmission and rear axle into a transaxle at the rear. This was similar to the design also used by Porsche in its 944 models. The five-speed transaxle received power through a long driveshaft that went from the engine crankshaft to the clutch and flywheel, which was located with the transaxle at the rear. This layout makes clutch changes fairly easy (no need to pull the engine) but had its own disadvantages. The driveshaft has three rubber donuts (also called "guibo" joints) that help absorb the engine's vibrations as power is transmitted from the front of the car to the rear. These donut joints are the GTV6's Achilles heel. First of all, although they aren't terribly expensive (around $100 each), they only last around 50,000 miles, so likely any car you will find today will soon need them replaced. Although the job of replacing them isn't difficult, it is labor intensive, so you'll either spend a long time or a fair amount of money doing it. Last, the driveshaft is sensitive to imbalance and even with new donut joints, it may take several attempts or even professional help from a driveshaft shop to get the car to run smoothly. The transmission and final drive of the GTV6 is reasonably strong. The final drive changed during production, starting at 4.1 in 1981, becoming 25% taller for 1982 and 1983, and then reverting back again from 1984 onward. The taller ratio gives more relaxed cruising and better fuel economy at the price of reduced acceleration. A limited-slip differential was never offered on the GTV6.
Suspension and brakesAlfas have a deserved reputation for outstanding handling, and the GTV6 upholds this tradition. At the front are double-wishbones with longitudinal torsion bar springs, tubular shock absorbers and an anti-roll bar. The rear suspension really shines, with a de Dion tube, Watts links, coil springs, tubular shocks and an anti-roll bar. The de Dion rear suspension is very effective at keeping the rear wheels upright, even when cornering hard over rough surfaces. The front disc brakes were ventilated, while the solid rear discs were mounted inboard, near the transaxle, to reduce unsprung mass for better handling and ride comfort. The suspension was about as good as it gets for a rear-drive performance coupe.
Finding one todayThe GTV6 left the U.S. market at the end of 1986 (only 671 were sold here that year) and stayed in production in Europe until 1989. The four-door Milano (model 75 in Europe) with the same Alfa V6 engine appeared in 1987, but it was replaced by the front-wheel-drive Alfa Romeo 164 in 1990. Alfa Romeo quietly left the U.S. market in 1995, with dismal sales and a history of marginal reliability and service. Despite their orphan status, all Alfa Romeos, including the GTV6, are well served by active owner clubs around the country and by a strong aftermarket parts supply network. Finding an experienced mechanic to work on your Alfa might be a bigger challenge, but by joining an Alfa Romeo club you can get the inside information about who knows what they are doing. Finding an Alfa GTV6 can be as easy as answering an ad in the local paper or placing a bid on an online auction. The cars aren't scarce and you should take your time looking for a good one. Later cars had better rust-proofing (always a concern with any Italian car), better air conditioning and a better shift linkage. Early cars had leather interiors, but this was made an option in 1984. Models from 1985 had metric wheels with Michelin TRX tires, which can be difficult to replace today. The good news is you can change wheels to those from another year or fit aftermarket wheels-but at a significant cost. The V6 engines are said to be robust, although head gasket failures are not unknown. The cylinder heads are not terribly expensive to rebuild, but reportedly a bottom end rebuild can quickly surpass the value of the whole car. And then there's that driveshaft. A history of recent driveshaft and donut joint renovation would have to be a big selling point.
Why would you want one?Although most people probably think of Spider convertibles and The Graduate when they think of Alfa Romeo, the coupes produced by the company have a performance edge and Italian character all their own. With zero-to-60-mph acceleration in the 8- to 9-second range, a top speed of more than 130 mph and stellar handling, the Alfa Romeo GTV6 is a compelling choice. Add in the easy acceptance by other Alfa owners and plenty of shows, track days and national owner events and the GTV6 could be a good way to become involved with other Alfa enthusiasts and to have fun on a race track in a car really worth driving. Sure, the driveshaft needs periodic attention, but once it's been set up properly you probably won't need to worry much about it, unless you plan on using your Alfa as a daily driver. Pricing, as you might imagine, is all over the map and depends upon condition. A really good 1986 GTV6 could go for $2,500 to more than $5,000, while earlier cars go for less. If you can't afford a Ferrari, want something with distinctive Italian character like the folded-paper Origami-style made famous by Giugiaro and want a car that is as much fun on the track as it is on the street, the Alfa Romeo GTV6 might be the one you're seeking.