Alfa 156 GTA
What was going to be a few day's worth of upgrades became a full restoration for a press-fleet 156 GTA. And that was just the starts...
Words Nigel Boothman Photography Laurens Parsons
When the Alfa Romeo 156 arrived in 1997 it charmed us with its exciting interior, hidden rear door handles and range of peppy engines. As well as three variable-timing Twin Sparks, there were two diesels and the old faithful V6, transformed into something modern by an extra pair of camshafts and 24 valves.
With 187bhp in quite a small car – a V6-engined 156 weighed the same as a four-pot Saab 9-3 and was eight inches shorter – we thought we were spoiled. The Twin Spark-equipped cars were widely praised for neutral handling and raspy, exciting progress past 4500rpm. A European Car of the Year award duly arrived for it in 1998. But then rumours began to brew of a serious, performance-focused version.
We got to see the 156 GTA at the Frankfurt motor show in 2001 and its specification included a 3.2-litre, 247bhp engine, a six-speed box, lower suspension and Brembo brakes. Over in the UK two press-fleet 156 GTAs did the rounds, with RE02 EKP appearing on Channel 5's Fifth Gear and elsewhere on TV. Wind forward 14 years and the car is in private hands, but getting rusty, tatty and tired. Enter the UK’s main GTA specialist, Autolusso, for a quick makeover. Or so the firm thought.
How they did it Ned Kirkham runs Autolusso, the Dunstable, Bedfordshire-based Alfa Romeo importer at the forefront of developing and maintaining the UK’s 147 and 156 GTAs. ‘A customer of mine owned this car and I eventually bought it from him in 2015,’ says Ned. ‘At the time I had a GTA Sportwagon with some special bits I’d fitted over the years – one of our larger 3.8-litre V6s, Eibach Pro-street S suspension and anti-roll bars, a Quaife ATB differential and so on. The idea was to upgrade RE02 EKP with parts from this car and smarten it up at the same time.’
So the stripdown began. The more that came off, the more they found that needed doing – even removing bits of body kit such as the sideskirts pulled the paint off. Repairs to both floors and sills were necessary. ‘You can’t buy the floors, but you can get them for the GT, which is very similar, and then make them fit,’ says Ned. No exterior repair panels are available for the 156 either. And the wheelarch liner moves around, rubbing the paint off the inside of the front wing and allowing corrosion to get started. Repair sections have to be custom-made.
When the welder put his torch down, Ned handed the body shell over to Autolusso’s bodyshop. Nearly everything mechanical would have needed either renewing or refinishing with a powder coat, new bushes, seals, ball joints and so on. It’s a process that Autolusso has refined to an extraordinary two-week restoration that can return any GTA to rustproofed, mechanically new condition, including a rebuilt off-the-shelf engine to any specification. In this case, though, there were some special bits waiting to take the place of the old, worn-out ones.
‘We fitted the engine, the standard six-speed gearbox and the Quaife diff from the black Sportwagon at the beginning of 2016,’ says Ned. ‘We transferred the Eibach suspension over and swapped the original 305mm brakes for the 330mm versions with Brembo calipers.’ The brake upgrade is a popular one, and the change from the standard differential to either Alfa's Q2 self-locking unit from the GT or the Quaife ATB is more or less a must-have. The standard diff not only allows pronounced understeer, it also tends to break under hard use.
Almost as soon as the car was road-ready, it became a development mule, with new items installed and checked out on RE02 before Autolusso was happy to offer them to customers. A fat 50mm aluminium radiator replaced the standard 25mm item and a clever confection of exhaust system extracted more performance. The CF2 downpipes were those from the earlier 156 V6 without the catalytic converters sited in the manifolds. They flow better, so with custom pipes from Wizard to fit the CF2’s two-bolt flange, another custom bit to house the cats necessary for an MoT pass, and finally Wizard rear silencers, Ned got his ideal mixture of sound and fury.
The biggest change since then has been a further engine upgrade to a tuned version of the 3.8 plus a six-speed sequential Quaife gearbox. So, what’s the difference with this new engine? ‘In terms of performance spec, it’s got gas-flowed heads, high-lift camshafts, an EG Motorsport carbon clutch and a fairly mappable Bosch
ME7 3.1 ECU,’ says Ned.
Autolusso used to create the 3.8 by fitting larger liners into the cylinder block with a seal on the bottom, but now it's having them dropped in while frozen, with the block heated to 250ºC. The resulting interference fit is tight enough to allow machining to perfectly perpendicular dimensions, reducing imbalance and friction. The cylinder heads themselves are very different from standard, with waterways welded up and re-drilled to change the way coolant flows, allowing larger cylinder bores.
It’s resulted in a peak figure of 356bhp at the wheels, and is the perfect excuse to go for the new sequential box Ned has co-developed with Quaife. It shares the standard bellhousing and uses a gear lever rather than paddle-shift.
‘I love its history as a press car but it’s developing the GTA ever further that excites me more,' says Ned.
Is it good to drive?
Of course it's good to drive. It's not just a fine 156 superbly restored by Autolusso, but this one allows you to mainline on all the best bits of the GTA, and not put up with the compromises many Alfa owners are familiar with.
The first thing that hits you is the noise. Flick it into life from cold and it treats you to the sort of delicate huskiness that will lull you into a false sense of security. The V6 still growls like an angry Alsatian the instant you ask it for some straight-line shove, but in Autolusso's car it sounds fitter, healthier and more aggressive than ever. The power delivery builds up steadily once you're beyond 2500rpm, but briefly resist the urge to go for another gearchange and it'll serenade you with the full Pavarotti-does-Italia-'90 experience. If the glorious engine had vocal chords they'd practically be bursting at the sustained notes they're bellowing out, because it really does bombard your eardrums into submission as you’re lunged forward on a wave of torque, followed by an avalanche of power.
The GTA revels in its ability to deliver spine-tingling sounds at every opportunity, whether you're pulling away from a set of lights or making this most of this one's uprated suspension and anti-roll bars on a track day. Only this car has been digitally remastered and served up with surround sound, because the modifications of Autolusso’s superbly restored press car make its notes even sweeter.
The change that really dominates the experience is the six-speed Quaife sequential gearbox, which offers up its distant whine as backing vocals until it's being drowned out by the howl of the 3.8-litre V6. The stubby gear lever normally used to operate the standard six-speed manual has been replaced by a slender protrusion of a shifter that looks more like the joystick from an early 1980s arcade game machine, finished off in gruesome shades of blue and white. Its partner in crime is a Quaife-branded ratio readout, which is neatly integrated into where the 156’s on-board computer display used to live. It treats you to some Atari-like LCD graphics to let you know precisely which gear you're in, flickering '2', '3' and '4' in razor-edged fonts as you click your way your through the ratios. Pretty it isn’t, but boy is it effective. You wouldn't think stirring the standard GTA's shifter in the split-second search for the next gear is a time-consuming process, but with this system the cog's engaged and whirring away the instant you think about it. Tap the lever back or forth and there's a reassuring clunk, before it settles back into its distant whine and lets the V6 carry on doing its thing. No carefully executed shifts, no mucking about.
It’s only a pain when shunting back and forth during tight parking manouveres – because you have to move through neutral to find reverse and neutral, you shift twice as much as you’d otherwise do – but stick with it, because the payoff is sensationally quick changes. Dip the clutch and there’s a gentle, rifle-like clunk. Done. The cog you wanted is already doing its job, and your grey matter hasn’t had a chance to catch up. Flick it back towards you to change up, on towards the aluminum centre console to drop a cog.
Compared with the rubbery, slightly long throw of the standard 156 GTA, this is a revelation. The sequential box and its associated limited-slip differential mean that you can enjoy all 356 horses more of the time. And, thanks to the suspension modifications, the underpinnings don’t feel out of their depth. Really plant it and you will feel the Michelin Pilot Sports up front scrabbling for grip as they attempt to translate the sudden rush of oomph into usable momentum. Most of the time the limited-slip diff and the inherent poise of this GTA’s suspension set-up – aided in this case by uprated Eibach anti-roll bars – do a superb job of keeping everything in check. Straight-line acceleration is still a mass of music, squeal and surge, but where the uprated set-up really makes a difference is traction emerging from of slow corners. Poke the 156's snout into a tight corner and there's a touch of body roll as the suspension responds to your asphalt attack command. Unless you really push it, the GTA resists the urge to understeer, taking a firm but neutral line mid-bend that doesn't throw any nasty dynamic surprises your way, and while the experience isn't an Elise-style extended lecture on communicative steering it sends more than enough in the way of memos to your fingertips about what the Michelin Pilot Sports are up to. The inside front just digs in and grips – it's wonderful, and turns the GTA into a hairpin-gobbling missile.
There's a mass of feedback though every sensory extremity - you can almost feel your eardrums twitching as they excitedly follow every facet of the V6's rumbles and bellows. Your fingertips instantly pick up the confident click of the sequential gear shifter as it kicks another cog into action, and the smooth stream of feedback through the steering wheel as you press on through fast, sweeping corners. It's on this that the success of the Autolusso package of suspension upgrades should be judged.
The car lets you know what the asphalt’s up to beneath you, but never feels uncomfortably stiff on longer slogs. Given the standard GTA's not exactly blessed with fingertip poise, it's is a real result. It’s a similar story with the steering, which suffers poor lock and means you'll be sliding the wheel through your fingertips repeatedly if you're trying to get out of a tight car park.
Thankfully Autolusso hasn’t altered the GTA’s molten good looks – the 18in Teledial alloys, the red brake calipers behind them (save for a subtle Autolusso script) and the delicately flared sills, but you only have to look at the even shimmer of the paint to know the cosmetics have been given as much as love as the hardware beneath. Autolusso has got the balance spot-on with this 156 – it’s capable of delivering a deadlier blow than ever before, but it hasn’t lost any of the GTA’s original sparkle. It's been honed into a BMW M3-rivalling thoroughbred – and we love it for that.
Alfa Romeo 156 GTA (standard)
Torque 221lb ft@4800rpm
Performance Top speed: 150mph, 0-60mph: 6.5sec
Fuel consumption 21-30mpg
Transmission FWD, six-speed manual
What to pay Concours £14,000 Good £10,000
Usable £8000 Project £4000