Evoluzione of the species

Its WTCC career may not have been glorious, but the Alfa 75 Evoluzione shines as an ‘ordinary’ road car. Not that there’s much ordinary about it…

Words Chris Chilton Photography Neil Fraser/Historics at Brooklands

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hen it comes to 1980s motorsport action, it’s easy to understand why those crazy Group B monsters got so much attention. They lived fast and died young; grotesque caricatures of the cars on our drives while we watched the racing on our goldfish bowl-screen, faux wood-sided TVs. But a rung down the FIA ladder in Group A, there was some seriously hot racing going on – and the cars really did look and feel not a million miles away from the one outside your semi.

Touring cars weren’t necessarily the fastest or most powerful racing machines, but they always seemed relevant and attainable, and the racing has always been nail-bitingly exciting. While Group N cars were close to standard, under FIA rules Group A allowed more scope for modification, without veering towards the insanity and expense of Group B. Every major country had its own national saloon championship, and a European Touring Car series had been going since 1963. But how much better could it be if a championship raced right across the globe?

In 1987 that dream became a reality, and then very quickly a nightmare, particularly for Alfa Romeo.

On paper, Alfa’s 75 Evoluzione had all the ingredients for success. A turbocharged engine offered huge tuning potential, its transaxle layout should have ensured the optimum handling balance, and Alfa had scored a stack of ETCC wins in the 1970s and early ’80s. So what happened, and what does it feel like to drive the road car that made the racer possible? To find out, let’s climb aboard one of the 500 Evoluzione road cars built to homologate the racer.

Everybody’s heard of the BMW M3 Evo and Mercedes 190E 2.5-16 Evo which, together with the Sierra Cosworth RS500, hogged the podium steps in the second half of the group A period. FIA rules allowed manufacturers to modify existing racing cars that had already been homologated, by building just 500 examples. But you may not have heard of the Alfa 75 Evoluzione. One thing’s for sure – now you’ve seen it, you’re not likely to forget it in a hurry.

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Alfa Romeo has produced some incredibly beautiful cars over the years, but the 75 is definitely not one of them. Designed by Ermanno Cressoni at Alfa’s Centro Stile, and launched in 1985, it bore a resemblance to Cressoni’s other creation, the smaller 33, unveiled two years earlier. But this one was much less easy on the eye.

It starts well at the front, that bluff nose promising some mighty lurking powerplant – which the V6 versions did deliver. But then there’s the line of the bootlid, which runs at a totally different angle to the waistline of the car, suggesting some catastrophic spot-weld malfunction somewhere at floor level. Viewed from the rear the whole thing looks heavy-handed, with way too much metalwork above the rear lights. Sift through a load of Google images and find a boggo 75 with unpainted bumpers and boring old steels and wheel trims, and you’ll have a hard time believing this isn’t some Soviet hound, instead of an Alfa.

But in the 75’s case, the beauty was all under the skin. Like the Giulietta before it, the 75 was rear-wheel drive – and would be Alfa Romeo’s last rear-drive saloon until the current Giulia appeared in 2016.

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Also like the Giulietta, instead of a traditional arrangement with the engine and gearbox mounted at the front, the 75 used a transaxle, with the transmission mounted at the rear to balance the mass end-to-end. The gearbox was mounted to the body with inboard brake discs to keep the unsprung weight low, and a de Dion tube slung underneath to link the wheels at either side. Think live rear axle without the weight penalty.

All of which was totally wasted on the weedy 109bhp entry-level 1.6 at launch in 1985, and the 118bhp 1.8 and 126bhp 2.0 weren’t exactly rocketships either. No, the 2.5 V6 seemed like the only 75 really capable of getting your pulse racing. Or it did until 1986, when Alfa’s engineers knelt down in front of their engine stands and blew the 1.8.

The 75 Turbo’s 153bhp meant it came up one solitary pony short of the V6, and it trounced it for torque. While the V6 made a respectable 152lb-ft at 3200rpm, the Turbo summoned 167lb-ft and delivered it 600rpm sooner. And that was fresh from the showroom. Turbo technology meant the tuning possibilities were huge. The 75 Turbo looked like the ideal base for a Touring Car winner.

It had plenty to live up to. The old Alfetta-based GTV coupé had won every European Touring Car Championship since Group A was introduced in 1982 up until 1985. But to Alfa’s horror, the 75 V6 was a flop the next year, leaving it 10th out of 10 manufacturers at the close of the ’86 ETCC season. And with ’87’s much-hyped World Touring Car Championship on the horizon, Alfa had to do something to save face.

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The 75 Turbo Evoluzione is what it came up with. Like other manufacturers including Ford, Volvo and BMW, Alfa took advantage of those FIA rules that allowed car makers to race modified versions of their already homologated cars, provided 500 street versions of the uprated machine were built. Some, like the Sierra RS500, were hard to spot at a glance. But there was no mistaking the menace of the 75 Turbo Evoluzione.

Picture it coming at you head-on, where you can’t read the giant 75 Turbo Evoluzione tag plastered along the bottom of the doors. You’d clock the deep front spoiler, gaping air intakes where you’d expect a pair of fog lights, and jutting front splitter, and know it was something special. Then there are the fat arch spats that follow all the way down to the nose, connected by a chunky pair of sill extensions; modifications you just know are there to help cover some colossal rubber in the racing variant.

Trouble is, in the road car, there’s no colossal racing rubber to fill those arches. Despite the wheel diameter growing from 14 to 15in, the ugly cast alloy rims look absolutely lost in the wheel housings, their colour-coding reinforcing the suggestion the car rides on four space-saver spares. Is this really a credible rival to the M3 and Cosworth? Better get to grips with the U-shaped handbrake and find out.

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That weird handbrake is just one of many 75 quirks. Others include square exterior door handles, square cigarette lighter, electric window switches on the roof above the rear view mirror, and a radio mounted so low you could only change the cassette if the car was in second or fourth gear. Befitting its serious Evo intentions, however, this 75 has no sound system. What this one does have is a nice Momo wheel (colour excepted) in place of the boring original, which was the same as a stock 75 Turbo’s. The square-jawed dashboard is as artless as the exterior, although the gauge pack is pleasingly comprehensive, showing a rev counter redlined at 6500rpm, a 260kmh (162mph) speedo, and minor clocks covering fuel, water, oil and turbo boost information.

The boost gauge is calibrated to an optimistic 2.5 bar, presumably in case you wanted to join the Midnight Club and tune it up to chase 1000bhp Skylines, because the road car never got near those heady heights. That said, this was no standard 75 Turbo motor. To level the field, the power rating of turbos was subjected to a multiplication factor of 1.4 in Group A, so the cylinder bores were reduced to lower the 1.8’s capacity from 1779 to 1762cc and slip the car into the under-2.5-litre class. The block and bottom end was stronger, and the turbo and head modified, enabling it to deliver 276bhp in racing trim. Yet Alfa claimed the same 153bhp for the road car as it did for the standard 75 Turbo.

Owners who have subjected their cars to dyno runs have reputedly seen far more, and if you whip the engine into a frenzy, the mix of turbo whoosh and exhaust beat concurs. This one seems to be pinking in the heat of the midday sun, but spins well enough, even if your gut accelerometer tells you the actual rate of acceleration is only moderately rapid. Zero to 62mph was dealt with in 7.5sec, around 0.5sec off the pace of even a basic non-Evo M3, and the party was all over by 133mph. Never mind the BMW, in plain speed terms a Golf GTI 16v was very nearly as quick.

But line up some corners, and the 75e’s fightback begins – the car is as animated as an Italian in an argument at a coffee bar. There’s proper life in the steering, which fizzes with feedback in response to changes in surface, and a pleasing lack of body roll. It feels eager, willing to change direction at the sniff of a steering input. It works better when it’s being flogged: at normal speeds the ride is stiff and there’s old-school turbo lag to contend with. But keep the fire stoked and it comes together, delivering enough pace to let you enjoy the relatively exotic drivetrain layout.

Through brisk corners you can see why Alfa stuck with the transaxle layout, which helps with handling balance, as well as traction. All that weight over the rear wheels, combined with the modest power output, means you can put every horse to the ground. Even the gearchange, with its H-pattern rather than the M3’s dogleg, is much less obstinate than I’d heard. Only the brakes, limited in size by those modest wheels, and the looming spectre of Alfa unreliability, threaten to spoil your fun.

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The Modern Classics view

It’s an exciting, raw and rare machine, one that feels less polished than its German rivals, but is more interesting to drive as a result. With prices of all other Group A Evo cars going through the roof, the 75 Evoluzione is probably the last one attainable by normal-sized wallets. This car sold for £21,000 at a Brooklands Historics auction, less than a fifth of what you’d pay for an M3 Sport Evo.

If you can get past the questionable looks and the knowledge that all that effort was in vain on the race track, the Evoluzione is a properly appealing car. Feisty, affordable, and just a little bit different, it’s a fascinating character from one of Touring Cars’ strangest seasons.