Alfa Romeo’s back catalogue is peppered with cars that were nearly amazing, but ultimately weren’t quite there. This is the story of one such animal; an ill-fated unicorn that Alfa enthusiasts desperately wanted to become a world-beater.
The 75 was a vitally important car built to rival the BMW 3 Series. The E30 had emerged in 1982, and, wanting to give it a kicking for being so frustratingly good, the Italians conspired to outgun it with a wedge-shaped, passionately-designed compact executive four-door of its own, complete with near-perfect front-rear weight distribution. At its 1985 launch its engines and handling stood comparisons with BMW’s, and all seemed pretty rosy.
Commercial success buoyed the newly Fiat-acquired Alfa’s confidence in the car. It was churning them out an an average rate of almost 80,000 units per year for the 75’s first three trips around the sun. The decision was quickly taken to punt it into competition; a decision that came to fruition with the 75 Turbo Evoluzione in 1987.
The World Touring Car Championship (WTCC) was a brand new, shiny and untested series for 1987. It had a ‘balance of performance’ rule-set that allowed turbocharged cars to mix it with 3.0-litre naturally-aspirated rivals, but this gave Alfa an immediate problem. Using the FIA’s allotted multiplication factor of 1.7, they could only use a capacity of 1762cc without stepping over the 3.0-litre limit. The 1986 75 Turbo’s motor measured 1779cc.
Undeterred, Alfa reduced the cylinder bore by 0.4mm to achieve the target 1762cc and provide thicker cylinder walls that effectively made the block stronger. That, in turn, made it easier to tune. Just 500 75 Turbo Evoluziones were built to homologate the racing version for Group A touring car rules, all in red, with 15-inch wheels, ultra-stiff suspension, more supportive seats, a thicker rear anti-roll bar and stronger bearings, cylinder head and turbo.
Alfa’s official documents made out that it produced no more power than the standard 1.8 Turbo, whatever the upgrades list implied. Therein lay a second problem. The 1986 BMW M3 had already whipped 190bhp out of its zipper and still blew the Evoluzione’s arthritic 153bhp out of the water a year later. The 1987 ‘Evo 1’ revisions added track-focused chassis mods, too.
This lack of power stung the flagship 75 as soon as it hit the track. Even in race spec the left-hand drive car just couldn’t compete and it was made to look a bit silly by the M3, the Ford Sierra Cosworth and others. One of its teams is said to have dyno-tested it and found 200bhp – which was an embarrassing 120bhp less than it should have had.
Constant tuning discovered the exhaust system routing was ridiculously restrictive around the left-hand drive car’s steering column. Switching the whole assembly to the right left space for a much more efficient manifold and pipework. Thanks to months of additional tweaking by privateer racers throughout the season, eventually the 75 saw a top-five result – in its last race.
It was already too late. Alfa had thrown Teddy out of the pram and withdrawn its works team by the end of the European rounds, and there would be no second chance for a reworked 75. The FIA and a certain Bernie Ecclestone feared the surprising success of the WTCC series; feared it would take revenue away from their prized F1, and effectively canned it by mandating rule-changes so extreme that no one would ever have agreed to them. It was all over after a single season.
The 75 Evoluzione endured just one season in production, too. Spring 1987 saw all 500 leave the production line in Milan, and while the wider 75 range soldiered on until 1992, the fact that it was killed off two years before the E30 3 Series, which had been launched three years before the 75, told its own story.
In later years a lowlier 75 enjoyed a moment back in the sun as Jeremy Clarkson’s choice in the excellent £1000 Alfa Romeo challenge back in the 2000s, but the Evoluzione, rare and exotic though it is, remains in the Italian brand’s sad old garage full of nearly-cars.