Niels van Roij

Revisiting the Iconic Alfa Romeo 156 Design

The Alfa Romeo 156 is a favorite amongst designers, and also arguably the greatest design ever conceived by former VW Group head of design Walter de’Silva (he was head of Alfa Romeo at the time). Niels van Roij takes a closer look.

The Alfa Romeo 156 was launched, together with the Golf Mk4, in 1996. Designed by Walter de’Silva, head of Alfa Romeo’s Centro Stile from 1986 to 1999, the 156 is a great piece of design – both conceptually and aesthetically. It is the true embodiment of the Italian brand’s DNA, translated into sculpture. And what a sculpture it is!

During his time as Alfa Romeo’s design chief, de’Silva led the renewal of the brand’s design language and repositioning. The innovative 156 (aka Tipo 932) was the icing on the proverbial cake. Inspired by iconic Alfa Romeo models — the 1900, Giulietta and Giulia — the 156 design was fresh, visually light, sporty, advanced and, most of all, modern; a perfect reflection of the brand’s engineering at the time.

Far from being a retrospective piece of design, the 156’s simple and precise aesthetic couldn’t have been an easy achievement. Although it clearly respects and honors the brand’s rich heritage, it takes all cues into the future.

The 1998 European Car of the Year boasted many original design features: the complex but subtly sculpted body is instantly recognizable; its hidden rear door handle treatment was pioneering, complementing the coupe-like roofline; and its silhouette alluring.

Alfa Romeo 156
Alfa Romeo 156

Pre-2002 facelift models were always supplied with black mirrors – so they would visually merge into the DLO graphic. This is why I’ve chosen to leave them out altogether in this homage sketch (below).

But it was its truly unique face that made the Alfa Romeo 156 stand out the most. It features a unique frontal graphic, which had never been done in modern car design before: a deep Alfa Romeo grille — referred to sometimes as the Villa d’Este — with an offset number plate next to it.

This asymmetric DRG, a very daring but a relevant solution, helped emphasize the grille and the 156’s connection with Alfa Romeo models from the past. The front end is a rich sculpture featuring many different facets and volumes, while the headlights have an intelligent but non-aggressive focus.

Giorgetto Giugiaro’s 2003 facelifted model had a more aerodynamic front-end look, body colored mirrors and a reworked decklid and rear lamp design.

The 156 is not only the best modern Alfa Romeo in my book — current models do not come close conceptually and neither aesthetically, with their poor proportions and surfacing — this Alfa is arguably the best holistic design de’Silva ever made.

In all, 680,000 156s were built between 1997 and 2005. And if you can find a good one today you should probably get it. It’s without a doubt one of the more influential car designs.

Alfa Romeo 156 by Niels van Roij
Alfa Romeo 156 sketch by Niels van Roij

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