Euro Sedans For The Brave: 1991 Alfa Romeo 164 vs 1980 Rover 3500

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Good morning, and welcome back! This week will have a giant turkey-sized hole in the middle of it, so we’ll only have three Showdowns, and then probably play track-daily-burn again on Friday, unless I come up with something better. We’re starting off this week with two cool rare sedans from the other side of the Atlantic. But first, there is the small matter of Friday’s results to consider:

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Yeah, I had a feeling that would be the case. If it weren’t for fifteen seasons of chasing down evil beasties, an old Chevy sedan like this would be a parts car. And it’s still not worth $7500; the show wasn’t that popular.

Today, we’re looking at a couple of sporty sedans, one from Italy and one from England, both with manual gearboxes and famous engines. Neither one is exactly known as a paragon of reliability, but both have the potential to make you the talk of any Cars & Coffee event you can manage to limp them to. Let’s take a look.

1991 Alfa Romeo 164L – $2,500

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Engine/drivetrain: 3.0 liter SOHC V6, 5 speed manual, FWD

Location: Laguna Beach, CA

Odometer reading: 173,000 miles

Runs/drives? “Ran excellent when parked 6 months ago”

Alfa’s last sedan sold in the US until the Giulia arrived a few years ago, the 164, had an interesting origin story. Its platform was a joint venture between Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Fiat, and, somehow, Saab. Two of them, the Saab 9000 and the Alfa 164, made it to America; the Lancia Thema and Fiat Croma were never sold here. Three of the cars look very similar, and share some sheetmetal, but since Alfa tapped legendary design house Pininfarina for styling, their variant looks radically different from the others.

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Alfa’s variant had another thing the others didn’t: their famous “Busso” overhead-cam V6, here turned sideways and driving the front wheels. Some enthusiasts might scoff at a front-wheel-drive Alfa, and I personally have never driven one so I can’t comment, but by all reports this car is one hundred percent Alfa Romeo. And at least it has a proper five-speed manual, like all Italian cars should.

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And if the idea of a dashboard full of buttons pushes your, um, buttons, you’re in luck; the 164 center stack is nothing but row upon row of identical gray squares, each with a tiny pictogram above it. This is life before touchscreens, and I’m not sure these ergonomics are any better, frankly, but I bet it’s a whole lot more satisfyingly clicky to use.

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This 164 is in good shape, especially for the mileage, and the seller says it ran perfectly before being put in storage a scant six months ago. That shouldn’t have been long enough to do much more than rust over the brake surfaces and make the gas go sour, so waking it up shouldn’t be a chore. You’ll want to do some maintenance like a timing belt change right away, of course, but that’s life with an Italian car.

1980 Rover SD1 3500 – $2,200

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Engine/drivetrain: 3.5 liter OHV V8, 5 speed manual, RWD

Location: Santa Barbara, CA

Odometer reading: unknown

Runs/drives? Runs, but needs a little work to be drivable

Not exotic enough for you? How about a rare US-market version of a British Leyland five-door fastback? The Rover SD1 was only available in the US for two model years, and they hardly sold any. The US version featured four round sealed-beam headlights in place of the smooth composite lights of the British and European versions, and only came with the top-of-the-line Buick-designed Rover V8, with Bosch fuel injection. It was badged simply as the “Rover 3500,” but any British car enthusiast worth their salt knows an SD1 when they see one.

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This Rover has been around the block and seen some things. It originally came with a sunroof, which probably leaked, and was deleted with a welded-in steel panel and a non-sunroof headliner many years ago. It also wears the hood and rear hatch of a different green car. The seller says there is a little more rust repair to do, but not much, and they’re including the panels.

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The 3500 cc (215 cubic inch) V8 in this car originally came from General Motors. It’s all-aluminum, developed by Buick and used in Buick and Oldsmobile cars between 1961 and 1963. Oldsmobile’s hottest version was turbocharged, and produced 215 horsepower – one horsepower per cubic inch, a respectable benchmark at the time. Rover purchased the tooling for the little V8 in 1965, and used it in everything for the next two decades. This 3500 runs well, and the seller was told it was rebuilt, but has no documentation to back it up.

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All the really hard stuff to find – interior trim and the like – appears to be intact, though I’d like to see what’s under that dash pad. The seller says the brakes are all new and ready to go, but the suspension and steering haven’t been touched and should be “gone through.”

Obviously, you’re not going to get the carefree motoring experience of a Toyota Camry, or even a Ford Contour, out of either one of these. But if you have the guts, and the know-how, either one could be one hell of a conversation-starter, even if some of those conversations are with tow truck drivers. And either one could be really rewarding to drive when it is running. Which one will it be?


(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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57 Responses

  1. The Rover engine was a little different from Buick when they started using it in the 60s, different material compounds, wet to dry liner (or other way around). It then saw a fair bit of development over the following four decades. A good engine should always be able to have a long life

  2. The Alfa is the most desirable, no doubt but “ran when parked” Really!?
    The Rover is probably the best that a failing BL ever made. Tidy handling, good brakes, nice styling.
    Will run badly longer than almost every other British car from this era.
    I want it

  3. I had a corgi SD1 police car as a kid, which was cool ’cause you’d never see the real thing in the US. I still haven’t, and this while this one pressed the nostalgia button pretty good, the Alfa is the obvious choice here.

    Having said that, restoring the SD1 to look like a giant Corgi would be fun!

  4. I can’t see the Rover without being reminded of the famous Top Gear British Leyland episode, so no thank you.

    The Alfa on the other hand is rolling sex on wheels and will break my heart…and my wallet.

    The only winning move is not to play.

  5. Considering my first car at 17 was exactly a black 164L (L for Lusso), manual, 3.0 Busso but with black interior, I’d say my choice is an easy one. An incredible car it was. A car with soul and character, along with its obvious Alfa quirks. Just lovely!

    I kept the car for a decade, but only drove it the first two years. I only left it (it was a relationship) because I ran out of places to store it / people to ask. But by then some punks had broken in and messed a bunch of stuff like wires and badges and the like. It was violated and it seemed like an insurmountable task to put it back in shape after that. But what a first car to have in 2003. In Canada of all places. I had only ever seen a handful of Alfas in the wild, 2-3 Spiders and a GTV6 for which I had an instacrush, so that’s how rare it was. Most people had no idea of the brand but that didn’t matter. I had it for myself and it was pretty damn sweet.

    As a competitor to the 525i/535i, it was impressively equipped: An entire ranch of leather, front and rear heated AND electric seats! In 91 ! The rear seats would incline and move forward, open the door and they came back in position.. everything electric worked on it incl. radio antenna on the trunk, sunroof, etc. Galvanized steel so it didn’t rust like its ancestors, Pininfarina badging on the fenders.. it had a lot going for it !

    Que Bella Machina Italiana..

    Been wanting to get another one since..

    1. I had a ’92 S myself, in the same black over tan leather as the car in the add (my seats were in better shape). Still ranks as one of the best cars I ever owned. Quick, comfortable, sounded amazing, was great to drive and good in the snow, and was actually quite reliable (the timing belt interval was a bit abusive, but at least it wasn’t a difficult job) I bought it with just under 100k miles and we parted ways when it had almost 430k miles. Irreconcilable rear subframe rust ended our nearly-10-year relationship, but it was a very good run. I would buy another if I could find a good one for a price that worked.

  6. I love SD1s – we had two in succession when I was growing up. Neither ever broke down but parts would fall off from time to time. They were forgiven every indisrection because my father loved them so much. We were lucky enough to have an S-Class Mercedes at the same time and that was just treated as a white good rather than as a member of the family. My father always preferred the Merc if he was trying to get somewhere fast or if it was mountainous (cruising at autobahn speeds, decent brakes and ABS) and the Rover if time wasn’t a factor (cruising at motorway speeds, V8 torque, comfortable seats – and awful brakes). But the US headlights on this one are hideous and that dash toupée is so full-on it must be hiding an irreplaceable monstrosity. And despite the V8 having lots of tuning options from the U.K., it’s up against that Alfa six… I’m torn.

  7. “Either one could be one hell of a conversation-starter, even if some of those conversations are with tow truck drivers”
    -This is one of the funniest things I’ve heard in a while!

    “Toyota Camry, or even a Ford Contour”
    -Wow, big difference there…

    I chose Alfa, that Rover just looks sad (do like the V8 though). From the side it looks like my old 87 Honda Accord w/ the rims, trim, etc

  8. If I’m being rational, definitely the Alfa. Which might be the weirdest sentence ever in the English language.

    My idiot inner child wants the SD1, however. It’s not a rational choice. Or a good one. But I can’t look at these rationally. The Alfa is all about the Busso V6 and the legendary pedigree and how every auto enthusiast is supposed to own one at some point. My desire for the Rover isn’t really a thing you can verbalize. It’s more like a low growl in the back of the throat. Something primal. Even in this condition with the horrible headlamp treatment and big bumpers it speaks to me. And for $2200 I could OWN this. All the pain. The occasional pleasure. The crippling bills (Hey, a big bonus from work. New kitchen counters would be nice! What’s that, Rover? A new wiring loom? sigh…)

    Honestly, it’s times like this I’m glad I have a one-car garage that my ’95 Miata has laid indisputable claim to, or I’d be sorely tempted. Gotta go with the SD1 here…

  9. I want both, based on model only the Rover slightly more, it seems both more pedestrian in specification while still more rare and exotic (at least over here) than the Alfa at the same time. Based on condition hard to say, the Alfa looks better on first blush, but the Rover interior looks better, and exterior fix it stuff is pretty universal, metal, filler and paint, while interior stuff can be harder to source.

    Anyway, wouldn’t mind either, but gut says the Rover, would love to stir the gears with the torquey V8.

    I do remember seeing one or two around town when they were current, but the disappeared pretty quickly.

  10. Okay dont care for either but eent Alpha but have 2 questions.
    1. In the 1980 Rover you have an early 1960 Buick motor. Was that a swap or were they actually putting 20 year old design motors in these cars? The article wasnt clear.
    2. When people dont buy all the cars made what happens to them? Crushed, eventually sold, rental fleet, huge Arizona parts parking lot?

    1. No, it’s true. Rover used that engine for ages. I had the aluminum 215 in its original, proper home: a ’62 Skylark. I was amazed to discover that same engine puttering along on Rovers from the 80s and 90s. I think the 2004 Discovery was the last Rover to use the 215 V8 based upon that ancient design.

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