It was late 1978 and there were numerous correspondences between groups of Swedes and Italians. The phone lines were not tied up with talks of international espionage, organized crime, or arguments over who made better meatballs, but rather an agreement over cutting the costs of developing a new sedan.
Saab's model line at the time consisted of the aging 99 and downright ancient 96. While both were well-designed and built cars in their own right, the company was steadily moving more up-market. The 99 would, of course live on in the modified form of the 900 until 1993, but the stalwart Nordic midsized car was not enough to fill Saab's ambitions of competing with Volvo (who nearly merged with Saab in 1977), BMW, and Audi in the mid-sized luxury car market. Aerospace aside, as an auto manufacturer, Saab was, and always has been, relatively small.
Fiat, meanwhile, had become quite a large industrial conglomerate. In the late 1960s, the firm was doing well enough to purchase Autobianchi, and take control of not only Lancia, but also Ferrari and famously advertised itself as "The biggest selling car in Europe." By the late 70s, however, Fiat's automotive market share was under rising threat from Japanese imports, particularly in America. Furthermore, the company's reputation for building water-soluble cars that rarely functioned as intended was increasing rapidly, even in their home European market. Fiat needed to improve build quality and cut costs to remain competitive. This included replacing the aging 132 based Argenta as Fiat's "big" car, which was introduced in 1972. While an interesting car, Lancia's Gamma was also getting old, and was gaining a reputation for being highly unreliable.
Similarly, the Italian government-owned Alfa-Romeo was struggling with its own build-quality issues and diminishing sales. The company once known for its gracious touring cars and sedans, as well as lively roadsters and highly competitive racing cars, was growing old and feeble. The top-of-the-line Alfa 6 was hopelessly dated and a commercial flop. Alfa-Romeo needed a new range-topper and didn't want to spend a lot on development. The Milanese marque's entire range was a bit "old-school" and needed to modernize.
Saab, Alfa-Romeo, and Fiat (with Lancia), came to an agreement to help each other out. All parties involved were in need of a larger car and didn't particularly want to lay out all the development costs alone. While engineers worked out the chassis development for the new series of cars, Saab had already been working with Lancia on the Delta, which sold as the Saab-Lancia 600 in their home Scandinavian market. It would be the short-lived replacement for the 96 as an entry-level small Saab.
The project which would ultimately spawn the Alfa-Romeo 164, Fiat Croma, Lancia Thema, and Saab 9000 would become known as "Type 4" or "Tipo Quattro" chassis, in keeping with Fiat's (often confusing) internal naming system. The brands all had their own range of engines to apply to their version of the car, and also wanted to ensure that the vehicles had their own identities. The floorpan, rear suspensions, and much of the electrical and HVAC systems were shared amongst the four cars. In those fitted with an automatic transmission, all shared the same 4-speed ZF unit.
Though designed while still independent of Fiat, the Alfa-Romeo 164 was released after the take-over. The 164 would prove to be the most unique of the group and, in 1987, the last to hit the market. While the Saab, Lancia, and Fiat all share a nearly identical center section and Giugiaro styling cues, the 164 has its own unique and stylish Pininfarina body as well as bespoke front suspension.
This would be Alfa-Romeo's first large, front wheel drive car, and enjoyed much improved build quality over past models. Most notably in terms of rust-proofing, through use of a fully galvanized body. Power comes from either Alfa's venerable 2.0 liter twin-spark four-cylinder unit, a 2.0 liter Lancia- derived turbo four-cylinder, a 2.0 V6 turbo, or, most commonly a 3.0 V6. Even a 2.5 liter turbo diesel was available. In 1994, a four-wheel-drive version of the 164, known as the Q4 was introduced after collaboration with Steyr-Puch.
While the Fiat and Lancia never reached American shores, the Alfa-Romeo was the only of the Italian triplets to fall into driver's hands stateside. Alfa withdrew from the North American market in 1995, but the 164 was produced through 1997 - finally replaced by the somewhat odd-looking166.
Introduced in 1985, Fiat's Croma was least expensive of the four cars and probably the least inspired. It's rather boring looking, not as well made in comparison to it's counterparts, and really just a standard, functional, large family sedan (or wagon). It did, however, serve its purpose.
The Fiat was fitted with the some of the least exciting engines of these cars, most of which were 1.6 or 2.0 liter inline four-cylinders and later, an Alfa-Romeo sourced 2.5L V6. A choice of 1.9L normally aspirated and turbocharged diesels were also available.
A facelift in 1991 helped a little to improve the Fiat's looks. By 1996, Fiat ceased production of the Croma and decided to give up on the large car market.
The first Tipo 4 car to go on sale was Lancia's Thema. It is perhaps the most closely related to the Fiat, as it was, of course, produced under Fiat ownership. While generally rather unexciting by Lancia standards, it served well as an executive sedan. The Thema's lines were penned by Giugiaro and can probably best be described as un-offensive as opposed to interesting or stately. That being said, however, it is quite aerodynamic and still respectable today at 0.32 cd.
As far as appointments, the Lancia is arguably the most luxurious of the group. Leather and wood abound inside and surround passengers in fine Italianate opulence. For those wishing to have more space, a wagon body, known as the Estate, was also introduced in 1986. The Estate body is essentially the same as the sedan with an extra box, but curiously, Lancia enlisted Pininfarina to adapt the Giugiaro body to wagon form.
The Thema could be had with a variety of engines, including 2.0L normally aspirated and turbocharged inline-four Fiat engines, the infamous 2.8L PRV V6, an Alfa-Romeo sourced 3.0L V6, 2.5L four-cylinder diesels, and most notably, a Ferrari 3.0L V8. The Ferrari V8 was sourced from the 308 QV, though the crank was changed to cross-plane, as opposed to flat-plane, for the sake of refinement in this luxury car.
Though it beat the rest of the Tipo 4 cars to the market by a few months, it was the first to cease production in 1994. It was replaced shortly thereafter with the more stylish, and less boxy, Kappa.
Saab introduced the 9000 in 1985. This was Saab's first totally new car since the 99 was released in 1968. The character of past Saabs was somewhat lost on the new model, although the spirit of performance and practicality remained. Built in both Sweden and Finland, the build quality of the 9000 is probably the best of the lot and on par with the 900, though perhaps not quite as tank-like in its solidity. This is not to say, of course, that the 9000 lacks typical Saab safety. The evidence of this is reflected through the car's consistent ranking among the safest cars available throughout its model run.
The 9000's engine options were not as numerous or varied as the Italian cars in this group, but they did offer great performance and efficiency. They were variants of the same 2.0 and 2.3 liter inline-fours, both normally aspirated and turbocharged, that powered the 900 range. In 1995, a GM-sourced 3.0L V6 was also available, though this is generally considered, to put it bluntly, crappy, among Saab enthusiasts.
Most 9000s were fastbacks, penned in conjunction with Giugiaro and Saab's own Bjorn Envall, though a model with a longer rear and conventional trunk, the CD was offered as well. The range was facelifted in 1992 with revised front and rear styling. The CD then became the CDE. The Aero model, with a 2.3L turbo engine was the most powerful Saab ever made at the time.
The 9000 ceased production in 1998, and replaced by the 9-5, based on a GM platform. The 9000 was the last of the Type 4 cars to be built.
The 164, 9000, Croma, and Thema were all rather different and unique cars indeed. The project was perhaps one of the last well-done examples of collaboration between different auto manufacturers. Each brand was allowed to maintain its identity and enjoy success through the fruits of their shared labor. Furthermore, with the possible exception of the boring Croma, all are still fairly desirable cars to own.
*RWP does not take credit for any photos