The coolest touring car of all time? Driving Alfa Romeo's legendary 155 DTM

Published: 06 November 2017

► Driving Alfa Romeo’s 155 DTM
► At the 2017 Goodwood Festival
► Plus Alfa GTAm and Honda NSX

I’m in the world’s best traffic jam. In front of me is the double-decker wing of a Sierra Cosworth touring car, behind me the diveplane winglets of a Mercedes CLK DTM. A man in Audi overalls taps on the window. ‘You might want to switch the engine off so it can cool down – it’s a hot day, and this is a nice car.’

It really is. Somehow, I’m in the driving seat of an Alfa Romeo 155 DTM – the very one in which Nicola Larini won the 1993 German touring car championship, complete with those iconic quad tailpipes. And the man in the Audi suit is nine-time Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen. Goodwood is that kind of place. I agree it’s a very nice car, and add that it’s not mine. ‘Perfect – then you can go flat out!’ he grins.

Alfa 155 DTM

I should explain. A flurry of emails prior to the festival and a say-yes-to-everything policy meant that in between reporting duties I’d be driving four very different cars up Goodwood hill over the festival’s four days. By far the most intimidating is the 155 DTM. It belongs to the Museo Storico Alfa Romeo museum near Milan, which has the admirably relaxed philosophy that its cars are there to be driven, however valuable they are.

The 155’s one of the original high-tech touring cars, with four-wheel drive and more than 400bhp squeezed from its 2.5 litres of naturally aspirated V6, but where I’d expected a sequential gearshift there’s a H-pattern manual, and a giant unassisted steering wheel to wrestle the front tyres. Getting from the paddock to the assembly area to join that queue was the hardest bit of the run; the unforgiving clutch needs slipping constantly, the engine dies if you let the revs drop, and somehow you need to brake too, to avoid the milling crowds who constantly wander into the front splitter’s path. I’m starting to wonder if this was such a good idea after all, especially with racing legend Bernd Schneider directly behind me in that CLK DTM.

Alfa 155 DTM

Running up the hill itself is the easy bit, in as far as driving an unfamiliar and irreplaceable bit of motorsport history can be. Driving impressions, all 1860 metres worth, are of lively steering, a punchy short-jab gearchange and an engine which, like all good racing cars, sounds like a bag of nails while idling but really sings through those upswept tailpipes as the revs climb. At the top of the hill, surreally, Kristensen taps me on the shoulder and asks if I enjoyed my drive, while Schneider comes over to ask about the car. ‘I remember racing against it in ’93, in the Mercedes 190E, and my teammates complaining to our boss about the Alfa’s power advantage…’

Honda Type R parade Goodwood 2017

Honda was reminiscing at Goodwood too, with a parade to celebrate 25 years of the Type R badge. Touring car star Matt Neal led the way in the latest Civic Type R, followed by the original ‘R’ model, the 1992 NSX-R, looking delicious in white on its tiny Enkei alloys. I was in the previous-gen FK2 CTR, following Matt’s son Will Neal in the rocket-shaped 2006 model and being reminded of CAR’s old long-termer, all snickety gearshift, mild torque-steer and giddy mid-range urge.

Fast-forward to the future the following day, in the new, hybrid Honda NSX, which feels the easiest thing in the world to drive after the Alfa, without even a clutch pedal to worry about. It’s the briefest journey I’ve ever had up the hill, partly because its acceleration is so crushingly rapid and partly because it’s so confidence inspiring, the perfect weapon for a narrow, unforgiving hillclimb course.

Honda NSX Goodwood 2017

Everyone gets a bit giddy at Goodwood. Interviewing Alfa Romeo’s head of design Scott Krugger earlier in the weekend as the Red Arrows do their best to deafen us overhead, he says it’s still the best car event he’s experienced. ‘It reminds me why I got into cars, and why I do this.’

Alfa 1750 GTAm Goodwood 2017

And if any car exemplifies Alfa Romeo’s enviable design heritage, it’s the second car I’m trusted with from the museo collection, the 1970 GTAm. A wide-arched evolution of the elegant ’60s Giulia, it’s an achingly pretty car, and an achingly loud one. Its bored-out in-line four blats from a side-exit exhaust just under the driver’s door, and since Alfa’s passionate, patient mechanics tell me it’ll foul its plugs if the revs drop below 2500rpm or so, I surely deafen everybody within earshot (that’s quite a lot of people) on the way to the line.

The gearlever is a long-throw stick of vagueness mounted high on the centre console in an elegant interior of wood, vinyl and chrome (including an ashtray – in a racing car!), and the suspension’s softer than I’d expected, giving the GTAm a slightly floaty gait as it buzzes up the hill. At the top of the hill, sandwiched between Roberto Ravaglia’s E30 M3 and a life-size Tamiya Jeep (only at Goodwood), the Alfa looks impossibly lovely in the late afternoon sun. ‘The DTM is more intense, but with both cars there is emotion,’ says one of the Alfa mechanics. Which sums up the weekend, really.

By James Taylor

The cars CAR drove at Goodwood 2017:

Alfa Romeo 155 V6 TI DTM – 1993

Alfa Romeo 155 DTM

The most successful car in DTM history, winning 12 out of 20 races in its debut season and spoiling the German manufacturers’ party on their home turf. Its 2.5-litre naturally aspirated V6 goes all the way to 11,500rpm (we didn’t venture that far), and develops more than 415bhp – although Bernd Schneider says the contemporary rumour mill placed it closer to 450bhp by season’s end. Carbon body, four-wheel drive and the coolest exhausts in the history of touring cars.

Alfa Romeo 1750 GTAm – 1970

Alfa Romeo Giulia 1750 GTAm

The ‘Am’ bit reputedly means American, because it’s based on the US version of the Giulia GTA coupe, with fuel injection and brawny riveted-on fibreglass arch extensions, making it a more purposeful if a tad less pretty than the original GTA. The in-line four was bulked out too, to 1985cc and 210bhp, and it walked the European Touring Car Championship in 1970.

Honda Civic Type R FK2 – 2015

Honda Civic Type R FK2 Goodwood Festival

Endless delays meant a short-lived production run, but it burned bright, temporarily becoming the fastest ever front-driven production car around the Nordschleife and thrilling road-testers with its pace and perfect gearshift, just as it infuriated with its double-vision-inducing ride quality. 2.0-litre 306bhp turbo engine punched the FK2 all the way to 168mph, but the all-new FK8 is faster still, and better rounded to boot.

Honda NSX – 2016

Honda NSX Goodwood 2017

Nine gears, four driven wheels, three electric motors (two of them on the front axle) and a twin-turbo 3.5 V6 make the reborn NSX fantastically complex, but fantastically simple to drive. On a bumpy, tricky road it’s a supercar that won’t leave you sweaty-palmed, while covering ground quicker than most.

Pictures by Michael Ward/Mark Riccioni/author

By James Taylor

CAR's deputy features editor, occasional racer