I have always been fascinated by Alfa Romeo 2600 Berlinas.
This is probably because they seem to exist almost exclusively in a hinterland of obscure European saloons that most of us have only seen in books or glimpsed in an old black and white film. In fact, if you spot a 2600 in a ’70s Italian crime flick, you can be nearly certain it’s about to be trashed.
Age and sheer rarity lend enchantment to the 2600 saloon, of which only two are thought to exist in the UK.
It was not a bad car as such, but one that suffered more in comparison to younger, smaller models in its own family, rather than its rivals: the increasing excellence of the four-cylinder Alfas during the 1960s made a nonsense of the 2600’s inflated price-tag and sense of self-importance.
Pre-war Alfa Romeo built its reputation on six- and eight-cylinder cars, and the notion of a six-cylinder version of its first all-new, post-war saloon, the 1900, never quite went away either.
However the model that links the 1900 and 2600 is the even more obscure Type 102 2000 Berlina of 1958-’61. This was an attempt to update the 1900 idea with a more fashionable body, its fins framing a squared-off bootlid. It had five speeds as well, but was really just a holding operation while the six-cylinder car was made ready.
Finally it arrived in the form of the 2600 Berlina of 1962, direct descendent of the 2000 (but de-finned and tidied up) and in many ways a car which would prove to be as irrelevant as the groundbreaking 1900 was important.
Why? Because it just didn’t sell.
Through to 1968 Alfa built a derisory 2092 of them, making the unloved and nearly forgotten Tipo 106 2600 saloon the rarest four-door true-production post-war Alfa of all.
It even suffered the indignity of being handsomely outsold by specialist Bertone Sprint Coupé and Touring-bodied convertible variants. Only the 2600 Zagato and the bizarre OSI-bodied 2600 De Luxe are less numerous than the Berlina.
When it comes to right-hand drive 2600 Berlinas, 500 were built , but who knows how many made it to the UK. Certainly until 20 years ago I had never seen one in the flesh: the car like a myth.
So, when I heard of a 2600 saloon mouldering in Weston-super-Mare circa 1999, I had to go and have a look – not so much to buy it, but more to say I had actually seen this rarity in captivity. It was pretty horrible, almost as rusty as they come, but at least some sort of box had been ticked.
The 2600 Berlinas came in two series, the earlier type having a bench seat and column change, but later cars tending to come with a central floor change and individual front seats in cloth or plastic.
There was an integrated ribbon speedometer and rev counter in an imposing binnacle, and such luxuries as a hand throttle and fan motors front and rear to demist the screens. It pandered to the Italian ’60s obsession for warning lamps with red telltales for the choke and demisters.
As standard, the 130bhp 2600 saloons came on twin Solex carburettors and trumped many rivals technically in having five speeds (with odd ratios) and Girling discs on the front.
I got a proper drive in one not long ago for a Classic & Sports Car magazine feature – these photos are from that shoot – and, unlike most of my ‘guilty pleasure’ cars, I was impressed.
It had a sweet and tuneful engine that sang freely to 6000rpm, yet with enough torque that you rarely had to drop below fourth, and solid shove to its pick-up in all the gears.
It was a hefty old thing to drive, but not the barge the looks suggest. It was very stable and accomplished when driven ambitiously, quite happy on its narrow little tyres, with a ride that was firm but unperturbed.
You might think the 2600 Berlina looks stylish today (I do), but nobody could pretend that Portello’s trademark cubist four-door styling themes scaled up comfortably to its flagship car.
But when it comes to big cars, memories were short in Milan; the boxy Alfa 6 (subject of an earlier Guilty Pleasure) was a executive saloon disaster of similar proportions.
I suppose the difference between the two is that I would quietly admit to myself I might like to own a 2600 Berlina, although I suspect the brochure will suffice.