Alfa Romeo 168: What's in a Number?

by Chris Robyn

At most Alfa Romeo club events I am invariably asked "What's a 168?" Simply stated, it's nothing more than a 164, but it's found only in one part of the world and has an interesting little history.

Though sales of Alfa Romeo cars in the United States have been (ahem) less than encouraging in recent years, culminating of course in Alfa's much-discussed withdrawal from the U.S. market altogether in 1995, the legendary marque continues to thrive and win admirers in other parts of the world where Fiat products are commonplace. When I lived in Hong Kong, for instance, cars from the ridiculous to the sublime (Nissan S-Cargo and Skyline GT-R), as well as the awesome Lancia Delta HF Integrale, were almost everyday sights. The cars of Alfa Romeo were well represented with the 75/Milano and 155 among the most popular models represented. Alfa's model line was to have culminated in the luxury 164, which was by far its most important model in a market niche dominated by S-class Mercedes sedans, BMW 7-series, and more Rolls-Royces per square mile than Beverly Hills or Dubai.

The story of the 168 in Hong Kong is unique in Alfa Romeo history, and has a lot to do with the Chinese belief in the significance of numerology and outright superstition. Even in modern Hong Kong society, these beliefs continue to thrive, and while not every Hong Kong resident may personally believe in unlucky numbers, they are almost universally known by nearly everyone.

The most comparable superstition we have in the West would be the perception in the unlucky quality of the number 13, even though most of us have no idea exactly why it is considered unlucky--something about the 12 Apostles, I seem to remember. How many cars do you know that have the number 13 in their model designation? As is illustrated by the 164, in some Asian societies, the relationship between certain groups of numbers can be highly complex and go unnoticed by most Westerners. In the simplest terms, for example, the number 4 in Chinese is nearly synonymous with the word for "death." Thus, different combinations of numbers can represent different things: some lucky, some prosperous, and, as Alfa Romeo soon discovered, some which could profoundly affect sales of their cars.

When the 164 was first introduced to Hong Kong in right-hand-drive form, there was a great deal of interest and enthusiasm in the car, but sales were surprisingly slow. Alfa soon discovered the reason why. In the Cantonese dialect, which is prevalent in Hong Kong, 164, when pronounced as a phase, literally means "the more you go the more you die." This had immediate and obvious meaning when taken in the context of an automobile. In many ways this was similar to the somewhat amusing by comparison flap over the Chevrolet Nova being sold in Mexico, where no va literally meant, "won't go" in Spanish. Pretty funny stuff in hindsight, but potential 164 customers were not laughing and soon moved on to other marques, as no one wanted this unlucky emblem plastered on the rear of their car following them wherever they went.

With a potential sales crisis looming and their reputation in jeopardy, Alfa's Hong Kong-savvy sales representatives made an unprecedented move and quickly cabled Fiat management for permission to substitute the much-maligned 164 emblem with one now marked 168. The number 8 is perhaps the luckiest in all of Hong Kong as it is similar to the word for prosperity and wealth (a single license plate bearing the number 8 was once auctioned off to a private owner for more than one million U.S. dollars). Therefore, what was originally one of the worst rear insignias imaginable instantly became one of the best: 168 means "the more you go the wealthier you'll be." Thus the 164, or 168, was rescued from certain "death" and continues to be one of Alfa Romeo's most popular automobiles.

© 1997 by Chris Robyn