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Il Biscione

It was my first car and like most Alfisti, notwithstanding its many shortcomings, I was besotted. The seating position, despite adjustable steering wheel and electric seats, always ended up something more fit for a primate. This was a common characteristic of Italian cars from the 1970’s until well into the 90’s. Short legs and long arms were a must. On cold mornings, engaging second gear was a crunchy challenge and the front wheel drive chassis was so overtaxed by the silken power of the 200 hp “Busso”V6 that accelerating in the rain was cause for an orgy of torque steer and spinning Pirellis. But all these foibles, deal breakers every one in almost any other car just added a human character to this car that sounded like music. Every run up to the 6500 rpm redline gave me chills as Arese’s Violin worked its magic.

Unfortunately the love affair was short lived. One Sunday morning after a night out in Geneva with friends as we headed towards the rising sun along the glass smooth Swiss motorway the temptation to take it to the limit was too great. As the needle touched 240 km/h and my favorite violinist reached a crescendo at 6500 rpm there was a bang, a shudder and the car began to dance the samba. Luckily I was too petrified to move a muscle and somehow the car straightened itself out and didn’t flip. My relief was short-lived when only seconds later the dash lit up like a Christmas tree and the engine temperature began to rise. After coming to a stop at a gas station near the village of Gland, my friends and I exited the car to check for damage. None was visible. The front of the car was completely intact but my eye caught on a speck of fur and blood on the spoiler. As I was taking a closer look I spotted the growing puddle under the front of the car and my eyes scanned the radiator, which looked like it had been wrung out like a rag.

The cops soon arrived and asked a bunch of questions none of which I could answer truthfully. How fast was I going? In what lane? What had I hit? How big was it? Of what sex? Seriously? In the end, as Switzerland’s finest had no way of proving I was doing anything illegal and wildlife is the responsibility of the cantonal government, it was the federal canton of Vaud who paid for my repairs.

The damage proved to be extensive and apart from the pulverized radiator, the sub frame on which the engine was mounted was bent. But even after the car had been repaired as good as new I couldn’t drive it. I knew that the fox had been a warning and if I continued to tempt fate I might end up as road kill myself. I ended up selling the car and inheriting my mother’s 1990 Toyota 4 Runner that was fantastic in completely different ways. It too took me to the edge many times but no wildlife was hurt in the process.

Despite what I wrote last week, my friend Napper Tandy’s first car was also an Alfa, a 1984 Alfa Romeo Milano (Called a 75 in Europe). Acquired from a close friend of his father’s for $600 cash and a pledge to mow his lawn all summer, Napper kept it sideways, “Busso” V6 singing the summer of his sixteenth birthday. Unfortunately the party was cut short by a smog inspection the Alfa could not pass and the budding Alfista and his first love had to part ways.

As I have explained, Napper feels a sort of karmic loyalty to his International Harvester Scout II but when it comes to sports cars his tastes are more varied. After a BMW convertible soon deemed unworthy and a Porsche 911 that couldn’t handle LA’s bad roads, Napper came full circle and happened upon an Alfa GTV 2000 in Marin County. It’s owner, a former Coast Guard Commander had bought the car while on tour in Italy.

One of the last of its breed, produced as its successor the Alfetta GT was already rolling off the assembly line in Arese, Italy, Napper’s 1976 Alfa Romeo 2000 was the culmination of a story that started in 1963. Surpassed only in fame by the aluminum - bodied GTA racers that terrorized touring car competitions on both sides of the Atlantic, it was the epitome of what an Alfa should be; the perfect blend of a nimble chassis ready to attack the next alpine pass, a body penned by Giorgetto Giugiaro, the whole propelled by one of Giuseppe Busso’s – twin-cam masterpieces.

As we turned out of the gate to Napper’s home along the same route we had taken the IH Scout on earlier, the cabin was filled with the throaty snarl of the rev-happy engine. Napper began to explain how the retrofitted Bilstein shocks and lowered springs had improved the car’s handling while maintaining much of the original set up’s compliance. He added that choosing the right tires to improve grip while not destroying the vintage feel of the car had been a science as well. Strapped into the low bucket seats with racing harnesses I had to agree as we climbed up into the hills of the Los Padres National Forest.

He had been lucky enough to find a “grey market” car, by definition not burdened by many of the arcane and restrictive modifications required of cars sold new in the US in the early 70’s. Foremost among the differences was the fitment of Dell’Orto Carburetors in place of the troublesome SPICA mechanical fuel injection fitted to “official” US cars. The carbs made themselves heard from the first hard acceleration by their raucous induction sound audible through the firewall. The increased power and reduced weight due to the absence of safety reinforcement beams in the doors made for a very lively car despite its relatively humble 130 hp reached near the 6000 rev limit. But getting to that limit was half the fun as the combination of throaty exhaust note and induction gargle from the carbs combined to a symphony inside the cabin with every stir of its long throw gear box.

According to Napper what has most impressed him about the Alfa is its reliability. The car has never left its owner in the lurch. This in turn gives him pause when deciding whether to trade it for a better or more modified one or to thank the car for its loyalty, by restoring it or turning it into his own flavor of California GTA. The jury is still out but I’d bet that as with the Scout a bond had been forged between car and machine that will not easily be broken.

When asked by a member of the Top Gear audience which car he most regrets selling, the inimitable Jeremy Clarkson said he missed his Alfa Romeo GTV 6 most. James May seconded the motion, referring to his almost carnal yearning for his Alfa 164. Richard Hammond had no idea what they were on about as he remains an Alfa virgin. Were I asked the same question I would have to agree but with a slight modification. In my case, the pertinent question would be: “Which car do you most regret killing?” That would be my 1992 Alfa 164 Quadrifoglio Verde.

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