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The Alficionado 

A man and his (other) car

Thursday, May 13 2004
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Photos by Ted Soqui

I first saw my dream car in the spring of 1983. It was parked at the Santa Monica repair shop where I used to take my 1965 Volvo 122S, a four-door sedan with white paint oxidized to chalk and a black steering wheel melted to rubbery goo. Not that the convertible I had eyes for was, cosmetically, much of an improvement. What had once been robin’s-egg blue was now seagull gray. The chrome had morphed into rust, the bucket seats sagged like beanbags. But it was all there: a dent-free, 1963 Alfa Romeo Giulia Spider 101 Normale. From behind it could be mistaken for the much lesser breed, a VW Karmann Ghia, but from the front, the spade-shaped grille curving downward toward the ground, like a tiger’s paw, removed all doubt as to the marque. This was pure Alfa Romeo — aggressive, unbridled, pining for the road.

I asked my mechanic, Peter Rajna, who had raced Alfa Giuliettas back in the ’50s, if the owner might be interested in selling the car. That’s how it always works with Alfas — you’ve got to take the initiative. The ’63 was available. On July 11, 1983, I met Phil Davis curbside in Park La Brea and handed him a check for $1,800. Mr. Davis, a television writer and father of famed Mary Tyler Moore colleague David Davis, had bought the car in Italy in late 1962.

Now, with no sign of regret, he walked jauntily back to the entrance of his apartment building. I hunted for the ignition, which — with typically contrarian Alfa arrangement — was located to the left of the steering column. I turned the key and motored off as gingerly as a white-gloved matron headed for the grocery store (a not untypical sight at Park La Brea, even as late as the early ’80s). It wouldn’t be long, however, before I was redlining that engine.

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The Alfa mystique had insinuated itself into my primal consciousness back in early 1968. That was when family friend Peter Marx was paying semi-regular visits to our home for meetings among lawyers, like my parents, who were trying to checkmate the Vietnam War draft. Despite the Teutonic pedigree of his last name (he is actually related to Albert Einstein), Peter was the living embodiment of suave, which in those days was exemplified by the Frenchman Jean-Claude Killy, who’d just scored a triple crown in Alpine skiing at the Grenoble Olympics. Like Killy, Peter was tall and lean. He wore pressed slacks and turtleneck shirts. He too skied the Alps. In an epoch dominated by the styles of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, there wasn’t the least whiff of Haight-Ashbury about Peter, which, to a kid like me victimized by Hendrix-inspired haberdashery, seemed an unattainable poise. And he drove a 1967 Alfa Romeo Spider Veloce — a Duetto to the cognoscenti. Nothing and no one could be more cool to a 12-year-old with a tumbleweed haircut and a paisley scarf.

Sixteen years later, I began sinking money into my first Alfa, the Spider — a model that preceded Peter’s by one generation, in car lives. To date, I calculate I’ve poured $14,011.60 into that car, redoing the engine, transmission, radiator (twice), brakes, suspension, chrome, upholstery (also twice)and convertible top. I’ve conducted a nationwide search to find a single piece of stainless steel trim for the faux air scoop on the front lid, and I’ve gone directly to rubber extruders with custom-made dies to reproduce the piping that keeps the rear trunk lid from chattering when closed. I’ve had the crankshaft straightened and I’ve added competition springs that lowered the car to within 8 inches of the ground.

Once, just four months after I’d completed my original restoration in June 1986, a half-French, half-Israeli 22-year-old driving a 1981 VW Rabbit blew the stop sign at De Longpre and Gardner, doing to the right front quarter panel of my car what Goldfinger’s minions at the wrecking yard did to that classic Lincoln Continental in Goldfinger. I had my car flatbedded to Mobile Auto Body — really, the back yard of a post-WWII stucco house in North Hollywood. There it sat, under the protection of a wood-framed garage, for more than six months as the maestro orchestrating its repair communicated in cryptic signals to his co-conspirator, an older Italian man who’d worked in the Alfa factory in Milan. The Italian had built a wooden form, much like the ones the factory used, to hand-hammer my fender back into shape. His ostensible boss would plant himself on a wood-and-wire milk crate and lean his head left-right, right-left, eyeballing the undamaged left fender, then the newly hammered right fender, month after month, until no one could detect even the slightest loss in symmetry. That job cost me $3,339.

Three years later, I was dining at Musso & Frank. A guy, introduced as Olivier, joined our crowd midmeal. He and I kept staring at each other. Finally, in one of those electrifying moments of mutual realization, I blurted out, “You’re the bastard who creamed my Alfa!” as he bleated, “You know, when I drove away that night, my windshield fell out on the fhweeway.” I nearly decked the guy: He’d attempted to murder one of the rarest cars on the road, and now he was trying to summon my sympathies because the windshield had peeled off his Volkswagen. Was he nuts?

By then, I owned two Alfas, a sign of a mild case of Il Alficionado, an illness, like pellagra, that sounds pretty good and ain’t all that bad. My other Alfa was a 1971 Berlina, a maroon sedan that the Italian Carabinieri used to patrol the Autostrade. The Berlina was my daily driver — yet another symptom of the disorder — although I didn’t have it as bad as my pal Marc Cooper, who around that time had gone out and purchased a GTV-6. His Alfa was a fastback-looking machine with a clattering gear shift. When in tune, that GTV had enough torque to burn rubber from a standing start in second. It also buzzed like an electrical transformer ready to explode. As it did one day in front of my house when its pointless muffler fell off. I followed Marc, in my “reliable” Berlina, to a nearby muffler shop so he could have an even louder edition welded into place. Marc, whose flirtation with Alfas intensified while he was living in Alba, Italy (racing down out of the hills above Ventimiglia, vying against his English buddy, a maniac named Martin), drove by after the muffler was installed. He wanted to demonstrate how his car could now make your clavicle vibrate like a sheet of Mylar in a wind tunnel.

 

What is it, then, about Alfa Romeo? Why, today, do I cling to my Giulia, covet a 1965 Giulia Super sedan, and tell my mechanic to find me another Berlina? The answer lies partly in what the car did for Dustin Hoffman’s character, Benjamin Braddock, in The Graduate. As he cruises in his Duetto toward Berkeley on the Bay Bridge, all his ennui and desperation appear to turn to manly, handsome resolve. No other car could have furnished this make-over. A Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini? Too snootily high-class. An Austin Healey, MG, Morgan? Too Ivy League, too Love Story. A Ford Mustang? Too blandly middle-aged.

We cling to Alfa Romeos, we devotees, not because they are the fastest cars ever engineered or the best-handling or the most beautiful — though they may be. What makes an Alfa Romeo distinct, apart from the sensuous lines endowed by incomparable Pininfarina designs, is the car’s relationship to the road. An Alfa is meant to be driven, not coddled, collected, or coiffed into concours d’elegance condition. Each car retains the outline, the ghost, of the first Alfa — built by hand. It is a production vehicle that manages to be more than the combined result of assembly-line efficiency and design genius. We get behind the wheel of an Alfa, with its stiff ride and throaty roar, because we still want the road to be our adversary, not an ever wider, ever smoother, ever straighter macadam pillow-top. We love our Alfas because, like nature, they are powerful, unpredictable and unforgiving. They are a chore, and they make the blood come to life.

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