By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
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.
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?
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