Some sleepless nights and £3k lighter, I was the owner of my first classic
It was not an impulse buy.
Studying abroad came relatively late to me. Neither the family finances nor my A-Levels could be described as stellar, and while the circuitous route taken would certainly not draw any envious eyes, the resulting opportunity to start afresh in UK certainly opened mine. I remain forever grateful to mother who supported the decision both financially and socially, which would be near impossible to repay; however, the petrol brain in me has started fantasising about discovering rare, overlooked classics overseas, running them, and perhaps shipping them to HK after studies, even before the plane rotated off the HK runway.
Three years, a degree and a £500 daily driver later (subject to another post), in September 2014 I became the only international student ever on my course to successfully secure a work placement in UK. Naturally with the accumulated (but limited) knowledge and experience over the years, once in work and finances allowed I started searching for my first “project”. I was looking for a car that was built to a brief but not a budget, that drives and handles well, is easily tuneable, and has at least a significant influence, if not a lasting legacy, on car design and engineering. To make it worthwhile, it also had to be between rare to non-existent in HK.
For those who are not familiar with buying a used car, let alone a classic, the process was expectedly daunting. Spoilt and tempted by all sorts of choices, many of which bearing shady, suspect descriptions, it took a sharp eye and a bit of luck to tell a peach from a lemon. Together with my particular criteria and preferences, all resting on a budget that started literally at £0, some aspirational choices on the list were immediately made very improbable. Japanese cars were first off, despite my huge respect and interest in the late 80s-early 00s Honda range, as those could be more readily sourced directly from Japan to HK. 80s German sports coupes such as the 190E Cosworth and the E30 M3? Not a chance! They’re simply too pricey for me then to even dare think about! The Lancia Fulvia? Good luck with getting spares and upgrades ordered AND shipped.
Meanwhile I’d been visiting the garage from time to time for servicing on my daily. Run by a Michael and Dave Bonello, father and son, it specialises in classic Alfa Romeos but also caters to all other brands, vintage or modern. It was, and still is, the kind of place that you could just walk in after hours, have a nice chat about cars, all the while surrounded by 50s GIuliettas, Giulia GTV Coupes, Spiders and more, in various stages of meticulous restoration. I was particularly struck by the moment one of these GTVs started up right in front of me — never before had I heard an engine that sounded quite like that — impatient and almost rough running at tickover, guttural and growling at the lows, it begged to be revved; once it goes above 3500rpm, a raspy, urgent roar took charge, and it climbed several octaves all the way to the redline. To say it’s evocative was doing it injustice. All coming from a simple, small displacement inline four (later on I discovered how ground-breaking the design actually was, how it stayed in production for 40 years in various guises, and how almost all modern inline four petrol engines are in some ways influenced by it, but more about this later).
Needless to say, I’m in captive even before I knew it.
Back to the car hunt, I tentatively looked up the GTV Coupes. I knew these cars by reputation, and over the years it has gained a rather substantial following round the world, which meant prices have also soared. A tidy 1750 GTV could easily fetch an equally tidy £15–20k, while the early “Scalino” step-nose GTVs and GT Juniors were £25k in decent running order. Rust buckets with missing parts and no service history could still conduct a few grand. Clearly some rethinking was required.
The Series 105 Alfas debuted in 1962 with the 1300 and 1600 saloons, with the GT / GTV Coupe introduced a year later in 1963, and the Spider in 1966. The package was incredibly advanced back then, with the aluminium, wet-sleeved hemi twin cam engine, a 5-speed all synchronised manual, disc brakes in all four corners, double A-arm front suspension, and a rear de Dion axle. Despite the contrasting body styles and overall appearance, mechanically they are identical and most parts are interchangeable. Over the years the GTV coupe has been the most sought after of all, mostly due to the racing successes of the GTA Junior and GTAm cars and of course the timeless design penned by none other than a young Giugiaro at Bertone; while the Pininfarina Spiders have captured the 60s romance and optimism, particularly in the Series I “Duetto” boat-tail form, also of Hollywood fame in The Graduate as Dustin Hoffman’s car. The saloon was styled in-house, with its boxy stance and distinctive scallops along the waistline all in the interests of aerodynamics, and was claimed to be one of the earliest production cars to be designed in a wind tunnel. The series also had several variations in the form of the rare GTC, basically a GTV coupe with a drop-top; the Junior Zagato, with a sleek and daring wedge shape, fully-glazed front fascia, and a Kamm tail; and some others.
While most of this was generally within my knowledge save a few details, the eye-watering prices were doing me no favours; meanwhile, this came up advertised as a low-mileage, one-owner car selling for £1995…
Excellent classic saloon with tonnes of character and soul. Anyone who has owned a 105 series Alfa will confirm that…www.alfaholics.com
Wait… what was that? At first glance it was similar to the Giulia Super saloons, but on closer scrutiny the styling was quite different. Some quick research brought up the 1750 Berlina, with the larger twin cam at 1779cc, a wheelbase lengthened by 2in, every single body panel restyled by Marcello Gandini at Bertone, first available from 1968; in 1971 this further became the 2000 Berlina, with the twin cam motor now at 1962cc, with minor styling and trim tweaks to the light and grille treatment, and most importantly, a limited-slip differential at the rear. The saloons never got quite the same level of desirability, and just like many others I’d assumed that along with the mechanical updates the production years the styling was updated, and never expected such a major overhaul of the design.
I jumped at the opportunity and was down to the garage to see Michael and to talk him into taking care of the car once purchased. I strung together the contacts to arrange the possible viewing and payment, and was definitely in email frenzy.
Two days later, the response came. The car was sold.
More than gutted to have missed out on such an opportunity, and wondering when, if at all, would a second come up, I responded with the usual thanks and tagged on a wishful request for future contact in case of anything similarly 105-related.
I was ready to sink into a spell of despair and self-flagellation when yet another response came, saying that indeed there was a second Berlina lying around, a later 2000 that had been intended as their garage restoration project. Again I emailed for more details and coaxed Michael into asking the right questions with his expertise, as the car was on the opposite side of the country in Bristol. Apparently the car had been off the road for almost a decade, with a burnt head gasket and plenty of surface rust on the body, and no paperwork whatsoever. I was quoted £2500 for it, but was it a risk worth taking? Cue the classic “to be or not to be”.
Several sleepless nights and rounds of discussions later, going over photos and videos both of the car offered and running examples online. It was classy and understated — the Gandini restyling only left the windscreen untouched from the original Giulia saloon, and while it was clearly boxy and upright, there was hardly any one straight line on the bodywork as they’re all subtle curves in the spirit of the Coupes; mechanically it had the largest and most powerful 1962cc twin cam of the series, and the limited slip differential only found on the 2000 Berlinas but not any Coupes and Spiders from the factory, both of which explained how many of these became cheap parts donors over the years, how they’re probably overlooked due to this convoluted interrelationship within the Series, and how rare they’ve become, especially as a complete car with the original engine in RHD format. Tuned properly, these beauties could easily outrun almost anything on the road back then, could cruise all day long at 70–80mph while also be thrown into corners without complaints, and could even do donuts pretty well, as evident in this clip.
Forget your AMG Mercs and M division BMWs, this was it — the ultimate sports saloon recipe, in the 60s and 70s.
I soon realised I couldn’t walk away, that the car deserved a new lease of life, and I was in the perfect position to save it from neglect before it’s too late. What more could I do?
A week and almost £3k lighter afterwards, I was the owner of my first classic. But first of all at least the car needed to be put back to running order.
Trust me. It was not an impulse buy.