The Berlina Revival — Back on the Roads

The Berlina arrived sometime in late November 2014 — naturally I half-skipped and -ran to the garage to see it once I got the phone call, after 2 weeks of impatient to- and fro-ing with the seller in Bristol to arrange the trailer and agree on a time and price. Michael was out on the day, and Kris — a local guy who did an engineering degree and had been with the garage for quite a few years, showed me around the car.

They say never meet your heroes and it’s true to a certain extent — the car was expectedly scruffy and dirty after the years of disuse and neglect — God knows how long it’s actually been stood outside in the sun and rain! The paint was far from immaculate, and had in fact started flaking off the hardtop and the driver’s door; the gaping hole at the bottom of the offside A-pillar left my mouth in a similar configuration; the interior was a shambles, with all the seats torn along the seams, a dash cracked in two places, a headliner sagging and stained, and all the veneer trim faded into oblivion; and it rode on some cheap British-made knockoff 6-spoke wheels instead of the period-correct Cromodora Turbina alloys as shown in the sale photos.

The hole at the bottom of the A-pillar.
Cromodora Turbina wheels with matching Alfa hubcaps, a period correct factory option…
…and Momo Vega 6-spoke wheels, another popular but aftermarket choice back in the days.

Now that the car is very real, it’s for Michael the expert to assess its exact condition. I sat back for a few days, pondering over the known knowns and the known unknowns while fearing the worst of the unknown unknowns — after all, I bought the car without a viewing in person, and while Michael definitely knows his classic Alfas and had applied his best guesstimate according to the supplied photos and information, recommending a go-ahead with the buy as the car seemed mostly original and not messed about with, he had called it “a bit of a gamble”.

Filling out the form to apply for a new log book, I tentatively went through and weighed all the elements of the project in my mind. The whole endeavor appeared risky at best, and for a moment I started panicking…

At last, the long-awaited call came. Gingerly I found Michael at the garage. It was goodand bad news.

As it turned out, the car was much more solid than the appearance had suggested, and the inner sills were pretty much intact — Michael even managed to put it on the two-post, which according to his experience, could be catastrophic on a Series 105 with (more than often) rusty floors and sills, and he would never risk such a manoeuvre without making sure the structure’s sound. The body was rough round the edges just as described, showing considerable surface rust, but generally straight and complete, with the exception of the corroded front anti-roll bar mounting (“Oh yeah, they all go there”, Michael pointed out rather reassuringly, “but it’ll just require some welding, I’ve done many of those”).

As for the not so good, on top of the burnt head gasket, cylinder #2 had a burnt piston, and the original Lockheed brake servo booster was in pretty bad shape. Parts wouldn’t be a problem — a quick round at the garage you’re surrounded by spare Alfa Twin Cam Nord engines, running gear, suspension components, exhausts, and the lot, but the labour costs could potentially be eye-watering as, of course, specialist mechanics like Michael charge a considerable (but well-deserved) amount by the hour. It all rests on whether it’s an engine-out job, as disconnecting all the wiring and plumbing and hoisting the engine out would, obviously, be time- and labour-consuming. The seller’s not been totally honest on the condition after all — “full of shit,” according to Michael — and who knows what other nasty surprises could the metal shell be harbouring?

I silently crossed my fingers and tried my best in identifying the positives, as I had hatched the idea of taking on the project myself, and I held myself responsible. I mean, it could be worse — at least it’s there in the safe hands of the know-hows, and it’s here right in front of me, and it’s mine and all that (cue the silver lining, with missing chrome trim).

December arrived, and with the festive mood in full swing over the shortest days of the year, everyone seemed to ease back on the throttles at work. On my end, the mixture of angst and anticipation throughout was almost unbearable. I couldn’t wait for the Berlina to take to the roads again, but was also dreading a bill that might be way beyond my means — my student placement job didn’t pay particularly well, and to make it worse they missed off my first 6 weeks’ worth of pay and wrongly deducted about 30% in taxes from the remainder — the joys of taking on a rolling restoration on a shoestring budget…

Michael, however, did not seem to be slowing down. In fact, he put some extra hours on the Berlina, just to make sure everything’s up to standard. As I popped into the garage one late December evening after hours, impatiently checking on the progress, I was surprised to find Michael still busying himself with all the tinkering, “It’s growing on me,” he admitted, “I actually enjoyed working on it”. He’s a man of principle and never lets customer cars out of his garage doors unless he’s hundred percent happy with them.

New Year’s Day 2015 came and went. There was this uneasy silence as all commuters started to re-emerge, nonchalantly dragging their hungover bodies back into the drab reality of the office, when the phone rang again,

“Hey Hubert you alright? You’ve got a birthday present — the Berlina’s ready”.

And there it was, the four headlights around the trademark heart-shaped Alfa grille, the understated Bertone bodywork sitting purposefully on a set of Cromodora Turbina alloys Michael dug out from his parts inventory. With a pull on the choke and a twist of the key, the engine burst into life, the 2L twin cam sounding exactly as I remembered — throaty, raspy, and urgent, it’s not quite the awakening of a giant, but it just wanted to get going.

It’s still in this weird Pino Verde that both Michael and I agreed needed changing, and also two days late for my birthday due to the MoT, but who cares? Nearing forty years of age and almost a decade off the road, the Berlina’s once again alive!

And it’s time to hit the roads.

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