Keith’s Blog: Buy, Discover, Spend, Persevere


A couple of weeks ago, restorer Bill Gillham finished up fettling our Alfa Giulia Super and sent it over to Dan Sommers at Veloce Motors for a mechanical checkover.

Here’s the note I just got from Dan:


In my earlier note I talked about the list getting longer as I spent more time around your Super. Sorry… More bad news to come.

I changed the oil and noticed that the drain plug looks like it was chewed off of the oil pan several times. The plug magnet had sludge on it, so I pulled the lower oil pan.

While pulling the pan, I found one bolt head missing, shaft of bolt still in place, and one bent bolt. Then the fun part began… In the pan with a 1/4-inch of sludge I found a razor blade and a connecting rod lock tab. This lock tab is still a mystery.

I continued to look further by pulling the upper pan as well. There is no evidence of overheated rods or any missing rod lock tabs. But the curiosity gene drives me, so I removed a rod end and found a pink bearing.

Now some people would put new rod bearings in and hope for the best. If that were your choice of course you would have absolutely NO warranty.

SO, as you know, and since I know you, I am going pull the engine out of the car and tear it down. The crank will most likely need to be turned and balanced. New seals gaskets and bearings. I will also examine the pistons and rings and liners.

You are going to stop opening my emails now I suspect.


Ran Fine When Arrived

Since that note, Dan has taken the engine to Bearing Service to have the crank ground, and a new piston and liner set have been ordered. I also told Dan to go through the carburetors “while he was in there,” as I only want to do this once.

What is interesting here is that this engine pulled strong, had good oil pressure and didn’t smoke. But it was completely worn out inside.

I estimate my total bill, including new tires and other things, will be somewhere in the $6,000–$7,000 range. I paid somewhere in the low $20s for the Super (I’m not sure I even want to go look it up), so I’ll be in the car well over $30,000 when I’m done here – if “done” is a word I should even trust myself to spell.

I also believe the seller had no idea about the condition of the engine. As I pawed through the stack of receipts that came with the car, which total up to thousands of dollars, there is nothing to indicate the engine was ever apart during his ownership.

Dan’s inspection hasn’t been a complete nightmare. He did report that the car was absolutely dry and rust-free underneath, and it looked like it had been kept in a bubble all its life. So at least I don’t have corrosion issues to deal with. At this point, I’ll take any bit of good news I can get!

Of my five Alfas, I have done engines on two others as well: the 1965 Giulia Spider Veloce some years ago when a “tuneup” from Conrad Stevenson turned into an overhaul; and the 1958 Sprint Veloce, which I bought with a “freshly rebuilt engine,” complete with paperwork. The Sprint engine work simply wasn’t done to professional standards and needed to be redone. (Ditto for the paint and the bodywork on the front — the inch-thick piece of bondo that fell off the nose was just a hint of things to come.)

One of the great challenges on the 1958 Sprint has been that it was assembled by an enthusiast who had no experience restoring Sprints. So, for example, sorting out the wiring has been a nightmare.

I am my own poster child for paying the costs of bringing old sports cars back to life. As I have written, most inexpensive sports cars (let’s say those under $25,000) have gone through a period where they were worth very little. Consequently, they were often purchased by enthusiasts who had more enthusiasm than knowledge or resources. Repairs were haphazardly done on the cheap and with the hope they would last a few months.

Now Collectible

But as the values for inexpensive sports cars increase, and as collecting them is taken more seriously, refurbishment is being taken more seriously as well.

Let me give you another example of the changing approach. At dinner last night, I was told about a man who owns a Pantera that is in pieces and who wants his two teenage sons to help him restore it as a fun project.

My advice was to sell the car as-is (probably for around $20,000, depending on condition) and buy something finished. If he and his sons ever actually restore and finish the car, it won’t be to the standard that collectors are looking for today, and anyone buying it will simply take the whole car apart and start all over again. Personally, I would much rather buy a disassembled car than one that has been restored by an amateur.

Twenty years ago, there were nothing but Panteras restored by amateurs, so the way we looked at them and judged them was different. They weren’t collectible — they were just odd, interesting cars. Today, with values pushing $100,000 for the finest examples, the cars are being treated with respect. 

Regrets in the Morning?

Am I sorry I bought any of these Alfas? Absolutely not. Each represents a car that has emotional and intellectual appeal to me.

I am having them properly refurbished as necessary, which means that these should be “lifetime” repairs. In theory, the Super shouldn’t need another engine in my ownership, during which I will be surprised if it covers 20,000 miles.

I’m not alone in the way I am treating my cars. Look at the number of nicely restored Giuliettas you see, now that their values are in the $50,000–$120,000 range. And the same is true of other marques, from MGBs to TR6s. Rising values means enthusiasts are more likely to invest in proper restorations.

The Super should be back in a month, and I look forward to getting it and putting it back into service. Did I mention Dan has some hotter cams he is going to install as well? I couldn’t help myself.

Keith Martin

Keith Martin has been involved with the collector car hobby for more than 30 years. As a writer, publisher, television commentator and enthusiast, he is constantly on the go, meeting collectors and getting involved in their activities throughout the world. He is the founder and publisher of the monthly Sports Car Market and bi-monthly American Car Collector magazines, has written for the New York Times, Automobile, AutoWeek, Road & Track and other publications, is an emcee for numerous concours, and has his own show, “What’s My Car Worth,” shown on Velocity.

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