We’re beginning the Colorado Grand today, a four-day, 1000-mile romp through some of the most breathtaking mountains and plains in the U.S. This will be my fifth time on the Grand, and I’m looking forward to it as an escape from the ordinary, and a chance to see old friends.
What better way to get ready for the Grand than a quick dash through some undulating Oregon backroads?
Alfas On the Road
The Alfa Romeo Club of Oregon hosts an annual Fall Tour, this year led by Tom McGirr. I haven’t driven the GTV much this year, and Alex volunteered to be my co-pilot. I’ve been refining my solution to the child-seat /shoulder-harness equation to provide a safe ride for six-year-old Bradley, and recently acquired a Recaro Vivo seat, which offers superior head protection and a thin profile.
Good friend and SCM SEO consultant Michael Cottam took the wheel of our Giulia Super, with his six-year-old son Benjamin strapped into his Vivo. We had just picked the Super up from Nasko’s Imports. Nasko fitted a new head gasket and performed a valve job, necessary due to the overheating that occurred when the heater core blew while Alex was on her road trip last month.
We were wheels-up at 7:30, with the obligatory stop at Starbucks before the quick 45-mile run to Salem, Oregon, where the tour began at Waterfront Park. The tour had several options, including an overnight, but our plan was to drive the first 150 miles and then head home.
Getting behind the wheel of the GTV was satisfying, and the heated seats I had Guy’s Interior install when we redid the interior were a nice touch on the chilly morning. No such comforts for Michael; in fact, he had to do without a heater, as we have bypassed it until we can get the Super to Bill Gillham for the repair.
It was a tidy group: two square-tail Alfa Spiders from the ‘80s, two Porsche Boxsters, a 1965 365C coupe and the SCM Alfas.
The cars moved along briskly, cruising at 70 mph along nearly empty two-lane roads through the countryside. The fog was heavy and the roads damp, making me aware of just how careful you have to be in old cars, with their mediocre braking and handling compared to modern standards.
Both Alfas did well, using 3rd and 4th gears. As Alex drove, I thought about all the years she has spent in old cars, and especially Alfas. She drove with authority, performing crisp double-clutch downshifts and putting the car on the right line through the turns.
We discussed driving technique, and she practiced braking just a little bit earlier going into the turns, so that she could be accelerating through the turn. She understood the concept of using the throttle to cause the GTV to squat and increase traction as she negotiated the turn, and her technique got better with each curve we came to.
Old cars reward competence, and they seem to respect you if you drive them well, like a horse that knows it has an experienced rider.
Things Get Interesting
We had our first excitement at the second rest stop, at Alderwood State Wayside, 93 miles into the route. I wanted a chance to drive the Super, to compare firsthand its 4.1 rear axle with the 4.56 in the GTV. When I turned the key, the ignition light came on, but that was it. No solenoid click. Nothing. This was the same problem Alex had had on her trip, but it was intermittent then. Nasko had installed a proper 1750 starter (the Super had a 1600 one) to go with the upgraded engine, and we hoped that was the solution. It wasn’t.
Luckily, old cars are also light cars, so it was easy for Michael and me to push the car while Alex popped the clutch, and the engine fired right up.
About 15 miles later, headed towards Mapleton along the challenging and rewarding Highway 36 (truly a “bucket list” drive for sports car owners), we saw the 356 stopped along the side of the road. Owned by longtime SCMers Jon and Michelle Rand, the car recently completed the Monte Shelton NW Classic Rally and had been behaving properly.
But Michelle said that after leaving the Alderwood stop, it began to misfire, first just slightly and then increasing until the engine stopped completely. She cranked the car, but it wouldn’t fire. Of course, when we stopped to see if we could be of help, I turned off the Super before realizing it might not start again.
There we were, the three oldest cars on the tour, already with 2/3 of our group having an “old car moment.”
We popped the hood, and the problem was immediately apparent. One of the two bolts securing the coil to the firewall had come loose, the coil had slid out of its holder and one of the wires had come loose. Like an old-car EMT, I grabbed my tool kit out of the back of the Super, wrapped the coil with some duct tape to increase its circumference and tightened the 10mm bolt. Then we reattached the wire, and the 356 fired right up.
Of course the starter on the Super refused to obey the ignition key, but a quick push later and we were started. I hoped that the starting problem was terminal, as having Nasko fix something that is clearly broken is much simpler than trying to track down an intermittent fault.
I liked the 4.1 rear end in the Super. It meant that you were always one gear lower than in the GTV, but when you hit a wide-open stretch the relaxed gearing made 80 mph easy, and not nearly so buzzy as in the GTV.
We stopped for lunch at Whittaker Creek Recreation Area, a sylvan spot with a shallow creek running through it. Bradley and Benjamin immediately ignored our directives and got wet past their knees while chasing crawdads.
We parted from the group at that point and headed back along another set of two-lane roads, going around Triangle Lake, through Junction City and eventually rejoining I-5 home. As always, the freeway section was torture, a helter-skelter array of poor-to-awful driving technique on display with slow cars in the fast lane, and fast cars darting through traffic using all three lanes as their personal passing zones.
I switched back into the GTV. It’s both very similar and very different from the Super; a lower seating position, but slightly more comfortable. With its 4.56 rear end and the Dave Rugh short-shift kit, it feels edgier and more aggressive than the Super.
On the other hand, the aftermarket air-cleaners on the Super allow the guttural sound of the Webers to fill the cockpit — joyous noise for an old-car enthusiast. The 4.1 rear axle really lets the car come into its own as a cruiser on the freeway – in fact, if you have one you’d like to sell me, or trade for my LSD 4.56, drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I also thought the Super felt flatter through the turns, perhaps because of its aftermarket rear sway bar. I’m considering putting one on the GTV as well, and I welcome your opinions on that modification.
As we had gotten both cars pretty dusty on a section of gravel road, we ran them both through the car wash before putting them away. (There’s a video here.) Yes, I realize it is nearly sacrilegious to autowash an old car, but these paint jobs are aged, and I’d rather put the cars away clean than dirty.
By the end of the day we had covered 200 miles, both cars made it home, and I’d gotten to compare the GTV and Super back-to-back. It was all good.
Oh, yes – the next day I went into the SCM garage and tried to start the Super. Nothing, not even a click. So now Nasko will have a clear shot at fixing this problem once and for all.