For the past month, I've been enjoying the company of an old friend. It came into our life in 1988, just after I had left my position as artistic director of Ballet Oregon and become a sales manager for Ron Tonkin Gran Turismo, hawking Ferraris, Alfas, Maseratis and Lotuses.
Cindy was in elected office as a State Representative. I recall that it took all of her formidable political skills to convince me that her buying a green 1978 Alfa Romeo Spider, with just 20,000 original miles, was a prudent decision during those financially challenging times for us. A year before SCM was founded, she was already spouting the lingo. "There's no substitute for originality," was her closing argument.
Over the years, her green Spider has become a part of our life. We have not always been kind to it. Winters have been spent in unheated garages or warehouses. Clutches have been replaced due to corrosion; the entire braking system froze at one point because of accumulated moisture from our wet Portland winters. An array of tiny dents, scrapes and rock chips took their toll on its original paint. A neighbor's cat decided the passenger footwell was a convenient feline urinal. The original top disintegrated.
Two years ago, Cindy decided it was time to bring her neglected car back to life. A cosmetic restoration was completed last summer in time for the Alfa National Convention, held in Portland.
Cindy has always fiercely loved her Spider, big rubber bumpers and all, but it wasn't until last month that I bonded with this car. Although I had installed high-lift cams, thicker sway bars, Shankle springs and cross-drilled rotors, the Alfa had never pulled strongly or revved freely. I assumed that was due to its Spica fuel injection, inferior in my thinking to Weber carburetors.
I was wrong. Soaring water temperatures sent the Alfa to Nasko's Imports for a head gasket and a valve job; it was the first time the head had been removed. Nasko replaced the valves and guides, and tuned the car.
I picked it up just in time to drive to Timberline Lodge, 60 miles away, where the Bentley Drivers Club was making an overnight stop on their tour from Seattle to Pebble Beach.
For the first time, the Alfa ran like a real Alfa. The suddenly available horsepower from new and properly adjusted valves allowed me to push the car hard enough to enjoy the upgraded suspension. Driving the twisting road up to Timberline, top down in 80-degree weather, brought back memories of all the Alfas I've driven on that same road over the years.
The next morning I was up at 6 a.m., and by 7:30 had traveled 100 miles on Oregon's Highway 26, not going anywhere in particular. I just wanted to drive the car, and savor the feeling that came from letting it run free and hard in the cool, early morning mountain air. The odometer turned 50,000 miles somewhere between the Warm Springs Indian Reservation and Mirror Lake.
I've been driving it daily for the past month. So many cars have passed through our lives that there is something intensely satisfying about having one that really is a keeper, and that is finally in the condition that allows it to speak in a clear, powerful voice.
As most of our cars seem to be perpetual projects, having a car that is done is a joy. To be able to go to the garage, fire it up, and run errands without worrying about soft brakes, overheating, misfiring plugs, worn suspensions and recalcitrant starting and charging systems is a treat.
Our daughter wasn't yet born when we acquired the then ten-year-old Alfa. Now Alexandra herself is ten, and the Alfa has had its twenty-third birthday.
This morning I drove Alex to school with the top down. We stopped at the local market for her maple bar and hot chocolate (no letters from eco-nutritionists, please). We continued to school, singing "Hey now, you're an all star" along with the "Shrek" CD, the wind tousling her hair. I knew clearly that I was in the best of cars, having the best of times.
The past decade has not been a kind one to General Motors. SCM has often commented that the Impalas, Cavaliers and Azteks of today share little of the DNA of the Bel Airs, GTOs and Chevelles of the past.
Things are changing. Ms. Banzer and I, along with Popular Mechanics editor-in-chief Joe Oldham and his wife, Nina, had dinner with Bob and Denise Lutz in Monterey during the Historic weekend. Newly appointed as vice-chairman of product development for GM, Lutz's enthusiasm for the future of the company is enormous. An unabashed advocate of automotive style, he spent much of the weekend cloistered with GM's vice president of design, Wayne Cherry, analyzing sketches of proposed upcoming products. Their discussions were animated; in two years, we may see the General once again on the road to becoming the General. It's been too long in coming.
We had a brief taste of the future while behind the wheel of a 2002 Cadillac Escalade EXT. Near-three-ton faux pickups with leather-clad interiors are not quite the target vehicle for SCM, but the EXT was surprisingly composed hustling along two-lane roads in the backcountry around Carmel. The suspension feels clamped down, body roll is minimal, the 345-horsepower, 6-liter V8 provides scoot and the brakes are superb. The last time we had pushed a heavy vehicle so hard, and with such satisfactory results, was when we drove a new Bentley Arnage in Tennessee last year. May our friends at Bentley forgive us for the comparison; may our friends at GM push the envelope of performance and style for all their offerings.
ON THE COVER
David Chapple's "'62 Colony" graces SCM this month. His works have been featured on the covers of DuPont Registry, Old Cars Weekly, Car Collector Magazine and Sports Car Market.
The 22 x 30-inch acrylic painting was done on watercolor paper. Open-edition prints of "'62 Colony" are available in an 8 x 12-inch format for $45. Chapple's other artwork may be viewed at his Web site, www.autoart.com. Contact: 810/606-0763 (MI), email@example.com.