Alfa Romeo is the featured marque at a variety of events in Monterey this year, so sprinkled throughout this issue you'll find a focus on Alfas. Putting all this stuff together had me itching to write yet another chapter in my long saga with the marque, so last week I tried to buy a Spider before going to lunch.
I had found it on Portland's Craig's List, where the picture showed a rubber-bumper car with the year unstated. In an e-mail exchange, the owner said it was completely original, and needed a minor tune-up but added, "It's ready to drive to the beach right now."
Which beach, he didn't specify. As the nearest is only three miles away, the $2,200 asking price seemed a bit much, especially since the car had been on Craig's List for a month. But the seller agreed to meet me in the parking lot of a nearby grocery store, so I started calculating how little I might offer as I walked over there.
At 100 paces, the Alfa looked terrific. Up close, the gloppy repaint, thick bondo on the left rear fender, faded-to-white burgundy leather seats, cracked dash, threadbare carpets, top with glued-in rear window, dangling front turn signals and bald front tires were all pretty obvious. Then there was the issue of its model year.
It was a 1981, the nadir of Alfa driveability due to the company's ongoing problems with making its cars smog-legal in the U.S. In 1982, Alfa switched from Spica to Bosch injection, a far superior system. As if that didn't make this car enough of a disaster, its injection system just didn't look right. The seller explained that it had been replaced by one from an earlier year, resulting in a variety of disconnected hoses and clipped wires.
The icing on the cake was that its California plates had expired in September 2004. The seller claimed he had gotten the car a couple of months ago by trading a new Kawasaki motorcycle for it, but then discovered his back went into spasm when he sat in the car. He also offered his "Plan B" reason for selling, which was, "I need to sell the car to pay for having three teeth crowned." Maybe his back had miraculously healed while we were talking.
I'LL TAKE A NICE ONE, PLEASE
This is all a very long way of saying that this Alfa would have been a bad buy at any price. Realizing this got me to thinking about just what it is I'm actually looking for in a collectible car these days.
For me, a small displacement (under 2-liter) sports car with a decent five-speed gearbox represents the sweet spot in affordability and motoring fun, which is what has always attracted me to Alfa Spiders. While I used to think that only convertibles were true sports cars, in my maturity I've come to appreciate coupes as well, with their increased comfort and more rigid chassis.
While I wasn't willing to go down the path to where this beater would have led me, I did start to plot out another course, a plan for what I'd like to park in my garage in the next few years. Like any of these trains of thought, I don't know if it will ever come to fruition, but right now this seems like the perfect six-car collection.
I'd begin with a 1967 GTV. I'd settle for a 1300-cc GT Junior if the condition was right. I've put thousands of miles on GTVs in the U.S. and raced them in Europe, and they simply represent the ultimate expression of the 1600-cc Italian sports car. I'd pay up to $15,000 for the right car.
Next to it I would want a round-taillight, chrome-bumper, 1968-73 BMW 2002. I've never owned one, but as a GTV owner in the early '70s, I had innumerable stoplight drag races with them, as well as impromptu races through Golden Gate Park while the police were preoccupied busting hippies in the Haight. $10,000 should get me a very nice one, and $15,000 perfection. I'd have to double that to get the high-performance tii variant, and I just don't think they are worth the additional money.
A five-main-bearing, chromebumper, 1964-67 MGB with overdrive would be there as well. Visually, they are a nearly perfect design, devoid of ornamentation and with a crispness that today's designers could learn from. The drivetrain of the B is a little agricultural, but the overall
package is satisfying. This is another $15,000 car.
Then I'd seek out a 1965-67 SWB Porsche 911. I know all the Porschephiles love to go on and on about the handling and mechanical deficiencies of the early cars, but these simply look right. Unless you're trying to pretend you're Hurley Haywood, you're never going to get the car to swap ends, anyway. I'd like to spend $15,000 for a great car, but it might take $20,000 to get what I want.
A 1962-66 Lotus Elan S1 or S2 convertible would have a space reserved for it, of course a pre-smog example with a cross-flow Weber head. The yellow one I once had fit me like a soft-leather ballet slipper fits a premiere danseur, and offered a direct connectivity to the road unmatched by any other car I've ever driven. As restorations on these cars rarely last more than 15,000 miles before all sorts of things start to wear out or break, I'd spend $20,000 and get one recently done by a specialist.
And finally, adding a big-bore to the group, I'd round things out with a 1964-67 Austin-Healey 3000 BJ8. While clumsy when pushed hard, at freeway speeds on gently undulating roads the Big Healey offers an effortless, high-speed vintage cruising experience that encourages you to gobble up hundreds of miles a day. We've reported on $100,000 sales of Kurt Tanner-restored Healeys at auction, but I'd like to think I could find one I would like to own for around $50,000.
The focus for all of these cars is their fun-per-dollar quotient. All are easy to maintain and stay in tune once put there properly. They each have distinctive, nearly timeless styling, and represent a pre-regulatory era that we will never see again. Parts supply and club support is good for all of them, and there are plenty of events where you can find kindred souls to discuss just how well (or how badly) your various mounts have been performing.
I wouldn't take any of these that weren't in strong #2 condition. I'd rather pay a top price than suffer through months of making a nasty car nice. Which brings me back to the wreck of an Alfa Spider, and how it really needs to go to someone who can hardly wait to spend his evenings and weekends trying to fix and restore it.
Me, I'd rather be out driving.