GETTING TO KNOW AN ALFA ROMEO

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Long Term Assessment of a 1750 Saloon

ALFA ROMEO are taking determined steps to increase the sales of their cars in Great Britain. They have had to live down a somewhat tarnished after-sales service image and combat the inevitable high prices which import duty imposes on Continental cars in this country. How successful they have been can be gauged by a sales increase of 35.3% in this country last year, at a time when sales of British cars fell by 14.6%. During this period three new Distributors and 27 new Dealers were appointed, who recorded increases of over 20% in their own sales. Alfa Romeo are trying hard. . . .

It was to assess this Alfa Romeo renaissance that N. Barrington Needham, who looks after public relations for Alfa Romeo (G.B.) Ltd., suggested that I should borrow a new Alfa Romeo and see how it behaved over an appreciable mileage. This I was very willing to do, because I regard the Alfa Romeo as irresistible. I also incline to the opinion that many Alfa Romeos are sold to comparatively staid drivers, and those past the first bloom of youth, on account of the racing associations of the cars from Milan. The most ordinary of the saloon versions, by reason of light-alloy twin-cam engine, five-speed gearbox and a combination of steering suspension and servo all-disc braking that contributes to extremely safe and enjoyable road-holding and cornering, possess a distinctly sporting air, yet are docile enough for a District Nurse.

Even the designation of the car I have been testing, 1750, accords with that of one of Alfa Romeo’s outstanding contributions to motor racing history, for the original 1,750-c.c. Alfa Romeo was evolved to give them indisputable supremacy in sports-car racing in the late vintage years. It is irrevocably tied to the names of some of the greatest racing drivers of its era and the Company has been wise to perpetuate the designation into the 1970s, even if the vintage 1750 was a supercharged six-cylinder of 65 x 88 mm., whereas the current 1750 has a Weber-fed four-cylinder 80 x 88.5-mm. engine, the actual swept volume of which is 1,779 c.c.

Many of those who buy modern Alfas surely do so because of this great racing tradition, imagining perhaps that, had they had the opportunity of a Nuvolari when they were younger, they would have been able to emulate the World’s great racing drivers? It is wise of Alfa Romeo to continue taking part in present-day races with the Tipo 33s, the exciting new 4-o.h.-cam fuel-injection 2.6-litre V8 model revealed at Geneva being closely linked to them, and with the GTAs which took the 1,000-1,600-c.c. class of the Manufacturers’ European Touring Car Championship last year; I would go so far as to suggest that Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar and Aston Martin have lost prestige, if not sales, by dropping out. . . .

The fascination of driving a modern Alfa Romeo centres around the eager acceleration from its racing-type engine, which produces very adequate performance without being taken to anywhere near its extreme top-end r.p.m., the smooth-as-silk gear-change able to select a ratio for all occasions, steering which is accurate and “feels” the road, and cornering precision which is fortunately in contrast to the rather lively ride. Plus, of course, all the lesser items which MOTOR SPORT has pronounced upon in past road-test reports on various Alfa Romeo models.

There was no hardship in running-in the white Pirelli Cinturato-shod 1750 Berlina selected for me, because it is permissible to go to 17, 29, 42, 57 and 72 m.p.h. in the gears during the initial 600 miles, which, reasonable as this is, does not stress the engine beyond about 3,500 r.p.m. The car had done 228 miles when I took it over and was due in for its first free check-over at between 450 and 750 miles. I drove it nearly 600 miles in my first week with it, and it had clocked up 989 miles in my care, a total of 1,217 miles before, with a feeling of guilt, I asked an office colleague to take it into the Alfa Romeo Centre in London’s Edgware Road for its first servicing. The “delivery faults” were confined to the hand-brake holding only on the last click of its ratchet. Driving on a filthy night to a Road Safety Brains Trust at Egham, however, I was aware of a serious blind-spot on the o/s of the windscreen, where the blade does not wipe the curved area of the glass, and was disappointed by the sharp cut-off of the Carello dual headlamps on dipped beam – you drive into pitch blackness, apart from the edges of the road being faintly picked out for some two car-lengths ahead, which seriously curtails speed on dark nights if any regard is to be paid to safety. I do not know if Italy has a bad record for unlit cyclists and pedestrians knocked down, but it would not surprise me if she has. . . .

Returning from this Road Safety evening, the Alfa’s interior lamps took to flashing as I drove over rough roads, so that it was necessary to switch them off from their “courtesy” setting. However, not being great on the courtesies, myself, this did not worry me unduly. I was liking the car more and more, especially as, from the initial 600 to 1,900 miles, another 500 r.p.m. or so is permissible during running-in, which means maxima of 21, 35, 51, 69 and 88 m.p.h., going up through the delightful gearbox. Up to its first service very little oil had been used and I saw no need to add any.

I was unable to resume driving the car for some time after that. When it was collected, by a daughter who was captivated by the car but found the steering heavy for parking, it showed 1,375 miles. The head of the Italian Jaeger speedometer had apparently been changed, because Needham disliked a slightly flickering needle – no more so than on the road-test Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow and I hadn’t complained. But, efficiently, they had set the total mileometer to the former reading. Alas, the needle still flickers, and the hand-brake still needs a good heave.

I went on religiously running-in, mostly on drives to London, the first long day’s Alfa-Romeoing coining just as the snows of winter were vanishing. Freedom to go to the full rev.-limit of 5,800 came somewhere on the route Cricklade-Newbury, as I was dodging frozen ice-lumps in the dark, and still fretting over the sudden black-out on dipped headlamps. An early fuel consumption check, mostly before the running-in mileage was completed, showed 26.6 m.p.g. I used 4-star fuel most of the time, 5-star when a very remote filling point on the Berkshire Downs could offer only 2-star or the best from its two lonesome Esso pumps, the only haven for those short of petrol between Newbury and Wantage, be it noted.

This is intended as a long-term assessment, so there will be more to come. Meanwhile, I have been unable to avoid comparing this Alfa Romeo with the Rover 2000TC I habitually drive; for reasons, aforesaid, I try to use the British car at night and the Alfa for daylight journeys! When I listed the good and bad points of the Rover in the February MOTOR SPORT I omitted to remark on the absurdly shallow sun-vizors, which are useless for any but very tall men (is Peter Wilks, Rover’s Engineering Director, all that lofty?), making drives into the sun sheer purgatory. The Alfa Romeo does not have this fault but, like the Rover, it does have a vanity mirror in the driver’s vizor, which I am not sufficiently beautiful to appreciate. The Rover contrasts in having excellent Lucas lamps, whether on full or dipped beam, but the Alfa’s reversing lamps are as good as, or better than, the useful ones on the Rover. The British car has a steady-reading fuel-gauge needle, whereas that on the 1750 swings about. Otherwise, there is little to compare and I enjoy both cars about equally, but for different reasons.

The second free servicing of the Italian car is due between 3,100 and 3,750 miles. Meanwhile, early impressions have been that the Alfa Romeo 1750 is at quality-finished as any of the Milanese models but that its rather old-fashioned high and chunky body has dated, so that prestige is lost unless the characteristic radiator grille can be seen! But it is very quick about the place, and a joy to drive – so “alive” that it induces its driver to be likewise. The driving seat, with commendably positive squab-angle adjustment, is truly comfortable and self-supporting. The flick-switches for wipers, panel-lighting and heater fan down on the central console are difficult to memorise and are. I think, less well placed than those on the 1750GTV. The wipers, although working disconcertingly out of step, clean the screen of mud very effectively indeed but leave dirty areas at the edges, as previously mentioned. The foot-operated wipe/wash, beyond the ramp on which to rest the left foot, is a real boon. Luxury is enhanced by the four angled dials on the console, for oil, water, fuel and time readings, but the Jaeger clock loses approximately 45 sec. a day. Speedometer and tachometer, hooded, are directly before the driver, and are thus easily observed. Only a neat Radiomobile radio breaks the run of the wood-simulated facia; I have so far been unable to enjoy it because the tip of the tiny key – symbol of the hooligan age in which we live – which unlocks the tail-mounted aerial and enables it to be extended, snapped off at the first time of trying. All dials bar the clock carry the Alfa Romeo insignia, a nice quality gesture.

As befits a thoroughbred, the Alfa’s engine should be warmed up at 1,500 r.p.m. for at least three minutes in the summer and for five minutes in the winter. There are two snags to this; it seems an infernally long time to wait on most occasions and the under-scuttle hand-throttle, beside the choke lever, is very insensitive and even when the revs, have been finally set correctly, they tend to soar upwards after a few moments. Most owners, I imagine, get the oil circulating in the gearbox, which is apparently the object of this cold-start care, by driving gently along in 3rd speed. Starting from cold calls for four or five attempts; thereafter the engine, despite its exciting specification, is astonishingly docile and the Webers virtually free from flat-spots. Another Alfa idiosyncrasy is that speedometer and radiometer indicate that you are doing 5 m.p.h. at 500 r.p.m. when in fact the vehicle is stationary and the engine not turning. Yet another is that wipers, heater fan, etc., are independent of the ignition/steering-lock key, which I like. Another good point – away back in 1938 I was bemoaning having to switch on the facia lighting to check if the side-lamps were on; Alfa Romeo give you sensibly non-dazzle indicator lights, which include one signifying that the car is illuminated.

The heater, controlled from two levers on the left of the gear-lever, is effective and by using the fan on the slower of its two speeds the windscreen is demisted on winter days as if by magic. The anti-dazzle mirror is decently supported and consequently effective, unlike too many of its kind, which wobble. I am revelling in Alfa Romeo motoring, with 3,149 trouble-free personal miles covered to date; how I fare as the distance mounts and how a staff 1750GTV behaves, will be the subject of a later article.-W.B.