It’s not always the size of your wallet that brings results. Laurence Meredith falls for a £300 success story.
The good people responsible for the conception and delivery of Alfa Romeo’s Giulia coupe probably wouldn’t have had too many philosophical quarrels with Aristotle, who once noted that there are some jobs in which it is impossible for a man to be virtuous.
In creating the Sprint version featured here, the Milanese designers, draughtsmen and engineers surely created an all-time great — a thing of stunning proportions, of almost unimaginable joy — yet it remains one of the classic car world’s best kept secrets.
Red, of course, but ripe for restoration. Reg Barker from Shrewsbury, paid just £300 (yes, really) for his 1964 car two years ago, rebuilt it over the course of last winter, and for his efforts, was rewarded with a class win in the 1995 Paul Matty Historic HilIclimb Championship. Which is quite something for someone who had never even seen a MIG-welder much before his 50th birthday.
As this was intended as a road/race car, much of the Alfas ‘road’ equipment was discarded, the standard seats, interior panels, suspension et at were well past their best anyway. With the car stripped to a bare shell — the only way to tackle an Alfa rebuild — the laborious but meticulous resurrection took shape over a period of a few months.
A spare 2-litre engine was acquired for the appropriate sum of £50 (any more would have been considered expensive with a three hundred-quid car) and rebuilt while the bodyshell was being welded — and welded, and welded.
This Alfa was as rusty as… well, all unrestored 30-year-old Alfas Autodelta ‘stage two camshafts, a brace of 45 Webers, high-compression pistons and a ‘freeflow exhaust were bolted to the old engine.
The cylinder head was cleaned up, polished and ported, and the flywheel was shaved for lightness but bolt-on, go-faster goodies, essential as they are for competition work, aren’t really worth a lot without the major moving parts — crankshaft, pistons, con-rods, clutch — being perfectly balanced. And they were, to the nth degree.
The standard gearbox was linked to a lower-than-standard rear axle, a Rhoddy Harvey-Bailey suspension kit was fitted, which included stiffer, lower springs. Bilstein gas-filled shock absorbers and a sturdy anti-roll bar, and with a few odds and ends that Reg had collected on the way — fibre-glass doors and bonnet, perspex side windows, alloy wheels, a rollcage and a couple of lightweight bucket seats — the whole ensemble was screwed together, sent to the local paintshop for a lick of rich racing rosso, and thence to a rolling road, where it was discovered that a fairly wholesome 125bhp was present, in no uncertain terms at the rear wheels, straight out of the box. Up to a point this all appears to be straightforward and simple. The reality, of course, is somewhat different. The long, often painful road to restoration is an almost never-ending one, but the reward at the end in this case, is one of the most exciting objects of useable automotive fine art anyone could ever want.
From any angle — every angle — this pretty little car is enticing, seductive, swooping and thoroughly intoxicating, the voluptuous body a piece of carefully sculpted mid-60s penmanship that is so good that, rather than ageing gracefully, lust gets better and better looking. And it goes every bit as well as its purposeful countenance suggests too.
Unhappily, a spell behind the wheel convinced me that I should have ‘contented myself with drooling from the outside. It’s simply that this Alfa is everything and more that a really good car should be. After a couple of minutes booting the tittle imp from one hideously sharp bend to the next, it becomes the car that you just have to own… If it weren’t for the mortgage, wife, kids, dog and Kenneth Clarke. I jest, of course Mr Chancellor.
A fortiori, after a couple of hours, you just ‘tune in’ to its every whim and feel as though you do own it. It’s just so easy and predictable — like putty in your hands. Never mind that the rollcage hinders a dignified passage into the hip-numbing seat; forget that without carpeting the engine noise inside the cabin is car-shattering and that creature comforts are non-existent, just turn the ignition key and get on with it. Gently at first to warm up the engine and transmission oil. And then? Hit the throttle pedal as hard as a size 10 can.
Jeeesus Chrrrist… snatch second — quick — and third, fourth and fifth; its a neck-jerking, pedal-dancing dash to the tachometer red-line in every cog, the stubby exhaust tailpipe barking, rasping hard as the throttle opens gaping wide after each flick of the shifter. The hedgerows become a prickly, leafless blur in the bleak, mid-winter sunshine. Post the lever down two cogs to third the exhaust note whooping and screaming as the revs rise instantly and die just as quickly before the power comes in again.
Grip the small steering wheel gently, turn in close to the right-hand apex and floor the throttle pedal, out comes the rear end, hold it on the throttle, gently feed in a touch of opposite lock and quickly straightening it all out, away she flies, like a radio-controlled bomb detonation. Except with the Alfa there’s no fall-out — just hot, snappy kindling power. And it’s glorious.
The classic four-cylinder twin-cam remains as smooth and jewel-like as it once was in standard configuration but now, it’s really alive. Yet it is still tractable and passably docile at low speeds. There are certainly none of the temperamental ups and downs normally associated with high-lift camshafts. Surprisingly, there’s also ample pulling power across the range, but an impressive quantity of torque at low revs to make for the all-important hop, skip and jump away from the line at hilIctimb venues.
As the suspension is also honed for the smooth tarmac of Shelsley and Prescott, the car feels, although actually isn’t, vulnerable on the pothole punctuated roads of Shropshire, but there’s an underlying suppleness, and the crashing and banging that might be expected as the wheels jump from one nasty cavity to the next is never so bad that your muscles tighten in sympathy at the punishment suffered by the underside mechanicals.
At high and low speeds, this Alfa makes for a delightfully uncivilised road car Aristotle would have approved. There’s an almost insufferable cold draught from goodness knows where that enters both trouser legs, conversation with your passenger borders on pointless and, as the perspex windows don’t open — apart from the small sliding panel — there’s not a lot to be had in the way of eye-level ventilation.
All of that, however, is quickly forgotten. Merely changing up and down through the gearbox, even when it is totally unnecessary, is so smooth and fast through the gate that draughty trouser legs don’t matter. And the firm competition clutch is, without any shadow of doubt, the best I’ve had the pleasure of kicking. It’s not quite an ‘in or out’ affair but is a correct compromise between what is, and what is not acceptable, for those occasions when the family Ecobox won’t start and J Sainsbury Ltd beckons.
The only part of the car that really shows its age is the steering, which is not as precise or direct as it could be, but I suspect that the heaviness encountered, particularly in low speed corners, has more to do with the Avon rubber than the layout of the steering geometry. These tyres give phenomenal grip, as can be expected, but the drag they create when lateral forces are applied would certainly decrease if they were replaced by narrower boots.
Whatever, the chuckability factor of this marauding missile with the current rubberwear is laughably high. Feather the throttle through a corner and it’s as dull as an Inter-City 125, but get into the spirit of the thing and you just throw it. Impossible to go wrong.
As this Alfa, like all Alfas, is about going forwards, and usually at a respectable rate of knots, slopping is largely irrelevant, particularly in the heat of up-hill competition; but when the brake pads need to be lit up, the bite and rate of deceleration is unequivocal — and always without leaving a brace of expensive black rubber lines on the road. Incidentally, the brake lights and indicators don’t actually work on this car, which illustrates that despite all the various modifications, it is still a genuine Alfa Romeo with all the usual electrical hallmarks…
My fun over, the only unpleasant thing about Reg Barker’s Giulia Sprint proved to be switching the engine off. It was so disappointing because, when a mechanical device works as perfectly as this 2-litre power unit so obviously does, the desire to use it, which, after all, is what it was intended for, quickly becomes seriously addictive. But all good things have to come to end, regrettably.
So what compares with it for proper motoring fun — real driving pleasure? Renault’s Alpine A110 comes close, and so does the BMW 2002 Tii, but neither — even as completely useless wrecks —can be found for the cost of a sound, restorable Giulia Sprint. Which is why I reiterate this classic Alfa has been, and continues to be, a very well kept secret indeed. But for how much longer?