Power without glory

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The Alfa Romeo Montreal tried to combine showcar looks with race car power. Were it not for an inadequate chassis, it might well have worked says Andrew Frankel

The fascination is not easy to explain. Alright, the Montreal is an Alfa Romeo, which always counts, and it has a 2.6-litre, eight-cylinder engine like the later Monzas; but that really is more coincidence than a strand of bona fide heritage.

I didn’t even know whether it would be a good car or not, having read the usual reams of hedgery that often abound when what you are faced with such an essentially complex subject. At least that’s one question I can now answer.

I suppose it stems from the unlikely union of its engine and body, both so exquisite in their utterly different roles. Imagine Linford and Julie Christie as a married couple; the dinner table conversation, you might agree, would be worth hearing. And so it is with the Montreal, with looks born for the catwalk and an engine created with no thought for anything but the track.

The reason behind it seems clear. Alfa, with sales booming in Europe, needed credibility in North America. In 1967, the year the show car was seen at the Expo in Montreal (and the year Dustin Hoffman made the Duetto rather famous too), just 1863 Alfas found homes in the US against a worldwide production run of some 78,800 cars. Yet by 1970, the year the Montreal went on sale, US sales had fallen to just 1428 of the 110,000 cars produced at Arese.

So while the Montreal might not have been the tonic Alfa needed (it wasn’t actually sold in the States until 1972), it did at least allow Alfa to produce one of the most enigmatic and latterly misunderstood cars in its enigmatic and invariably misunderstood history. For what started as no more than a Bertone styling exercise fitted with a twin-cam four became one of those rare beasts: a road car fitted not simply with a race engine but one which worked well in its road-going application.

If the car is suitably sporting, it is entirely in its manufacturer’s interests to persuade you that lurking beneath the bonnet lies the heart of a raceproven warrior. Ferrari, most notably, has done this with the F50, having based its engine on that of the 1990 640 Formula One car. One wonders, however, just how close that relationship can be where the F1 engine had a capacity of 3.5-litres and the road car’s is a mighty 4.7-litres. I’m not sure that F1 engines are designed to stretch a single cc, let alone 1.2-litres. This, in itself, is fine as Ferrari has never claimed the F50 and 640 engines to be one and the same, merely pointing to an undoubtedly genuine causal link between the two. The Montreal engine, however, was different.

When Alfa-Romeo said the Montreal was fitted with the engine from its T33 sports-racer, that is what it meant and that, indeed, is what you will find when you lift the deeply-ducted bonnet. There you’ll see the same all-alloy block with the same iron liners, topped by its quad-cam heads, its capacity remaining unchanged at 2593cc as are its race-oversquare 80mm by 64.5mm internal dimensions. Even the Spica mechanical fuel injection system is there, meting power to the rear wheels via the same five-speed ZF race gearbox.

That power, it should be said, had been tamed for the road, down to a sensible and genuine 200bhp at 6500rpm, backed up by a solid 174lb ft of torque at 4750rpm charged with pushing a 2800lb car around, a figure which only sounds hefty until you consider it’s no heavier than one of the lesser powered 3-series BMWs of today. Even so, it was 500lb heavier than its stablemate, the much loved 2-litre GTV, despite having to sit on the same chassis.

Oh yes. Compare the dimensions of the two and Montreal is clearly longer, taller, wider and broader in track than the GTV. The giveaway is the wheelbase, the same 92.5in as all 105-series Alfas. And, like its kin, it comes complete with a double wishbone front suspension and live rear axle located by trailing arms and transverse links. In an attempt to upgrade a chassis designed to cope with no more than a one-ton car with, at most, 130bhp, Alfa specified revised (though still soft) spring and damper rates, disc brakes that were not simply larger but ventilated too, and state of the art 195/70 VR 14 Michelin XWX tyres instead of the 165 HR 14 Pirelli Cinturatos more commonly found on GTVs of the era. The result was meant to be able to look a Ferrari 246GT in the eye without blinking.

In reality, this is not how a Montreal feels at all. It feels older for a start. When the Montreal was first shown, total mid-engined road car production to date amounted to a few rather mad Lamborghini Miuras. By the time this Montreal poked its prow beyond the factory gates in 1975, the notion of a front-engined supercar was positively gigglesome.

It does, however, afford one of the great views in motoring, over that sloping, swooping bonnet. Inside, Alfa eccentricity abounds. The driving position, for instance, feels better than it has any right given that all three pedals are displaced to the right of the steering column of this, one of only 103 righthand-drive Montreals. From the deeply-dished wood-rimmed steering wheel with its thin alloy spokes to the whorls on the pedal rubbers, Alfa’s signature is everywhere you look. The insanity is there too: who’d be without instruments that feature the two main dials with ancillary gauges like small children clinging grimly to their perimeters; or having to stretch to the far side of the dashboard to turn on the windscreen wipers? Me, for one.

Such thoughts, however, do tend to be blasted away with the twist of the key. I’d wondered what this little V8 would sound like, running through the factory-approved ANSA four-pipe exhaust. And the answer is magnificent. At idle it sounds twice its size thanks to a deep, burbling rumble of almost Aston-like proportion. Yet just a dab on the throttle replaces one such tradition with another, the song of the racing Italian thoroughbred, all thrilling whizzes and buzzes from the top of the engine with just an whiff of the burble that a V8 with a two-plane crankshaft alone can make. The rev-counter says 7000rpm is fine but today we’ll change at peak power, 500rpm earlier.

Few cars appeal so immediately. I always did love the looks but now I am sampling the power there is a curious synergy between the two I had not expected. In its own way, the power delivery is every bit as elegant as the shape. What is extraordinary is that it comes in one solid shove from below 3000rpm. I had thought that, with eight tiny pistons shuttling up and down such oh-so short bores,every pound-foot of torque would need to be fought for. This is not how it is. Aided only by the tight ratios of the delicious ZF-box (with first, as it should be, on the dog-leg), the Montreal delivers formidable thrust from wherever you find yourself in the revrange. Up to 110mph it’s truly quick and would continue, without doubt, to the 137mph maximum suggested for it. It would, in other words, raise both eyebrows of any Dino driver it chanced upon. So long, that is, as the road was straight, level and dry.

But place a few rather routine obstacles in the flightpath, like corners, bumps and wet surfaces, and the little Dino would dance away into the distance. When it comes to providing a match for the Montreal’s engine and expectations, the Alfa’s chassis isn’t even a near miss. Worryingly, this is despite remedial work carried out by the Lombardo Carriage Company, who provided it, in an attempt to make it handle. Shorter and gently stiffer springs with re-rated dampers and roll-bars have preserved a reasonable ride quality, while lowering the rideheight and keeping the once legendary body roll under tighter control. Slightly fatter 205/70 tyres aim to keep grip levels somewhere within sight of the Montreal’s performance potential.

The result is a car with at least a veneer of composure. Tackle a thy, smooth roundabout and, once you have wound the steering past its vague on-centre feel, it will nose into the apex faithfully, the ensuring mild understeer easily and delightfully quashed into neutrality as you accelerate away. such a corner is the first you encounter in the Montreal, you might well wonder what all the fuss was about. And you will continue to wonder about this right up to the point you turn into a wet, bumpy quickish curve.

The first impression is of a car with no front end grip at all. Right at the point you need the front tyres to bite into the corner, they shy away, kicking your heart into your mouth as they do. Whether this is simply a brief period of instability before it faithfully follows your instructions I could not say; by this time, I was off the power awaiting the roll oversteer I’d been told to expect but, in the event, never arrived. It just lurched lazily back onto some approximation of my chosen line as we continued on our way. Once you know of this trait, you can anticipate and drive around it, keeping your entry speed low and using the V8 to power out of the corner; but even then you’ll need a favourable surface if the rear axle is not to skip and bump and the body not float and wallow over crests and dips.

It is a shame, albeit not an entirely unexpected one, to note that the Montreal, so seemingly fast and classy is, in the end, tripped and sent sprawling by its inadequate chassis; it’s ironic too that the source of its downfall was also responsible for some of the sweetest handling cars of the ’60s and ’70s. For all its looks and its sublime engine, the Montreal would have served Alfa better if its shape had stayed in the exhibition hall, its engine in a racing car. It’s not that the two were not meant for each other as once I had thought, but rather that they were forced to live with an unworthy and unruly third party. It was more than this most unlikely alliance was ever likely to survive.

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