Acquiring Alfas Pt. 2: Realization
A Scavenger Hunt In Two Acts
I was dejected but not dissuaded after my disappointing first attempt at Alfa Romeo ownership; I hadn’t even waited to get home before renewing the search. I contacted the seller of a red 1983 model on the drive home from New Hampshire. The number rang through to the seller’s son who told me that his father was in Italy and wouldn’t be able to show the car until he returned. His dearth of interest or expertise in the car dissuaded me from further questions and I was consigned to wait.
The old man and I connected a little over a week later. His thick Italian accent was a near constant stumbling block in our conversation but I took the authenticity as a good omen: surely nationalism extended to classic car maintenance! He admitted that the car had only sporadically been driven over the last few years but was as reliable as the day was long. With some fuss, we agreed to a tentative price of $2500 and I assured him that if the car was as described I would be taking it home.
I was still painfully amateurish but I had learned a few things from my freshman effort in New Hampshire. To not repeat the past, I skipped a truck and trailer. To entirely repeat the past, I took the seller at his word that the car was drivable. Taking this holy Hail Mary of a leap of faith in stride, the ever-patient Keith and I set off for New Jersey in his OSHA orange Lotus Elise. The wad of cash in my pocket was considerably fatter with drastic detriment to my bank account.
Simplify and Add Triteness
The car was in a shabby neighborhood of Trenton. If you’re unfamiliar with the town: ‘shabby’ for Trenton is generous at best, misleading at worst, and we were driving the flashiest and most exotic-looking car available for under $50k. The address took us to a slightly scruffy apartment complex with no garages in site. The GTV6 was parked outdoors and flanked by an Alfa Romeo Milano and a Lamborghini Uraco, signaling the owner’s predilection for the best kept secrets of Italian cars.
The seller looked as he had sounded: short, Italian, impatient, grumpy, and named Mario. He was immediately dismissive while he grudgingly showed the car. The Alfa itself was somewhat surprising, though in a disappointing way: the paint was badly faded, safe but cancerous rust was creeping through in the kinds of places that only an Alfa can, and the comparatively low mileage (65k) was offset by lack of care and regular use. The tires were the most dry-rotted I had ever seen but barely holding air. I’ve since bought better Alfas for a fifth of the price; this one simply wasn’t worth what he was asking and I had no idea. However, it ran and drove with shocking alacrity and sat on desirable 5-spoke Compomotive wheels that emphasized the baby-Ferrari aesthetic. Better judgement be damned, if I could drive it then I would fix what I could and live with everything else!
“Okay, $2500 and we’re good!” I proffered, my hand already reaching for the cash.
The Italian’s eyes grew stormier by a shade and he barked back a thickly accented number ending, likely, in ‘hundred’ but unclear other than that. Keith and I exchanged a concerned glance.
“Tirty five hunnred!” Mario enunciated to the best of his ability or motivation and the depth of the miscommunication became clear; the accent was so thick that we were talking past each other to the tune of a thousand dollars. His general ornery demeanor and defiance made it clear that a resolution was not close at hand. That price was beyond even my impractical sense but even more alarmingly it was above my investable cents. I was committed to driving the car home and this stick in the mud was the only thing standing between us and the mission. I had a sidebar with Keith: another $500 would very nearly flatten my bank account but it was available. $3000 was the highest I could go and the game had now begun.
International Trade Negotiations
We launched into persuasive oration to make a lawyer proud. The rhetoric ranged from admonishments of the car’s many flaws to promises of loving caretaking. We needled, coerced, and rambled while seamlessly playing off each other’s arguments. For nearly 10 minutes we soliloquized while Mario said nothing and stalked around the car. Breath and arguments finally exhausted, Keith and I faded to hapless silence and waited for him to mull for many minutes more. Finally, he relented; “Okay. Three thousand.”
With muffled whoops of triumph, we tore off in the Lotus to the nearest ATM. I held my breath while the machine rang my bank and thankfully found me worthy. $500 in twenty-dollar bills spewed forth and we returned to the apartment complex.
But a new player had arrived: the once-disinterested son had convinced Mario that he was getting hosed on the deal. Like so many Alfa forum posts, (“My dad has this old rusty Alfa Spider, how much is it worth?!”) when money is on the line everyone is an expert with a barn find. Without skipping a beat, Keith and I energetically restarted the spiel. For another 10 minutes we alternated between son and father, staunchly explaining valuations, pointing out rust, and brandishing cash. Again our voices broke with no arguments left and we waited in silence for judgement. Seconds drew longer and my breath caught in my throat before the father acquiesced again and the son mercifully deferred.
Paperwork was produced, cash was exchanged, and I had the keys to my hardly-shiny and not-new Alfa! Mario’s son raised the question of how I would get it home and I confidently explained my intent to drive the 4 hours home. As for legality, I could insure it over the phone and New Jersey offered temporary transit plates for this very purpose. It was now about 4 o’clock and the nearest Department of Motor Vehicles closed at 4:30pm. We once again headed to the Lotus and rushed for the DMV with papers in hand.
Pressing the Easy Button
Such was our haste that Keith later confessed that the on-ramp might have ended in disaster had he not spent a few summers autocrossing and developing driving skill. I was occupied making the call to get the car insured and trusted him implicitly. I arrived at the DMV desk with a scant 3 minutes to spare and was confronted with an entirely checked-out clerk. She began the process with blatant displeasure and upon seeing the insurance card displayed on my phone she gleefully refused to consider it digitally and denied the offer to have it faxed. The window came crashing down along with my dreams.
Keith and I began our morose drive back. I called a few local used car dealerships, hoping that one would buy the car and immediately sell it back to me with their ability to produce a temporary plate 24/7. Shirking Jersey stereotypes, they wouldn’t consider such blatant tomfoolery. Resigned to hotrodding the car home through the notoriously well-patrolled highways of New Jersey we stopped at a Staples to print the insurance card and a bill of sale.
As I was writing up a bill of sale on one of the demo computers, inspiration struck! I opened MS Paint and started laying down block Arial font. Within seconds I was looking at a somewhat convincing temporary Vermont plate! I used the plate number from my pickup truck, hoping that I could convince a police officer I was in the process of having the plate transferred over. I even added an unfilled date field (“__/__/__”) in a corner. The plate and bill of sale were emailed to their print service and in a moment of gleeful inspiration, Keith requested card stock paper. Passing the Sharpie rack on the way out, I filled in a date approximately 30 days in the future and was more than confident in the ruse. I signed my name on the bill of sale and Keith signed for Mario, a common practice (and semi-DMV endorsed) in Vermont where no title and only a bill of sale are required to register vehicles older than 15 years.
La Famiglia Frustrante
For the last time, the orange fiberglass rocket sped us back to the home of the Alfa. As we pulled into the lot an intensely frustrating sight met us: the other Alfa had been rolled to block in my GTV6 and the final irksome offspring was standing with father and son. Mario’s daughter had returned just in time to propagate the patently untrue lie that if we drove the car home illegally it would be her father who would be liable for any issues.
I got out of the car ready to start swinging but Keith’s levelheadedness and my intense desire to just leave helped me back down from the edge of confrontation. For the third time, we laboriously started to implore to rectify the falsehood. We reasoned for another quarter of an hour, read statutes from our phones, and attempted to explain how selling a car works. With the title signed over to me the car was my property plain as day but the dull daughter imagined the police coming to their house over an imagined transgression. As I showed off the faux transit plate to demonstrate our above-board methods Keith had to snatch the improperly signed bill of sale moments before she saw her father’s “signature”. It took a great deal of reassurance, a photo of my license, and copies of the title signed in duplicate before we were finally able to leave without coming to blows.
Full Service Freebie
Our convoy didn’t waste a second in that parking lot, fearing for the arrival of yet more meddlesome family. We scurried to the nearest gas station and Keith frankly asked if there was any chance we would make it home.
“We’re nearly guaranteed a tire blowout,” I confessed. “But the spare looks like it holds air!”
The full-service gas station attendant was new on the job. I handed him my card, resigned to the possibility of an overdraft after the car had so broken my account. Within a few days I realized that he mistakenly didn’t charge it correctly and I was mercifully able to buy groceries with that small good fortune. These are not prudent life decisions; I cannot and will not recommend them.
Darkness was falling as we headed north. The Alfa had a full complement of working lights and it ran flawlessly for that trip as well as its tenure as my sole transportation. Keith fell in behind me to block the illegal license plate and I was free to connect with the car. The romanticism around Italian cars has long been a cliché but I hadn’t bought it expecting it to live up to those stereotypes. I was impressed with the historical marque, sure, but the car itself just seemed like a good RWD platform with a potent engine. Immediately, I realized why so much ink has been spilled over that Italian spirit. The playfulness and connectedness of the car was deeply satisfying and excitingly tantalizing every time I drove. 4 hours later (with no flat tires!) I was solidly in love with my first little transaxle Alfa.