Acquiring Alfas Pt. 1: Infatuation
The only commonality I’ve experienced in Alfa Romeo deals is that they’re never simple. The brand doesn’t seem to attract rationality. This is the first of three planned posts about my misadventures in buying Alfas. But when I acquire the next one, I’m sure it will be an experience, and the series will continue.
Insidious Italian Ideas
College is a time of experimentation; musing over fresh ideas, broadening the mind, and facing a dawn of new horizons. In my junior year of engineering school, I was hard at work on the collegiate racecar team, embroiled in a battle with exams, and attempting to have the occasional good time to unwind. Even so, I wasn’t immune to the ebb of curiosity and experimentation. From my staunchly loyal American muscle car roots, I had been exposed to a subversive and dangerous concept: European sports cars. A newfound appreciation for handling, a need for fuel efficiency, and a desire for style and panache drew my eyes to the Continent for my next vehicle purchase.
With a firm rear-drive bias, a number of contenders emerged to proffer their proclivities to my eclectic tastes: BMW E30, Porsche 944, or Mercedes’ of various levels of sporting intent. Some dark horses rode in from the east such as the Toyota MR2 or the Nissan 240SSX. The logical solution would have been a Miata. The Japanese but British-in-spirit roadster has enough accolades that I need not sing its praises here and I myself have sung that same tune to many a car-curious companion. But oh the follies of the young and overly romantic; I felt the Miata was missing an éclat, an élan, an elegance.
With that joy de vivre specifically in mind, a challenger reemerged from the fog of the ‘80s: the Alfa Romeo GTV6. The hatchback’s extensive and green thumb-inspiring greenhouse had once drawn dismissal from my uncultured palette – but that was a time when I felt the classic American fastback would never have a rival for my heart. Now the Alfa’s arching roofline seemed lithe and athletic while the hatch and broad swaths of glass tendered a playful lightheartedness. The sonorous V6 and balanced transaxle arrangement settled my engineering judgement into an expectation of balance and responsiveness. Finally (and to be quite honest, most importantly) the gravitas of the marque wasn’t lost on me in the slightest. I had no one to impress but my own sentimentality and one of the most storied brands in the automotive pantheon would be quite suitable.
Searching and Settling
The laborious decision became the easy part when I chose such an uncommon car. Craigslist, forums, and eBay filled free moments on the hunt for a classic and increasingly desirable Italian sports car on a meager collegiate budget. The trees were shook extensively and after weeks I had nothing to show for it but a bookmark folder of dead links. Finally, a potential option appeared! But a moment for honesty: I was inexperienced, enthusiastic, and made some grave mistakes throughout the entire Alfa Romeo buying process, even beyond the very fact of embarking on an Alfa Romeo buying process. The lessons I’ve learned from these errors will be outlined both here and my project car guide and I hope some cautionary lessons can be gleaned.
Approximately 3 hours away was an ’85 model for $1500 (implied ‘or best offer’). The craigslist post was sparse on details and a desert of photos. The mild discomfort of the seller at the digital medium was concerning but I chalked it up to age: it’s not uncommon for older, less internet savvy sellers to treat Craigslist like the classifieds papers and submit an ad as if they were being charged by the word. The car was promised to be solid but with an engine that had been disassembled, blueprinted, and ready for reassembly. Of course, I thought, “Sure, that’s fine!” Even had that been the case it would have still been the wrong car for a college student with no personal shop space and little free time. It was not fine.
Misadventures in Milan Mending
My roommate, Keith, a good friend and generous fellow, offered to celebrate my birthday by borrowing his father’s 2500HD truck, renting a trailer, and going to retrieve the car with me. This was getting out of hand but I was enthused. Wad of cash in pocket, we set off on the trek.
The rural New Hampshire town seemed better suited for the occasional Camaro interspersed with a great number of Subarus and Chevrolet Silverados than an Alfa Romeo. Unabated, we pressed on to the given address and arrived at a rather charming hilltop farm. I knocked on the door and met an older man, gentlemanly and soft-spoken. He was exactly the sort of fellow you’d expect to be quirky enough to seek out an Italian sports car in a sleepy New England hamlet. Unfortunately, he responded to my introduction with a foreboding shoulder slump and, “That would be my son. He’s on his way over.”
The sad resignation of the father had triggered the first of my long overdue alarm bells and within a few minutes they ramped into klaxons with the arrival of the son. He rattled up in a rusted GMC Jimmy, complementing his general unkempt appearance with a desert camo jacket, Bluetooth headset, and an American flag bandana on his head, doo rag style. Note that we were timezones from the nearest desert, miles from cell service, and possibly outside the common purview of American law up in the rural holler. I let all the misreprentations pass and hoped they didn’t extend to the car.
As we walked to the Alfa, the seller wasted little time dribbling out a not-at-all convincing backstory to the forced sale of the car, involving a sick wife and career troubles. His lack of conviction in the obvious farce was, quite frankly, insulting. We rounded the corner of the barn dangerously close to cresting into politics. After subduing incredulousness, Keith and I realized that the car he was gesturing to was indeed the Alfa he had described.
Disassembly, Dilapidation, Disappointment
The GTV6 had been sitting so long that saplings as thick as a quarter had grown in front of and behind it. The poor fiberglass rust repair in the front fenders were exposed by the scaffolding that had collapsed on one of them, bending and cracking the poor repair. What parts of the interior not covered by indelicately stacked boxes of parts were split and peeled like a banana. Inside the barn, we were introduced to the engine: fully disassembled years ago, a deposition of surface rust now pitted every exposed internal surface. Based on the number of remaining pistons, it was for an Alfa Romeo GTV5 and even I knew I had no way of knowing what else was missing.
The erstwhile salesman’s pitch had tapered off. He knew from the start that he was waiting for the world’s biggest sucker. Despite my lack of experience, I wasn’t that. We would have started the negotiation at what he would pay me for the landscaping and tree service work to get the car out. With little drama, Keith and I split.
Crestfallen, we drove our empty trailer and eager truck off the mountain. Though we were out only our time and the cost of fuel and the trailer, I had flunked the deal. I invested heavily in the trip despite the extremely spotty communication, lack of pictures, and poor answers to any and all questions.
But dashed hopes? Not even a little! Reaching cellular service a few miles later I restarted the search immediately, broadening my geographic and financial range. These allowances uncovered another GTV6, this one in New Jersey, that seemed much more tractable! With a paid-up trailer behind us and retribution on the mind, I immediately called and attempted to schedule a viewing that night. It wasn’t to be so immediate but that car would eventually become mine despite every hurdle fate and good sense threw in my path.