Self Help through Continuous Alfa Improvement

Weight doesn’t matter until a force is applied and the things you accumulate are massless until you try to move them. So there’s nothing like moving across the country with little notice to reveal the true value of your possessions. When I agreed to relocate to California for a year-long contract I was volunteering for this angst. In Michigan I had achieved a dream: a large home shop, almost a dozen project cars, and tools stacked to the ceiling. But while this freed my motorhead ambitions it grounded me physically and I’m not immune from the globe trotting aspirations of my generation. It was a dream but was it my only dream? This new job was offering to foot the bill for me to discover exactly how tied down I was and that was a question I wanted answered.

The most important contents of my house easily fit in the back of my pickup truck. A computer, some clothes, and a bag of camera gear. The shop contained harder decisions. My recently rebuilt Alfa Romeo Milano was theoretically ready for the road. I had bought the car on a whim a few summers previous, two weeks after buying my house and a week after buying another Alfa Romeo, a rusty GTV6. For the first two years I had driven it one weekend per year. After much-needed head gaskets and some deferred maintenance I drove it to an Italian car show, hating the worn-out action of the shifter and synchros so much that I drove the car straight into the shop and took my time installing a fresher gearbox, rebuilding the shift linkage, and much of the rear suspension. I finished the work just in time for an Alfa Romeo Owner’s Club track day the next summer, where I finished off the mostly vanquished engine and once again drove it straight into the shop. The second winter in my possession it received the same treatment on the front half; a good used engine and a front suspension rebuild. It theoretically needed no more work so onto a trailer it went, where I hoped it would be more at home on canyon roads than it had been on the flat straight roads of the Midwest.

But what tools? For my whole life I had hung my self-worth on the nail of what I could build. Turning wrenches, driving old cars, and looking for the next machine to expand my capabilities had consumed me for 4 years. With surprisingly little fuss I made the decision to turn my back on that for a California adventure. A meager set of hand tools went in the trunk of the Alfa, I locked the door on the rest of my arsenal, and headed west.

My lifestyle transformation was total and complete: I had traded an unreliable vintage car and grease under my fingernails for a backpack of camera gear. I obsessed over my photography and scoured the SoCal car scene for new events to shoot. I interacted with more cars than ever but touched none of them, aesthetic experiences over tactile ones. Photography brought me joy but under the surface other itches were being left unscratched.

That entire winter the Alfa never turned a wheel in anger. A medley of minor issues stood between the garage door and California’s twisting canyon roads. I was in self-imposed exile from the shop and tools back in Michigan that had felt like both an anchor and liberation. Without the chrome-plated prosthetics that allowed me to bend mechanical devices to my will I found turning wrenches on the car more tedious than reaffirming.

Even without a hard Michigan winter the SoCal springtime still brought rejuvenation and the Alfa began to tempt me once again. I missed my shop, the tinkerer in me was restless. But the freshly rebuilt transaxle was making noise that I wasn’t fond of and it didn’t feel right. The gearbox was a somewhat rare Verde unit with a limited slip differential, fresh synchros and dogteeth though the 3.55 highway rear gear wasn’t doing my 165hp 2.5L V6 any favors. Regardless, I didn’t want to risk ruining it after rebuilding it the previous winter. I began to wonder about replacing it, forgetting that I had hardly more than hand tools and a small 2 car garage. Within an hour of a casual remark about my transaxle concerns to a fellow Alfisti at a cars and coffee I was standing in a garage next to a wrecked and stripped GTV6 shaking hands on a $250 transaxle. Serendipitous momentum had carried me forward where motivation had failed.

On the eve of the long memorial day weekend I committed to the job and tore into it. Five hours into the first day and I had made 4 trips to the store, done about 30 minutes of real work, and all I had achieved was getting the car 12″ higher in the air. My ambition was writing checks that my garage couldn’t cash. I was frustrated by my ineffectiveness, the inverse of a trait that had meant so much to me for so long. But I worked onwards, now committed to follow through.

In lieu of shop resources I felt my old resourcefulness return. My college years were full of daily driving and daily repairing vintage cars, trying to keep my wheels to get to class. My first brush with Alfa Romeo had been during school, when I bought a rusty GTV6 as my sole transportation. I developed hard-earned skills of jury-rigging that I was now dusting off.

After seemingly endless trips to the hardware store for tools redundant to my Michigan collection I got the old transmission out and began nesting the grimy GTV6 box in place at the center of the De Dion suspension. Now back in my old stride I went to install the Rude Goldberg-esque shift linkage and the project stumbled. The shift return spring inside the new gearbox was broken, leaving a sloppy and clacky shifting action that simply would not do for a precision driving instrument. There was no way to it but through it.

Resigned to disassemble both gearboxes to retrieve the only other shift linkage rod on hand I wondered if the trouble would all be worth it. But cracking the cases on the new transaxle was like opening the ark of the covenant. What was assumed to be a worthless downgrade turned out to be the exact transaxle I had sought: a hotrod 4.10 rear gear, a limited slip differential, and enough meat on the synchros to support my enthusiastic but amateurish heel-toe technique! The exhausting weekend had turned from likely a fool’s errand to satisfy an obsessive engineer’s whim into a real improvement to the car.

I was empowered. It was an intoxicating reminder of the irrational joy in making an arbitrary mechanical thing perform a function slightly better. Each challenge encountered would have been minor in Michigan, effortlessly defeated with overwhelming firepower: the perfect wrench for the job, stockpiles of spare parts and hardware, power tools and fabricating equipment. I had been constantly raising my standards to keep pace with my growing capabilities and eventually let great be the enemy of good. Originally purchased on a whim to be a beater daily driver, the Alfa had languished in my shop for years as I chased down increasingly small issues and sought mechanical perfection. Now payoff was at hand!

The end of the weekend was rapidly approaching but the Alfa was coming together faster. The progress was filling me with a confidence in the car I had never attained. A friend came over to help me bleed the clutch and brakes. As I drove him around the block and gushed about the improvement I put that unjustified confidence to good use and hatched a plan. The following weekend I was attending the Sonoma Speed Festival, 600 miles north on one of the most beautiful stretches of coast in the world. With a nearly new vehicle in my driveway I hadn’t given much thought to getting there, assuming I would just cruise up the 5 in my comfortable truck. But the proposition of taking the Alfa right out of the shop and taking it on a bucket list drive was irresistible. A breakdown was likely, the car was unproven. But what of it? I was resourceful again.