Per Sempre Alfa is the offical magazine of the Alfa Romeo Owners Club of Australia (Queensland Division). This is an on-line version of an article originally printed in the magazine and is subject to the Australian Copyright Act. Other than for the purposes of and subject to the conditions prescribed under the Copyright Act, no part of this work may in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, or otherwise) be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted without prior written permission.
The Faulkner's first encounter with the Italian marque. We're hooked! (Published in a 1994 issue of the Magazine)
Alfas have been part of our family for about six years now. As in most families, we have had some good times and some not so good times. The good times come when you find a winding stretch of road among the Maleny hills and you can drive the car the way its designers intended. The bad times usually arrive in the shape of the RACQ tilt-tray and the recalcitrant family member being shipped off to Volare once more.
My first experience with an Alfa was shortly before I was married. The pending change in circumstances precipitated a review of my current vehicle- I was not certain that a Mitsubishi van used for transporting sound and lighting equipment for various bands was going to be suitable for my future needs. At the time, a "friend of a friend" was in possession of a 1976 Alfasud which was for sale and, as my future wife had expressed some interest in Sud's, I thought it was worth looking into. The major drawback, from my point of view, was the colour- a very 70's burnt orange. Nevertheless, with my fiancee still away teaching in Bamaga, I decided there were worse ways to spend a Sunday afternoon and arranged a test drive.
As I drove off, the owner made a warning remark about clutch fluid or something leaking from under the dash, but I gave my most nonchalant wave and pressed the accelerator to the floor. The car was well-worn, but despite this I had the time of my life for the next hour, even getting up to 115kph against a headwind on the Bruce Highway with my right foot hard on the floor. As a boy, my family had owned a Morris 1100 and later, a Morris 1500, both of which performed sterling service for many years. The Sud reminded me a lot of the Morris 1500 in which I had learned to drive, particularly the way the squat front-wheel drive car handled the corners. I later realised that Suds also shared another thing in common with our Morris 1500, a predilection for rust.
As it turned out, I didn't buy the orange wonder- the owner spent a day polishing it and sold it to a dealer at Albion for a figure that surprised me. I ended up settling for a 1972 Ford Capri, which I bought quite cheaply, and which served us well for a number of years. I must admit that the Capri received more admiration than any of our Alfas have; I remember one instance when I was pulled over at a RBT (I had nothing to fear, of course) and the middle aged officer spent ten minutes reminiscing to me about the Capri he had owned as a young bloke. With Alfas, any people you come across who have previously owned one usually just nod sympathetically and lend you their shoulder to cry on.
Eventually, however, a Sud ended up in our driveway. My wife began working for some people who would become very close friends and who, as it turned out were ex-Alfa owners. At the time, it seemed necessary for us to have a second car, and the choice seemed clear, so, urged on by our friends, we began searching for a Sud. A number of potential candidates were selected from various newspapers and test drives arranged. I won't go into the sorry details, but suffice to say that we looked at some very unhealthy Suds. At one car yard, the salesperson assured us that the vehicle, which had terminal rust throughout every part of the body shell, could be fixed up with a splash of rust-converter!
We finally found a 1978 model that had been looked after reasonably well, and despite a few problems during the test drive (which we eventually found out years later was caused by a faulty ignition cut-out switch) we purchased it. Once again, the only drawback was the colour; Pompeii Gold, which sounds impressive until you realise that it is mustard-beige. The car was driven back to our residence at Redcliffe and parked outside. I can almost hear the collective intake of breath as you read this. Yes, we parked an Alfasud outside in the sea-air. My only defence is that we didn't know at the time about the corrosion problems common to the model.
Our Sud had spent most of its life in outback Queensland (which explained its initial rust-free state and the red bull dust that billowed up from the seats if you thumped them) and had been maintained well by its previous owners. However, the chap we bought it from hadn't had much opportunities to drive it; which may account for one morning discovering the Sud standing in a pool of vital internal fluids. Now, as you are well aware, an Alfa is not the type of car you can take to your local service station and expect to have repaired easily. I have always been a believer in having a car serviced by someone who knows the model, but the chances of finding a mechanic in Redcliffe who was experienced in European cars, let alone Alfas,was low. For once, however, we were lucky. A service station not too far away had just changed hands and the new owner-mechanic was fresh off the plane from England where he had prepared and driven Alfasuds in rallies. As an added bonus he knew a thing or three about Capris, too!
A couple of days later, the Sud was back on the road, having had all of its clutch and brake cylinder seals replaced. There were no more problems with the Sud for the next few months (with the exception of a broken gear knob) and it was decided that one car would met our transport needs. With a twinge of sadness, a new home was found for the Capri (I still see it occasionally) and the Sud was moved into the garage, out of the elements. The car was over ten years old, now, and was showing signs of wear. A new clutch, new brakes, hand-brake cable and alternator were fitted in fairly rapid succession. Rust, which had been held at bay for a decade, suddenly decided to make up for lost time and started breaking out around the windscreen and door sills.
About this time, my wife's work situation changed again and we subsequently moved to a townhouse at Albion where we began our relationship with Volare Alfa, which at that time was still known as Avanti Alfa. (The cynics amongst you would say that the only reason we moved was to be closer to Volare and Avanti Spares!) Routine maintenance continued on the vehicle in addition to new engine mounts, shockies, and CV joints. We blew the welsh plugs one night driving back from the city and had to stop every kilometre or so to top up the radiator with water. Luckily, it was only a couple of minutes drive down the hill from where we lived to Volare.
After a year, it was time to pack our bags again and move back to Redcliffe for a while. The rust problem was beginning to look a bit serious, so the Sud was shipped off to the panel beaters for a bit of surgery. The chap who performed the operation was familiar with Alfas and he looked us straight in the eye, advising us to sell the Sud as soon as we had it fixed. The Alfa bug had bitten hard by now, however, and such a thing was out of the question. After a week, the car was returned to us, looking in pretty good shape and ready for another decade.
At about this time, Rowan Jackson at Volare informed us solemnly that the engine was on its last legs. No problem, we'll just rob another bank and have it fixed, thanks. Unfortunately, it wasn't that simple; do we have the original 1300 overhauled or drop in a 1500? Such a decision is harder than you think. The Sud was very original and we would be forsaking this for the advantages of a bigger engine. Eventually, it was decided to go for the 1500 re-engine.
I confess to not being that mechanically inclined; the theory is simple enough, but the practical application is beyond me. (Now, if there was a config.sys file to play around with, or better still, [Ctrl]+[Alt]+[Del] keys on the dashboard, then it might be a different story)
However, since owning an Alfa, I had come to know more about the mechanical side of things than I thought possible. Having an engine rebuilt would expand that dangerous amount of knowledge even further. The job went relatively smoothly, except for an unexpected problem with the clutch:
Mechanic: "It'll need a new clutch."
Me: "Why? We just had the clutch replaced."
Mechanic: "Yes but it's a 1300 clutch."
Me: "Cos it was a 1300 engine!"
Mechanic: "Yes but the new clutch that was put in should have been a 1500 clutch, everyone who puts a new clutch in a 1300 uses a 1500 clutch; I just assumed it would have had a 1500 clutch."
"It'll still need a 1500 clutch."
In hindsight, I still can't decide if it was the right decision- the extra power was good, but the 1300 had been a really sweet engine. The 1500 never quite attained the balance and smoothness of the 1300.
We had been members of AROCA for a while and, while not regular attendees of club meetings, had enjoyed a number of outings in the Sud. Perhaps the most memorable was the club run to Maleny in 1992, when the Suds (Mark Biagent's, Joe Raymond's and ours) actually outnumbered the rest of the marque. It made a pleasant change from being considered the unwanted child of the Alfa family. Speaking of children, there was now an addition to our family and a baby capsule was fitted in the rear seat of the Sud. We decided to name our first-born Rowan, not, I hasten to add, after the then owner of Volare, but after an old school friend of mine- there are limits to how far an Alfa owner should be prepared to go!
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and our Sud is no longer with us; the casualty of an accident in which no one was seriously hurt, but which resulted in the uninsured car being written off. Ironically, we had been looking around at 33's, as wrestling a baby-capsule in and out of the two-door Sud was becoming less fun. Consequently, we had a pretty good idea of what was on offer around Brisbane and picked up a suitable replacement in a couple of days. At last, we had a red Alfa!
When all is said and done, it is difficult to remember our Sud with anything but affection, although for a while I believed that "Alfasud" was Italian for idiosyncrasy. I concede that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I believe the Sud to be one of the pettiest of modern Alfas, even though its body was generally plagued with rust. The cornering ability was magnificent, which sort of made up for a bloody handbrake that never worked. Admittedly, some bits were so flimsy you couldn't use them without fear of breakage, but the bumper bars actually worked.
To list the things that went wrong with the car is to leave people wondering why any sane person would want to own one; accelerator cables snapping, suspension struts corroding through, untraceable electrical faults (including a rear brake light that would never work consistently- and don't talk to me about earth-paths!), the list seems long and expensive. Yet, in the end I guess the only answer is: "If you have to ask why we owned a Sud, you wouldn't understand anyway!"