Octane’s art director bravely bought an Alfa Romeo Giulia saloon – in Italy. Here’s the story of the 1000-miles journey home
It’s fair to say I’ve been dreaming about this trip for a long time. Planning the route – Milan, Turin, some mountains, northward through France to the cross-Channel ferry – not to mention picturing, in my mind’s eye, that moment when the keys to a 1969 Alfa Giulia saloon are dropped into my hand. The keys to my Alfa Giulia saloon.
I’ve been anticipating this moment – counting down the days! – for more than a year. Just couldn’t wait. But there’s nervousness to deal with too. What if I don’t like the car, or the way it drives? Will it live up to my expectations or will I be disappointed by it? You see, I’d never even driven a Giulia saloon before. Looked at a few at shows, done a little window-shopping in the UK, but this was going to be my first time behind the wheel.
And I’d have 1000 miles to get used to it before it even set a tyre on a British road.
Finally I see the Giulia in its finished state. I’d flown over to Milan a few months back to check on progress in the bodyshop and hand over a bunch of euros. I got to poke around the workshop, prod the car, sit in it, play with the controls – but that’s as far as it went. Seeing it again, the dream made real, it’s prettier than I remember, especially now it’s had its beautiful Mille Miglia wheels refurbished. My wingman, Octane colleague and photographer (and possibly my mechanic too) on this trip is Mark Dixon. He gives me a nod of approval. ‘The car looks great!’ He’s not wrong.
Our man in Italy, Massimo Delbò, found the Giulia and oversaw its bare-metal respray. I used the same bodyshop that had worked on several of his cars. I’d been in touch, ever-more apprehensive as the date approached, and he had advised me that the Alfa had broken down the day before we arrive, blaming a faulty dynamo. But no worries. It’s since been rebuilt and seemed fine when tested this morning.
Now comes that moment. The keys are dropped into my hands. The car is mine. I pause and contemplate what’s to follow. We’re fresh from an early-morning flight from the UK, so the plan is to drive the 60 miles or so to Massimo’s house in Dorno and stay overnight, then start our adventure the next morning, heading for the border and crossing over the French Alps to arrive in Calais after three days of driving. Plenty of time to enjoy the Alfa. Plenty of time to sort things out if we have any problems en route.
After its last polish by the bodyshop, the Alfa is out front, gleaming in the Italian sunshine. Time for a little inspection. The paintwork is pristine, those wheels really set the car off, and the hard-to-find replacement weather strips around the side windows look fantastic: much tidier than the originals, but perfectly patinated and therefore not too new-looking.
Then comes my chance, at last, to get in and start the engine. I click open the door, insert myself into that spare yet forgiving seat, place a hand on the wheel, and turn the key. It takes a few seconds before the 1300cc twin-cam comes to life and idles sluggishly. I guess that’s only fair; it’s been sitting here for more than a year while the bodywork was being attended to.
Time to enjoy that well-oiled yet well-defined gearshift, get used to the floor-hinged pedals and head west from Piadena and onto the Autostrada towards Dorno. It’s a drive of an hour or so, long enough that I can become accustomed to how the car drives, get used to its foibles, and re-educate myself in the manners of a classic: this is the oldest car I’ve ever owned.
To be honest, it feels a little down on power, as though it’s running on three cylinders, but as the miles pass the engine begins to free up, and I’m surprised and delighted by the slickness of the gearchange, even though, as with many 105s, the synchromesh on second is a little worn. Still, we’re well able to keep up with traffic on the Autostrada, and the fifth gear makes the car a capable cruiser, happily sitting at 120km/h. I guess we can thank the car’s advanced 0.34Cd aerodynamics for that.
As we approach Massimo’s village I notice the indicators are running slower; then they fail completely. Not a good sign with such a long way to go tomorrow. We pull up at the gates to Massimo’s home, I switch the engine off and then, when I try to restart… nothing. The battery is evidently flat. It seems the electrical fault that had plagued it during the week has returned, and it’s getting dark outside. No choice but to leave the car overnight and try to figure something out in the morning.
It dawns on Italy’s Independence Day, a public holiday. If we can’t fix the car ourselves, we’ll have to wait another 24 hours because every garage will be shut. While Dixon wields a voltmeter and confirms that the dynamo isn’t working, Massimo and I enjoy the sunshine and call his mechanic in the next village. He can help us tomorrow. Thankfully the car has broken down here rather than halfway into the Alps…
When the sun comes up again, we jump-start the Giulia and head for the garage, where we’re met by Dino and his son Alessandro. Dino has prepared many cars for events such as the Mille Miglia and Tour Auto, so the Alfa is in safe hands. Massimo’s own 1300 GT Junior is also here, having work done. While Alessandro fits a replacement dynamo, Dino shows us photographs of the many cars from his past, including a framed picture of him sitting in a single-seat De Tomaso from his racing days.
Later, as we motor along happily, our luck turns with the weather: it’s raining, just short of Turin, as we discover that the dynamo still isn’t charging the battery. This isn’t how I’d pictured our road trip. Where are the blue skies, clean mountain air and Matt Monro? We turn off lights and wipers, drive sedately back to Dorno, and wait (and wait…) for Alessandro to check the system again.
Turns out the dynamo is being burnt out by a faulty control box – and he doesn’t have one in stock. Eventually, a suitable unit is tracked down in a town some distance away, which the redoubtable Dino sets off to retrieve. What’s more, Alessandro has found a new/old-stock armature in his store room to rebuild the dynamo – result! It’s dark (again) as we head for our motel for yet another night. Feels more like Groundhog Day than La Dolce Vita.
Come the morning, the sun is streaming through the curtains. I’ve already postponed the ferry, but still we have only two days to cover more than 1000 miles home. I take the lack of rain as a good sign: who’d have wanted to drive through the Alps in a rainstorm anyway? We head via Turin again, the aim being to get as far into France as possible. We stop at the same service station where we’d aborted our mission yesterday. Mark takes out his voltage reader and clips it across the battery terminals. ‘It’s charging!’ he says. Our adventure can finally begin.
I get back into the car and thumb for a seatbelt that isn’t there: so many things I have to get used to. I reach for the floor to release the handbrake too, before remembering the umbrella-style lever under the dashboard. The floor-mounted pedals take some getting used to, but all of this is easily overcome and gives the car the kind of character I was hungry for. It makes it more involving to drive.
We’re into a groove now, the Alfa flowing steadily along, impressing with its stability and its verve through corners, the engine gutsy and torquey rather than a blazing powerhouse, but it revs easily and has an encouraging voice. The scenery begins to turn distinctively Alpine, the hills becoming mountains as we leave the Autostrada. My confidence grows with every mile: hopefully we have left our electrical problems behind us.
Finally it’s time to revel in the stunning scenery I’d had in my mind’s eye for so long. The raspy 1300 twin-cam is on song as we speed through the foothills of the Alps, heading for a lunch halt. Time also to re-plan our route, as the old one has long since been torn up.
We head up the La Grave pass (in the cult skiing destination of La Meije) towards its summit, the little 1300 struggling manfully with two heavy-ish blokes, luggage and camera gear. Yet there’s no stopping the Alfa, and we climb ever higher into the Alps. You have to rev that twin-cam but, with such an enthusiastic reaction to the throttle, that’s never a hardship.
A flurry of snow greets us at the top, but nothing can dampen my mood now. Instead we revel in the surreality of the spring weather while we stand outside the car, admiring the view, the sun peeking through snowflakes, which fall from an azure sky. It feels like a scene from a film, and not Groundhog Day this time. We’re rendered speechless, caught in the moment, until Mark turns to me and says: ‘It’s bloody freezing up here.’ Back to reality.
It’s the right thing to do, with so many miles still to cover. Dixon takes a turn at the wheel as we descend the mountain. I’m peering nervously out of the passenger window as the road becomes narrower. ‘You really don’t want to get one of these corners wrong,’ says Mark casually, as I secretly grip the underside of my vinyl seat.
It’s getting late as we check into a hotel in the medieval walled town of Beaune, for a beer and bed: we need a decent night’s sleep ahead of the final stint home, still more than 500 miles distant. We leave before the morning mist has cleared, but the sun is breaking through and warming the pretty vineyard scenery. Not as epic as yesterday’s Alpine reverie, but beautiful nonetheless.
It’s a long, straight slog from here to Calais, around 380 miles, mainly by autoroute. We have lost hours to make up, after all, though we’re both exhausted, and still wary that the electrics could fail yet. Conversation is drying up but the Alfa keens along gamely, and our spirits are lifted when a Peugeot 205 full of 20-something males honks as it passes and its occupants give our Alfa the thumbs-up.
We approach Calais with only minutes to spare and board our ferry. I slump into my seat and stare out at the sea. I don’t want to say anything to my wingman, but I am beginning to wonder if I should have bought this old Alfa. Is it the right car for me? Am I suited to classic car ownership? I look back over the past few days, especially that drive through the Alps and the bond I have formed with the little car. And I wouldn’t have wanted to be driving anything else but the Giulia. It’s the car I had dreamed of owning for so long, and already I’m looking forward to many more special trips.
Late that evening, I finally arrive back home in Berkshire. My young sons have been waiting a day or two longer than they’d expected, and run up to the Alfa to jump straight in. ‘Wow, daddy, what a cool car. Is it really ours to keep?’
I should say so.
Words: Mark Sommer // Photography: Mark Dixon