Travels with an Alfa

Greg Butler reminisces about travelling over 1,000 km in a day in an Alfa Romeo Giulia  

At one time, if you were in the market for a new car, it would mainly be a question of the type of motoring you expected to do. Spend most of your time on motorways covering long distances to your next appointment? German cars were developed for just that need in a country that for years refused to introduce speed limits. Live in a cold region and rely on first-time starting and the toughness to stand up to hard winter treatment? Sweden built just the cars for you. Treat your vehicle to a rural lifestyle, often on unmade roads and even regularly cross fields as part of your job? French, every time. Lost patience with annoying faults and value total reliability above all else? Only the Japanese could give such assurances.

That was then. Now, like it or not, the greater part of the world’s car production has become concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. Yes, there are a few specialist makers left but they are mostly relatively low-volume, and their products sell at a premium.

I still recall one particular day in Italy that reminded me of the ‘good old days’ before rationalisation when there was still a place for individuality and even genius. It also taught me where lay the strengths of Italian cars.

 At the time, I was working for an agrochemical manufacturer, developing and marketing innovative products for farmers in many countries. I was part of a team tasked with undertaking detailed market research in a number of target countries and analysing the data to guide the main board. Organising and carrying out a field study in Italy was a key part of this responsibility.

On the face of it, this should have been a straightforward affair. I discussed the project with colleagues in our Italian office and they recommended that I work with a junior sales-manager named Luciano who seemed ideal. He was bilingual, fully immersed in the technology of the Company’s products and had valuable contacts throughout the country.

I contacted Luciano to plan the trip. He explained he was getting married in about four weeks’ time which entitled him to a fortnight’s break. Some juggling of diaries enabled us to find two consecutive days in which we could complete the work before his wedding. I agreed to arrive in Florence, where the office was located, on the evening prior to our two-day slot. Luciano would do the same and we would meet for dinner to discuss tactics before setting out the next morning.

The work would involve interviews with some 14 to 16 growers in different regions of Italy, carefully selected according to their size of enterprise. We knew this would be a challenge to complete in the time we had available. Our plan was simple enough. I would conduct the interviews whilst Luciano did all the necessary interpreting during the interviews. Luciano would also act as navigator but asked if I would share the driving. We agreed to take turn and turn-about; aiming at roughly a fifty-fifty split.

We met at a small hotel just outside Florence as arranged and over a meal discussed how we would operate the following day. Luciano seemed the ideal travelling companion and was keen to make a start.

Before breakfast the next morning, Luciano suggested that we had a brief look at the car. This was a purposeful-looking medium sized two-door saloon and I noted the well-known Alfa Romeo front grill. Oh, and it was red.

Luciano climbed in and started the engine, whether to impress me or to check that all was well, I wasn’t sure. To my surprise he then got out and said – “let’s go for breakfast.” “You are not going to leave it running, are you?” He said that he was because “It needs to be warm when we leave.”

This was a surprise as my understanding had always been that one should start an engine and as soon as all cylinders were firing smoothly, engage gear and move off, so putting a load on the engine and reducing wear and tear. Ten or fifteen minutes later we emerged from the hotel. Luciano took the wheel first and commented that the motor was now up to operating temperature and we could go.

First impressions of the car were all good. It seemed quick; had a decent, if hard, ride and cornered well. Perhaps rather noisy but the engine note sounded healthy.  

The first stage of our journey was north to Bologna via the E35; a road I had previously travelled. For considerable stretches the road is running either in a tunnel or across a viaduct. It is a triumph of engineering and must have shaved hours off the original cross-country route from Florence to Bologna.

My first experience of driving on that road had given me a sharp lesson in good visibility. At the time, I was wearing a pair of Reactolite sunglasses. Driving into a tunnel at normal speed was a recipe for disaster, as the adjustment of the lenses took at least a few seconds. Luckily I was able to whip the glasses off in time to regain full sight.

Our first stop that day was a large farm in Emilia Romagna, after which we turned east, bypassing Ravenna as we headed south and nearer to the Adriatic coast. We avoided large towns and kept to country roads wherever possible. During the trip we completed interviews in Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Marche, Umbria, Lazio, Campania and Puglia.

We talked as we drove and I learned more about the car. It was an Alfa Romeo Giulia, with four cylinders and 1.3 litres. More importantly, it was Luciano’s personal property and he clearly thought very highly of it. It might seem that 1.3 litres is a small engine, but Italian engineers have always had the ability to extract a good deal of power from moderately sized engines. In practice it certainly did seem plenty and at no time did I wish for more power, more speed or more acceleration.

Initial impressions when I first took the wheel were all positive. The slim wooden steering wheel was perfect for the car with its firm suspension and tendency to corner flat with little or no body sway. On braking, the nose didn’t dip and the car went exactly where it was placed on the road surface. If one aimed for ten centimetres inside a white line, that is exactly where the car went. All controls were precise and the gear ratios seemed well-chosen.

One is never far from mountains in Italy and it was here that the Alfa came into its own. Hurrying over mountain roads with continual use of brakes, acceleration and gears, it seemed like a thing alive; in its element and enjoying the conditions it was designed for. I found myself wondering at the level of engineering skill that had resulted in such a well-balanced machine but came to the conclusion that it was more likely the environment, meaning the mountains, that had fashioned her. She had the DNA inherited from generations of cars that had pitted themselves against inhospitable bends and sudden changes of gradient.

During the heat of the afternoon, once when I was driving and once Luciano, we came across a coiled snake warming itself on the hot asphalt of a quiet road. A quick twitch of the steering was enough to miss the animal in both cases. Truly this was a car that could turn on a dime. There was no time to check the mirror, so I don’t know whether the animal carried on sunbathing or slithered away into the undergrowth, wondering what on Earth had just happened.

Travelling as we were, always conscious of time and the distance still to be covered, we rushed not only up through the mountains, but down too, punishing the brakes far more than one would on a Sunday afternoon drive. From time to time after a long descent, we could smell the heat from the brakes but there was no fading and the Alfa pulled up straight whenever asked.

Having made an excellent start and with the first few interviews behind us, we made a brief stop for lunch at a small ristorante where we could park in the shade. The pasta of the day was penne in a herb and tomato sauce which we gladly accepted together with a large bottle of acqua minerale. In the few minutes it took for our pasta to arrive, Luciano showed me pictures of his beautiful fiancée. They had been taken in the dramatic colosseum of Verona, her hometown.

Over lunch, Luciano told me with some sadness that because funds would be tight when they married and set up home together, he had agreed with his fiancée was that he would part with the car and add the proceeds to their joint assets to buy the hundred and one things every couple needs when starting out. This trip would probably be one of the last serious drives he would have in his beloved Alfa Romeo and I could see that he was torn between his love in Verona and his love for the car – for love it was!

When we returned to the car, it was still ticking quietly to itself as it cooled and waited for the thrills to resume.

Without exception through the day, we were warmly welcomed and given full co-operation by everyone we met. I would dearly have liked to spend more time with them, but our very tight schedule simply didn’t allow it. Luciano had a quiet way of muttering tempo! tempo! that caused no offence and allowed us to escape gracefully when necessary.

One grower in the north was disappointed that we didn’t have time to join him for longer but kindly presented us each with a bottle of his best balsamic vinegar as we left. Another was harvesting cherries on the day of the visit and made sure that we took with us a large paper bag of delicious dark-red, almost black, plump cherries. The non-driver took the opportunity to munch cherries whilst the other drove.

We did make one exception and took a little additional time to visit a herd of black & white dairy cows housed indoors. There were more than a hundred beautiful animals – Holsteins I believe. On the way back to the car we walked through the dairy and the farmer proudly showed us two large round flattish parmesan cheeses on the work surface. He said that this was the total product from one-day’s output of the herd. I was astonished that so many cows had produced this relatively small quantity of very dense product and realised that this is indeed a luxury cheese; hence normally consumed in grated form.

I had been regularly checking our progress as we sped through the countryside and in the early afternoon realised that it was entirely possible that we could complete all the interviews by day’s end; a terrific achievement if it could be done.

During the late afternoon the setting sun lit up nearby mountains as if with a scarlet spotlight. Even Luciano, who must have seen such sights many times before, was clearly impressed and twice exclaimed – whether to me or to himself I wasn’t sure – tutto rosso! tutto rosso!

Soon afterwards, Luciano (who was driving) remarked that we had just passed one thousand kilometres since we left Firenze that morning. I was surprised. The interviews had been fascinating and our time behind the wheel more a pleasure than a chore. The miles had simply slipped away and I for one felt no tiredness.

The last few interviews went without a hitch and shortly afterwards we turned towards main roads on the coast and soon found a country hotel that looked welcoming. Once settled in, we asked for a recommendation for seafood and were directed to a restaurant a short walk away. Finally, there was no pressure and we relaxed over an excellent meal of cheese ravioli, a superb brodetto made with a generous selection of the day’s catch and fresh fruit. Now, with just a short walk home ahead of us, we could enjoy a large carafe of local wine.

The conversation ranged over various aspects of our findings. We also discussed our future personal plans and, of course, cars. It was clear that Luciano’s feeling for his beloved Alfa Romeo surpassed that of the usual man:machine relationship. I could see that even after he sold the car, he would hanker for a replacement and eventually there would have to be another Alfa in his life.

Next morning it was a short run to Bari Airport for me to catch a flight to Rome on the first leg of my journey home. We shook hands in front of the departure building and I watched Luciano climb behind the wheel for the long journey home; a sad one no doubt and perhaps his last in a great car. I pictured him taking any mountain roads he could find on the way in order to delight again in the rhythm of the car climbing through tight bends and accelerating away on the next short straight as it loved to do.

A few weeks later I was surprised to receive in the mail a package about the size of a shoe-box, with Italian stamps. At first it seemed to be filled only with crumpled pages from the Corriere della Sera but there nestling amongst the paper was a small piece of blue and white porcelain. This had a lid and looked quite ancient, being crazed as only very old pottery can be. Enclosed was a card with greetings from Luciano and his bride on their wedding day; a most thoughtful and unexpected gift. The pot was given pride of place on the mantelpiece at home and became the perfect receptacle for those small stray items like a button or foreign coin that have no other place.

It looked not just old but positively ancient, being crazed and ingrained with what looked like centuries of age. Only when I next met Luciano and thanked him again for the gift did he smile and tell me that it was normal to give such gifts and this example had been ‘distressed’ to artificially age it. Soon after manufacture, the item is heated to a high temperature and plunged into cold water to cause immediate crazing. After cooling it is then buried in soil for several months before being dug up and rinsed off. Hence the appearance of great age.

Sometime after the Italian trip, I had an interesting conversation with a salesman at the local Alfa-Romeo dealership. (Just window-shopping you understand…) I asked about reliability and he told me “When you buy an Alfa Romeo, you pay only for the engine. The rest is thrown in free by the manufacturer.” In other words, don’t bother complaining about bits falling off the front grill or loose interior trim. You didn’t pay for them anyway. As for the motor? “That never fails.”

Luciano and I next crossed paths at a company conference about half a year later. Over coffees we reminisced about our work together and, rather hesitantly, I asked what car he was running nowadays. He beamed and said that he still had the Alfa Romeo.

“When my wife saw what the car meant to me, she said I could keep it!”

What a fortunate guy; having a lovely wife who also understood his strange love affair with a chunk of red metal welded together in Torino.

©  Greg Butler

FootnoteThe Giulia was one of the most successful cars ever built by Alfa Romeo. It is thought that they made more than 500,000 of this model between 1962 and 1978. A classic if ever there was one!

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