A wise person once said "We like because. We love despite." Therefore, there's probably no more eloquent proof of love in the automotive realm than that of the Alfisti, who own their cars because of their wonderful driving dynamics and despite, well, almost everything else. Case in point: this letter from Verdegrrl, an Alfa Romeo owner for 19 years. It's a saga of survival, electrical failures, compassion, quick thinking, faith, mechanical aptitude, and unflinching courage in the face of Italian engineering. And therefore, a love story.
Remind me why I'm an Alfa Romeo nut?
Many many years ago, I purchased an Alfa Romeo Milano Verde. My criteria were that the car sound good and have a rear mounted transaxle for handling balance. The finalists were a Porsche 928 and the Milano. I missed finding the right Porsche, but instead I found a creampuff Verde. Or so I thought.
The first owner had taken excellent care of the car, but all Alfas have foibles. For the Milano, one of those foibles is the warning light system known as ARC. It's flakey as hell, going off for no reason. Only recently, after 20 years of putting up with this, has an engineer worked out a fix. But at the time I bought the car, there was nothing that could be done about the "Disco Johnny" display, so I ignored the festive flashing and blinking lights. Ignored them at my peril.
One day not long after I purchased the car, I was cruising along, enjoying the torquey engine while ignoring the always panicked ARC. But as I eased onto the brakes in preparation for a traffic light going red, the pedal was unresponsive and hard as a rock. Holy crap! I put all 100 pounds of me straining against the seatback, and got only the tiniest whiff of hoped-for retardation. Thankfully the road swooped upward toward the light, and there was a long dedicated left turn lane that was virtually empty. I hauled on the giant U-shaped hand brake lever, putting the less than effective emergency brakes into action, and downshifted madly. As I neared the car in front, the left turn arrow turned green and I sailed through in first gear. A right turn led to a large strip mall, so I crept into a deserted part of the lot with an eye to easy flatbed access and shut down the engine.
After sitting for a couple of minutes to let the adrenalin shakes die down a little, it was time to see what had failed. The first logical place to look was under the car. I expected to find fluid dripping, or something along those lines, but no dice. Calipers and rotors looked normal. Opened the hood and could find nothing leaking or smoking or otherwise amiss. Popped the fuse panel and all looked fine. What the…? Of course I had left the weighty and expensive shop manual at home in the garage. The nearest Alfa mechanic was 35 miles away. I was 5 miles from home and the daily Alfa newsletter that might provide some clue. So after venting by leaping around and shouting (I should have gotten a BMW you piece of shit!), I went to one of the stores and bought a crappy novel, some jerky sticks, and a bottle of water (something my cars all carry to this day), then parked my butt in the snug Recaro seat of the Alfa and waited until dark and traffic to die down. Using the back streets, I managed to crawl home without incident.
The shop manual wasn't much help in that the diagrams and language (think really bad Italian to English translation) were cryptic, but upon pleading with the Alfa mechanic and absolving him of all liability, he told me the likely cause for my adventure. What was the culprit? An 85-cent blade fuse located under a small black cover on top of the fender, but under the coil. Apparently the fuse would pop, thanks to cheap Russian copper and steel not grounding properly and over-loading the fuse. I now always carry a spare fuse and clean the grounds with Stabilant 22 each year. Just as importantly, why did brake-maker Teves come up with a brake system that could fail like this? The Verdes and Platinums came with an ABS system that used a small pump to pressurize the accumulator, which in turn supplied pressure to the brakes when needed. But the pump needed power, and when the fuse blew, that didn't happen. After a certain number of brake applications, the accumulator ran out of pressure, and I had my heart attack moment. Other cars such as Mercedes got the same system, but lacking the Russian element, didn't provide the same thrills.
Some time transpired before the next major incident occurred. There were many minor incidents (such as the car dying while on the freeway-damned Bosch fuel pump relay), but they weren't character building except in a cumulative kind of way.
That was the year of big rains that washed away parts of Laguna Beach. I had made an appointment with the Alfa mechanic for him to adjust the shim under bucket valves, after doing the task exactly once myself before realizing it just wasn't worth the time and hassle of pulling the cams as well as buying a whole shim set to get all the various thicknesses I might need. After dropping off the car, I caught the bus for a day of reading car magazines in cozy restaurant overlooking the ocean. Rain was forecast, so I wasn't bothered until the streets started looking more like canals and beating a retreat looked like a good idea. It turned out I had caught the last bus out of town, and we had water sloshing around in the stairwell of the bus as we chugged through the canyon. The mechanic's shop was in an industrial complex that was awash. I waded through water half way to my knees to get there. From there it was 35 miles of totally F-d up roads - many flooded - to get home. And it was rush hour. I plotted a course over the back roads, just like a lot of people . It was slow going, with lots of people hydrolocking or just flooding their cars by racing through huge standing puddles and streams. I puttered along, keeping my revs up to keep from stalling when the tail pipe went under water, but speeds down to prevent other problems. Or so I thought.
Turns out the alternator got good and wet. Of course it would, being mounted down low next to the subframe. So dead car - but at least at home this time. Called the local parts shop and had them special order the part. They said they would have it by afternoon. Called work and took a sick day. The part arrived, and I anticipated a running car very shortly. But fate and Alfa engineers would not have it that way. At first I tried to take off the old alternator by removing the long bolt at the bottom of the housing. But the bolt was too long, and ran into the front core support before clearing the housing. So close! Undeterred, I crawled under the car to remove the bracket that held the whole unit. That bracket however, had a stiffening rib. The rib and close quarters meant that despite sacrificing some dislocated joints and blood to the Alfa Gods, I could remove two of the nuts holding the bracket, but there was no tool - not even Snap-On - that could reach the third nut.
The only option I could see was to loosen the motor mounts, then jack up the engine enough to where the long bolt at the bottom of the housing could clear the core support. However, that seemed like a really dumb thing to do, and so I discounted it - until I talked to the Alfa mechanic. Yup, that was the correct procedure. Once the alternator was out, I could get to the third nut and remove it permanently. Voila!
As time has passed, and all these tricks have been documented on various Alfa websites, owning an Alfa has become so much easier. The better cars that have survived the years often see various improvements applied, so the owner need never encounter these adventures again. And while I've had my share of horror stories, I've enjoyed many more special moments that were made all the more special thanks to my Italian four wheeled buddy. Road trips from the balmy Mexican border to the frozen Yukon. Seaside bombing runs and breathless mountain marathons. After 268,000 miles of mostly motoring heaven, I now save her for days when I can drive her on fun roads or the race track.
So it seems that for the second week in a row we are regaled with a tale of competence and wisdom. Unless you believe that Verdegrrl was unwise to buy an Alfa in the first place. Which, of course, you should not. To call an Alfa owner a fool is to deny love itself.
...Awright, we're done here. Now would someone please explode their pants or something for next week? These happy endings are getting to me, I tell you.
Garage of Horror is a recurring feature where we share your automotive nightmares. Some are mild, some are wild, but all are moments - some funny, some painful, some outlandish - that you'd rather not repeat. Have your own Garage of Horror story? Email it here with the subject line "Garage of Horror."