Graham Blyth suffered the ultimate heartbreak: He lost his entire garage after his 1989 Alfa Romeo Milano Verde caught fire while trying to diagnose an ignition issue. Instead of shunning Alfas forever, Blyth bought another Milano Verde less than two months after the fire, and completely rebuilt it to (hopefully!) avoid repeating the last one’s fate.
“I got to drive that car for two days before it burned down my garage,” Blyth told Jalopnik via email. The fire, sadly, didn’t just take the Alfa, but also burnt down Blyth’s GTI and two of his brother’s cars, an Audi 200 Avant and a Alfa Romeo 164Q.
Yet those two days with a finally-working Alfa were bliss. The Milano Verde’s Busso V6 made a lovely sound, a rear-mounted transaxle balanced out the weight distribution, and it came with wacky things like inboard rear brake rotors, a torsion bar front suspension and a De Dion rear suspension setup—you know, the funky “dead axle” system used in Caterham Sevens and Smart ForTwos, of all things. Blyth calls it a “practical exotic.” He’s not wrong.
Blyth’s first Milano had been neglected before he bought it and it was no stranger to extensive, engine-out Alfa work. He rebuilt a replacement engine in his spare bedroom after it threw a rod, and then rebuilt it again after the timing belt skipped, and skipped again after the rebuild. Blyth, who comments on here as BlythBros., wrote up the full saga of that car on OppositeLock here, and it’s worth the read.
“I will be perfectly clear. Alfas are reliable; neglected cars are not,” Blyth wrote of his first Milano.
Some of us would be scared away from buying the exact same car that just burnt our garage to a crisp, but not Blyth.
Rather, he used all the lessons he learned from his first Alfa to get a better example to start with and rebuild it better this time. The last Milano had been bought sight unseen, so this one was not. This time, Blyth knew how to spot signs of neglect significantly better. If this Alfa needed a rebuild, he had plenty of experience doing them now.
Best of all, you guys supported this plan wholeheartedly! Blyth explained:
The commenters on Jalopnik were very encouraging, as was the wonderful Alfa community, not to mention friends and family. The encouragement from both helped me set about cleaning up the considerable mess that the fire left behind, replace the car, and to plan for the new garage. I bought another Verde 3 weeks later [after the Oppo write-up], before my girlfriend and I even had a chance to rebuild the garage, which we did with the help of some friends and family.
After spending all winter rebuilding the engine, suspension and more on his new-to-him Milano Verde, Blyth took it 5,500 miles in ten days, from Detroit to Seattle and back. It’s since been to a hot summer track day as well, and had 8,000 miles put on it since the rebuild in total. Here’s how he finally built the Alfa he deserved.
Just A Little Rod Knock Was All It Took
While Blyth’s new Milano was in much better condition, it wasn’t without problems. There was a knock and some overheating issues that were suspect enough to force Graham to dig into the engine. Plus, he wanted to refresh everything—just in case. Every older fuel line and leaky connection becomes suspect whenever you’ve experienced a fire.
So, out came the engine on his new purchase.
“The engine bay work and a surprising amount of suspension work is easier with the engine out,” Blyth explained. “Pistons and liners are naturally easier with the engine on a stand, and the head work made sense to do with the heads on the bench.”
The only catch was that Blyth wanted as little downtime as possible with his new car, so that meant working in an unheated garage over the winter—in Michigan. Blyth explained via email that he kept a journal to stay sane and remind himself that yes, progress was actually being made while he was freezing out there:
I pulled the engine at the end of November right before the salt went down. Machine shop work took until January, so it was pretty cold and dark by the time I had all of the necessary parts for measurements and assembly. So, the cold, dark evenings in my unheated garage were the toughest part.
To stay warm, I just wore wool long underwear, wool socks, and some more layers as needed. And to keep sane, I kept a journal documenting the work. In the mornings, I’d write out a list of five to ten tasks for the evening, so that I could forget about the build during the day. When I got home, I’d just make my way through the list pretty methodically, and carry over anything that I didn’t finish into the next day’s task list. I was able to enjoy the build (and the winter) quite a bit more by seeing my progress in that journal.
Once the heads were off, it wasn’t hard to find the beat-up piston that was knocking. He kept going and tore it all down to the block, which was then hot-tanked to deep clean and remove all the rust and grime.
New 10.0:1 pistons and liners were acquired from EB Spares with Hastings rings, installed using the rods that came with the car. The bottom end was likewise rebuilt with fresh bearings. The engine bay itself got a good cleaning with the ample use of degreaser, and was Krylon’d over to seal.
Blyth chose a smooth looking set of cylinder heads to run that had been ported to some unknown spec by a previous owner, but not too ambitiously so. For this detail work, he paid Dean Russell to press in twelve new exhaust valve guides, clean up the gasket surface, grind the new valves Blyth provided and cut the valve seats to match.
Blyth installed the new Centerline valve springs himself using a cheap valve spring compression tool he’d purchased off Amazon. I-beam-style rockers from an Alfa 164 went in because he had them and liked them as well. It’s a mod that would allow more lift and engine speed if Blyth wanted it later, but that’s not in the plans for now. Fresh intake and exhaust tappets, and new Colombo & Bariani Road Medium camshafts went on next.
One of the first engine projects Blyth tackled was a direct callback to his woes with the last engine: the rebuild and installation of a hydraulic timing belt tensioner, which he prefers over the finicky mechanical ones. “I’d rather leak than skip timing,” Blyth wrote on AlfaBB. “They’re pretty fun and low stress to rebuild, too.”
The fuel injectors were sent off to be cleaned by Fuel Injector Connection in Cummings, Georgia, and the fuel rail itself got a good cleaning at home.
New Bel-Metric high-pressure fuel hoses and coolant hoses went in as well. Two air conditioning lines that run next to the hot headers in the engine bay were installed with heat wrap to keep them cool. Heat tape was also added around the engine mounts as they, too, get warm and squishy.
The power steering pump hadn’t given Graham any issues yet, but he wanted to get ahead of it by rebuilding the pump now, while everything was apart. Since he was dealing with non-anodized aluminum-on-aluminum, the threaded piece was especially hard to knock loose as galling had caused the two surfaces to lock together. Fresh O-rings went in the unit, threads for bolts were re-done and anti-seize applied on the new bolts. The entire unit was repainted after he was done as well. Jorgen in Ann Arbor, Michigan, rebuilt the steering rack itself with new inner and outer tie rods.
Other odds and ends on the engine were replaced with fresh parts as well. A one-year-old Centerline thermostat went in after the sensors were cleaned up a bit and the assembly itself was repainted silver.
Fresh silicone hoses were cut to go from the intake runner to the intake manifold.
The true finishing touch was the valve cover and intake manifold, which were sandblasted clean and painted silver to match the intake runners.
After getting all of these items together, it was time to reassemble the engine. While he was waiting for the shop to finish machining his heads, he flipped the bottom end over and installed the water pump, oil pans, timing belt tensioner, front cover, alternator and engine mounts.
“I worked with the exposed pistons/liner facing down in order to minimize entry of debris into the bores,” Blyth wrote on AlfaBB. “I wiped them out afterward as well.”
Then it was time to flip it all over and install the heads. The distributor and timing belt came next, then the thermostat housing, water pump, power steering pump, the necessary belts for all these pumps, timing belt covers and headers.
While He Was In There
The engine itself wasn’t the only thing Blyth was wrenching on. Now that it was out, it made tackling other issues around it much easier.
Lighter, better sounding IAP headers and downpipes were added to the rebuilt engine as well. The downpipes were hacked off by the seller, though, so Blyth made the flex section and interface to the mid section himself using a 6" long, 2" diameter exhaust flex piece from Summit Racing and 2" wide, 16-gauge aluminum exhaust pipe to complete the midsection.
A 2" to 1 7/8" adapter from O’Reilly mated it all to the center section of the exhaust, and a fresh three-wire oxygen sensor was installed. That middle chunk of the exhaust was painted silver with VHT high-heat exhaust paint, and heat wrap went around the new headers.
“It’s too loud for the street, but isn’t bad on the highway. Sounded great at Grattan,” Blyth noted on AlfaBB.
While the exhaust was off, Blyth polished up many of the parts underneath like the heat shield, and also installed beefier mid-section exhaust hangers made of stainless steel eye bolts to go in place of the flimsy stock version. Blyth cut the bolts to the required shape, and they should be much harder to bend (as he did on the previous car).
The clutch was okay, but since the car was apart, it made sense to replace it anyway. A new clutch slave cylinder also went on the car. The ball joints in the shifter linkage were cleaned up and greased, and connections throughout the assembly were tightened to improve shifter feel.
Up front, the fan shroud was cleaned up, new wire sheathing went on the fan leads, new foam went on the radiator core support and the aluminum radiator was hosed out.
Because the upper control arm bolts were in reach with the engine out, it was time to freshen up the suspension as well. After hitting the torsion bar splines with PB Blaster once every night for a week, Blyth marked the current setting of the torsion bar with a chisel and removed it. New bushings, tie rod ends and fresh paint went into the front suspension. Lower control arms, sway bar end links, and caster rods were given a fresh coat of paint as well, and then reinstalled.
Finally Putting It All Together
First, the steering rack went in, under the engine sits where it belongs. When the flywheel housing was installed, the starter could go on to the refreshed engine. Then the entire newly rebuilt Busso V6 popped into the engine bay.
Look at that beautiful thing. That’s well worth a winter’s worth of work.
Fresh steel brake lines and some rear brake work were done before the car went to a track day at Grattan Raceway. A stereo with an amp and a little subwoofer under the seat went in before its next adventure: a cross-country road trip. On that whole trip, the only thing that broke was an aftermarket coolant expansion tank he’d installed in the rebuild.
Blyth’s day job is powertrain engineering consulting, so he also has some mods in mind. You know that this has truly become Graham’s car when he notes that even the coolest stuff he sees at work can’t compare to the Milano.
“No matter how many engines I see torn down for work, I never grow weary of a disassembled Alfa V6,” he told us.
Cat Cams camshafts were acquired with the intent of going into this rebuild, but he determined that he wouldn’t have time to do everything else that would be needed for its install over the winter. He had time to model out the entire valvetrain to test it out, though, and should be able to hit the ground running when it’s time.
Another thing that never made it past the model stage was experimenting with the length and diameter of the Busso engine’s intake runners. It wouldn’t be a huge gain for the engine, but it would be a fun project to tinker with.
For now, the car’s main purpose is to be driven whenever Blyth can, and be safe enough to make it out to Grattan Raceway every now and then. Even though he has a Fiat 500 Abarth and a manual Maserati Coupe GT, those just feel like regular cars in comparison.”
“The 500 especially feels like a Dodge Journey compared to the Verde,” Blyth noted.
So, it’s a good thing the Milano Verde is back, not on fire, and in better shape than ever. Who on earth actually wants to drive a Dodge Journey?!
You can keep up with Blyth’s Alfa on his build thread here.
We’re featuring the coolest project cars from across the internet on Build of the Week. What insane build have you been wrenching on lately? Seen any good build threads we should know about? Drop me a line at stef dot schrader at jalopnik dot com with “Build of the Week” somewhere in the subject line if you’d like to be featured here.