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Sophisticated Side

14 May 2002

By David Rubie

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Over the last couple of years I've devoted a couple of columns to one of my cars. The car in question (a 1975 Alfa Spider Veloce) was initially purchased to replace a Mazda MX-5 that I found a little bland. It was bought because it was cheap. I figured I was something of an Alfa expert at that stage and knew exactly what was wrong with it. I payed my money thinking that the patching up work on the visible rust was within my capabilities, that the mechanical foibles present I could live with and that the dodgy-looking new paint job was a blessing.

At the risk of repeating myself, I feel the need to set the record absolutely straight on the financial and mental anguish this shit box has caused me, in an attempt to prevent some other fool entering the mental hospital and/or the poor house.

I was wrong, wrong, wrong on every assessment of this car. Head beating against the wall wrong. One hundred and eighty degrees in the wrong direction wrong. Blinded by car lust wrong. I was wrong.

The project started easily enough. I had some cash left over from the sale of the MX-5 that was surplus from covering the lease residual. I had a garage. I had an angle grinder and a "stick" welder for some crude repairs. I even wrote about it all with something approaching enthusiasm. Now I'll fill you in on what really happened.

After spending some four thousand aussie pesos on getting the steering, front suspension and gearbox rebuilt, dropping another fifteen-hundred on getting the brakes completely overhauled and chasing down some original spider seats to replace the BMW units that the previous owner had fitted, I decided to attack the rust.

The visible rust was, initially, not too daunting. The floors had obviously been patched before and would patch again. Part of the back seat area had crumbled into small brown piles (again, a simple clean up and patch). The spare wheel well in the boot needed replacing, but it's available as a complete unit, so presented no obvious problems. I started with some crude floor and back seat patches and ordered a boot floor from which I could extract the wheel well.

Here's where things started to go heavily downhill. The car was driving remarkably well (thanks to all the running gear renovation) but flexed alarmingly on anything approaching a bumpy road. On one occasion, the passenger door came open, which worried me no end although I thought that perhaps I hadn't shut it properly (I still don't know). After this incident, the car went into the garage and up on some stands for a decent inspection. I scraped off 26 years of road grime and underseal to reveal two main chassis rails that looked like Swiss cheese.

Suddenly I was sickeningly out of my depth.

Further inspection involving a wire wheel in the boot revealed two rusted shock towers and a rear valence panel that was rotten to its very core. The valence panel was perhaps even more worrying than the chassis rails; it's a single part that ties to two halves of the top of the car together, and is the mounting point for the boot hinges and fabric roof. While underneath the car again, I noticed the world-class bog job that disguised both (cosmetic) sill panels as requiring replacement, along with most of the bottom of the guards. Consultation with some books and another Spider in a car park showed that the panel under the nose of the car was completely wrong - who knows what it's actually off.

The car was effectively worthless. Some agonised phone calls later I had a list of parts that I needed, the total cost of which was heart-stopping in itself (about $5000). Worse than that, I had some advice, which precluded the fitting of these parts in anything other than fully equipped premises with a chassis jig and decent spot and MIG welding equipment. Add another $5000 minimum for that, without even thinking about getting the paint sorted out. The car was beyond hobby restoration, well into professional territory and definitely uneconomic to fix.

Frankly, I didn't know what to do. I obviously couldn't drive it. Neither could I leave it. I drove it to my friendly local Alfa workshop that recognized the slightly crazed look in my eyes and together we confirmed the problems, compiled a list of parts and sat down to do some serious contemplation.

I'm probably not their favourite customer, being a guy who perpetually cuts costs by doing work myself when I can, buying secondhand parts where appropriate for my other Alfa and generally being a bit of a pain in the arse. They took pity on me regardless and we faced up to some facts. If we decided to fix it, the most cost effective way would be in workshop "down time", between proper paying customers jobs with only half an eye on the clock. We would have to buy the parts up-front, as some of them are getting scarce. The car would never be perfect; we would probably be lucky to keep it straight while replacing floor and chassis rail sections. Also, I would have to continue using the Alfetta GTV as a daily driver for at least a year, which would require some fettling of its own (new rear brakes for starters, as the handbrake had failed).

I left the car with them and caught a taxi home, depressed. I authorised them to scrounge, beg, steal and otherwise source the body panels where they could. An entire boot floor, entire passenger floor, valence assembly, guard rust repair sections and new sills. Total bill? Just under $3000. Just enough to clean out the bank account.

Over the past year, work has progressed fitfully between my ability to pay and their finding the time to replace things. The boot floor, replaced in its entirety, is a work of art (the joins where necessary are completely invisible). The passenger floor is brand new, rustproofed to modern standards. Unfortunately, the repairs to the chassis rails had to be hand-fabricated along with lots of fiddly sections under and around the back seat. It will never look factory new, although the workmanship is high.

The rear valence is being replaced this week, a job that had to be farmed out, as they didn't have the necessary spot welding equipment to do it. Once it is finished, I'll be forced to call a halt to the project, still with a small pile of sill panels and rust sections to be fitted. I'm out of patience, sick of wasting money (even at the charity workshop rate I've been receiving) and the Italian saint in greasy overalls is sick of welding on my junk pile.

Meanwhile, the list of other things that require repairs is getting endlessly longer. The convertible roof frame is covered in surface rust and needs cleaning up and painting before it's refitted. The frame is also missing all of the tensioning cables and fasteners. The dashboard is cracked and might was well get fixed while the rest of the interior is out. The electricals are flaky, a legacy of an ugly alarm system being spliced inappropriately into the elderly wiring. The roof, when it was attached, leaked around the windscreen seal and needs to be sorted out. I haven't got any carpets. The heater doesn't work at all. The only spare set of Alfa Spider seats I could get my hands on are split, with rusted pans that may not be salvageable.

There's plenty of work to do, even before I get the courage together to fit the rest of the body panels. Will it get done? I seriously don't know. Even if I finished it, I'll probably hate the car so much I won't want to drive it.

So what do you think my reaction was when a friend sidled up to me a few months ago and asked me this: "I had a look at an Alfa 2000 GTV the other day, y'know the 105 coupe? It was beautiful mate, just a bit of rust here and there. I'm selling my Forester to buy it. You like Alfa's, is it a good idea?"

I looked at him, bewildered, not quite knowing what to say.

Do I tell him that I've been driving what used to be an abandoned Alfetta for the best part of six years that has cost me peanuts to run, or tell him that I've dropped the best part of $20,000 into a "only a bit rusty" Alfa that still isn't finished? I chose the latter. He bought the GTV anyway. I can only hope that his wide-eyed passion is rekindled in myself, if only to make sure that I attack the spider with care rather than a sledgehammer.

You have been warned.

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