A Tale of Two Alfas – By Don Gilkes

Kent & East Sussex
26 October 2020

It all began in 1997 when my son Oliver was 14 and his first girlfriend had jilted him. Feeling sorry for him I went into town and bought him two magazines, one of which was Autotrader (way before the internet) in which, was advertised in the bargain basement, a 1983 Alfasud Gold Cloverleaf. To cheer him up I suggested we just go and have a look at it (my wife suspected the worst) and sure enough the deal was done for £100 on the proviso that we restored it and not scrap it. As you will imagine, when we got it home we realised the size of the job we had taken on. We reckoned at that time that Oliver was the youngest member of AROC.

We later found out that the guy that we bought it from was the son of a vicar, a strange coincidence as so was Oliver! He would often come to church on a Sunday morning and then over to the vicarage to see what progress we had made.

Oliver took on a couple of jobs to enable him to pay for parts we needed, mostly sourced through Justsuds. We found someone to do the necessary welding and fortunately the husband of my churchwarden had been a paint inspector at British Leyland trucks in Leyland before he retired and did the respray for us. As many of the trucks were post office vehicles, Oliver chose red rather than the rather drab cream of the original colour.

We stripped and rebuilt the engine. What a thrill when that started up! Suspension was stripped, various parts replaced and all painted. It was a real privilege to have had this opportunity to do this work with Oliver, it has created a very special bond between us.

Four years passed before it was roadworthy and by this time Oliver had passed his driving test so we made enquiries about insurance which, sadly, was very expensive. We suggested to the insurers that we change the engine to that of an Arna, which is only 1.2ltr rather than 1.5ltr, but were then told it would be even more because the car had been modified!  Ultimately we had to get it insured in my name ready for our first outing to a National Alfa Day.

We then took it to the York street classic meet, a really good experience. Our greatest adventure was to take it to Milan for the Centenary celebrations. It was such a fantastic trip taking in Spa, Monza, and by detour Nurburgring, Susten pass and Stelvio. Our only problem was overheating, which was cured by cutting up a beer mat to put under the pressure release cap to increase the pressure before  it lifted off! I have to say, it was a relief to be back in England without major issues. The first thing I did was to apologize to my wife for scaring her many times with my driving after sitting next to Oliver around the Nordschleife race track.

Our second Alfa is a 1991 S4 Spider in Black. I started a course prior to my retirement at a local tech on bodywork and spraying, with no particular car in mind but just for the fun of it. Part way through I spied this car for sale at a very reasonable price so, of course, had to go and have a look at it! It seemed rather unloved and with some major issues, but the price was right and it looked like a good retirement project. I had wanted an S4 rather than S3, which was the only other alternative I could afford.

On getting it home I had those post purchase blues “What have I done?” It was road worthy and amazingly had passed its MOT so I drove it to the tech each Thursday evening. Gradually work progressed on the car. It was agreed I could repair some blemishes, paint the whole car backward from the doors and replace the rotten spare wheel well. Having tack welded the well in place, I went to a friend to seam weld it. You can imagine my horror when I looked underneath to see that the under seal had caught fire, which was fortunately put out before any damage was done. I was delighted with the result of this work and grateful for the help I had from the college and having the use of their equipment.

I had a real head scratcher with the engine as it would not run properly with the bonnet down and would in fact stop even though it would go perfectly OK with the bonnet up. I realised, eventually, that with the position of the coil near to the front of the bonnet the spark was arcing across when the bonnet was shut. New HT leads solved the problem.

I really enjoyed taking the car out and the number of comments “nice car mister” were always encouraging. However, I noticed that from time to time I would be overtaken by a cloud of smoke from the exhaust and thus suspected that something serious was afoot, reckoning that at the very least it was valve guides and seals causing the problem. Clive Baker, then living in Canterbury, amazingly agreed to assist me in taking the head off and seeing how much needed to be done. So, in our rather cramped garage, we started the big strip down. Everything went well until we got to actually taking the head off. The bolts were no problem but the head would not budge, except little by little until it came off.  I then decided to change the pistons and liners. We were very grateful for the advice from Ian at Autobritalia who guided us

through the process of removing the pistons without taking the engine out to gain access to the crankshaft (and also to my wife who kept us supplied with coffee and bacon sandwiches!)

After having the valve guide seals replaced by an engine expert, I found that when I came to put the cam shaft on there wasn’t enough clearance. The machinist had taken too much off when he ground the valves so it was back to the workshop where the valve stem was adjusted enough to gain clearance.

Everything went back according to plan. You can imagine the high 5’s when the engine actually started and was running beautifully.

We have not yet had any major expeditions in the car but it is lovely to drive with the hood down and the sun shining………..until the virus struck!! It is now on SORN until the permission is given to drive for fun.

Looking forward now to opportunities for both these cars to hit the road at some time in the future when lockdown has ended.

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