IT started off as a no strings attached bit of fun looking after Keith Adams Alfa, but it’s now blossomed into a fully fledged love affair – so is it all over for Mike’s Rover?
Parole ed immagini: Mike Humble
In the past, I have often been heard be it in an Indian restaurant or a workshop service bay, pooh poohing Italian cars. Historically known for being as fragile as a sherry glass as re-assuring to own as a distempered dog, Latin cars have always been tarred with the same brush – lively, go kart handling and seemingly alive yet there was always the nagging worry in the back of your mind that it would at any time, and without warning explode in a ball of fire thus denting your bank balance and burning your fingers.
My first ownership experience of an Italian car was a 1982 Fiat 127 1100 Sport which for such as little thing, was as quick as hell. Mine was the lightweight special, or in other words, rusty and full of holes though I couldn’t complain, as I swapped an equally corroded 2.0 Cortina with an expired MOT along with 20 Benson & Hedges for a Fiat with a shoestring test back in 1989, I felt I was up on the deal!
A friend called Duncan also owned a similar model around this time, and we would whiz around Northampton at warp factor 8 in our little black Fiat pocket rockets with lumps falling off them. Anything and everything went bloody wrong over a short length of time, on mine, the electrics slowly died, with my friends – the gear linkage fell off getting all twisted and knackered as he proceeded to drive over it.
The final straw for me came after the time that the drivers door handle snapped off – I got upset, got rid, and went back to the Cortina as my discerning choice of teenage passion wagon. I scrapped the 127 Sport in the end, mainly because it was rotten to the core and beyond help, I missed the little thing shortly after. Throw a 1980 Cortina into a hairpin bend with the same vigour as the Fiat and you would be rewarded with the ultimate prize – certain death. Where the 1050cc power unit of the Fiat simply sang at 6000rpm – the 2.0 Pinto at the same speed required a dustpan & brush.
However, moving to the present, while Keith Adams enjoys his hollyhocks in Southern France, I’m baby sitting his Alfa 156 Veloce and I now have a major dilemma on my hands, do I give it back to him upon his return. The Busso quad cam V6 is without a doubt one of the nicest things to listen to, Dark Side Of The Moon on vinyl played through a seriously high quality hi-fi doesn’t even come close to the glorious music you hear as the needle climbs towards vertical.
The delivery of power is utterly relentless, smooth as Andy Williams at low revs becoming more like Brian Johnson as you turn up the dial – bloody marvellous! The car itself is none too shabby either, from some angles it looks rather plain – to some, even dull, but looking head on the shark like nose with its pin sharp grille is an intimidating view that makes a noise even when switched off. Those Lamborghini(esque) alloys are a wonderful sight of circles with swooping curves that oddly remind me of Lego, and the front door handles are meaty chunks of crafted billet aluminium which look great and feel good to use.
But this is what Italian cars are all about – the noise, the experience, the look, the feel – its all about soul. What makes the 156 special is the fact that its as docile as a Spring Lamb when it wants to be, it has a decent ride, good brakes, no squeaks or rattles and no longer do you have to sit sideways to operate the pedals as you once had to in Latin cars of old.
I adore that angled centre console which houses a trio of auxiliary dials, the leather clad seats feel as good as they look and the razor sharp two turns from lock to lock steering connects with your central nervous system the moment you clip in the seat belt and switch on – nipping to the paper shop or taking a cruise down to Sorrento has never been so much fun. There are downsides too that remind you this car is from Italy, the glovebox lid has a fit and finish equal to a flat pack wardrobe, the passenger airbag looks like its about to fall out of the dash, the gearchange is sloppy and long winded in action, and for some unfathomable reason – Alfa Romeo saw fit to place the fog and mirror switches both together – on the floor! – oh and there’s nowhere for your cappuccino! but none of this detracts from the fact its a true driving machine that oozes charm and a passion for driving.
For all its flaws and pitfalls (of which there are many) I adore the 156 2.5 V6. It excells on any road be it country lane or Autostrada – or in my case the M25. The build quality on is the right side of okay, its refined, smooth and relaxing with a pleasing ability to be rewarding, rough and demanding at the dab of the throttle, in summary – it has soul – it feels alive, quite simply because it is. Retired engine drivers from the days of steam would say that certain express locomotives from the same class drove and sounded differently to another, even some days a loco could even have a mood swing!
Quite simply because the pride and passion of the men who built them would be reflected in the way they behaved and felt – this is what soul is all about, It can’t be artificially produced or bottled it has to be there from conception. So as I head for the ripe old age of 40 I enter the phase of the mid life crisis, so rather than kill myself by owning a 1200cc Suzuki, wearing nothing more for protection than flip flops and a T shirt – I might treat myself to a 156!