Defending the Marque
As we broached the top of the hill, two yellow lights on either side of the road flared caution. The drop was steep on the downslope (from the approach you couldn't see the oncoming traffic) and you had only a moment to pass before the road sluiced into one lane for the remainder of the drive. Earlier he passed me with the flow of traffic. A legitimate and unfortunate pass. But once in front of me, he braked, weaved and obviously tried to take what he saw as the lead. At this point I can't even remember what he was driving. It doesn't matter. I saw the yellow lights, downshifted into third and nailed the gas. I had to. I drive an Alfa.
I tried not to buy the car. For years we had been a one car family flexing our schedule around daycare, work and public transportation. We preferred to spend our money on food, rent and health care rather than on payments and repairs. We also knew our behavior was better for the environment. One fewer car on the road meant cleaner air, admittedly a minor contribution, but if every family drove only one car . . .
Then, one week a few months ago, my wife's mother had to go out of town on a business trip; to make our lives a little easier she left us with her car (a trusty but snailish Ford Escort wagon). So, instead of driving me to the train station and then taking our daughter to day care--both completely off my wife's path -- she was now able to drive directly to work, saving her an hour in each direction. Because she arrived at work earlier, she could leave earlier, (plus, she didn't have to pick me up at the train) and thus fulfill that nagging-late-twentieth-century-middle-and-lower-class-two-income-family-crea
ted-deprvation: insufficient time with her child. All totaled the car created ten hours of additional daughter-time per week.
Of course, this was a gift to me. We now had to buy a second car. She was emphatic. She wanted, nay, needed more time with her child. Like a good father, I agreed, emphatically. With the money I'd save from commuting (about $1300 per year) we could defray most of the cost of say, a $2,000 car. I started looking.
The first thing I did was to call my Uncle Paul who, much to the Tappet brothers dismay, loves, drives and of course -- repairs Peugeots. He has had 504s, diesels and 505 turbos over the years, bought them for nothing and run them into the ground. The 505's are true sports cars: five speed, turbo charged with independent suspension, rack and pinion steering, mag wheels and you can get them for nothing. I was sold.
After a few weeks of browsing the trades I finally found one. Sounded perfect. A white 505 turbo, stick, loaded, immaculate condition, all maintenance records included, one owner. Must see. $2,500 obo. I called Paul and we made an appointment to see the car.
When I spied the car in the owners driveway, I knew it was the car for me: a four door affordable sports sedan with room for the baby's seat - in my price range. I decided to buy it before we parked. The car was immaculate, it had foglights (never worked, never would), mags, low profile Michelin tires and front and rear spoilers.
Since my Uncle Paul was the expert I let him ask all of the questions. When did you replace the clutch? Never. Is this a new radiator? No. Why doesn't this door close? It doesn't? We checked the break fluid. It was clear. Paul got under the car. See that. The slave cylinder's wet. Was the slave cylinder replaced ? Yeah, at 120,000 miles.
WHAT? 120,000 miles. I stuck my head in the driver's side window to check the Odometer: 133,000K. My adams apple jumped audibly. Lot O' miles. All highway he assured us.
Paul drove. The compression was excellent and the Peugeot pulled harder than a farm tractor (albeit turbo-charged) as we plowed up a steep hill. He put it through the paces in some tight corners and wrenched the wheel from side to side in a caricature of bad driving before jumping on the brakes. It passed the driving test.
When our wild ride was finally over and we'd parked the car, I asked the owner why he was selling it. "Well, I've been driving the same car for 11 years and it's just time for a new car, you know."
"What do you think you'll get instead," I asked.
He pointed to the other end of the driveway where a beige cover hid some oblong metal object with bright red rocker panels.
It was a Spyder Veloce.
Out of the owners earshot Paul and I conferred and I decided with 130K on the OD I'd be a sucker to pay over two grand. I offered the owner nineteen hundred and he wouldn't bite. So I left him with my phone number and we drove off.
I promised myself to wait out Mr. Peugeot, banking that the high mileage would scare off other prospects. The better part of a week passed. I combed the papers for alternatives but couldn't find anything else in my price range that was unique. I looked at the phone. I looked away. I twisted. I turned. I bit my thumbnail. I called.
"I can offer you $2,000 for the car"
"Twenty-five hundred. It's in terrific shape. I'm not going to take a bath on this car."
Then you'll never bathe again, I thought.
Dejectedly, I hung up the phone. I wanted that car, but I had stuck to my guns and won? lost? My wife assured me I did the right thing but suggested we still needed a car - our daughter's cells were dividing at an increasingly rapid rate; soon she would be in college. On the way home from work that night I picked up a handful of the local automotive trade magazines. Nothing but Sentras and Subarus. Nothing with pizzazz for two thousand. Would I have to surrender to the mundane and pragmatic?
I flipped the pages over to the Miscellaneous section where the editors grouped the atypical makes. Right before the beat up Austin Healey picture was an ad that said: "Alfa Romeo Milano, 1987, V6, platinum ed. Black. Loaded. 60K [Impossible] New tires in front. Needs heater core. $2000 firm." I wet my pants.
This was too good to be true. I reread the ad and, to my astonishment, it said the same thing. Scampering for the portable phone I called Paul who, to my automotive dismay, couldn't come look at the car with me.
"You gotta tell me what to look for." He gave me a list: Pull the oil cap and check for any milky crystals; see if the power steering fluid is clear; look for oil leaking around the wheel bushings; is the slave cylinder wet?, jump on the bumper, make sure the car levels in one bounce; look at the tread wear, does the clutch slip? By the time I'd hung up the phone I couldn't read my own writing. I'd just have to inspect the car from memory.
I called the owner to make an appointment. His line was busy. Obviously hundreds of others had seen the ad, couldn't believe their eyes, blinked and called. Automatic redial.
At 10 seconds a cycle, if my math is correct, in twenty minutes I automatically redialed approximately 120 times. Finally he answered the phone and I made an appointment to see the car a few hours later.
When I pulled into the lot across from the owner's address, I noticed an Alfa next to my car. It was a black Milano. Could this be my car? My car? I knew I was going to look at a Milano, but in my mind I'd imagined an Alfetta sedan. So my first thought on seeing the car was, "there sure are a lot of Alfa's around here."
I knocked on his door and introduced myself. We walked over to the car and circled as he narrated the Alfa's history. Turns out there were a few more things wrong than he'd advertised: the lights only worked on high beam; it had been in an accident (one of the side bumper accordion panels was compressed), but he assured me there wasn't any structural damage; the right rear door was sealed shut (forever) and there were several cosmetic problems including a "keyed" body panel, a rust patch on each rear wheel well and a bent mag.
Fragments of my Uncle's laundry list came to mind, so I popped the hood to check the oil, and brake fluid, jumped under the car to touch the slave cylinder, jumped on the car to see if it leveled quickly and jumped in the car to take it for a spin.
The owner didn't have insurance so he drove, gingerly, along some twisty country roads. He seemed uncomfortable pushing the car. I nervously listened for every creak, squeak and rattle. Only the brakes squealed a bit from lack of use. We stopped at a parking lot to look over the car again and so I could drive. I crawled under the car and saw a drip, drip drip from the engine compartment onto the macadam. I dipped my finger in the miniature
puddle: brown would have meant oil; red, brake fluid; green, antifreeze. My finger stayed pink. The fluid lacked a discernible odor. We both combed the engine but couldn't find the source.
Then the owner explained his theory: it must be antifreeze because the heater core is shot and the antifreeze circulates through the core and that's right, there's been a little leak since the core went, so when the heater is fixed that ought to stop. O-kay?
O-kay. I drove the car back to his house, gingerly, since I hadn't driven a stick in about six years. I parked and looked at the odometer. Yup, 60K just like the ad said. Turned out the car was a gift from his father 11 years ago when the owner started college at Penn State. Most of the miles were logged driving to and from school over those four years. He'd moth balled the car for another two without preparing it for inertia, so he'd had to install a new oil pump, water pump and a lot of other little things that sitting will do to an Alfa. Over the past few years he'd only used it to drive to work (five miles away) and back. Thus the 60K.
The antifreeze leak due to the blown heater core would go away once I had the core replaced. I had factored that into the cost of the car. Another $500. No big deal for a $2,000 Alfa. If I wasn't comfortable with the car, he suggested, we could take it to a mechanic to give it a good going over so I'd know what I was in for. He gave me the number of his mechanic and I said I'd make the appointment. We shook hands.
As I drove home, I knew I wanted the car but my initial excitement had drained into nervousness with all of the potential problems. It could easily cost me another $2,500 to bring it up to speed, and I didn't have that kind of cash to throw around. If I bought it, the car had to serve as a reliable round trip kiddy-kart and commuter carrier-- historically, two Alfa strong points.
When I arrived home, my anxieties were somewhat allayed as I listened to a message the owner left. He had discovered the source of the leak, the washer fluid container was cracked from stem to stern, a $20 item if I replaced it myself.
A week later I arrived at the mechanic's garage on a desolate stretch of highway. His driveway was a grave yard of moldering, italianate machinery. Alfa's in various states of decay lay strewn like wounded metal soldiers from the automotive remake of "Gone with the Wind."
My car was on a lift when I entered. I walked its length; under the back, patinaed with a fine film of road dirt and oil, the metallic waffle pattern of the transaxle shone through; up front, the aluminum ribs of the oil pan glinted as they reflected the rays of the mechanics cage light. I fell in love. And I fell hard.
They had been at the car for about 15 minutes and already the mechanic had filled half a page. Presently he had a crowbar jammed up and into the engine bay and his head angled so the Marlboro smoke wouldn't get in his left eye. He glanced over at me, saw nothing, and continued his inspection.
"What do you think," I asked enthusiastically. He was already irritated with me. Without looking over he said, "About what." His response was rhetorical. It meant, "I know what you are asking, but your question is not only vague, it is also superfluous, since you're paying me $50 to figure out exactly what's wrong with this thing."
"The car," I replied, imitating his style.
"I think it's an Alfa," he coughed.
I looked over at the owner, my eyes pleading for a tangible response. He shrugged.
In all fairness he had warned me about Tommy. "He's the best Alfa mechanic around but he's a little crazy." Seeing Tommy now, I imagined myself driving down the interstate with my head in the trunk. Why? Because Tommy looked like a Nordic Charlie Manson and sounded like Wolfman Jack when he gets up in the morning - before he expectorates. But they were church mice compared to this guy.
Tommy's list continued to grow as he surveyed the under carriage. The frustrating part of the experience was that he wouldn't tell me anything unless I either asked when the crowbar tapped a particular part, or walked over to the list, read the latest inscription and said, "this says what?"
He whacked at the back of the car.
"Output shafts are leaking oil."
"That oil's been there ever since I had the car," the owner explained.
"How much to fix them?" I asked.
"Wow, do I have to take care of it now?"
"Wouldn't pass inspection in my shop."
"But can I wait awhile without doing any damage to the car, if I can get it to pass inspection--somewhere else?"
"On . . ."
"Whether you want an Alfa that runs or an Alfa that runs like new."
The remainder of our little garage visit went something like that whenever he found another problem. He found a lot of them: front bushings needed replacing, $500; timing belt tensioner, $200 (The tensioners had been recalled because they would fail, taking the timing belt and the engine with them. Alfa's succumbing to this scenario accounted for one third of the cars in Tommy's lot. Mine had been replaced, but Tommy said the replacements were worse than the originals. He'd concocted his own version utilizing an additional bolt, a stiffer spring and a silicon seal which he claimed was better than the original and replacement Alfa parts. The owner advised me not to let him make the switch. I didn't intend to.); new timing belt, $60; heater blower motor, $250 (turns out the car doesn't even have a heater
core) and on and on including the fact that it hadn't had it's 60,000 mile tune up which was another $600, no questions asked. The grand total came to about $2,000 worth of repairs, only $1,200 worth needed immediate attention.
Now I was really nervous because if I bought the car, I didn't know where I'd find the additional money (in my mind, I had planned to spend $2,500 total). I could always borrow the additional funds and pay them off by catering on weekends which I was loath to do, but we are talking about an Alfa here.
"We ought to road test this thing," Tommy suggested. I'd forgotten that was part of his $50 fee. I told Tommy he ought to drive since I'd already had it out for a spin and he knew how it should perform, what to listen for, etc.
We were about to jump in when several of Tommy's confederate flag and shirted pals appeared with a fifth of Jack Daniels and dinner from Taco Bell. The car's owner stepped outside for a smoke and I wasn't about to tell Charles Manson etiquette suggested he ought to refrain from scarfing a plastic burrito and a swig of Jack in favor of improved customer relations. I waited, pretending to inspect the various metal parts strewn around the shop.
After ten minutes or so the owner returned and we kibitzed about the cost of
repairs: I said they were more than I expected, he said the only required repairs were the ones he'd already told me about. That was true. Still, I didn't want to pay retail, not when I'd be spending so much more money down the line.
Two belches and one cigarette later signaled Tommy was ready to ride. Without apology for the interruption (he was doing what I paid him for, only on his schedule) he backed the car out of the shop. I jumped in. The owner begged off, and tried to bum a smoke from Tommy for the wait.
"Got an extra cigarette?"
"Extra? I heard a story about those twenty-one packs," said the Wolfman. I think a friend of mine in Virginia got one once but I never seen 'em.
"Fine. Just tell me where there's a 7-11. I'll buy a pack when you get back."
Tommy gave him the cigarette as we reversed out of the drive, backrolled into first, and took off for the interstate. He used his left hand to smoke and steer while he shifted with his right. The first thing I had to ask as we rounded the clover leaf in second, engine straining, "Is this thing worth $2,000?"
The Wolfman held court as we pulled a couple of G's: "$2,000: Body's in good shape, hardly any rust (I informed him of the two small patches on the rear wheel wells), it pulls hard," he said dropping into third, cutting across two lanes of traffic and mashing the accelerator as the symphonic cams, hammered like methadrine tympani, "And the engine's so young." That's when I decided to buy the car.
We were passing 70 (and most of the other cars) when the rear started to shake from the bent wheel and high-profile tires. 80mph. He looked over at me, "I could put you in another Milano without as many problems but it'd cost you a little more."
90 mph. Forty more on the speedo before the needle was buried. The whole car started to shake. Tommy rolled down his window. We were about to pounce on the tail of an unmarked trooper which I brought to Tommy's attention with a variety of gestures inspired by Marcel Marceau. He pretended as if he already knew the cop was there, "Thing about these god damn cars is," he said, as the night's vacuum sucked the ash from his cigarette, "they always make you break the law." He stomped on the middle pedal as the 10" front discs pulled us down to a respectable 65 m.p.h.
That was that. The owner had refused to budge from $2,000 and I knew I wouldn't be a sucker if I gave him full price, though I did whine about it and say I'd have to call him back. He suggested I let him know soon since, in all fairness, he ought to return some of the thirty some-odd calls on his answering machine.
An agonizing night of seesawing between the antipodes of my wants and my family's present and future needs followed:
"God, I want that car. It's a real car. A fast car. A unique car.
"Cost you a fortune to maintain."
"If it gets out of hand, I'll sell it. Buy something practical."
"And what, drive a Civic?
"I swear. I don't want to do anything that's going to hurt my family, financially."
"Then don't buy it."
"But it's only $2,000."
"Plus $1,200 for repairs."
"I'll get another job."
"Your wife's not going to go for that. Already she wants you to spend more time with the family."
"So I'll get a low interest loan."
"And your daughter will pay for college with . . . ?"
Naturally, I bought the car. Thirty-two hundred dollars later, I drove it home.
"It's cute," my wife said, continuing, "It's bigger than I thought it would be."
"It's a sedan. Lotta room for the baby seat!" I said, neglecting to mention the right rear door was permanently sealed. If I let that quirk out of the bag my wife would have imagined the car in a ditch, driver side down, a sequoia crushing in the passenger door as the firemen struggled with the JAWS-OF-LIFE to cut my weeping, a-dangling daughter out of the wreck. And who would be to blame, despite the fact that I'd been run off the road buy a convoy of WalMart semis?
"I hope it doesn't impoverish us," she remarked, returning to the house and our soon to be starving daughter.
"Don't you even want to go for a ride?.
She smiled broadly and shook her head, "No."
She wasn't mad. She just didn't care. In a former conversation, in earnest, she had mentioned that all cars looked like suppositories to her. I could live with cute.
Once inside the house, our conversation became serious and inevitable.
"How much did it cost to fix?"
"I thought you said it was going to cost 500."
I had lied about the original repair estimate too.
"There were a few extra things that needed to be done."
"Oh, he replaced the timing belt tensioner, and um the uh . . ."
"Where are we going to get that money?"
I can't remember what I said at the time, but it wasn't important because the very next day I called my wife from work with the news that proved the Alfa gods smiled down on my purchase.
"You won't believe this."
"What," she said a little scared. (Later she confirmed she thought I'd been fired, not an uncommon occurrence in my life.)
"God hath spoken to me. He wants me to have this car."
"Honey, you don't believe in God."
"I do now. When I got to work today and read my email, there was a letter from the C.F.O of the company to all employees that said since profits were up, we're all receiving a $1,500 profit sharing bonus."
She called me a son-of-a-bitch.
My wife thinks I'm very lucky (I am), that I usually get what I want and more (I do), this bonus, but another representation of such luck. What she didn't know was that with the taxes taken out, the check would only cover $700 of the $1,200 worth of repairs. BUT, since we'd recently over-paid on her subaru's loan installments by a couple of months, the money I didn't have to throw at the installment loan would cover the difference in the repair costs on the Alfa. Yes, the Alfa gods were pleased and appeased.
The time had now come to master the Milanese machine.
The first thing I noticed about the Milano was its ratchety gear box. If I hit the revs hard in first and try to slam second gear at 35 with the r.p.m's reaching for the 5000 range, it inevitably grinds - a deficit when the inevitable drag race occurs. The jumps from second to third and third to fourth are comparatively smooth, yet they can't be jammed without the fear of bending some unseen metal. Downshifting isn't problematic, although when I move the stick to find first, three times out of five it's like putting my fist through a wall. I have to back off the shift lever, then ease it forward again and it slips right into gear. That said, it took me a week or so of morning drives before I could make it reach 60 m.p.h in about 9 seconds. Not bad for 3,000 lbs of metal.
In the turns it shoots like a bullet down a barrel, typically cornering at twice the posted limit if I've got enough revs going in. The handling is surprisingly nimble (the result of balancing the top heavy V6 with a rear transaxle that gives the car a front to rear weight distribution of 54% to
46%) considering the high rectangular shape and odd, boxy geometry. Pointing into a turn with too much power tends to send the tail skittering, just as turning too late launches the nose toward oncoming traffic - classic over and understeer qualities, both equally exhilarating experiences, due more to a novice-driver's overzealousness then suspension design.
On the road, my fellow drivers have one of two reactions to the car, they either want to admire the machine, or pound it into the ground by proving they can beat me in a pell mell race through traffic. My natural response is to defend the marquee.
There is of course, something absurd about this notion. The mystique of the Alfa Romeo: ooh, sports car, ooh, race bred, ooh italian exotic, hardly requires this bourgeois guy's limited driving ability to perpetuate its intangible stature. Nevertheless, I feel the weight of ownership and the burden of the insignia's golden wreath (representing Vittorio Jano's brilliant engineering achievement in 1925 when Brilli-Pelli and Campari crossed the finish line in their P2's to win the Italian GP and the first Campione del Mundo), and so I am compelled by the forces of history. So the instant that anyone attempt to pass me, all the rules of engagement apply:
RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
(Adapted from Castiglione's, "Book of the Courtesan"
as modified to accommodate rush hour traffic conditions.)
1."challenger": any car that passes my car, or
A.trails within one car-length B.pulls away from my car too quickly C.is next to mine at a stop-light D.is a BMW
2. A race between the "Owner" and the "challenger" begins when:
A.the "challenger" passes the "Owner" B.the "challenger" looks at the "Owner" and smiles C.the "challenger looks at the "Owner and "smirks" D.the "challenger" looks at the "Owner" E.-ever the "Owner wants it to.
3. A race between the "Owner" and the "challenger" ends when:
A.the "Owner" passes the "challenger" - even if the "challenger" has to slow down to make a turn. B.the "challenger passes the "Owner" - unless I have to slow down to make a turn, in which case either:
1.the "Owner" wins because I was ahead of the "challenger" when the turn occurred or, 2.a forfeit occurs if we were neck and neck before said turn.
C. traffic conditions are such that the "Owner" is about to pass the "challenger," but the car in front of the "Owner" suddenly slows. The
"Owner" wins due to an "act of god".
4. Rules of engagement are implicitly accepted by all "challengers" regardless of race, color, creed, gender or make.
For example, the other day I was racing to get somewhere for an appointment. I stopped at a light a few miles up the road and just happened to notice a soccer (she had an "I Love Soccer" sticker on her bumper, scouts honor) mom in a Jeep Cherokee V8, 4.0 HO. Now, women typically ignore my car, which is why, when I looked over at her, and she committed Rule of Engagement Two, subcategory B, I knew she wanted to race. "How quaint," I sexistly thought, "Johnny's mom wants to race moi." But I knew she meant business because she was watching the same perpendicular yellow light that I was.
We simultaneously banged our pedals and she quickly jumped into the lead (the Alfa's a dog in 1st, until it hits 2500 r.p.m.). No cars ahead. Jeep on the left; Alfa on the right. I wound out first gear to the red line, picked up second at around 4500 r.p.m.s, started to gain, went to the red line again and dropped it into third at 60 m.p.h bringing us neck and neck when the nose of a white Toyota Avalon began inching out of a nursing home parking lot about 30 yards in front of us--into my lane. She glanced over at me rather triumphantly, suggesting I was about to be inter-coursed by the impertinent Avalon. I took this in, offered a triumphant smile of my own and with a slight admixture of madness, stupidly slammed the throttle wide open. I could not allow a Jeep to trounce my Alfa; Campari and Jano wouldn't have stood for it and neither would I (read: now way my momma's gonna beat me in a 4x 4).
As the back of the Avalon expanded to fill my windshield like the Stay-Puff Marshmallow man", I nosed ahead of the Jeep. When I passed, she looked at me and I imagined she said, "Now that you're going to die from testosterone poisoning, I hope you enjoyed your lunatic but minor triumph." That's when I stood on the brake, screamed out something about the beast with two backs again and ground down into second, just missing a trip to Avalon.
I swung around the Toyota, my heart where my left eye should have been, to catch and pass the Jeep. When I pulled along side her, she smiled over at me, waved a "see what I just made you do" wave and hit the gas. I got caught at the light. But I didn't mind coz' of Rule of Engagement 3, subcategory C. Marquee defended.
She wasn't the first and she wouldn't be the last, just one among many my Milano and I would set straight over the coming months. Winning has yet to become tedious. Each fresh challenge synchs my heart with the engine's valves. We've beaten numerous bimmers, utes, 3000GTs, minivans, tricked pickups, saab turbos, impalas, lexii and the like. I've been through every Rule of Engagement and come up smiling and intact. Mine eyes have seen the glory . . . yea, but I gloat.
And then the other day I was driving to work, shirking "challengers" like pebbles from Gibraltar when a pesky midsize something-or-other passed me on the right. The right? Utterly unacceptable. I wasn't sure if he actually wanted to race until I remembered the cardinal Rule of Engagement: a "challenger" is any car that passes my car." There was no question.
At the first opportunity I pulled into the right lane. Up ahead traffic slowed due to a turn off. He slewed into the left lane; I deftly made the lane change gliding into a space maybe two inches longer than my car. Thinking I might be insane, or unstable at best, the car in front of me jumped into the right lane, leaving one car between me and the "challenger". As we shot through the intersection, I floored the accelerator and arced into the right lane free and clear.
I had him and we both knew it. He'd made a fatal mistake. It happens to many of us every day. When he originally jumped to the left lane he gotten behind, yes, could it be: a citizen who followed the speed limit to the number of the law. Ha! Ha! On this point the Rules of Engagement are mercilessly clear. There is no allowance for fate.
We approached the lip of a hill; yellow lights flashed caution on either side of the road warning drivers to look out for the as yet invisible but oncoming traffic. We crested the hill together. Gravity pulled us onto the downside of the slope where the road declines then climbs up a longer grade and narrows from two lanes to one. I had to pass him and his law abiding leader before I ran out of lane. I downshifted from 4th to 3rd without blipping the gas. The high revs jolted the cv joint as the back wheels dug in and launched me by the dilatory duo.
The road was mine.
Until the officer in the broad brim stepped in front of my car when traffic slowed and waved me to the shoulder. I pulled over as the dynamic duo inched past and into work on time. "Had to happen sometime," I thought, resolutely reaching for my registration and insurance card.
The officer approached.
"You were going 65 in a 35 zone. Can I have your license and registration."
I handed them over, lips pursed in mock contrition.
Ten minutes later he handed me a ticket for $170.
Next time, I'll be defending the Marquee--in court. <<...>>