by Hub Consignments & Acquisitions Director Richard Wrightson
About 10 years ago, having worked in the old car world for only a couple of years, I felt it was high-time to get a classic car of my own. How can one really sell the dream if you haven’t experienced it yourself? I turned to my more experienced colleague and mentor, Martin Chisholm for some advice on what to buy:
“ You should get yourself a little Alfa, like a Giulietta Spider.”
Having just completed the California Mille himself, he explained there was a host of them on the event and a surprising amount of the big collectors had one to use on tours and rallies. Thoughts of an Alfa and I enjoying tours and rallies in exotic locations with the great and the good of the old car world, comparing notes on our magnificent Alfa Romeos, flashed through my mind. That, and the fact that everyone says you can’t be a true petrolhead until you have owned an Alfa Romeo, was enough for me; the hunt was on.
At Retromobile in February 2011, I was lucky enough to be invited to a dinner with Stirling Moss as the guest of honour, I was sat next to a charming American chap called Hans Wurl, now a specialist for Gooding and Company.
“So, what car do you drive?” He asked. I assumed he meant old car and wasn’t searching for details of my very sensible and boring diesel BMW. “I don’t actually have a classic car yet” I replied, “but I am on the look out for a Giulietta Spider.” His eyes lit up, “No way! A guy who works for me is selling his Giulietta Spider!”
What a stroke of luck, an employee of Hans’ had restored his wife’s Giulietta Spider only to be thanked in the form of divorce papers! How charming. I told Hans I would be very interested and asked if he could get me some photos and a price.
A few days later I was staring at photographs of a beautiful little Giulia Spider in Grigio Grafite (Graphite Grey to you and I). Oh well, a Giulietta was the original plan but a 1600cc engine and different bonnet was hardly going to ruin the dream, if anything the idea of a bit more power and torque was appealing, plus I loved the colour.
He was asking $25,000 USD which was right at the top of my budget and I would have to ship it from the West Coast, which was not a cheap exercise. I decided to be bold and make him an offer of $20,000, almost certain he would angrily respond with a big fat no and that would be the end of it. He immediately accepted. “Damn, I should have offered less!” the dealer side of me thought. The petrolhead in me was over the moon.
My Giulia, photographed more recently on a glorious summer’s day at The Classic Motor Hub
…but was soon followed with a longing for my new toy! Six weeks really didn’t seem that long to ship a car from the other side of the world but when you are itching to get in her and drive, it feels like 6 months. As I watched the proverbial kettle boil/paint dry I started dreaming of the adventures my girlfriend, Nikki and I could have in the Alfa. Where would we go? What would we see? After well over 100 years of the motor car it is unsurprising that we have almost completely lost the novelty of the freedom it offers. We take it for granted that we can hop into our very efficient and reliable modern machines to get from A to B whenever we like. When you buy a classic or vintage car it is a totally different feeling. I could quite easily drive down to the French Riviera or explore the Highlands in my normal car but the idea had never popped into my head. Perhaps the ease and simplicity of such a journey wasn’t enough to set my senses racing. With the Alfa, all these ideas came flooding with the excitement and relish that the first explorers must have felt when planning their voyages of discovery!
Fast forward to May 2011 and I get a phone call from CARS UK. They were dropping some cars at a Bugatti restorer nearby and wondered if they could drop the Alfa there at the same time. By that point they could have been dropping cars off at John O’Groats and I would have said yes! The day was set, I secured a trailer from our transport department and off I went to meet my new ‘baby’ for the first time. I was beyond excited and as I fly down the country lanes I’m amazed I don’t clip any wing mirrors of oncoming traffic with what looked like casual abandon in my haste to collect my prized possession. As I arrived I was met by the sight of an enormous articulated CARS UK lorry. I’ve seen so many of these trucks but knowing what was waiting for me inside completely changed things, my heart rate increased with every hurried step towards the back of the lorry where the driver was in the process of unloading.
“I’ve just started mate, are you here for the little Alfa Romeo?” Bursting with pride I announced that I was indeed the new owner of said machine and that I was very much looking forward to getting my hands on her. “I have three or four to get out first, then we can get to yours”. My bubble deflated immediately, here I was peering into the depths of the trailer and although I could just make out a back corner of my Alfa, it felt so far away it may as well have been sat in its old garage back over the pond.
At this point I must admit that the other cars being unloaded were some jaw-dropping pieces of metal but my blinkers were on and I just didn’t take them all in, they were simply obstacles between me and the prize. What feels like hours finally passes and the lorry was empty with the exception of the little Alfa. She looked lost, dare I say it a little vulnerable in the cavernous rear of this behemoth of the road. Off she came and I found myself standing on the grass of an old airfield staring at my new acquisition, she was more beautiful than I could ever have imagined and being a hot sunny afternoon in the Cotswolds, all I wanted to do was get in and drive off. Sadly, not being registered or insured for the road meant I had the painful experience of only being able to drive her about 50 yards and then up and into the back of our trailer. But oh, those were 50 yards I will never forget. In went the key, and I readied myself for what I knew was to be a momentous occasion. My sweaty fingers gripped the key with excitement and turn… The whole ignition barrel spins in the dash; the gods really were making it difficult for me that day. After some tightening of the ignition barrel behind the dash, I turned the key once more and this time the gem of a twin-cam engine bursted into life and I was sitting in my very own Alfa Romeo Giulia Spider trying to take all of it in. I slotted the very long (but well placed) gearstick into first and let out the clutch. I’m off, there I was in a classic car, something I had done many times before, but never with the additional weight that it was my own. It may sound ridiculous but in that 50 yards I felt like I learned all I needed to know about the car: the steering was deliciously light and direct, the brakes were sharp and the suspension needed a complete overhaul!
The day I met my Alfa and the first time I realise that at 6’2”, I look like Noddy in it!
Gi Gi (pronounced Gee Gee, as the Alfa had become known in the family), was at my local mechanic having some fettling to the suspension and the fitting of a handling kit designed by Chris Robinson, a very respected Alfa Romeo restorer. Another few weeks of ‘not being able to wait any longer to drive my Alfa Romeo’ passed and finally the day came. I stayed on at work to fit some wonderful period-style number plates with the new UK registration number on and before I knew it, I was heading home from work on a beautiful summer evening. I’m afraid you will spot a theme in this piece about formerly mundane or ordinary things being incredible and exciting in an older car, so I apologise in advance, but it really is the case. Before I joined Martin Chisholm I had worked in Cheltenham and lived in Oxford, so my commute had not really changed for 4 years and in that time, I had driven the same route approximately 2,227 times, or there abouts! This drive, with the top down on a glorious summer evening was incredible. I could hear the birds in the trees overhead as I whistled past underneath, other drivers flashed, waved or gave a thumbs-up as I passed. I was in heaven and absolutely hook, line and sinker in love with this beautiful old car and the lifestyle that comes with it.
After some short excursions to get to know the ‘old girl’, I felt it was high time to plan our first trip in Gi Gi. Nikki and I were due to spend the ensuing Bank Holiday Weekend with my parents, who lived in County Durham. I decided to take the Alfa, but again the opportunity for adventure or change crept in. Here was a another journey I had undertaken more times than I could count and yet I realised I knew very little of the towns and villages that stand between Oxford and my parents house. All the previous journeys, I am ashamed to admit, involved hopping in ‘the modern’ and trucking up the M40/A43/M1/M18/A1 and arriving in a little under four hours. This time I laid down the gauntlet, so to speak, and planned a route that would avoid all motorways and we would set off at 8am with a view to taking the entire day to get up there and hopefully arriving by 6:30pm (or ‘six thirsty’ as my wine merchant of a father calls it!). It was 9pm by the time the wheels crunched the gravel of their driveway. No we didn’t break down, it simply turns out that one can easily underestimate the efficacy of the modern motorway network. After a few hours of idyllic country lanes and passing through sleepy villages, you suddenly realise you’ve covered about 30 miles and really need to get a wiggle on. That coupled with my stubborn refusal to go near anything resembling a motorway, meant we missed my father’s famous Dry Martinis and rolled up so as to run into the house and straight to the dinner table. Either way, we had done it and had a wonderful time in the process.
After dipping our toe in the pool of classic car adventures, I felt it was high time to hit the continent and I had the perfect excuse. Nikki and I had been together nearly 5 years and I had already made my intentions clear to my parents of wanting to marry her. How does the ‘car guy’, in my world, pop the question? A romantic road trip of course! It didn’t take long for me to join the dots together. Where is a hopelessly romantic place to propose? The Italian Lakes. What would be a great driving adventure? Down through France, over the Alps and into Italy. Where was Gi Gi from? Italy. Decision made.
Nikki and I photographed in the little Alfa at Prescott Hill Climb
So I found myself feverishly trying to get things booked just a couple of months before, when time or choices of hotel were not on my side. The idyllic, yet in hindsight clichéd, idea of proposing on the shores of Lake Como was out of the question as all the hotels were either fully booked or so expensive that I would have to sell the engagement ring to get a room. The only option I could find was to stay in what looked to be a lovely hotel, albeit suspiciously available when everywhere else was taken, called Villa Crespi on the shores of Lake Orta. I had heard of Como, Maggiore, Garda and Lugano but Orta? Nope, didn’t seem to ring a bell but time was of the essence, so I clicked ‘Book Now’ and turned my attention to the route.
Having learnt from my trip up North, I was now well versed in how long it takes to cover mileage when not using modern motorway networks, so I decided to break the trip down to Italy into three days. Day one would see us leave home near Oxford, down to Folkestone, across the channel and after a couple of Great War and Second World War sites, stop off in Epernay in Champagne for the night. Day two we would continue down and across the border into Switzerland. Day three would be the Alps and their famous passes before dropping down to the Lakes in Italy.
In an attempt to throw her off the scent of my real intentions, I sold the entire trip to Nikki, as a celebration of our five years together but also a chance for a road trip in Gi Gi. Soon we were packed up and ready to go. It was surprising how much luggage, spares and tools one can fit in the little Alfa. I had amassed a bag of basic tools and spares, again thanks to the wisdom of Martin Chisholm (I don’t want to give him too much credit as we may struggle to get his head through the Hub doors post lockdown!) who explained that in any long journey in an old car, if you do breakdown, it is usually a £5 part that you don’t have that leaves you stranded at the side of the road. So with spare points, spark plugs, condenser etc in a bag, we set off on our epic journey.
Packed and ready to go. The surprisingly capacious Gi Gi on Day 1
…admittedly using a few motorways as we very much had our adventure radar focussed on the Continent, as opposed to the ‘short’ leg this side of the Channel.
Once in France, and to the likely boredom of my soon to be Fiancée, we headed for some historical sites. The first was the downright eerie and intimidating site of the Blockhaus d’Éperlecques near Saint-Omer. Designed to be an all-in-one factory and launch site for the new V2 rockets. Early intelligence of its construction meant the site never became fully operational thanks to just over a year of air raids by nearly 4,000 aircraft, dropping 6,000 tonnes of bombs. This huge concrete bunker site really is as the Germans left it in 1944, complete with an abandoned Citroën Traction Avant and evidence of what a ‘Tallboy’ bomb can do to its target.
The Blockhaus d’Éperlecques – One doesn’t get an idea of the sheer size of this sinister place until you spot Nikki standing at the bottom in this photo.
From here we followed some fabulous back roads through stunning woodland, a lot of which still showed the scars of war in the form of grassed-over craters, especially on the run up to our next stop, the stunning Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge. The Battle of Vimy Ridge was a significant part of the larger Battle of Arras in 1917 and is considered a symbol of Canadian national achievement and sacrifice. Arriving at the memorial, we were met with what had become ‘the usual’ attention wherever we stopped in the Alfa. People buy all manner of modern supercars to be seen or admired in but the reality can be that one is often met with envy or jealousy. With classic cars of any value, whether they be £20,000 or £2m, they are always met with an overwhelmingly positive reception. “What a lovely old car”, “They don’t build them like that anymore” and “Wow, what model is that” are the sorts of comments and questions one is greeted with and everybody just wants to know about the car, not how much it cost or how fast it goes, it is enchanting.
The stunning Canadian War Memorial at Vimy
We were already finding ourselves breaking the rules and hitting the Autoroutes to get to our first overnight stop in Épernay, the ‘Capital of Champagne’ and its famous L’Avenue de Champagne where some of the greatest Champagne producers are based and where millions of bottles of champagne are stored in a warren of chalk cellars under the streets of the town. Having come here a number of times on business, my Father recommended a local restaurant that was exceptional and topped off what had been a perfect first day.
The following morning we set off from our B&B and headed south and then east across to Nancy and then down towards Épinal. After stopping for fuel, we pull back onto the main road when I notice a bluish haze in the rear view mirror. “Can you see blue smoke behind us?” I ask Nikki, who promptly turns around and casually replies: “Nope.”
I carry on for a couple of hundred yards before checking the mirrors again. “That is definitely blue smoke!” I exclaim. The classic motorists biggest fear was realised. Somewhere, oil was burning. Despite my preparatory servicing and setting up, was the dream to end on the second day on the side of the road? Perhaps I could use the ring as a get out of jail free card with my beloved?
I immediately pulled over and switched off the car. I clambered out and opened the bonnet. Thankfully, I wasn’t met with a comical plume of smoke and/or steam and the engine bay hadn’t been redecorated with the contents of the oil system. I immediately rang my friend and mechanic Jez, who had done much of the prep work on the car and after already enduring numerous phone calls from me with stupid questions in the lead up to this trip, would now answer the phone with: “Good Afternoon, JWorx, free Alfa Romeo hotline.”, the cheeky bugger!
“Hi Jez, I’ve broken down, saw blue smoke and pulled over” I realised as this sentence left my lips that it was about as useful for an over the phone diagnosis as an ashtray on a motorcycle. “Sounds like an oil leak, can you see where it is coming from?”
I scrabble down on my hands and knees to peer under the car. Oil is dripping from everywhere, even bits of the car that shouldn’t be anywhere near anything that contains the stuff are dripping with oil! “Everywhere, Jez, there is oil everywhere!” Clearly, my ability at troubleshooting was hitting new heights!
Jez recommended that I push the car forward, if possible, and get Nikki to start the car to see if it is obvious where the oil is leaking from, if not visually, then from where it might leave spots on the road. After some calming words and explaining that the car won’t blow up, I convinced Nikki to hop in the drivers seat and start the car. Immediately a perfect jet of oil comes spewing out of the oil filter housing. Having been repainted, the paint must have shifted where the housing meets the rubber seal. I simply loosen it off, twist it around a bit and tighten everything back up. There is still a tiny weep but nothing to really worry about and Jez recommends stopping at the next DIY store and buying some light sand paper and sealant just in case it gets any worse. It would seem disaster has been avoided and after a quick top up of the oil, we are back on our way. We head cross country to Colmar through the beautiful Ballon des Vosges Regional Nature Park before joining the Autoroute down into Switzerland to make up for lost time and get to our bed for the night.
Either just before or just after the ‘catastrophic’ breakdown
The roof still down after three days on the road, we hit some bigger roads and headed for the Swiss Alps going through some of the most idyllic countryside I have ever encountered. The routes were chosen purely on the shape of the roads on the map, the more twists and turns the better. What the scenery actually looked like either side of said roads, hadn’t really crossed my mind. In general, we lucked out but in Switzerland, we hit the jackpot. Here we were meandering through some gorgeous foothills to the Alps, perfect green hills all around, the mellow sound of the cow bells jangling as we swept past in the Alfa on perfectly surfaced roads, it really was the stuff of movies, cheesy movies maybe, but it was special none the less.
Just some of the ‘Fairy Tale’ scenery we encountered in Switzerland.
Soon the rolling hills were getting taller and steeper until we found ourselves surrounded by huge mountains either side of the smooth asphalt. This is where a convertible comes into it’s own. I am very fond of closed cars when it comes to the driving experience and on a lot of cars, looks. For example, I would have an E-Type Fixed Head over an Open Two Seater any day of the week, but the beauty of old cars is that we don’t have to all like the same ones. However, when you are driving in the bottom of a valley with towering landscape either side of you, it is only in an open car that you can truly appreciate it. One can simply look up and all around, drinking in the natural spectacle and beauty, as opposed to craning your neck to try and see the tops of the mountains out of the restrictive side windows or windscreen.
Perhaps not the greatest of photos but if one imagines how much of the scenery would be lost had the roof been up or in a closed car, it demonstrates my point above, perfectly.
Soon we were heading up our first pass, although I must admit, the amount of incredible roads, scenery and hairpins, one would think the rest of the way to Italy is one big Alpine pass. We were heading up the Grimsel Pass which peaks at over 7,000 feat. The zippy little Alfa shows no signs of altitude sickness, the revvy little twin cam engine and perfect gearing making easy work of ascending the Pass. The zig-zagging descent is the stuff of legends, hairpin after hairpin after hairpin come into view. The brakes and light handling are an absolute delight and fill one with confidence, so much so that it isn’t long before you are flicking past the odd camper van taking the descent a little too gingerly, before hitting the anchors to scrub off the speed before the next hairpin. It really is pure driving heaven and with no complaints from the passenger seat, my mood is lifted still higher by the knowledge that I have an excellent co-pilot/navigator to enjoy the rest of my driving adventures with too, as long as she says “Yes”, of course.
What is better then seeing all these hairpins ahead of you? Seeing them empty!
After Grimsel, we headed down the valley towards the town of Brig and from there, the Simplon Pass that would take us up and over the final bit of the Alps, before descending down across the border into Italy, bringing the end of our epic driving adventure into view, along with the start of a new one. Upon arriving in Brig, we found that the pass itself was closed and we were instructed to board a train to take us across. This had to be one of the most surreal parts of the journey. We were well versed in the Eurotunnel experience but being asked to follow another car up onto what is effectively an open railyway carriage with a bit of corrugated iron as a roof, then being told to keep our foot on the brake whilst the train is in motion, was more than a little nerve racking. There was also no lighting on the train so when we entered the rough hewn tunnel that was finished in 1906, we were plunged into complete darkness. The only thing we could make out was the distant halo of the trains headlights way up ahead of us. There were a number of times during this whole trip that we were made aware of the creature comforts one takes for granted in modern cars. On this occasion it was the interior lighting of modern cars, when I say we were in complete darkness, I mean complete darkness! There wasn’t a clock or instrument light I could turn on. Of course, I could turn the headlights on but having no idea how long this train journey took, I didn’t want to take a chance on running the battery flat. It was very odd and I’ll admit, a little unnerving.
After what seemed to be an age, we emerged out the other side and gratefully disembarked the train and were on the home straight. Heading towards Orta, we started to see signs for Milan and I realised, that in my decision to do this journey, I am bringing the Alfa Romeo back to within an hour of where its existence began 48 years before. It had gone from Milan to New York in 1964 and somehow made its way across to the West Coast and here I was, 70 kms away from where she was built; she had come full circle.
Villa Crespi is a beautiful, Moorish inspired building on the shores of the lake and although I didn’t know it at the time, the restaurant was about to receive a Michelin star, to call me ‘jammy’ would be an understatement. The hotel, though, was nothing in comparison to Lake Orta. It is everything I imagined of Lake Como but better. The town is a beautifully preserved medieval settlement and is a UNESCO World Heritage site, every night we would walk down the cobbled streets into the town for drink, no cars were allowed in and judging by the tiny streets and alleys, I don’t think I could have got the diminutive Alfa down those roads! In the middle of the lake is a beautiful island with a monastery, parts of which dated back to the 5th Century. It really was one of the most exceptional accidental finds of our lives and I couldn’t have written how perfect every bit of it was for my romantic intentions. One evening, after a fabulous dinner at the hotel restaurant where I could barely manage a mouthful of the sumptuous food (how that didn’t give the game away, I will never know!) we walked down the cobbled, tree lined road by the lake and the question was asked.
The answer? Yes, of course!
The stunning Isola di San Giulio in the middle of Lake Orta.
Since then Gi Gi has been used as our wedding car and driven by Nikki just a few days before the birth of our first child. Today, she sits in the garage and whenever our daughter Rosie sees here, she shouts: “Gi Gi!” The affect a classic car has had on our lives, in spite of my career choice, is overwhelming. Every turn of the wheel brings a smile, even the little mechanical mishaps that can occur on any car, are part of the adventure and excitement of classic car ownership. She really is a part of the family and will be the last thing I sell before the children!
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