PART 1

ALFA DOES THAT. (But I don’t.)

I knew it was going to happen. I knew that, eventually, something was going to break on my car. But before we get to that, I need to tell you about the car itself. I bought it in the summer of 2019, back when my family and I were living in Los Angeles. I wanted a fun, old car for myself. Something with a little character. Didn’t need anything fast. But definitely a manual.

I was about to go check out an old brown Volvo 240 when I saw another listing. It was for a 1979 Alfa Romeo “Alfetta” Sport Sedan, and the price was shockingly low for a car that looked, in automotive parlance, really cool. For instance, and I am sorry if I’m getting way too technical for you here, but it had four headlights, and two of them were yellow.

I called up Andrew Collins (formerly reviews editor at Jalopnik, currently editor-in-chief of Car Bibles) and asked him to come to check it out with me because, despite my deployment of the automotive vernacular above, I didn’t know a damn thing about cars. (At this point, I have a pretty extensive resume writing for car publications, but the stuff I write is all human-interest.)

We showed up at the address, which turned out to be an Alfa Romeo shop called John’s Alfa Romance. Benny, the guy who ran the place, was the seller. And he walked me through the reasons why it was priced so low. There were many.

Though the car certainly photographed well, the wear was a little more apparent in person. There were a few rust spots. Its sunroof had been crudely sealed shut with some kind of filler that no one had bothered to smooth down much or paint over. Speaking of paint: it had been repainted from its original, classic, desirable, deep red to a rather lackluster, dark, metallic gray. And then there were the door cards, which had been entirely deleted. In their place, aluminum diamond plate.

And, finally, it was an utter Frankenstein of a car. The taillights were not from a 1979 Alfetta, but a ‘71 Spider. The side skirts were from a Milano (as were some interior parts), and the engine was from a 1987 Spider and fed by a Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection system.

For me, these changes were a mixed bag. On the negative side, there was the diamond plate. I’d asked Benny why the mod was made and he shrugged and told me his brother did it for no other reason than that he thought it was cool. Let me tell you: it is not cool. Not in a figurative way. And in the summer, it’s not cool in a literal way, either. It’s like driving around in a vintage, Italian microwave oven.

On the other hand, I considered some of the changes to be upgrades. For instance, the ‘87 engine was an upgrade because it was the same 2L the ‘79 Alfetta should have had, but with the Bosch L-Jet, it would be far less finicky than it would be carbureted or with a Spica mechanical fuel injection.

Benny did the engine swap and fuel injection system because he wanted to build his son a reliable daily driver, which would get him to and from work every day. But, alas, his son didn’t want to drive a car with a manual transmission. (Kids these days.)

So, Benny was left with a bit of an ugly duckling. Alfa purists would be turned off by its many modifications, both cosmetic and mechanical. Speedseekers would have to look elsewhere, as the L-Jet traded raw power for niceties like consistent starts and easy, smooth idling. And those looking to hang with the countless gleaming Bentleys, Ferraris, Maseratis, Jaguars of Los Angeles would have opted for literally any other model Alfa.

Think I’m exaggerating? After I bought the car, I emailed a particularly notable and experienced mechanic who specializes in Italian cars about it because we’ve become acquainted over the years. When I told him it was an Alfetta Sport Sedan, he replied back that it was “the homeliest Alfa ever to roam the planet.” He then wrote, “The crew demands to see photos as they are in disbelief that someone who writes about cars would actually pay money for said subject.”

Lest you think that’s just one man’s opinion, I’ll direct your attention to the Sport Sedan’s claim to fame in popular culture:

In the 1986 film, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, you’ll remember that Ferris convinces his best friend, Cameron, to take his father’s beloved ‘61 Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder because the principal would never believe that Ferris’ girlfriend’s father would ever drive a “piece of shit” like Cameron’s car.

That piece of shit? A Sport Sedan.

It’s a brilliant piece of production design, really, considering Cameron’s dad is obviously an Italian car nut. So what does an Italian car nut get his high-school-age son for a first car? A Sport Sedan. Perfect beater.

Like Cameron, I guess I was a pretty perfect fit. Especially for this particular Sport Sedan. I had a very small budget, an appreciation for underappreciated things (from music to films to books), and a desire to own something with character, a stick shift, and that was turn-key.

***

We looked the car over. When I saw “we,” I mean that Andrew and I both looked at it, and then I would turn to Andrew and say, “So, how’s it look?”

The engine was clean and the hoses were fresh. It was in solid shape. Andrew seemed genuinely impressed by how it looked under the hood and under the chassis. I took it out for a test drive and was smitten. I didn’t want to make an impulsive decision, so I told Benny that I wanted to sleep on it. I went back to my place knowing full well I was going to buy it. Truly, I couldn’t wait. Couldn’t wait to drive it. Couldn’t wait to look out of my window and see that thing parked in the driveway. Unable to wait ‘til it was official, I started telling friends.

One of the first people I texted was my former editor, Patrick George (previously, Editor in Chief of Jalopnik, now Editorial Director at Brookline Media). Sent him some photos, told him I was seriously considering the purchase. (Again, “considering” wasn’t an entirely honest description of where I was at in the decision-making process.)

“Hey, good luck! Find a local mechanic for sure,” he replied.

It wasn’t exactly the massive, enthusiastic congratulations I was expecting. This seemed more…ominous. But I wasn’t going to let that dampen my excitement. And, anyway, the great part about this purchase was that I was buying it from the very Alfa Romeo mechanic who had rebuilt the thing, and he was only a couple miles from where I lived. So, I didn’t need to “find a mechanic.” I’d found him when I found the car!

So, the following day, I took a Lyft down to the shop along with some cash, and I bought it, feeling good that I had an old, fun, strange, one-of-a-kind Italian car that was really built to be a daily driver.

***

The car was a joy. But if you’re even vaguely familiar with cars (and if you’re reading this publication, you are more than vaguely familiar with them), you know that Alfas have a reputation. They’re known for being stylish, speedy, quirky, but also a bit unpredictable. They’re known to have electrical issues, leaks, things like that. But my car, which I’d taken to calling Ol’ Sport, was no speed-demon Giulia or Montreal or GTV6. Mine was a boxy, practical, sensible Sport Sedan built for commuting, not autocrossing.

Still, it didn’t take long for issues to come up, and in short order, I found myself back at the shop. But Benny was never fazed and addressing the issues was a snap. Every time I’d call him or see him and describe some issue, he said the same thing. It was like a catchphrase:

“Alfa does that.”

One day, I smelled burning coolant and I popped the hood to find it splashed all over the underside of the hood. “Alfa does that,” he shrugged. Turns out, it was just a bad radiator cap.

Another day, I went to drive my mother-in-law to dinner, but Ol’ Sport wouldn’t move. The rear wheels were locked, it seemed. We took a Lyft to the restaurant instead. The next day, I went back out to the car and it worked just fine. Benny asked me if I used the handbrake when I parked it overnight. I told him I did. “Alfa does that,” he told me. And then he told me to stop using the handbrake and just put it in second gear. Turns out the handbrake likes to lock up the rear brakes.

And then I saw a very large puddle beneath the rear of the car. Drove it down to John’s Alfa Romance with the “BRAKE” dummy light illuminated even though I didn’t have the brake on. He put it on the lift, wiped some of the fluid with his finger, and then tasted it like he might sampling some olive oil. Then he nodded. “Brake fluid. Alfa does that.” It was a bad caliper, and he replaced it a few days later with a rebuilt one. It was only about $130.

A smarter person would have seen these things happening and immediately started to question the wisdom of a car that so frequently “does that” when “that” seems to be any number of unrelated problems. But it had a sort of opposite effect on me: I got used to it. And Benny’s decades of experience and relaxed disposition put me at ease.

Hey, Alfa does that. No big deal.

No big deal, that is, when you have a mechanic who knows what “that” is and what exactly to do about “that.” I, personally, had no idea about “that.” I had no idea about any of “that” whatsoever.

***

And then, in the summer of 2020, we moved. We moved far away from John’s Alfa Romance; specifically, we relocated from Los Angeles to Denver. I daily drove the Alfa around Denver that summer without much issue. One day, though, I found the car wouldn’t idle in the first 15 minutes that I’d drive it. It’d just stall out. Sticking my head firmly into the sand, I reasoned that this was some annoying but temporary condition that would go away in a day or so, like a mosquito bite.

It didn’t. So then I reflected on the issue and came up with a brilliant solution: I just need to set the idle speed higher. Perhaps 2000 RPM would do it. This was exactly the kind of automotive work I was suited for: the kind where all you have to do is turn a screw. I’ll confess that I’ve never even changed my own oil before. But I’ve turned a screw. So I could do that much. And so I did.

No surprise, it didn’t help.

My third approach was to deal with it. I simply kept my foot on the gas when I was in neutral or had the clutch in. It made left turns in busy intersections a little more stressful, but it worked. But at some point, dealing with it really interfered with my enjoyment of driving it.

So then I asked people about it on Twitter, and I got all kinds of intimidating theories about stuck valves, bad sensors, timing, and other things I couldn’t possibly understand. I tweeted them all back some version of Mmm, yes, I was thinking the same thing. I’ll check that out. And then in real life, I went back to hoping Ol’ Sport would heal itself like a living, breathing thing.

Or maybe I just need to increase the idle to 2500 RPM. I popped the hood and something happened. Something very strange: I saw it. I saw the problem. I saw it staring right at me. There was a big crack in the air intake hose.

I got some silicone tape and wrapped it. And just like that, the car was fixed. I felt like my mechanic. Car stalling? Hey, Alfa does that. Hand me the tape.

***

But when the winter set in, I found that Ol’ Sport was not fond of its new home in Colorado. Zero-degree nights were not really a thing it had to deal with in Los Angeles. Consequently, it did not like to start. And also the battery failed. I replaced that and started keeping a battery tender on the new one on very cold nights. I also put a heat lamp under the car. This provided just enough juice and heat to get the grumpy car going the following day. (It also gave me nice low-level anxiety all winter, as I was afraid my garage would catch fire.)

Battery tenders and heat lamps and silicon tape… I wasn’t exactly ready for a pit crew, I had to admit to myself. Even if Ol’ Sport made it through the winter, the car was running ragged. And that wasn’t a good thing for an old, weird, Italian, mutt of a car like mine. It was destined to give me trouble. And in Denver, I was one thousand miles from the one person who I knew could fix it.

I did my best to stay positive, but then finally on Tuesday, May 4th, as I was running errands, a bad thing started happening: the temperature kept rotating, moving well past 175 degrees, past 200 degrees, pushing 225. I got to the grocery store a few minutes later and turned the car off.

There hadn’t been any significant coolant leaks in my garage or I would have noticed. Surely, I would have.

I did my shopping and then went back out to the car. There was a good amount of coolant under the car. I popped the hood, and saw coolant in different places in the lower sections of the engine compartment, including beneath the expansion tank and under the airbox.

My house was only a mile away and the car had time to cool, so I decided to go for it. Didn’t take long to pin the temperature and in the last moments, before I got home, I saw smoke start to rise from the front of the hood.

Later, after the car had cooled down, I checked it out more. Looked like the expansion tank was empty and there was all that coolant. So, perhaps (I hoped) there was simply a bad connection to the expansion tank and it was leaking out. But then, the smoke had me nervous. I tweeted about the overheating and the coolant, and people tweeted back some theories. Maybe a thermostat. Maybe a bad hose. Maybe worse. I Googled it and became worried I was dealing with a bad head gasket.

So the next day, I went out to the car and checked for these telltale signs of a bad head gasket. Didn’t find that. But I did find a large pool of coolant on the ground. And in the bright sunlight, I reexamined the car and found that the source of the coolant wasn’t from the expansion tank. Rather, it seemed to be coming from behind a pulley mounted to the front of the engine. I took some photos (of what, I had no idea). I posted them to Twitter. Then I pulled out my Haynes manual, which I’d ordered for myself one day just because I thought it would be good to have it. (Though when I’d opened it the day it arrived, I found it so confusing I very seriously considered returning it but was too embarrassed to do that, so I put it on my bookshelf where people might see it and think I was the kind of guy who spent his weekends working on his vintage car.)

I compared what I was looking at to some photos in the Haynes manual. This, it seemed, was the coolant pump, or the gasket that creates the seal between the pump and the engine block (to which the pump is mounted).

It now seemed like I was dealing with either a water pump gasket or a bad water pump. Either way, this would require removing the pump. Even to an idiot like me, I figured if you were going to do that much, you might as well put a new one on.

My car Twitter friends agreed that the pump should be replaced regardless. I also knew that if I wanted to save a little money, I could source the pump myself rather than have a shop order it and add fees or buy a more expensive one. So I went to the place where my old mechanic got parts, and that is one of the few places in the States to carry a wide range of parts for old Alfas: Centerline. (Incidentally, it happens to be right outside of Denver.)

I went ahead and ordered the part.

***

And then a very strange thought came over me: what if I did it myself? I called my old mechanic in LA.

“No,” Benny said immediately. “You could with some cars. But on yours, there’s a crank pulley you’d have to deal with. No. No, no, no.”

But, when I went on Twitter and asked if people thought I could do the job myself, there was a different attitude altogether.

“Yes!” Jeff Baterton replied. (Jeff does not tweet under his own name.)

“You can do it!” Brian DuBois tweeted at me, adding: “I’m sure we can round up someone [in] the Denver area if you need a pointer or two.”

(Jeff Batterton and Brian DuBois, along with Oliver Pickard, Dan Roth, BradWrench, would become constant companions, sort of fairy godmothers to me throughout the project.)

Robin Gordon (who also tweets under a different name) replied, “Absolutely. It’s a great little project…”

The replies mounted. I hadn’t even ordered the part yet, and people were already giving me hints and tips and suggesting further preventative maintenance. Before I let myself get swept away by the enthusiasm, I tweeted: “My old Alfa mechanic is warning me it’s a tough job because of the crankshaft pulley.”

“I believe in you, David,” Oliver replied, adding: “Also it’ll make a good article.”

“It would be a good article,” Jeff agreed.

NEXT… PART 2: THE PROJECT BEGINS