Classic Cars: Bright Spark (2002)
Thrashing someone else’s car can be a nerve-racking experience. Especially when the someone else is sitting so close you can practically feel his breath on your skin. Of course, you’re only pushing the tacho needle around to the big numbers because you’ve been told to ‘let her rip’, but that’s such am ambiguous instruction. Is the owner’s ‘letting rip’ the same as when you let rip? Does he have a personal rev limit for his engine that he’s forgotten to tell you about?
And despite reassurances that a burst engine can always be rebuilt, if a con-rod were to spear its way through the side of the block, would the claimed easy-going resignation make way for temple throbbing anger and a request for large amounts of compensation?
These are thoughts reining in my enthusiasm for doing precisely as Richard Banks, owner of and passenger in the Alfa 75 Twin Spark-engined GTA replica I’m currently driving, has instructed me. This car may double up as a demonstrator of sorts for his classic Alfa spare parts business, but it’s also the Banks family’s personal racer-cum-track day car. It’s immaculately prepared and curvaceously beautiful in a way that only Italians – Bertone in this instance – know how; I really don’t want to be the one to bend it, despite Richard’s entreaties to up the pace.
The trouble is, Richard is so convincing in his assertion that ‘it’ll be alright’, and the Alfa is so willing, so goading in its performance and responses to steering, throttle and brakes, that my barriers of reason and common sense are slowly toppling. The roads don’t help; the minor roads around Tiverton in Devon, near Richard’s base, are barren of traffic and richly supplied with good lines of sight, and challenging bends of every variety. It’s Alfa country.
Although this car looks like a GTA – Alfa’s track sensation from the late Sixties – it’s actually based on a GT Junior and is powered by a more modern twin-plug 2.0 litre from the ill-fated 75. Richard has built it primarily as a track machine in which his son, Andrew, will contest this season’s GTA Challenge, but it’s inspiring on-road, too. It’s one of those rare cars that as a driver you truly connect with. So, when Richard tells me that the ‘front end has incredible grip and won’t wash out through that tight bend’ I start to believe him and keep the accelerator pinned down to vinyl-covered floor.
The rewards are as promised – the Alfa grips and goes round, though as the body starts to roll you can feel through the seat and steering wheel how the loadings are being transferred down the chassis, the back end letting you know gently that a game of ‘catch’ is on the cards if you push much harder. The more famous pictures of the genuine GTA race cars, often in the hands of F1 ace Jochen Rindt, show the inside front wheel pawing the air a couple of feet off the ground, but Richard has fitted a fatter front anti-roll bar, stiffened up the springs and altered the front wheel camber so that both front wheels stay planted on terra firma.
When the back end does let go in sharper, slower corners, at least it does so with a playful flick that’s easily caught and held, if that’s your game. You can correct it either with the steering or the throttle, you take your pick or gently balance the pair of them so that once you’ve finished messing about you can get straight back on the gas and fling yourself towards the next bend.
But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves here, the thrill and the fun of the driving experience overwhelming the nitty-gritty of what this car actually is. To understand why Richard built it, first you need to know a little bit about what a bona fide GTA was. In 1965 Alfa decided that having done extremely well on tracks around the world with the stunningly pretty SZ, it would harness changes to the European Touring Car Challenge series regulations to create a racer with closer links to the company’s standard models. So the basis for what was to become the most successful touring car of the period was the Giulia Sprint GT.
It attained the ‘A’ suffix to its name on account of it being ‘alleggerita’, or lightened. Aluminium panels rather than dietary fibre were responsible for much of the weight loss, which slashed the poundage from just over a ton for the top-spec GTV, down to a slender 1540lb. Competition versions went as far as listing hollow driveshafts and drilled gears amongst their weight-saving measures. The GTA was also gifted a twin-plug cylinder head that raised the power output to 115bhp at 6000rpm; the racers were good for 170bhp at 7500rpm. The GTA was an instant and persistent hit, its tally of wins way too extensive to list here.
As a consequence, the value of GTAs, road or track versions, can go as high as £30,000 or more for a good one, a discouragement to some owners from using their cars, an impediment to many people who’d like to own one. Hence Richard Banks’ scheme to recreate and improve the essence of the GTA, while making it more affordable.
The modifications that Richard has made to this particular car can be applied to any Bertone bodied 105 series Alfa – ‘just about all the parts are interchangeable,’ he explains, ‘so you can mix and match according to what you want out of your car, or have the budget for. Of course, if you use a later model you lose the authentic GTA look with the slightly chiselled front end. The car you see here started life as a 1968 1.3-litre GT Junior, with rare ochre paintwork; the fact it was minus its engine lessened the pain of turning it into a hot-rod.
In common with the real thing, the Junior was stripped right down. ‘We took out everything,’ Richard recounts, ‘soundproofing, the lot. But because we intended racing the car, we put in a roll-case and competition seats. And there’s currently a hole in the dash, where the radio once went, that is due to accommodate a trip computer.’
Alloy doors, boot and bonnet replaced the Junior’s standard steel items, while the rear screen and side windows are Perspex jobs, all in the cause of lightness. Original GTAs tipped the scales at about 750kg, while this car weighs 900kg. ‘The rest of the GTA detailing is stuff we supply to customers anyway – grille kits, door handles, that sort of thing,’ says Richard. ‘And the wheels are replicas we’ve made ourselves; the originals were made from magnesium and are expensive and prone to leaking. As you can see from our car, once all the parts are on, it’s hard to tell it apart from a real GTA, although there is a slight difference in the lines between the top of the rear arches and the window above them.’
The choice of the 75 2.0-litre Twin Spark engine (the 8-valve version, as it uses an alloy block, whereas the 16-valver is iron-blocked) was down to cost (an engine costs £80 or so), availability, and ease of tuning.
It also has the advantage of being relatively simple to install, and its lineage to earlier Alfa engines so intimate that a 105 series sump cover can be bolted straight to it. Nothing radical was done to the Twin Spark, but there are extensive detail changes. Off came the standard fuel injection, replaced with a pair of 45 Dell’Orto carburettors, which in turn necessitated a new inlet system. A different exhaust manifold was fitted, along with a 60mm diameter mild steel exhaust system.
The Twin Spark runs as standard with two distributors, and the one linked to the exhaust cam was ditched; the engine now uses a single twin plug distributor from the GTA. Other changes included mildly tweaked cam profiles, the flywheel from a 2.0-litre 105 series GTV, some machining work to the back of the crankshaft to accommodate a new spigot shaft, and ‘very careful building and finishing’, The result of these labours is a power output in the region of 160bhp after final adjustments.
Further confirming Richard’s claim that so many Alfa components are adaptable, a 2.0-litre GTV five-speed gearbox was plugged directly to the Twin Spark engine; a set of new ratios are planned before the racing season starts in earnest. The GTA-alike’s limited slip diff was liberated from a 105 series Berlina, and its brakes from a 2.0-litre GTV. Richard raves about the Green Stuff pads now fitted to the car, and is more excited still at the prospect of the four-pot calipers that are soon to come.
As for the chassis work, Richard describes it as ‘nothing very earth-shattering’. The springs were uprated all-round, a stiffer front anti-roll bar fitted, the rear anti-roll bar was removed, and some negative camber applied to the suspension. Richard reckons ‘that the angle of attack is critical in these old cars,’ so the attitude of the Alfa was changed to make it more stable at speed. The 14x6in rims roll on 195/60 profile rubber – the latest Yokahama A539s – which offer phenomenal wet weather grip.
Fortunately there’s no need to verify that today as the weather is being remarkably kind. Boot the engine into life and the sound is pure Alfa, burbling and growling as it idles and blips, though more robust in tone than in most road-going Romeos. The other distinctive sound in the cabin is the pish-pish-pish of the fuel pump working away behind you, as it funnels fuel forwards from a custom-made alloy tank located in the nearside corner of the boot.
The long gearlever that juts out from the lower regions of the facia looks as though it’ll be floppy and imprecise, but the opposite is true. It slides precisely through into first and the GTA (for want of a better name for it) moves off smoothly and without fuss. The gearchange remains quick and slick as you nip up through the ‘box, savouring the wealth of mid-range torque that has emerged from Richard’s engine tweaks.
Changing up at 6000rpm allows for brisk progress, but once I’ve mustered the courage to stick on another 1000rpm, the GTA becomes truly quick, certainly on the pace of many modern sports cars. Richard claims that at track days the GTA is a devourer of 911s and other exotic machinery, but out here on the open road achieving its ultimate pace is hampered by the state of the roads. Although the GTA rides commendably well, the circuit bias of its suspension means that bumpy surfaces can bat it disturbingly off line.
Just before we arrived to drive the GTA, Richard had been messing with its steering arms, with the consequence that today there’s a vagueness around the straight ahead and a heaviness at parking speeds; these, he says, will disappear when the earlier items are refitted. Even with the set-up imperfect, as the speed builds the steering demonstrates an exciting eagerness to turn in and feeds back all the information about the car/surface relationship that almost any keen driver would require.
I was expecting the GTA, despite all its mods, to feel old-fashioned and leisurely by modern road car standards. But the truth is that it has genuine, road-searing pace and offers levels of driver involvement and enjoyment that it’s nigh on impossible to find in moderns; Richard reckons this car will run rings around his genuine GTA, too. And despite my concerns about frailty, this faux GTA seems capable of handling vigorous use on a regular and frequent basis.
Up until driving this car, the notion of owning an elderly Alfa had never entered my head – alarmingly, now that I’ve driven this one I am beginning to see some logic behind the idea.