This year marks the 21st anniversary of 1966. That was a very good time for Alfa Romeo, a very good time indeed. New cars bubbling with traditional Milanese brio included the delectable GTV, and curvaceous Duetto. The marque’s devotees celebrated a season made memorable by more than 200 victories: Alfa won the European touring car championship, and its American counterpart. The highlight was Jochen Rindt and his battle-scarred Giulia Sprint GTA beating Uncle Sam’s heavy brigade in the four-hour race at Sebring. Closer to home, a trio of snarling, hip-high Tubolares beautifully bodied by Zagato dominated their class in the gruelling Targa Florio. It was a year when Alfa richly merited the exultant Alfissimo! Superlative.
All of which explains why the ever-enthusiastic Richard Banks suggested celebrating that golden twelvemonth’s 21st anniversary by driving four graduates from the Class of ‘66. Banks, who lives in Wickhambrook, a canter from Newmarket, is one of Britain’s most respected restorers of post-war Alfas, and must be on first-name terms with every nut, bolt, rivet and spot-weld. He found me my 1974 Spider, and is definitely one of the good guys.
Dr Orazio Satta Puglia, who became Alfa’s deeply respected design chief in 1945, was a great believer in creating cars of character from the same basic components. Key features shared by the Giulia TI, Duetto, GTC and GTA mustered at Wickhambrook included the 1.6litre version of his wonderfully robust twim-cam engine, the equally laudable, five-speed gearbox adopted by Alfa long before the extra ratio became popular with the common herd, disc brakes on all four wheels, and coil sprints for the back axle.
The dynasty we are dealing with here was founded in 1962, when the Giulia TI made its debut. Paul Pattison’s immaculate 1966 model was a reminder that this stubby saloon looked no more dashing than a biscuit tin at first glance. But its designer had trained as an aeronautical engineer. Closer inspection reveals all manner of subtle curves, flutes and indentations carefully sculpted to produce a remarkably good 0.34 drag coefficient. In other words, the Kamm-tailed Giulia was only a fraction less slippery than NSU’s flawed masterpiece, the Ro80. Jaguar’s apparently sleek E-type emerged from MIRA’s wind tunnel with a 0.44 rating, according to figures researched by the diligent Mr Pattison, and even the crisp, clean Alfa GTV had a 0.38 handicap.
Pattison’s affection for the deceptive four-door dates from 1973, when he was a student at Hatfield Polytechnic. Digs were shared with a character who lacked a bank account – ‘folding money arrived by recorded delivery at the start of each week’ – but ran a 1.3litre Giulia: ‘It looked stodgy enough to be mistaken for a Moskvitch, but was a very impressive performer. Travelling to discos made me realise that my Herald 1200 wasn’t the bee’s knees after all.’
He started collecting appropriate literature, including a road test published by Asian Auto in Malaya, where the police force shared its Italian counterpart’s liking for Alfa’s boxy saloon. But KOY 909D didn’t come into his life until three years ago. The original owner, an Italian living in this country, had clocked only 15,000miles between 1966 and 1982. His son-in-law, proprietor of an Italian restaurant in central London, had increased that figure to 37,000miles. He sold the car for £1500, which was about what it cost new.
Restoration amounted to nothing more than rebuilding the brakes, and replacing or replating most of the exterior chrome. Treating the Giulia to a new coat of paint revealed every square millimetre of metal to be original: ‘The car’s a totally rust-free freak,’ Pattison smiles.
Its interior is remarkably spacious, completely original, and smart enough to create the illusion of driving a car fresh from the factory. Details that catch the eye include a running-in sticker on the windscreen, a hand throttle, a neat little spring-loaded ashtray, and an instrument panel whose plastic and chrome are as typical of the swinging ‘60s as kinky boots and vestigial skirts. Darting out like a lizard’s red tongue, the horizontal strip speedometer reminds me of my father’s Vauxhall Cresta.
Short in the leg, long in the body, I never experience the posture problems suffered by many Anglo-Saxons when driving Italian cars. You get a good view, because the Giulia is a sit-up-and-begger, but the split-bench seat provides about as much support as Thatcher gave Scargill during the miners’ strike. On right-handers, only the belt prevents you slithering into your passenger’s lap. Italians didn’t go a bundle on belts in 1966, so visions of frequent thigh-to-thigh contacts may well have attracted many a hot-blooded Latin male to the Giulia.
You can sense the twin-cam yearning for an additional carburettor, but a tiny tachometer, tucked away to the left of the panel, confirms its willingness to rev. The power curve reaches its 92bhp peak at 6000rpm as I flick from gear to gear, remembering the warning about weak synchromesh on second, and bowl along rural Suffolk’s rolling roads at a very respectable rate of knots.
Vital statistics? The Giulia TI is good for 0-60mph in 13.1 seconds, will cruise all day in the 80-90 bracket, and reaches about 105mph before running out of steam. This staid-looking saloon can match an MGB in a straight line, and must be considerably quicker on more demanding roads. Like every Alfa I have driven, it comes across as a beautifully balanced, sweet-handling car endowed with superb steering. It is fun to drive, and very forgiving, despite the combination of skinny tyres and surfaces sluiced by frequent heavy showers.
The red Duetto has been restored by Richard Banks, and when we met was within days of its new owner. Pininfarina’s styling features include cowled headlights, and that seriously long tail finished off by skimpy bumpers from which reflectors sprout like red lollipops displayed on a sweet shop’s chromed counter. The driver’s seat is reasonably comfortable, if only a little more supportive than the Giulia’s, but the cockpit in general makes me glad to own the later Spider. I recall a well-heeled friend being put off by the Duetto’s painted metal facia and plastic steering wheel – he had to be well-heeled to contemplate buying one, because it cost E-tpe money in 1966.
Jaguar’s two-seater provided astonishing value for money, but 109bhp cranked out at 6000rpm makes the Duetto pretty quick for a four-cylinder 1.6litre car of that era, and very entertaining. Testers of the time reached 60mph in 11.2secs, and nudged 115mph. My 2.0litre Spider delivers strong mid-range torque, but there is nothing to be gained by revving it beyond the five-five mark. The Duetto revels in hard work, and sings with all the spine-tingling bravura of a La Scala tenor as the saucer-sized tachometer’s needle races to the red-line at six-three. Rich, firm and fruity, deep-throated anddetermined, the exhaust note booms soul-stirring encouragement as gloved hands guide the Duetto through fast sweepers on the A143 between Bury and Haverhill.
As with the Giulia, GTC and GTA, narrow tyres, wet roads and due regard for another man’s property rule out anything too ambitious. It is a day for enjoying long, seductive curves on roads benefiting from good
visibility, rather than gung-ho antics in lanes prowled by predatory tractors. The scuttle shakes, of course, the body flexes, the hood cover is far more fiddly than my Spider’s, and its metal frame could have been designed to scratch pristine paintwork. There are moments when the tail inches out, but that’s no problem in a car that responds predictably to flexed wrists.
I had looked forward to my Duetto miles, even when it became clear that Mother Nature was determined to plague the exercise with conditions better suited to kayaks than convertibles. The red roadster exceeds expectations by blending the Spider’s familiar poise and panache with that marvellous, free-revving engine’s zip and zing. It reduces the likes of the MGB and TR4A power units to the level of crude old clunkers. The brakes are the best I’ve ever experienced in an older Alfa – very positive, but not too sharp.
The GTC, a notional four-seater convertible of almost unrivalled elegance, shares Nick Scholes’s stable with a 1975 GTV, a 1977 Spider, a BMW 730, and his wife’s Uno Turbo. Only 99 right-hand drivers were built, and this is the third: ‘I had never set eyes on one, apart from in books and magazines, so it was very much a question of having faith in the marque when Richard asked if I was interested,’ says Scholes. ‘He spent 12months getting it into really good shape, because there was a lot of work to be done. I took delivery about two years ago. But this is the first time it’s covered more than a mile or two since we trailered it home.’
The GTC is based on the Giulia Sprint GT, one of the most attractive cars every styled by Bertone. Conversion work was undertaken by Touring of Milan, now just another name on a headstone in the coachbuilders’ graveyard, and the convertible that emerged is some four inches longer in the tail than the coupe. Like the Sprint GT, it is powered by a version of the twin-cam that produces 106bhp at 6000rpm.
Strengthened A-posts inevitably reduce space in the footwells, squeezing the pedals close enough for my right clodhopper to brush the brake while operating the accelerator. The instrument panel looks a lot more Alfa than the Giulia TI’s, but reflects with almost mirror-like clarity. You can see if your knuckles are white. Toggle switches devoid of identification operate the 112mph drophead’s single-speed wipers, panel light and heater fan.
You can hang you right elbow over the Duetto’s door, but the GTC’s is a shade too high for that sort of studied nonchalance. This is a convertible that feels snug, but not at all claustrophobic, when battened down for bad weather. Rear windows, rather than expanses of canvas, reduce over-the-shoulder visibility problems. At least one report published soon after the GTC’s launch at Geneva described the rear compartment as having adequate room for two adults. They would have to be agoraphobic pygmies to enjoy a long journey.
Many of yesterday’s ragtops were cursed with hoods that had to be removed completely, then stowed in the boot. Their finger-pinching frames, presumably the work of bear-trap designers, delighted generations of dedicated masochists. The GTC’s, secured by two catches, can be lowered or raised in seconds. It fits perfectly, lets in not one droplet of water, and is a tribute to Geoff Sargeant, a craftsman based in the Norfolk village of Felthorpe, a few miles from Norwich.
If the Spider is regarded as a two-plus-two, the GTC must be Alfa’s last four-seater convertible. Endowed with enough muscle to reach 112mph, it lacks the Duetto’s sparkling sizzle. This is a delightful fast tourer suitable for the spouse, children and luggage, not a mettlesome sports car. The brakes feel soggy after the Duetto’s, and quick shifts into second and third are rebuked by muted protests.
I ask Nick Scholes why it had covered so few miles in two years: ‘Finding time to drive it can be a problem, if you’ve two other Alfas to exercise,’ he explains. ‘We tend to regard it as our piece de resistance car, because the GTC’s such a rare model. I think it looks even better than the Spider. Just lifting the cover has been enough.’
‘It can be a bit arsey in the wet,’ Richard Banks chuckles as I heave myself into the hip-hugging, leather-trimmed bucket seat of his beloved GTA. The last letter stands for Alleggerita, which means lightened. Built as a road car suitable for competition work, Alfa’s homologation special was liberally endowed with aluminium panels. Even the interior’s chrome trim strips were pared right down to save an ounce or two. The GTA weighed 455lbs less than the standard Sprint GT, but its eight-plug engine delivered 115bhp at 6000rpm.
Banks’s car also sports plastic windows, so there’s very little weight above the waistline, and belts out about 145bhp. It takes a few seconds to start, spluttering and banging, gasping for breath. Then the duel-ignition system does its stuff, sending the tacho needle hurtling deep into the red before I can take my foot off the accelerator. Banks just grins: ‘Sounds good? Rev it to seven thou by all means. Everything’s been very carefully balanced. It’s almost grenade-proof.’
Nothing much is produced below 2000, apart from a good deal of martial music. But muscles are being flexed at the 3000 mark, and by 5000 you’re flying. Really close ratios allied to a 5.1:1 final drive – ‘More zap for sprints and hillclimbs’ – make it hardly worth letting go of the gearlever. Only a second or two separates each shift. A modest 6300rpm gives indicated speeds of 43, 62, 87 and 105mph before I snatch fifth gear. Several of today’s hot hatchbacks can match the GTA’s acceleration, but not its charisma. It feels every inch a snarling, snorting, taut, responsive, strapped-down racer, red in tooth and claw, but certainly not too wild for everyday driving. The previous owner’s wife used it as her shopping car.
Firm, rose-jointed suspension devoid of rubber bushes is complemented by 185/70 Pirellis on seven-inch rims. It works well when I find a few miles of dry, smooth road – the GTA speeds through curves with just a hint of understeer – but is less enjoyable in wet, bumpy conditions where power has to be applied with care. The steering is terrific, even by Alfa standards – swift, smooth and responsive without being nervous. Pulling the GTA down from three-figure speeds demands a firm right foot. The brakes are inclined to pull to the right, which is something you prefer not to experience when driving a left-hooker on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, and tend to lock on greasy surfaces.
Only 450 of these stimulating Alleggerita Alfas fitted with the 1.6litre engine were built. Richard is reluctant to discuss his car’s value – ‘Makes me wonder if I can afford to keep it’ – but £25,000 is probably close.
He curses the weather as I relinquish my grip on a wood-rimmed, alloy-spoked wheel, worthy of being framed and hung on the wall: ‘Come back for a long drive on a dry day,’ he urges. That’s an offer I have every intention of accepting. The GTC, Duetto and Giulia TI are spirited performers, but driving the GTA is next best thing to seeing Rindt opposite-locking his triumphant way round Sebring, nearly half a lifetime ago. That red car with the green-on-white cloverleaf emblems is the class of the Class of ‘66.