- Year: 1976
- Engine: Petrol
- Power: 200 bhp
- Torque: 174lb ft
- Drive: RWD
Waiting with a welcome cup of tea for Classic Cars reader Chris Bale I can’t help but feel a little apprehensive about today. There are a couple of reasons for this – for a start Chris already owns a DeLorean DMC-12. That was a past dream drive car featured in these pages and about as iconic and attention-grabbing as any classic gets, as I discovered during our The List feature just over two years ago – we were practically mobbed every time we stopped. Chris has also driven all the way from Norwich to our rendezvous in Somerset with Montreal owner Derek Johnson. I’m nutty enough about these Alfas to think that’s OK, but I hope it’s going to prove worthwhile for him.
The early signs are good because when Chris pulls up on the driveway it turns out his daily driver is a red Alfa Romeo 159, and the clue that he’s properly got the Alfa bug is confirmed when he mentions that this car recently replaced a 156. Then I see the look on his face when he glimpses Derek’s Montreal. It’s like one of those rom-com movie moments where they pull on the soft-focus filter and fade in some Lionel Richie on the soundtrack. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised – after all, this is no ordinary Montreal but a trophy-winning example of just 180 right-hand drive models out of the already miniscule total of 3925 Montreals that Alfa Romeo built between 1970 and 1977.
Chris is on the hook already, saying in a slightly awed tone, ‘I did wonder if it would be left-hand drive, though it wouldn’t have been a problem because I’m used to that with my DeLorean.
I still can’t quite believe this is happening – I’ve only seen these before at car shows, and they’re so striking and so different to anything else ever built. I’ve been trying to remember when I first came across the Montreal but in truth I can’t recall a time when I didn’t like them. I keep thinking of Michael Caine in The Marseille Contract, but I’m sure I first watched the film because there was a Montreal in it rather than the other way around. I’ve always been a car nut, I got it from my father – he’s owned two BMW 635s E24, a Holden VXR8 and a 1985 Chevrolet Camaro among other things. With all that going on I probably didn’t stand a chance!’
Everything goes quiet for a moment while we simply stare at the Montreal. These cars can have that effect on people. Finally Chris admits, ‘That shape is really amazing, it’s so beautiful. I just can’t believe I’m about to drive one of these at last.’ Yes, it’s definitely time to put Chris behind the Montreal’s wheel before his expectations go right off the scale.
He eases into the driver’s seat and the grin returns. ‘This is a very nice place to be, with the leather and everything. Alfa Romeo is always good at that sense of occasion. My first surprise is that it has a very good and not typically Italian driving position. I’m comfortable in here right away and not having to stretch for anything or angle my legs awkwardly.’
Time to twist the key, at which the pre-warmed engine churns enthusiastically into life with a tone that’s actually closer to Detroit than Maranello, at least at lower revs. ‘I do love that V8 sound,’ says Chris. ‘It’s muted but… assertive, I think that’s maybe the right word. And it sounds even nicer when you give it some revs,’ he grins after a blip of the throttle. After a little practice to fix the notion of a dogleg first gear into Chris’s head and to get used to the clutch bite we’re off.
Straight away he seems impressed. ‘It pulls really well at just about any revs – I’m really surprised by the engine’s flexibility,’ is Chris’s first comment. ‘You have to be deliberate with the gear change, which is also a bit notchy going into first, and it’s so tempting to keep it in each gear for longer so you hear the engine more – that sound really makes you tingle at higher revs. The gear lever is well sprung to sit in the second-to-third plane, which helps remind me that I have to move it across and down for first. The clutch pedal is a little hard to modulate when manoeuvring in first and reverse but fine through all the other gears.
‘At low speeds the steering is also a bit heavy, but once you get above walking pace it lightens up perfectly. With a lot of the older cars I’ve driven you tend to find a lot of slack in the steering, like the 1965 Mustang I hired from Thunder Road for a holiday a year or so back, but there’s none of that vagueness with the Montreal. I love the wheel’s thin rim too, it so suits the car. There’s so much feel and smoothness to the steering, you can tell exactly what it’s doing all the time – it’s not numb like so many cars, especially more modern ones. You do have to work it a bit in tighter turns but it’s always a pleasure to use.
‘I like looking out over that sculpted bonnet with all those curves. It goes back to that Alfa Romeo sense of occasion thing. The only downside is that with the sun at some angles you get some quite bad reflections in the windscreen, and glancing across it looks even worse on the passenger side.’ That’s something I was trying to ignore from the passenger seat but can confirm. ‘I guess that’s just of its time – manufacturers have got a lot better at dealing with things like that in the 50 years since this car was designed. There’s also a massive blind spot in the rear threequarters which you have to learn to make allowances for and the mirrors don’t cover all of it.
‘My third, and I promise final, criticism is that the electric windows are really slow, especially going up. I wonder if all Montreals are prone to that or if it’s just that these are a bit tired?’
Being midweek a near-deserted RSPB car park looks like a handy spot to take a break and talk some more. I’m also keen to probe deeper into the earlier comment Chris made about hiring a Mustang to go on holiday in. That sounds a bit odd coming from a guy with a DeLorean in his garage. ‘The thing is I can drive the DeLorean any time I want, and I like to have something special to go on holiday in,’ he explains. ‘I’m keen to try as many classics as I can and have also hired a couple of others from a more local classic car hire place for other trips.’
I’m not about to argue with that kind of logic, and Chris is understandably keen to put the Montreal back on its pedestal. ‘It’s simply brilliant – what a privilege. I love all the design details that are so gloriously unnecessary but completely captivating, like those slatted eyelids over the headlamps and the rows of side vents. They’re what first catches your eye.
‘I can now remember the first one I saw at a car show. It was in tangerine, which helps, and you just get drawn to those vents. The sweep of the door window, which is just like that on a Miura, is great too. It’s probably the best thing about a Montreal: you can just keep looking at it all day long. I wonder if that would ever wear off if I owned one?’
‘I still can’t quite believe this is happening – I’ve only seen these before at car shows’
‘This was on my list because it is such a work of art. Finding out that it is also a great drive is a bonus beyond all hope’
Back on the road Chris is still feeling the love and taking in more of the Montreal’s myriad design details. ‘The gauges – with a take on the traditional Alfa twin-binnacle layout – are so stylish with touches like the speedo numbers that read times ten, so not cluttering the face with a load of zeroes you don’t need. Then there’s the internal door releases that are built into the door pull/ armrest. You can’t see them but they are so perfectly positioned your hand just falls on them. This car really is all about the design, it wasn’t just thrown together from handy parts.
‘I feel more comfortable and relaxed in it now. I’m starting to drive the car without thinking too much about what I’m doing, and the more I relax the better it all feels. To be honest it handles far better than I expected. Beforehand I thought it would obviously look great but would drive like, well, an old car. But it’s so much better than that – you can drive it perfectly easily in today’s traffic and it’s OK, you don’t have to worry about anything. Once you get onto an open road it just eggs you on to go faster and faster but never feels scary. I can imagine myself driving across Europe in it, eating up the miles. Already I can feel how you just start to flow with it.
‘The brakes are much better than expected too, you simply cannot fault them for stopping power and feel. That Mustang I drove wasn’t very much older, but with that I felt I had to keep looking far down the road and leave a big gap in front of it, just in case. I’m used to the gearbox now and feeling more confident in changing up and down it a bit quicker each time. It’s so positive and you always know where you are and can find the next ratio without having to look or really think about it. It’s quite unlike my DeLorean on that score.’
I’m also feeling pretty relaxed in the passenger seat, with my earlier apprehensions long forgotten. It’s been a real pleasure watching all the early nervousness Chris showed ebb away, to see him relax and start to gel with the Montreal. Pretty much the same happened to me when I first drove one, so I can understand what he’s going through and know how hard it will be to hand the keys back. This looks like one of those rare occasions when you introduce someone to one of their heroes and they wind up as friends. At least I’m pretty sure that’s how Chris feels, so I have to raise the subject.
‘I’ve been trying to think of something clever and objective to say about the car but even after reflection I can’t think of a single thing to criticise about it,’ he replies. ‘Even those trivial things I mentioned earlier don’t really matter or take anything away from the overall experience. There’s nothing I’d change and there’s no need to make any allowances for the car’s age; the steering, brakes and power all feel good by any standards, not just for the time. I’m sure this is in no small part because Derek has clearly kept his Montreal in immaculate condition. The car is a credit to him.
‘This was on my list mainly because the car is such a work of art. Finding out that it is also great to drive was a bonus beyond all hope. Is this Alfa still on my dream list? Absolutely. The Montreal is everything I had hoped it would be and much more besides. There’s such an amazing sense of occasion around the whole car – did I mention that earlier? If I had the money I’d definitely find room for one in my life.’
Thanks to the Alfa Romeo Owners Club and Derek Johnson for letting Chris drive his Montreal.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1976 Alfa Romeo Montreal
Engine Light alloy 2953cc V8, DOHC per bank, Spica AIBB fuel injection
Power and torque 200bhp @ 6500rpm; 174lb ft @ 4750rpm (DIN)
Transmission Five-speed ZF manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Burman recirculating ball
Suspension Front: independent, double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: live axle, trailing arms, reaction trunnion, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar
Brakes Ventilated discs, servo-assisted front and rear
Weight 1270kg (2796lb)
Performance Top speed: 137mph; 0-60mph: 7.0sec
Fuel consumption 20mpg
Cost new £5077
Value now £27,500-£67,500
CHRIS’S DREAM DRIVE LIST
Alfa Romeo SZ ‘“Il Mostro” is the ugly duckling Alfa, so you know it makes up for it by being a great drive.’
BMW M3 (E30) ‘Some kids had Disney, but I grew up on Duke BTCC season review videos – the M3 was my favourite.’
BMW Z1 (E30) ‘Based on the same E30 chassis as the M3 but a roadster. And it has those drop-down doors.’
Buick GSX ‘Used in promo material for the video game Driver – I’ve wanted one ever since.’
Ferrari F40 ‘A legend and the defining supercar of the era.’
Lancia Stratos ‘A homologation special built with just one purpose in mind.’
Lotus Esprit ‘In the mid-Nineties I got to sit in an Esprit S4 police car doing press duties for Norfolk constabulary.’
Maserati 3200GT ‘Maseratis are so cool – the 3200GT was cheap enough to buy until I factored in the servicing costs.’
Plymouth Superbird ‘Hard to believe something so wild was ever sold as a road car.’
CHRIS BALE’S CAR CV
Based heavily on childhood influences, Chris has ranged from flux capacitor to rally limo.
BMW 316i E30
‘My first car, in 2004, because of my love of BTCC racing. I started looking for something sensible but that all went out of the window when I spotted a 316i at a local showroom. It was my daily driver until the winter off 2008 when I skidded off the road and hit a tree.’
‘Since seeing Back to the Future as a child I set my heart on owning a DeLorean and in 2007 I made it happen. I’d joined the owners club and drove from Norwich to Sheffield to look at one only to find it had been sold. A couple of weeks later one came up for sale ten miles from home, so I didn’t hesitate to buy it. During the decade I’ve had it I’ve twice driven it to the Belfast factory where it was built.’
BMW 318iS Baur Cabrio E30
‘I needed another BMW and in 2010 managed to find a 318is, which is a Baur conversion rather than a factory convertible. The roof can be a bit fiddly to put up but I prefer the look as it matches the Matchbox version I had as a child.’
‘I’ve had a share in three cars bought specifically to take on rallies across Europe: an Eagle Quest limo (based on a Vauxhall Senator) bought for £450 to do the Crumball Rally to Munich, a Volvo 850 estate to which we spent days fitting 1994 BTCC graphics for the Barcelona Bangers run, and a £350 220,000-mile Toyota Celica we drove through seven countries to Prague, including a lap of the Nürburgring.’