Did Alfa’s finest twin-cam coupé win over a British- and French-car aficionado? The List Will reader Hugh Marks fall for the charms of an Alfa Romeo 1750 GTV? The Alfa Romeo 1750GTV’s sophistication stood out for Hugh Marks in period. Almost five decades later, we give him the chance to experience it first hand. Words Ross Alkureishi. Photography Alex Tapley.
The List Your dream drive made real. ‘Its like a mini-Ferrari. It just wants to rev and rev.’
Prior to meeting up for any List dream drive we have a number of telephone calls with the chosen reader. These provide the chance to gauge their classic likes, dislikes and automotive motivations – call it the aperitif, whetting their appetite for the main course.
During conversations with retired librarian Hugh Marks however, it became clear there was a distinct disparity between his personality – calm, dignified and reined – and his dream drive list. Cue diminutive Icelandic songstress Björk’s greatest hit It’s Oh So Quiet: ‘…Shh shh. And so peaceful until…’
TVR Chimaera, zing boom; Jensen Interceptor, zing boom; Maserati Ghibli, wow bam; Lotus Elan, bim bam. Hugh’s list also has a few graceful cruisers – Rolls Silver Cloud III, Rover P5B and Alvis TF21 – for more angelic motoring tastes, but today we’ve paired him with one of his rortier choices, the Alfa Giulia 1750GTV.
‘It just seemed so much more advanced, sophisticated and chic than what was generally available over here at the time,’ he explains as we walk along owner Peter Crichton’s driveway. ‘Think Austins, Fords and Vauxhalls with their pushrod engines, but here was a car with a twin-overhead-cam engine – how many other cars had that at this level? Lotus Elan and Fiat 124 Spider aside… you’d have to go up to Jaguar and beyond to get that.’
We clock the Alfa in its perfectly proportioned glory – complete with what must be Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick’s perfect private registration. Peter welcomes us warmly. He’s owned the car from six months from new; it now has just over 80k on the clock and, astonishingly its rare Biege Cava paintwork is original. Hugh and I ask variants of ‘Howon earth?’ almost in unison.
Shortly after buying it, Peter – aware of Italian cars’ already burgeoning reputation for rust – removed all interior trim and panels to treat it with Dinitrol. That’s seen it survive in completely unmolested form. It’s also managed to stave of common contemporary Alfa affectations – there are no GTAm replica or uprating shenanigans here. This GTV is exactly as it left the factory – if we wanted an authentic experience then here it is.
‘First impressions are of the rightness of the design,’ says Hugh, as Peter gestures for him to climb into the driver’s seat. ‘Italian cars of this period always look so right. Here, that continues inside; twin instrument pods, delightful wood-rimmed steering wheel and ancillary dials on the centre column angled towards you – it’s a design classic.’
There’s another classic sitting right under the bonnet; Alfa’s legendary four-cylinder ‘Nord’ engine. Hugh twists the key, blips the throttle and the cabin is instantly filled with a husky twin- Weber harmony. ‘You expect and want to hear the engine in a car like this. I remember being a teen on holiday in Italy and watching an owner rev his up before spinning his wheels as he drove of.’ Our departure today is obviously more reserved. Even so, as our reader depresses the clutch, slots the canted gearlever home and pulls away, the 1750GTV’s effervescent nature feels ready to burst through – just like the Björk song.
‘The gearbox has quite a long throw. It’s easy to use but the clutch engages quite a long way up its travel – I’ll need to get used to that.’ Hugh’s doing a decent job, because from the passenger seat there’s no snatching evident. ‘Putting my foot down there’s a good burst of speed. By modern standards it feels brisk rather than fast, but it’s still well up to current driving conditions.’
As we hit a moderate hill and start climbing, he knocks it down from fifth – something else its stolid British competitors wouldn’t have had – into fourth, and guns the accelerator. There’s a deep purr from up front and an evocative rasp from behind as the Alfa’s elegant rear perceptibly squats. ‘Fourth is particularly well-suited to these roads. The engine is so smooth and just wants to rev; it’s pretty flexible too. There really don’t seem to be any concessions to be had in terms of the car’s age or design. I was half-expecting a certain crudeness – particularly in ride quality – given its age, but none of it. Handling is strong, as I expected from an Alfa, with good feel from the steering. I’m enjoying driving it quickly, but feel it would take far more than I’m able to give to unsettle it.’ That’s down to one part respect for another’s cherished vehicle, one part acclimatisation and the final ingredient, the car’s innate ability to feel quick even at six-tenths of its capabilities – today we’re a world away from the 105-series cocking its front wheel. And yet I can feel Hugh settling comfortably into an Italian state of mind – drop down the cogs at the slightest hint of power dropping of, rev it high and hustle elegantly through corners.
After an hour and a half of driving – including some on a dual carriageway, which only serves to reiterate Hugh’s thoughts on the modernity of the experience – we pull into Peter’s recommended country pub for a spot of lunch. The man himself is there waiting for us, anticipation etched on his face. ‘Well, what do you think?’ Hugh answers first. ‘Its condition is a testimony to how you’ve maintained it. If I were driving a restored car there could have been that sense of “is this what it was really like or am I feeling or hearing something produced by later changes?” It drives beautifully, and I know I’m getting a true experience. I could use it as a daily driver, as you did, but it remains sufficiently challenging to drive that every journey would be an event and a pleasure.’
My turn, and I repeat my disbelief that it’s survived so unmolested. Replies Peter, ‘It takes time protecting it to the extent I did but it’s definitely been worth it. I’ve rustproofed a few times over the years. I used it as a daily driver for many years but the arrival of a company car saved it from the worst of the weather.’
Suitably refreshed, refuelled and regaled by tales of its past, we wander back to the car park, where the Alfa sits ensconced in a McLaren 675LT Spider and Audi Q7 sandwich. ‘I was expecting it to look small, and it did on Peter’s driveway,’ says Hugh. ‘But I’m taken aback by how petite it looks next to modern vehicles.’
Of course the fact it’s parked next to a VAG Group iceberg doesn’t help, but all sizes are definitely of their time – back then the 1750GTV would have been an average family car. It’d also have been a brave buy, because punitive purchase taxes levied on foreign cars would have seen the original owner pay £2300 – a 50 per cent increase on its price in its homeland. Craving Latin sophistication was costly.
‘The Italian design and coach-building tradition really allowed its star designers to flourish; even something as basic as a Fiat 128 looks striking,’ says Hugh. ‘With this, Giorgetto Giugiaro got it just right. It looks like a mini-Ferrari, especially the way the rear window slopes down to the tail. I also love the simplicity of the steel wheels. Today, as wheels get ever larger and fussier in appearance, these are just so refreshing. Many Alfas have alloys, but I think these look better. The quad headlights also work well; Italian car companies often had a habit of making their cars look worse with styling updates – but that’s not the case here.’
As we make for the car park exit Hugh’s first grumble is elicited, as he manhandles the heavy low-speed steering. ‘It’s been over 20 years since I drove a car without power steering,’ he says with an accompanying puff. Pulling out, he’s a touch heavy on the throttle and there’s a distinct scuffing noise, as the inside rear tyre overcomes gravel surface grip. Hugh turns, a cheeky smile on his face – the teenage dream achieved.
Back out on the road we settle into a now-familiar relaxed tempo, enjoying the odd solid object we pass – be it house or wall – that causes the exhaust note to reverberate gloriously back into the cabin through our open windows. Fully acclimatised, Hugh sets about re-evaluating the cabin. ‘These slim pillars make it feel light and airy, with excellent visibility. I’d wondered about the driving position and the floor-hinged pedals; contemporary road tests always remarked about the need for long arms and short legs, but I’ve no issues – perhaps I’m shaped like an Italian.’
Like the rest of the car the cabin has a gloriously original feel; even the period sheepskin seat covers added by Peter in the Seventies feel just right and we both agree that they lend it an extra air of authenticity. ‘It’s the little details that delight,’ says Hugh. ‘The smooth, well-oiled action of the windows and the slim indicator stalk – although not being self-cancelling it’s caught me out once or twice.’
As the scenery becomes familiar to us both again, I can sense my driver realising that his adventure will shortly be coming to a close. There’s a mildly perceptible hardening of his use of the controls, as he starts wringing as much out of the final minutes of his experience as he can. The 1750GTV responds with a level of dynamic encouragement that most generations of Alfisti would recognise instantly.
‘It just wants to be pushed faster and faster into corners,’ says Hugh. ‘And it goes round without drama. The rear-wheel drive makes itself known – I can feel it helping the back end of the car round. Yet the most impressive bit is the ride, it remains at all times impressively compliant with none of the sharpness I thought might be present in a sports-orientated car.’
With that, we pull back into Peter’s drive and ready ourselves to hand the keys back and depart. It’s been a glorious day, with beautiful weather and a magnificent machine – Italians do beige with a bit more ba-da-bing than British Leyland – in which to enjoy stunning country roads. There’s no need to ask Hugh for closing thoughts because they’re already on their way.
‘I was looking forward to finding out how a car I had long admired from a distance would turn out to be in reality. Italian cars always seemed so exotic with their high-revving engines, which promised excitement and visions of rushing up and down Alpine passes or cruising the Riviera before parking in front of your palazzo. I haven’t been disappointed. It’s all I could have asked for and has fully lived up to my expectations. Furthermore, the fact that Peter has owned it almost all its life, and was able to talk about its history and the experiences he’s had in it, also added to the significance of what I was driving.’ Having enjoyed the boisterous Alfa, it’s time for our retired librarian to return home. As Björk says, ‘Shh’ – with this car ticked of, it’s time to quietly contemplate the other nine cars on his List.
Thanks to Peter Crichton, the Alfa Romeo Owners’ Club (aroc-uk.com) and Stuart Taylor