Adventures of a “Papalfa”

I had a dream. It was night and the headlights of a car illuminated a gate of a country house. It was as if I was looking at them sideways at their height, as if I were a child. I felt that feeling of security and warmth of going home with your family, a very positive feeling that was imprinted on me with that same image of the dream. The car headlights were round and chrome. There were four of them. In the middle was a V-shaped grille with a round logo on the top that always reminded me of a time when life was different, it had another, more natural rhythm. A time when when you were traveling or simply taking a ride you were untraceable and to call someone you had to look for a pay phone. It was also the most glorious period of the brand of that logo and I associate it with my childhood and a pre-digital period, with more human rhythms. It was the Alfa Romeo logo on a front panel typical of those years: Oo=V=oO.

I had dreamed of a feeling from my childhood, but we never had an Alfa Romeo in our family. We dreamt about it, especially me. But never had one before. The dream was also a bit premonitory because our son was about to be born and we were about to move closer to Rome, where I had finally found my dream job. And we would need a bigger car. We found a house in the countryside. There was a gate to the country house. Soon, an Alfa Romeo would light that gate when we got home at night: I was looking for a station wagon for the new family. The baby was born in November, and in December I called my trusty mechanic/seller asking for a station wagon. He said, “I’ve got an Alfa 156.” I was stunned!

Notice to foreign readers: to Italian car enthusiasts (those who are not blinded by German cars), Alfa Romeo is particularly special. Alfa Romeos are not just cars. They have a history behind them. Ferrari stemmed from Alfa Romeo, since the founder was a pilot and racing team manager for Alfa Romeo, and during the 50s, 60s and the 70s in Europe there was no one who was able to build cars in that way. Alfas were always top of their automotive sector. Usually they were small- to mid-sized sedans with sporting setting, directly derived from the successful racing models. There would always be coupé and convertible versions. The performances were unmatched. So were the looks. It all contributed to create a myth. It was a lesson for all other carmakers, who learned how to do it and later were more economically successful, while Alfa Romeo’s daring projects brought them on the verge of failure. Still, those projects remain in the heart of Italian cars enthusiasts. Alfa Romeo’s brand has an unmatched history and pedigree that still means something special to those who know…

At Christmas 2009, I went to see her with my wife and the one-month-old baby. She was the one who was particularly impressed. She could how I fitted well behind the wheel. The lines were fantastic, they flowed perfectly, on a project by Walter Da Silva then revised in the front by Giugiaro. Black, with 16-inch wheels, those with circular holes, different from the usual elegant spokes. Light leather seats, Distinctive setup, there was almost everything. 1.9 JTD engine with 120 horsepower, the smallest but practically eternal, with 135 thousand km and always looked after by my trusted mechanic. The “Papalfa” had arrived.

When I went to pick her up after the holidays, I was intimidated. She was beautiful, shiny as new, imposing, important; maybe too much for me? No, I deserved it, after what I’d been through and what I’d managed to build in spite of everything. I arrived home late at night, in the dark, illuminating our gate with the headlights of an Alfa Romeo as in that dream, only they weren’t chrome-plated as they used to be, they were made of polycarbonate, modern, slender, not round, but the family was mine, the one I had created, after everything made me think I wasn’t capable. The Papalfa, the Alfa of when I became a father, crowned a period of success in life. It came at just the right time.

It’s one of those cars you’re happy to leave in and you’re a little bit sorry when you arrive. In 10 years of living with us, she’ s been through a lot. She couldn’t have imagined that if she’d come on the wave of success, she’d also be in the fall. Papalfa witnessed the best time of our lives. She has never given serious problems, apart from the front end: it’ s special, derived from racing, precise as few if not unique. On the other hand, however, you have a wide steering angle and a delicacy that with the potholes of our roads does not go well at all! Most of the money went away like that, because of the potholes. One time, the damage also took the steering box. But really the rest was great driving satisfaction, not particularly comfortable, we’re talking about an Alfa, but how it takes the curves, the precision of the steering, the grip … for those who like driving the fun is assured!

After a few years, on a day like many others, when I left my Papalfa at the train station to go to work in the city, I got back behind the wheel and went home. I stopped for a few errands and only as I approached the car I noticed that the car door on the passenger side was forced open. Only then I realized that my Aikido training bag had disappeared (I start teaching this Japanese martial art the same year Papalfa had arrived). Nothing else. That’s the only reason they forced the door to open the car with a stick by leveraging the inside opening handle. The stick was still in the car. A body shop practically straightened the door by hand, making sure no water got in. The outside mark stayed there and at a certain speed you can hear an abnormal sound of a draft… Sometimes I think it’s better to leave the car open, because if someone wants to get in, they’ll find a way and do more damage.

Unfortunately, fate has meant for things to change for the worse. No tragedy that concerns the safety of loved ones, but I lost my job when I was just over 50 and in Italy if it is not a tragedy it is very similar to it. Should I have switched cars with a smaller one? Anyway, it would have meant spending money, we couldn’t. We changed our house to save on rent, but we ended up in a very nice place anyway. I kept the Papalfa but she had to tighten her belt too. One day I heard a rhythmic metallic noise coming from the engine compartment. I had the bad idea to stop at the first mechanic I met – Diagnosis: shaft bushing worn out maybe because of oil pump malfunction. Engine to be replaced! I was on foot. I had no money to fix it. My trusted mechanic would have got me a cheap engine, but it was not convenient to send him the car, it would have been better to have the work done where the car was stored. In hindsight, I’d have spent less on the car being transported to my trusted mechanic. Instead I went to get the engine with my father’s car and he and my sister paid for the work, which cost much more than I expected. The car was reborn, the engine was younger. But it would have been better if it hadn’t happened and I was left with the doubt that the diagnosis wasn’t so serious that I had to replace the engine, since those who did the work for me talked about it as if it was the most complicated thing in the world!

Anyway, the Papalfa seemed happy to run down the road with a rediscovered youth. She was a bomb. Impeccable, if it weren’t for the horrible noises you could hear at every pothole. The streets in and around Rome are in a shameful state, unthinkable for another European capital. I was able to carry out the normal maintenance, every 20 thousand kilometers, also thanks to the friendship with the mechanic who let me pay comfortably. But emergency maintenance was impossible for me.

And unfortunately, one sad night in August, my wife returned very late after being with her sick father. Very tired, she got out of the car in front of the country house and didn’t think about putting the handbrake on; not even the gear… The Papalfa slowly slid forward towards the ditch. I heard a horrible crash and my wife calling me from the front door of the country house: “the car has gone down!” That’s not something that should happen to a guy with unemployment support dropping. I imagined the Papalfa rolling down the slope and I thought that was the end of it. Instead it had stopped immediately on a stone table set up by the neighbors underneath the gully for country lunches and dinners. The windscreen was smashed, otherwise, who knows…

The next morning a friend with a tractor pulled her up. I took her for a drive right away. She was working. I had the convergence done and changed the windshield right away, but even this time I trusted someone I didn’t have to. The rainwater trickled in, the roof and the interior pillars covers were all stained. After some time the rust appeared on the edge between the roof and the windscreen. At one point, hitting yet another pothole, the windshield came off and the air was noisily draining from the passenger side. My sister had to intervene again and finance the repair from a trusted body repairer.

I went on for a long time without getting into the mess that had happened on the bottom platform that he had scraped on the ground. Then my trusted mechanic made credit again and fixed what he could, including the resulting oil leak. Then the semi-axis more involved in the thing caved in. Another repair on credit.

If I hadn’t had a certain friendship with a mechanic with a kind heart I wouldn’t have been able to go on, I wouldn’t have been able to maintain a car and it would have been a problem to maintain the small jobs that followed in an attempt to make ends meet. It is in these cases that you discover real people. In addition, every time I put the Papalfa in different hands I had to regret it.

I’m trying a job interview one day. No big deal, a disappointment. On the way back in, the car shuts down and she never wants to start up again. A rescue vehicle comes by and convinces me to get towed to the nearest mechanic. Another mistake. I did it again. The “flute”, the common rail’s manifold pipe, which distributes the fuel to the 4 injectors, does it through 4 metal L-tubes. One of them was broken. 120 euros including cost of replacement and labor. Too bad that after a week we are left on the street in the same way the whole family included. This time I remembered that I have the roadside assistance included in the insurance and I had my mechanic take the car.

He discovered that the flute had been fixed with only one of the two bolts provided, so it vibrated and sooner or later it was normal for one of the 4 L-tubes to break. A masterpiece by those who had replaced my engine. Plus the other mechanic who didn’t notice the cause of the failure. I was again in debt to my mechanic and I couldn’t help but keep on grinding miles.

I feared the worst. The clutch and the belt had quite a lot of mileage. I was really worried but I didn’t have the money. Some would have come to me but I’d had to wait for more time. It would have been a waste to work on a car which needed to be replaced: besides the various vicissitudes (water kept coming in through the windscreen) the bodywork was full of scratches and small parking dents.I was in no condition to put everything back in place and attempt to sell her. The anxiety that something big would happen was tormenting me.

With limited work and my wife stopped for a while too, we were still in a tight spot when at one point I had the gear stuck. Slowly, using only certain gears, I managed to get home, but then the car stuck and I had to call the tow truck. Further debt from the mechanic and clutch replaced. The timing belt had also come to an end and was replaced singularly, without changing the various pulleys as usual. And we’re getting down to the drains. I’d have to replace the car and I didn’t even bring her to the service, going beyond the deadline of almost 10,000 km, something I never allow. She’s enduring. Just like me.

Someday there’ll be a Papalfa 2.0, but I’ll be sorry about the first one. It would have deserved better maintenance.