Obsessions #4 – Alfa Romeo Montreal

| 14 Jul 2011

This one goes way back, too. Yup, there does seem to be a slight theme of big-engined 2+2s developing here, but who can blame anyone for being seduced by such a beguiling, out of type creation?

By "out of type" I mean that the Montreal is the most unAlfa of all the Alfas ever. And that perhaps is what appeals more than anything when you measure it against the marque's consistently brilliant, but slightly "obvious choice" output. Even without the intoxicating yet fragile V8, the Bertone styling sets it apart from the GTVs that we all lust after so much, enjoy driving so much, but somehow don't get around to buying because, even if they are not quite on every corner, in inverted snobbery terms they rank with an MGB or an E-type.

Nothing wrong with any of those cars, of course, and I would have any in a heartbeat, but if part of the joy of your car is standing out (not in a spivvy, overly flash way), or owning something that sets you apart from the herd, then very little will do that better than a Montreal.

This is a car that through those futuristic, still youthful Gandini lines will entrance even non-enthusiasts who, thanks to the slender sub-4000 production run of from the start of the 1970s to 1977, will have absolutely no idea what it is. I genuinely think that if this shape was launched today, not one would bat an eyelid or dare to utter the word "retro".

I will admit to being a bit cheeky in the past (well evil might be a better word) scorning its looks and comparing it to a Celica GT when a former colleague raved about them. Evil and childish, as it turns out, because I did this solely to try and put him off so he would leave them all to me. Sorry Rich.

Mind you, everyone knew my caustic dismissals were hogwash because my computer screensaver in those days was a massively crossed up Montreal on the Classic Adelaide rally in Australia. Writing this piece prompted me to look it out, but, several computers, a few buildings and probably 10 different desks further on in life, I was devastated to discover I couldn't find it anymore.

A couple of years after I passed up a car (pre-auction, for which it was carrying a £10k guide price) for a mere £7 grand. I was younger, poorer (not than now, but than I was a few years after this incident) and a conversation with Tom Hardiment, then of Garage on the Green in London, somehow put me off. I think it centred around engine bills. Back then, you could have had a minter for £15k. Better to hold out for that I reckoned.

Having £15k and finding the right car never did coincide, but even now, these cars are astonishing good value, and well under £30k will secure you something very special indeed – still with all the cognoscenti cachet and, the uppermost and downermost side of Montreal ownership: respect from the classic community for being brave enough to own one.

In that sense you can file it with the Citroën SM (another obsession of mine and one that is a natural bedfellow for the Alfa) and for a similar reason: the engine. The Alfa's Spica fuel-injected 2593cc unit – driving through a ZF five-speeder – has a monumental Achilles' Heel.

It may offer tantalising tunes bludgeoning its way from 0-60mph in seven seconds before topping out at a theoretical 140mph, but those stats are as of nothing if you are stranded by the roadside thanks to a small ball-bearing letting go and eventually lunching the engine.

The little problem with the Montreal you see is this ball bearing supports the shaft that drives the water pump impeller. In fact that is not the problem, the problem is that all too often it doesn't support it. This is in part due to the fact that the idler shaft in question – chain-driven off the crank – also carries the sprockets that drive the camshaft chains. You can see where this is going, so I will stop before its gets too gory. Suffice to say, one small ball bearing giving out, as it rather too regularly did, led to frequent and costly engine dilemmas that plagued the Montreal throughout its life.

Despite that, this car (served by an excellent website here http://www.alfamontreal.info/ if you want to know more, Bruce Taylor in print and on-line being the guru of these cars and from whom I have paraphrased the techie bit above) is as close to a Tipo 33 Stradale that any of us mere mortals will every  get.

I know also that I share this obsession with a couple of senior figures in the car world, which I consider a sort of peer validation for my own wonky thinking. One of these people is none other than Joanne Marshall, senior PR bod at Ferrari. In Maranello.

In fact, when I visited last year, this incurable classic fiend (originally from the west country, but who basically camped out in Italy until they gave her a job) had just finally bought her own Montreal after decades of promising herself one. She enthused and I enthused, in fact we enthused together - boring all and sundry around us - on the subject of Montreals for the best part of a day.

Hers was just having a couple of final little things sorted in Milan before she took delivery. I was sorry to have missed it, but asked about it every time I had occasion to contact her thereafter. And every time it was the same story, until I stopped asking for the sake of her sanity and my own.

For all I know, Joanne probably still hasn't got her hands on her Montreal, and maybe that means it's a good thing that I never got one either.