Monday, 13 December 2010 12:00 AM
These are tough times, as the trigger-happy Lord Alan Sugar will tell you - if you listen carefully you can hear the collective creak of fiscal-belts being tightened all across the UK. We all want some value for money right now and this car-lover is no different.
So, with a small budget and hopefully some big fun in mind, I started scanning the classifieds for a bargain motor that hopefully wouldn't turn out to be a bucket. I looked online at established used car portals: AutoTrader, eBay and PistonHeads, and it was on the PistonHeads website that I found some interesting Alfa Romeo adverts.
Now for the last few years I've owned Nissans, and rather fruity Nissans at that. The last car was a bright blue, wide-arch, carbon fibre-encrusted, 350bhp, race-ready Nissan 200SX. It was hand-built, beautiful, ferociously fast, but a nightmare to own.
Why? Well, the paintwork was £5000-worth of stunning depth, but every time I picked up a stone chip I wanted to cry, and that tarmac-shaving race-ready bodywork was constantly attacking speed bumps and coming off worse.
Then there was that fabulous 350bhp turbocharged engine - yes, it had more torque than Parky Parkinson and dispatched slip-roads in a blink, but it also needed specialist servicing and maintenance. Basically, it was not the sort of car you could nip to the shops in or even consider leaving anywhere even vaguely dodgy without an armed guard and a hungry pit-bull in the boot.
My last project car; a 1994 Nissan 200SX. Note ridiculously low bodywork, precious paint and extensive use of
expensive specialist parts. Yes it looked and went great, but was about as high maintenance as you can get.
Time for something a little more real-world. Time for the TotallyMotor Alfa Romeo 146
So, I needed something simple, yet stylish. Quick through the back lanes, but not F1-edgy. And because my belt was so frugally-fastened I could barely move, let alone splash out, so it had to be cheap. A tall order indeed. So back to the Alfa Romeos.
Now I've never owned an Alfa before and talking to my petrolheaded friends bought the usual sucking of air through teeth and stories of potential unreliability. Research was needed.
I spoke to the purveyors of the interesting Alfa adverts I'd seen online; one of the UK's largest independent Alfa Romeo specialists, called Veloces - Italian for rapid! - in New Barnet, London.
Well, the signs were good. I spoke to the owners (and brothers) Paul and Martin a couple of times before popping over and on both telephone occasions they were polite, patient (at my endless Alfa-novice questions!) and knowledgeable. A refreshing experience indeed. They had a big stock of cars, from the cheap to the dreamy, so I went to meet them and have a look around their big yard of Italian thoroughbreds.
Everyone you speak to about Alfas always smiles at the evocative Italian name and not many auto-brands bring such pleasure to those that don't even own one. Italians are undoubtedly passionate and that's all good, but I needed to know more about the reliability of the car that may well gobble up my small and hard-earned budget.
Do they rust? Alfas of old maybe, but the modern cars are well galvanised to keep the salt at bay. Do the electrics go haywire? Like any used car you need to check everything works as it should, right down to the last light bulb, and again with the modern Alfas there's nothing out of the ordinary to worry about on the electrics side of things. If everything works when you buy it, then you should be all set. And as usual, if you're not sure; get it inspected.
And what about the engines? Well, this is where Alfas come into their own. Even those new to the brand can sense the sporting history behind the famous serpent badge - the flying red racers have been around for a long time, both on the road and winning on the track. Indeed, the reason that Ferraris are red is because Enzo Ferrari so loved and respected the Alfas of old that he proudly painted his fledgling cars the same colour. So yes, the modern engines are right up there with the best and will do the big mileages if, like any car, you show them the regular love come service time.
The Veloces team spent some informative time with me as we looked around their eclectic stock, but right from the start I had my eye on one particular Alfa - a 1.8-litre, 140bhp, 58,000-miler, W-reg 146 with a £1495 tag in the windscreen. It was in budget, packed a little bit of 140bhp performance, and sported an impressive expanse of Italian leather throughout the interior. For the money I couldn't think of a cooler little car.
Everyone loves Alfas, even if they don't own one. Not many cars can do that for £1495
And so the journey begun. Veloces would sell me the car with a full MOT, a recent service, and a big stack of history. They had supplied and maintained the car for the previous owner who was an Alfa fan themselves.
This is where the in-depth knowledge of a specialist comes in so handy. If they know a brand of car through and through then you don't have to. And although it's fun to swat-up on your next used car purchase, an hour spent talking to Paul and Martin at Veloces was worth 10 hours surfing the net scavenging bits and bobs of information.
We all like to deal with people with passion and the Veloces boys have been Alfa aficionados for 20 years. All the signs were good so the punt was punted.
On the drive home from New Barnet to Essex she didn't miss a beat. Hardly a Europe-busting road trip I know, but it's only when you have that first hour or two of quality time with your new used car that you can really get a feel for her.
And the luxury, value, and yet sporting vibe that I was after seemed to flow nicely through my new Alfa Romeo 146.
The MOMO Italian leather was indeed in very good condition - not perfect like a new car, but clearly cared for and starting to take on the appearance of a favourite leather sofa that's a little worn but full of character. OK, so they weren't exactly the butt-hugging bucket seats that I'm used to in my raving loony sports cars of old, but they're classy and comfy.
Here's that MOMO leather interior in very good yet nicely worn-in condition. All that leather for so little money!
Again, I'm used to fully adjustable, track-ready, top-spec coilover suspension on my previous cars and the Alfa, though over £20K when new, simply wouldn't match that suspension spec. No 'standard' road car does.
If you want racecar-stiff handling then you have to buy and fit your own coilovers (spring 'coiled' around the shock in one unit) or lowered springs and stiffer dampers, and while the Alfa rides quite high (like normal cars generally do), she's no wallowy old barge through the bends. Firm but fair, you could say.
The suspension is quite firm for a 'normal' car which suits me, but looks-wise it could sit a little lower and cooler.
New suspension might be in the pipeline. Understated 15-inch alloys are in good condition and will be staying...
I was thinking of lowering the suspension a by about 40mm even just for looks alone, but the payback for zero body-roll and aggressive stance is a crash-bang-wallop every time you come across anything bigger than the merest road-ripple. So we'll see about the suspension side of things once I've lived with her a little longer.
With 140bhp from her 1.8-litre, 16-valve Twin Spark engine - two spark plugs per cylinder for a better fuel burn - she's a warm hatch rather than a hot hatch, but she pulls well through all five gears and makes a pleasing rasp above about 4000rpm.
140bhp, 1.8-litre, 4-cylinder engine - warm but not quite hot
I've only driven her a few times since my early-December purchase, but the force is quite strong on the performance side of things - she'll touch 60mph in second gear and looks like she could hit 80mph in third, but a full track-test is required for licence and safety's sake.
So far, so good, with no dramas to report. I gave her a hand-wash over the weekend and while the snow was at bay I took a few nice pics of the shiny paintwork. And here she is, posing pretty.
I'm quite taken with her looks; not the prettiest Alfa, but the real stunners are that bit dearer for the same type of spec, and this 146 model is a rarer treat on our roads.
Some say she looks a bit (or a lot!) like a MK5 Escort, but I'd challenge an Escort to cause an Alfa-style stir in any
I was happy snapping away to get these shots when the Alfa enthusiast in all of us, in the shape of an old chap doing some work nearby, struck up a conversation when he saw the car and my camera.
He offered his opinion without invitation: "Looks a lot like a MK5 Escort, doesn't it?" he said. I hadn't noticed the similarity myself and I think I'm going to refuse to. She's an Alfa, OK? My Alfa, and so far she's been as good as gold. And long may that continue.
Car: Alfa Romeo 146 TS
Year: 2000, W-reg
Spec: 140bhp, 4-cylinder, 16-valve. 15-inch alloy wheels. MOMO leather interior. All-electric windows. Air-conditioning. A bit more bodykit than the cheaper 146s
Date purchased: December 2010
From: Veloces of London: www.veloces.co.uk
Purchase price: £1495
Insurance price: £600 comprehensive, £250 excess, 0 NCB, Admiral insurance
Running costs: Just fuel at the moment
Extra costs: Car shampoo and sponge, £6 (approx) from Sainsbury's
MPG: Still working it out, but looking for a touch over 30mpg, if at all possible
Performance: Pretty good so far, but taking it nice and easy on the snowy roads
X Factor: Does she have it? I think so...?
Future plans: Maybe a stiffer and lower suspension set-up. Perhaps some braking and audio improvements
Next up: More driving, more fun, and a spruce up of the leather interior
Trips coming up: She'll be taking me to all the UK car shows and beyond, starting with Autosport International at the NEC, Jan 13th - 16th 2011
Thanks to: The Veloces team, and my favourite back lanes
By Daniel Anslow
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