Guest contributor: Alastair Campbell on his 1968 Alfa Romeo GT Junior
We’re not alone in our love of the classic Alfa Romeo GT (Bertone) coupe, but not many probably took the road that owner Alastair Campbell took to get to his. Can a motoring enthusiast really eschew the engineering advancements and high horsepower figures of modern day sports cars (blue chip examples at that) to step into a comparatively underpowered 1960s Italian sports coupé? Read on to find out.
MCB: Why the GT coupe?
AC: I recall the time I first saw a step front Alfa, we were on holiday in Sorrento and waiting to be picked up by minibus. I was around 15 at the time and eager to learn to drive. We were staying in the hills surrounded by great switchback roads. I heard the Alfa before I saw it, that rorty twin cam noise and metallic exhaust note, and from one of the hairpins came a white step front Alfa with a curly-haired Italian at the wheel. I thought the car was such a pretty, pure design and in this setting it was the epitome of cool. I put the Alfa on my list of realistic dream cars in the back of my mind, where it’d remain for awhile.
A few years later I had the opportunity to visit the Goodwood Revival— this was before it became so popular. You could get up close to so many of the fantastic ’40s through ’60s racing cars, and the ambiance, smells, sounds, and sights were truly captivating. I realised an ambition of watching several 250 GTOs race competitively, which was amazing. In another race there were three or four Alfa GTAs battling it out. Seeing those cars drifting around the bends ignited the passion in Alfas again. But I’d have to wait another few years before I could realistically start looking.
MCB: How did you find it?
AC: The 105 coupe has several versions. The most coveted, the ‘step front’, was the initial version, then around 1969 came the 1750, GT Junior Mk2, and later the 2000— all with the smooth fronts. I knew that I’d only settle for a step front, and also a car that had undergone a recent body overhaul. Mechanics were less of an issue. I knew in the back of my mind that smooth front cars were in my price range, as were dicey step fronts, so I came across my car quite serendipitously really.
Periodically I’d drop in to the Classic Alfa and Alfaholics websites to look at cars for sale, as many of us do. I still look at classifieds when I’ve got time to kill! Anyway, some 15 years after the Sorrento experience, I was considering changing my E36 M3 to something more interesting as I had use of a work-provided car for the foreseeable future. I noticed a Dutch Blue step front at a good price, so I read the advert and did some research. That was exactly the sort of car I was after.
It had recently received new sills and a respray, and the 1300 motor had been replaced with a 1750 from a later car. It needed a bit of tender loving care to bring up to scratch, but I was excited by the prospect and traveled a couple of hundred miles a few days later to see if it was all it was cracked up to be.
MCB: What’s it like to drive?
AC: Having driven a few classic cars previously (my dad owned a Mk1 Triumph Spitfire as well as an XJS V12), I knew that a 44 year-old Alfa would be drastically different to my modern diesel, let alone modern performance cars, so I managed my expectations going into the test drive. What I found was a car that was light on its feet with delicate steering feel, punchy midrange acceleration, and progressive brakes. I was quite surprised at how modern the little Alfa felt.
Once the money had changed hands, I drove it back to the Midlands from the east coast of England. There were several times when I did have to figure out which rocker switch operated what (wipers, second from the left) and how to turn on the headlights (rotate the light stalk), but otherwise, it didn’t miss a beat. It does excel on windy country lanes and fast sweeping roads rather than on motorways, one reason being that it has the original low ratio diff fitted in the back axle. However, it’ll just about cruise at 70mph, which is fine.
I think the overarching feeling when driving the Alfa is one of tactility. You can feel everything that it does through that lovely Hellebore wooden-rimmed wheel, and the tyres are relatively narrow, so it feels up on its toes all of the time. You can’t help but smile at the way it covers ground when you hustle it, and it makes you feel connected and content when just pooling around the suburbs. I think my car has Koni shocks rather than the standard Alfa units, and the ride is actually very good, but it can crash a little over rough or potholed roads, the 195/70 profile tyres doing their best to absorb the worst of it.
MCB: What’s it like to own?
AC: It is a real pleasure. The Alfa scene is quite active, and boards such as AlfaBB give insight into most of the common questions you come across. Parts are in good supply, although rarer bits are more tricky or pricey to source. Other classic Alfa owners I’ve come into contact with are only too happy to assist or give answers to your questions. On the road, people give you a nod and approach you when you’re filling it with petrol, and it is a real antidote to modern motoring. I had an old gent on a mobility scooter give me a salute the other day!
MCB: What else have you owned? And what would you like to own in the future?
AC: I started out with a Vauxhall Astra 1400, which was a great car. I was quite fortunate. I had many great trips, and look back on that period with fondness. After the Astra I owned a Ford Focus for awhile before stepping up to a Honda Integra Type R. That was a fantastic driver’s car— so easy to exploit, and it made you feel like a rally hero on our narrow, winding, and rough English roads.
Then the need for a rear-drive car loomed large, and at the time for the outlay you could go for a Japanese turbo rocket or a BMW (E36) M3. I chose the M3, and so a dark violet Evolution 3.2 coupe became my next weapon of choice.
Later came a 100hp Fiat Panda, a small but quite characterful little car and great fun, and then another Honda, an S2000. I did lots of miles in that car including a fantastic closed track day at the Nürburgring Nordscheife.
In early 2011, I was given a car at work, so not really needing an everyday practical second car I started looking at what was on offer. That’s when I revisited the Alfa idea. Since owning the Integra, I’ve become a bit of an engine geek. The B18 in the Type R was a work of art, as was the BMW 3.2 S52, and the spine-tingling 9000rpm redline of the S2000′s K20 goaded you on to rev the car hard.
The Alfa featured the legendary twin cam, so it seemed a good progression. I can see myself keeping the Alfa for a long time. It is devoid of depreciation, and can always be fettled and improved on. 10 months into ownership I still look over my shoulder as I leave it parked.
In the future, I could imagine adding a modern 997 Porsche to the garage, and ultimately something like a Caterham 7 or small Lotus as well.
MCB: What makes you love this car? What are some of your favorite things about it?
AC: One of the reasons I went for an older car was to lower the threshold of driving enjoyment. My M3 was a fast car with a lot of grip— in my opinion too fast for my favourite roads. I had to be peddling at high speed to enjoy the dynamics. The Integra I owned had the right balance of rubber to power, and showed me that for the type of driving I enjoy, the horsepower race was not for me. The Alfa is true to that principle, and I can safely use the car to 8/10ths on the public road. Most people will see an old car keeping up with swift traffic, but inside I’m having the time of my life. That’s why most classic Alfa drivers can be seen grinning behind their big steering wheels.
Other than the feel of the drive, it’s the overall packaging and design of the car that appeals to me. It’s from a time when design was lead by aesthetics, not bumper or bonnet height, and the 105 coupe to my eye plays a close third place to the classic Ferraris and Lamborghinis as among the most desirable shape from that era, the era that spurred some of the most desirable car shapes.
I love the mix of angles in the step front, the waist line that runs around the whole car, the profile and roof, the design of the rear lights (copied for the Elan +2), and the way the wings are angled in the horizontal plane. The sump is a thing of beauty, just dropping into view from behind the front panel, and the centre-mounted wipers are a nice feature that create a widow’s peak on the windscreen when it’s mucky.
Inside, the tactile steering wheel is always a treat, as are the floor-mounted pedals, the feel of the long gear stick as it slots home, and the gentle glow from the dials at night.
MCB: What do you know about this particular car’s history?
AC: I have a few old photos that came with the car, plus a hefty file of old invoices, too. Having got in touch with the historical records department at Alfa Romeo in Milan, I found out that the car was originally supplied in green and delivered to London. It was found in a barn on the south coast in the 1980s and in dire need of restoration, so was worked on extensively and painted red before moving around the country to subsequent owners.
The chap I bought it from had owned the car for about ten years, and resprayed it in its current colour (Dutch Blue), which I really think suits the shape and is a nice change from red. The clock shows just over 13,000 miles, so I think it has been around the clock once so far, mostly on its original 1300cc engine.
MCB: What should a person look out for when buying one?
AC: I’d check the condition of the sills firstly, as this is the major worry and the most costly thing to rectify. There is an inner, middle, and outer sill, and you can check by giving the sill a good old poke, and by removing the sill plate or the rear interior panel to have a look. In addition, check the front cross member, boot floor, and passenger floors. If these are okay, and it drives nicely, then everything else can be attended to at a later date. I believe in preventative maintenance rather than waiting for something to go wrong, which may help overall ownership enjoyment. As my Alfa beard gets longer, I am becoming an avid collector of parts, ready to fit and fettle little issues that car has.
MCB: Favorite drives in the UK?
AC: I live quite near the Peak District, and there are some lovely roads in that part of the country. Other than that, the road between Inverness and Skye is epic, the Yorkshire moors are fast and scenic, and the switchback roads through the valleys of Wales are worth the drive to get there.
MCB: Any concluding thoughts?
AC: I took the plunge into classic car ownership as a change from grippy horsepower-rich performance cars, and it’s one of the best moves I made as a driving enthusiast. Thoroughly recommended!
Words and images: Alastair Campbell