How I bought an ’74 Alfa Romeo GTV, drove 1700 miles home, and almost melted
Everyone told me I was crazy, but that’s not unusual. I’ve probably done stranger things. But as I stood on the side of the road, 40 or so miles outside of Phoenix, hunched over the engine bay with the hot sun beating down, I started to wonder if I should have listened.
“Is this car going to beat me?” I asked myself. “Doubtful,” I responded aloud. “Hell, I’m already talking to myself. Maybe I am crazy.”
Let me back up a bit and lay some groundwork for this story of mine, and you can be the judge. First of all, I’m not a writer, not even close. Despite working shoulder to shoulder with the best automotive journalists in the business, I am not one myself. I’m a photographer. I tell stories, but generally it is through my pictures (and there will be some of those). So bear with me.
For a long time I had been hunting for that perfect vehicle, perfect for me at least. You know the drill: eBay, Craigslist, Autotrader, BaT… they were my daily reading material for months. I’d been dreaming, rationalizing, and hunting without finding anything that was the right fit. My list was short and my expectations were high, and I wasn’t going to settle. It would be an air-cooled 911, Alfa Romeo GTV, or one of several Lancias, or nothing less. Each holds a special place in my heart and they’ve been on my automotive bucket list for years.
I was back in Michigan for a short business trip, while also dealing with the sale of a car and spending some time with my parents. My last Saturday evening there, I settled into my normal routine when visiting my parents: I was lounging on the couch, getting ready for an hour or two of car hunting while my dad caught up on Formula 1 qualifying he had recorded. Almost as quickly as I began my search that evening, a new listing on Craigslist caught my eye. “Could it be?” The small thumbnail contained what appeared to be a nicely polished cam cover nestled neatly between the two front fenders of a maroon Alfa Romeo GTV. Glancing at the price and back at the thumbnail, I pessimistically asked myself, “I wonder what is wrong with this thing or who’s going to try to scam me this time?”
Tentatively, I followed the link. Lo and behold, the car looked clean and the description was short—maybe written by someone who maybe wasn’t trying too hard to sell it. Between the handful of sentences and photos, something clicked. I had a gut feeling that this was it: an Ambassador Red (maroon) 1974 Alfa Romeo GTV 2000, with 15-inch GTA wheels and some recent engine work.
I hastily sent a text to the seller. He patiently answered my questions while I tried to hold back my excitement and the urge to shout, “JUST TAKE MY MONEY ALREADY!” The car was perfect (for me)—it was solid and had all its cancer (rust) removed just a couple years ago. Apparently the body still needed some fit and finish work, but that’s inherently Italian and made it within my budget. It sounded like the mechanicals were solid: it had a rebuilt 2.0-liter engine with Motronic pistons, big valves, head work, carburetor conversion, cams, headers, rebuilt trans, and a new rear end. I quickly sent a deposit and contemplated how I was going to get the Alfa from its location in Texas to California, where I live.
“I wouldn’t hesitate to drive this car to either coast,” the owner, Mike, assured me. Well dang, I was already considering flying there and driving it back. But the eastern edge of Texas to the L.A. area—that’s a drive of more than 1700 miles.
“You’re going to ship the car back, right?” my dad asked that evening. “You need to go look at it in person before handing over that money. At least that’s what I would do.”
I had considered this, just as I was considering a one-way flight to Texas and driving the Alfa to California. I couldn’t get the romantic notion out of my head. I would essentially follow the Mexican border most of the way. The car is new mechanically, I reasoned. Its wiring has been sorted, it has a dealer-installed A/C system—it even has a stereo. What could go wrong?
I heard it all from friends, family, and coworkers. Most of them were excited for me, but they also expressed they wouldn’t consider doing what I was about to do. It either makes it or it doesn’t, and I would be as prepared as I could be to deal with whatever came along. Plus, I’d have Hagerty roadside service, just in case, so I wouldn’t really be alone. After a week passed, the owner informed me that he had flushed and changed all of the fluids and the car was right as rain. “I’ll be the judge of that,” I thought as I wondered if there was room in my suitcase for any more just-in-case items.
I couldn’t really sleep the night before I left. I think it was a combination of nerves and excitement. The Alfa was one of my dream cars; as a kid I watched GT-AM cars tear up the track in vintage races, and I’d seen GTVs at all the Italian car shows I’d attended. Plus, both my father and my uncle have restored and owned various Italian cars over the years. So I felt as if this was some sort of rite of passage. As I said, I was romanticizing.
The 4 a.m. alarm came early, and soon a driver arrived to whisk me to LAX. “Here goes nothing,” I said to myself as I tossed myself into the back of the SUV. After a flight, a shuttle ride, and a three-hour drive in a rental car, there I was, standing in Mike’s shop, staring at the rear of the car that would soon be mine—if I decided to hand him the check that was burning a hole in my pocket. I circled the Alfa like a hungry shark waiting to strike. I was staring at everything and nothing. I found it hard to focus because I couldn’t stop asking myself if this was actually happening.
The car was as described: the body was a bit rough with waves and dings, scratches, and some runs in the paint here and there. The suspension was tight and new, and the soundtrack, oh the soundtrack was glorious… the growl of the carbs, the crackle and pop of unburnt fuel hitting cooler air in the exhaust. It was sensory overload.
I quickly handed over the check, and Mike surprised me with a care package. “I fitted a factory jack in the truck, plus there is a gallon of coolant, a couple quarts of oil, a new fuel filter, and a rotor for the distributor, and there are miscellaneous tools in a box that you may need along the way. I just thought, man, if I was making this drive, what would I want to have on hand?” I instantly began to feel better about this trip, and Mike’s kind gesture assured me that he was trustworthy and the car was solid.
I slid into the driver’s seat and shut the door. Waving goodbye to Mike and his dog, I backed the Alfa out of the shop, threw it into first, and set off down the winding lakeshore road toward the interstate.
Leg 1: East Texas to Dallas
Did I mention that Texas is hot? The temperature was pushing 105 degrees Fahrenheit when I left Mike’s, a preview of things to come. I planned to drive only three hours before calling it a day, a good warm-up run in an unfamiliar car in an unfamiliar place. As I headed west, I clicked through gears until reaching a cruising speed of 70 mph. The steering was a little on the vague side, and the temperature gauge seemed to climb with the speed of the car. I turned off the A/C to take a load off the engine. The tired factory radiator was already showing signs of fatigue, but the temps were holding solid—just one tick past the center mark.
Sweat began to form beneath my hat as the late-day sun pounded through the windshield, and I smelled a slight burning. It wasn’t electrical, it wasn’t coolant. I chalked it up as an old car being an old car. I hoped. The temperature inside the car became too much, so I gave the A/C another try, but no matter where I set the dial, only hot air came out of the vents, even though it was blowing ice cold 45 minutes ago. I decided to wait and see if it would sort itself out.
The drive seemed to take forever. I was hyper sensitive to every bump, noise, smell, and shudder along the way. Eventually I pulled into the hotel unscathed, aside from maybe being a little dehydrated. I contacted Mike about the A/C, and he offered a few suggestions. As soon as I popped the hood, the problem was evident. The A/C belt had melted—well, that’d do it, and it explained the smell. And by melted, I mean melted, stretched, and shredded to bits. Thankfully, the belt solely ran the A/C and didn’t affect anything else, so I would just have to gut it out. Three hours on the road and I had a seized A/C compressor. “It’s going to be a hot few days,” I thought to myself as I nodded off for the night.
Leg 2: Dallas to El Paso
Normally I like to get an early start, but I wasn’t in much of a rush. I wanted to dot every i and cross every t before beginning the 9.5-hour drive ahead of me. First order of business was rinsing the dust off the car. Maybe I get that from my dad, maybe from being a slightly OCD photographer. I stopped for snacks, a cooler bag, towels and cleaners, a lug wrench, and most importantly two gallons of distilled water—not for the car, but for me. I was going to spend the next three days mostly in the desert, mostly in desolate places, and if the car broke down I’d need plenty of water. After giving the Alfa a fresh tank of 93, I hit the road.
It was a long day on I-20 to El Paso, 630 miles away. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was cautiously optimistic that it would all work out. I watched the temperature gauge almost as closely as the speedo. The engine temperature remained consistent, only fluctuating in traffic or on a climb. The fuel gauge gave me some concern, however. After driving 100 miles, the needle remained on “full.” I rapped my knuckles on the top of the instrument cluster three or four times, and the needle finally snapped free and settled in just above the half-tank mark. I breathed a small sigh of relief. When the needle hit the halfway mark, I stopped and filled up again to see just how accurate the gauge was. Knowing the Alfa had a 12-gallon tank, I figured it should take around six gallons, and sure enough, it topped off at 5.97 gallons. I did some quick math and thought, “Hell, that’s not bad—about 25 mpg.” I was quickly back on the highway.
The temperature outside continued to rise, and the closer I got to El Paso the more the water temperature edged toward red. I eased off the throttle and slowed my pace to 65–70 mph, and that seemed to do the trick. The water temp remained below red and held steady. On the other hand, I was about to pass out as the outside temp pushed past 110. I powered along as best I could; I downed several 24-ounce bottles of water each time I stopped for gas. As the day progressed, I finally began to relax and gain a little confidence with the car. “I might just make it,” I thought as I rolled off the highway and into my hotel parking lot near the El Paso airport.
Before calling it a day I drove to an AutoZone just down the street and bought some coolant additive—snake oil, I know, but worth a shot since tomorrow was going to be even hotter and might include a mountain pass or two. My nerves got the better of me today, and I hadn’t even stopped to take a photo. “What kind of photographer am I if I don’t document this trip?” I asked, vowing and praying that things would be different tomorrow.
Leg 3: El Paso to Phoenix
I had a grand plan for the drive and photography, but plans and ideas only go so far. Yesterday I wanted to make time for some exploring, and it didn’t happen. I really wanted to check out Marfa, and I’d blown right past it, and it was three hours in the other direction. Plan B it is.
Out the door at 7 a.m., I topped off the oil, loaded the car, and away I went… six miles to Vista Point, a little park that overlooks the city of El Paso. It was a perfect little stop to get some shots of the car. I took a detour from there, going out of my way for the sake of adventure and photography. I hoped it would be worth it. White Sands National Monument and Missile Range, here I come.
Leaving El Paso, I found myself on a little two-lane road through the desert and across the New Mexico border heading north. The outside temperatures were still in double digits, so the car was happy, running quick and cool. I appreciated the simple nature of the vehicle and its raw mechanics. The sound of the carbs as they opened up, the wail of the exhaust, and the surgical precision of the gates in the shifter were simply beautiful.
I continued west after spending the morning taking photos, exploring the Martian-like landscape, and being turned away at the gate of the missile range. (I was attempting to get a shot of the car near the museum and the old rockets on display, but the military didn’t seem to like the idea.) Jumping back onto I-10 for a stint, I crossed the continental divide and the ambient temperatures began to rise again. I peeled off the highway for lunch and scoured the map for a more interesting route into Phoenix. There was a two-lane road that would take me there northwest through the desert, some 200 miles and change. It was quiet and smooth, and it ran through a few sleepy little towns and across the open desert. As I got closer to Phoenix, a nice winding mountain pass dumped me out just northeast of the city—during rush hour and with ambient temps north of 115 degrees.
With less than 10 miles to go, the water temperature reached critical mass. Thankfully the traffic parted and the radiator filled with clean air for the last few, hot miles. I stood outside the hotel lobby, wringing the sweat out of my shirt, when rare monsoon-like weather rolled in and pummeled the area with rain, dust, and bits of the palms torn from the trees. I abandoned the car in the parking lot and enjoyed the cool blast of the hotel A/C. Only one leg to go.
Leg 4: Phoenix to Los Angeles
I got another late start, not only because I was feeling a bit drained from the heat and stress, but because I wanted to swing by an Italian car shop north of the city. Bill Young’s GT Car Parts has the market cornered on Ferrari and Lamborghini spares, from engines to body clips to full parts cars. Some of the rarest vintage Italian parts call his shop their temporary home before leaving to help complete some of the rarest cars in the world. His place was definitely a highlight. After Bill and I poked around one of his warehouses, he took a closer look at the old Alfa and, like all the others, told me I was a bit crazy. Before long I was on the road again, sad to leave but eager to get home.
Red warning lights on the dash are never a good thing, especially when you are in 100+ heat in the middle of the desert. Some 40 miles west of Phoenix I noticed a little light begin to flicker. The evil illumination was for the generator. With no voltmeter, I had no idea the status of the battery, but Mike had assured me that all of the warning lamps and sensors in the Alfa were functional, so I had to trust the light. I knew I was about to be in trouble. As I pulled off the highway, I was relieved to see that my phone had near full service.
I popped the hood to let the car cool down a bit and called Mike in Texas. He informed me that the alternator on the car (an uprated 65-amp unit out of a later Spider that was installed the year prior) should not be giving me issues, as it and the internal voltage regulator were essentially new. So I began checking the connections in the engine bay. Aha! A little green wire was hanging freely near the alternator, its female connector not connected to anything.Most likely this wire’s function was to send a signal to the cluster, triggering the light on the dash if current became weak.
Mike wanted to check it out for sure. He went out to his shop and pulled the wire off my car’s sibling and fired it up. No light. Next he checked the charging circuit with the wire off the male post on the alternator. No charge. Bingo! “You won’t be able to see it, but there is a male post on the engine side of the alternator that this wire needs to be clipped to,” he said. After digging around, and burning my arm on the headers, the wire was connected and the light on the dash was off. Crisis averted, courtesy of Mike.
Today needed to be an A-to-B trip. I was ready to be home. The last obstacle, aside from L.A. traffic, was Palm Springs. I love Palm Springs, but it is brutally hot at 3 p.m. in the dead of summer, especially in a 45-year-old car with an itty-bitty radiator and a melted A/C belt. As I descended into the valley outside of Desert Hot Springs, the outside temperature shot up. Soaring past 122 degrees ambient, the car was struggling to keep cool. I had to slow to what at the time seemed to be a snail’s pace of 55–60 mph in an effort to take some stress off the engine, and that seemed to work as the car’s water temp stayed at an acceptable range. Once through Palm Springs, I made one final stop for fuel and water, took some photos of some Dinosaur statues, and jumped back on the highway, knowing the next stop would be my driveway.
Five o’clock in the afternoon isn’t a great time to be on the road in Southern California, but the traffic that started about 50 miles from my front door wasn’t as miserable as usual. Cooler temps and a slower pace made it surprisingly relaxing, in fact. I knew after what the car had been through that it would almost certainly make it home at this point. My smile grew with each passing mile.Pulling into my driveway, I almost expected fireworks and a small band to play to celebrate my return.
This was a bucket-list trip, a risky proposition, and a challenge. And I was home, triumphant. The car was intact, and I still had (most) of my sanity, in spite of all the nay-sayers.
That evening I spent nearly an hour on my front stoop just admiring it. After so many miles, so many cities, so many bottles of water, and so many tanks of gas, the little Alfa and I know each other pretty well. My faith in the car is massive, and I can’t wait to start revamping it and enjoying the ride for years to come.
Miles driven: 1789-ish
Bottles of water consumed: 38 bottles (24 ounces each)
Weight lost (driver): 6.2 pounds (per my Garmin scale)
Oil consumed: 1.5 quarts
Coolant lost: 0 (!!)
Average afternoon temp: 110 Deg Fahrenheit … ish