Last September, my 89 Alfa Milano substantiated a vile Italian automobile stereotype as I traveled to family back east for Labor Day weekend. Of course, there were warning signs; the failed clutch hydraulics hose the day I brought the car home, and the miserably inadequate cooling system that demanded maximum heater settings to control the coolant temp. I attempted to deceive myself with defensive internal retorts to my friends’ negative Alfa sentiments. “Guys, chill. It’s just an Italian e30 – Bosch fuel system. If anything, the German components will be first to go.” The denial even continued into the first manifestation of rod knock. “Hmm, the engine is starting to sound like a tractor. A Lamborghini tractor, heh heh.”
In actuality, it sounded like an Alfa-with-thrown-rod tractor. Less than a month into Alfa ownership, and I was about to atone for the sinful Alfa soundtrack – something like ripping canvas – with the task of replacing the 6-pot paperweight sitting between the torsion bars of my Milano.
I rallied my car enthusiast friends and set some goals; engine out the first week, new engine home the second week, and a running Verde by Halloween – Thanksgiving at the latest! But, as the project began to slip, we surveyed the progress and aimed for Valentines Day completion. Because, nothing is more important to your Valentine’s Day date than being subjected to a shakedown drive in a questionably assembled vehicle. I mean, I wouldn’t have driven 45 miles each way for 2013 Valentine’s Day had I not just completed a dash swap and headliner in my e30. But in spite of a winter resurgence in progress, I still hit spring with a formidable engine to-do checklist.
The final prod to finish the project came in the form of mandatory company vacation. I had to use up half of my vacation from work to take off the Independence Day week, and was utterly disinterested in squandering the week away on any activities not relating to finishing and driving my Milano. Motivated by the prospect of a trip to Oak Ridge, Tennessee to visit Taylor, my parents, and the nearby Dragon, I set out to complete the final remaining tasks.
Power steering, A/C, and the alternator were easy enough to install and tension. Since I had ruined the hose barbs on my old injectors (oops), I cut some fresh metric fuel line hose and assembled my new injectors to the fuel rail with new fuel system clamps. I lost 2 hours running around to various Napa stores looking for injector rebuild kits before finally happening upon the hive, i.e. the distribution center. For those in the market for Alfa V6 injector rebuild kits in the Detroit metro area, I’m sorry. They were cheap, so I bought them all.
With the soft components of the fuel injectors refreshed, the harness itself cried out for help at the worst moment possible; as I sat behind the wheel of my completely reassembled Milano and keyed on the ignition for the first time since September, I did not anticipate the disturbing, compensating rumble of a Harley V-twin. You know, the sound of your retired neighbor warming up his youth for 30 minutes before tepidly rolling down the street barely fast enough to flap the back of his black Ft. Lauderdale Harley-Davidson demin shirt. Once I got past my cynicism, I pulled the plastic tips from each metal connector and carefully pinched each connector to ensure a better future connection. I borrowed some connector tips from a spare injector harness and reassembled the lot with new electrical tape, skipping heat shrink in case I had to troubleshoot further.
The exhaust, consisting of a mere midpipe and catalytic converter, announced the triumphant Italian resurrection to the entire neighborhood. Since I had diligently addressed anything that would stand in the way of me driving the Milano at its first real start, I backed out of the garage and strutted my raucous achievement down the street to warm up the 20w-50.
A quick loop around the block revealed some terrible knocking, which ended up being an exhaust valve with an embarrassingly large amount of lash on cylinder two. Four stitches and a sore thumb later, I set the valve to spec and eliminated the knock.
Opinions on engine break-in methods diverge, but the goal is uniform; the piston rings need to seat within the bores in order to effectively contain combustion gases and scrape oil. An Alfa friend recommended a hard break-in, and I hadn’t driven the car in almost a year, so I didn’t object. As soon as I got the engine oil up to temp, assessed the oil pressure, and checked for any major leaks, I hit the street for some 2nd gear loaded and coast down runs. The 3.0L Busso V6 that had spent the year as an object of my intense desire – as I extracted the maimed lump from the engine bay, as I drove the new assembly home from Ohio in my GTI, as I drove the components around Indiana to various machine shops, and as I rebuilt the engine with my friends in my bedroom – rewarded me for my patience.
Starting off gruff at lower speeds, the sound builds up to a climax that the tall gearing encourages. Lift off the right pedal for a moment, and exotic cackles belie the staid exterior. 45 mph cruising in 2nd gear leaves you wondering why BMW even bothers piping its own sound recordings into the latest M cars, and doesn’t do the world a favor with the Alfa soundtrack. Opportunity: Tesla.
Engine running, and 70 miles of break-in logged, I set out for a very ambitious, mostly foolish shakedown trip. But first, a tidy ensemble of tools made its way into the trunk along with some useful spare parts and gallons of engine fluids. If the car could make it through the 1,000+ mile round trip from Detroit to Oak Ridge, TN and back in 80F+ weather, I could confidentially call it sorted. To truly sort out the Alfa, a midtrip development run over the Dragon was planned.
By means of I-75, Sarah and I strode the Milano to TN without incident. Perfect coolant temp, cold A/C, and great oil pressure inspired confidence. I let Taylor rip on the car on the way from his place in Oak Ridge to the more intellectual community of Knoxville, for some Calhoun’s BBQ with our parents. Later, I drove my dad to Cook-Out Burger for Fancy Shakes, and could not get over the blat of the engine. Those looking for the approval of their father might be wise to consider buying a V6 Alfa – preferably a running example.
The next morning, I sat passenger in the Verde as we followed my brother in his 94 164Q to the Dragon. No doubt, the Milano has a superior front engine, rear transaxle drivetrain configuration, but the 164 got the good looks of two siblings. The therapeutic value of stalking a 164 through Eastern Tennessee in vibrant morning light for an hour is worthless to most, and invaluable to the Alfa obsessed. Sure, I think the LS models, lacking the ridiculous aero kits, are much more attractive, but the design language isn’t lost on the Q.
The Alfas devoured the dragon, each in its own way. The Q has an entertaining amount of torque, and consequently torque steer. Combined with the outstanding 24V exhaust note and quicker steering of the 164 chassis, the experience is rich. The Milano is geared such that first gear downshifts are necessary; naturally, glorious double-clutch heel-and-toe downshifts are a must. Neither car stacked up to the absolutely demonic performance of the MK1 GTI on the same road last year, but the sound of dual Busso V6s at WOT is at least a good excuse for the decreased entertainment factor.
Quick poll: anybody reading this ever lose a brake rotor while driving at 9/10ths along a tortuous wooded road? I haven’t, but the Cold War prepared my dad for that exact scenario, which occurred while he was making repeated runs by the same point for us to grab some action shots. Fortunately, he was able to brake safely into a pull-out.
Apparently, he heard and saw something large fly out of the back of the car, but didn’t notice any mechanical symptoms as he coasted to the pull-out. The Milano has inboard rear brakes, and since all of the axle bolts had calmly backed out, the brake rotor was free to roam about the dragon. More precisely, it flew off of the mountainside.
A fat cat AAA membership paid off twofold. First, 100 miles of free towing is ludicrously useful. Second, watching in horror as a tow truck paces your brother in a 164Q along the Dragon is unforgettable. Clearly, the tow truck driver makes his living extricating Italian iron from the dragon.
With the Milano back in my brother’s apartment parking lot, we were able to hit the poor Alfa with a short term fix to get the car back to Michigan. The threads on the transaxle flange needed to be chased, and without the metric taps to make that happen, we settled on running two of the six axle bolts. A pair of M10 nuts acted as spacers in order to compensate for the missing brake rotor. Clutch drops were out of the question.
We accessed the journey back to Detroit: 100 miles of worry-free driving, followed by a 300 mile death zone, followed by a relaxed 100 miles within towing range of Detroit. As soon as we made it to Toledo, healthily within the last 100 miles of the return trip, the afflicted axle dropped. It was 3AM, so I was very open to the prospect of riding the last leg in a tow truck cab, no matter how smokey it might be. The tow truck driver turned out to be smoke free, unless you count all of the hot air he spewed about various government conspiracies, many of which involved the Mafia.
We made it home and I ordered parts, eager to address the issues experienced on the shakedown run, and thrilled to finally have a happy engine in the engine bay. I like to travel in older cars. Obviously, older cars and travelling have merits of their own, but I find the process of minimizing roadside failure by thoroughly testing and repairing the cars is absolutely satisfying. Last year we drove 6,000 miles in 10 days in my 90hp GTI. This year, thanks to a substantial amount of assistance and motivation from my friends, my goal is to complete something similar in the Alfa, but with A/C, and twice the horsepower.