I was tired of dealing with sub-zero temperatures in State College. My roommates and I worried that we’d forgotten what heat felt like after three straight months of biking to work in the snow. The 16V 190E was parked indefinitely and it was too cold to do anything besides parse through Fortran in a warm office. Graham saw the opportunity and took advantage of my frostbitten brain—he sent me a link to a red Alfa 164Q with the subject ‘buy this car’.
Up until that day I’d been entertained by Graham’s stories about Alfa failures of every degree. He insisted they’re still ‘great cars’ but they just need a little more care, attention, and money than most others. I knew he had anywhere from one to four of these Alfas under his control and had already done some major engine rebuilding. This somehow didn’t deter me in my search for a new unique vehicle. He also lauded their finer points, of course. I’d gotten tired of him talking about the ‘peanut butter leather’ interior of his 164 and how much fun it was to drive. I decided to give the Alfa some consideration because I figured I probably needed a third car if I was going to make it through grad school. Graham had even let me wear his Alfa hat a couple of times, and I felt I needed to truly earn a hat of my own.
I’ll be honest. The 164Q just looked awesome. I saw it with its strange gray cladding, Euro-spec headlights, Ansa tips, and those beautiful 17” Azevs, and I knew it was just the wedge I wanted to drive. And yeah, it had those chrome runners as centerpieces for the red-wrapped valve covers. Even in the online posting’s parking-lot background the car just stood out. I’d only ever seen a base model 164 in person and the Q’s trim really suited it in my eye. The car was located on Long Island and the seller seemed like a nice enough guy after spending an hour or so with him on the phone. Graham went over the finer points of the 3.0 24V and explained just about every way it could break. He knew we’d have to do the timing belt as soon as possible as it hadn’t been done in about 20000 miles.
My dad and I set out one cold sunny Saturday to Copiague, NY to see it in person. We met the owner at his house in a nice little neighborhood. He was an energetic man named Maciek (like Magic Johnson, he told me) and was pleased to see us. He worked at a local exotic car garage, which I would imagine does fairly well on Long Island. He told me he’d sourced most of the parts from his brothers in Poland who got the lights and wheels at discounted prices and then sent them back to the US. He enthusiastically added that he’d repaired all the door handles himself and that the car was in good running order. It started right up from cold and I was concerned—it was loud. It was essentially straight-piped to those dual Ansa tips—reported scoured from a ‘69 Dino at his shop. The 24 valves were running as they should and there was no question that it was one of the best exhaust notes I’d ever heard. My dad was also in awe and later had to take me aside to remind me that cars are more than just fancy-looking engines and screaming exhaust notes.
We climbed in and Majiek showed us around the Polish town. He topped 7k on the tach on several occasions and I couldn’t believe how long the gears were. The interior was worn, but about where a 20-year-old car should be. The crazy fighter-jet controls and LCD display worked and the seats moved as they should have. Maciek calmly explained the work he had done and pointed out various interesting delis and potholes as we cruised around. The wooden steering wheel went well with the tan leather and carpets. There were definitely interior issues with the dash drying and cracking as well as a ripped seatbelt, but I was more focused on finding a solid mechanical car. If I recall, it wasn’t even possible to open the rear passenger door from the inside. But I pushed this back in my mind. Back-burner problems.
As I took it out for a quick drive I was surprised by how quickly the engine responded. It had great torque across the band and sounded even better from the driver’s seat. I scooted the car around the sea-side town (avoiding the major potholes at the request of the navigator) and was pleased. The new clutch felt great and the steering feel was remarkable for a car of its size. Afterwards Maciek invited us to his ‘man-cave’ to discuss things. It was an amazing man-cave. The barn-door basement entrance led to a room full of exotic wheels, Recaro seats, and even turbos. He told us that he collected a few things. It was clear that he was passionate about his vehicles which is a comforting thing to know while buying a car. I was a little worried about his somewhat unclear reason for selling it, but I was able to talk the price to where I wanted it and he even threw in all the extra Alfa parts he had at the price. I was pleased and told him I’d be back in a week to pick it up.
I spent the week busy as ever and had to make plans to get the car back to PA. This involved a bus ride to Penn Station, a train to central Long Island, and a ride in Maciek’s Volvo to a Long Island DMV. This Volvo was probably the nicest I’d ever seen. It sat on Ferarri 3-piece wheels and its exhaust protruded from the side of the rear bumper. It absolutely screamed through gears and I asked him if he’d done some work to it. He had a turbo from the S60/V70 R and cams from some crazy boat engine. It sounded as amazing as it looked. The red paint was perfect and the bodywork looked like it had been performed by some Swedish tuning company. He humbly added that he enjoyed this car a little too much and that he spent entirely too much time working on it. After a successful DMV visit (rare occasion) I was on my way back across Long Island in the Volvo to take the Alfa home. I thanked Maciej for everything and he even threw in another box of nice parts—a pack of coils and a new fuel filler door. I struggled with the alien heat controls and headed west. About 5 hours later, I found myself in central Manhattan. I’d never been one to enjoy driving in cities and this wasn’t helping. My phone was dead and I hadn’t remembered to bring a GPS. I was actually on the same block for over two hours as cars just filled the intersection. I had to turn the car off (I was unaware of the cars 15/21 mileage rating at the time) and just coast towards the bridge that was just out of reach.
Miserable return trip aside, I was really enjoying the Alfa. It drove so well on highways and was able to scoot along when needed. It was a bit on the loud side, so I got a small glasspack put in the exhaust when I got it back to York. Its next stop was our garage for a quick belt update. Quick in this sense means an entire weekend. I had no idea how intricate the timing tools and tensioning sequence would be. Luckily, I had Alfisti Graham at home to help swear as we sliced through allen wrenches and knuckles trying to reach impossible bolts. Only a few trips to parts stores were needed—Graham had all the tools ready and the cam locks on loan from the friendly US Alfa society.
I had another summer in Knoxville approaching, and a squat Alfa with no air conditioning seemed to fit the bill. I’d actually made my roommates promise to not let me bring the Mercedes back to the South, so it wasn’t too tough of a decision. I managed to fit a road bike and a 29er mountain bike as well as several computers and everything else I’d need for my time in Tennessee. This included every tool I own, which took up the entire trunk. Graham had me paranoid about any sort of car issue and I didn’t want to be stranded without a few good breaker bars. Knoxville gave me some extra sunlight hours to bring the car up to where I wanted it. This included several parking-lot serpentine belt adjustments in order to squelch a squealing bearing as well as conditioning the stiff leather. The car got plenty of attention from those who knew what it was and also from those who didn’t. One guy had to ask me what it was because he couldn’t read the cursive Alfa Romeo script. I was fortunate to experience no major failures while getting it to Knoxville and I owe a lot of thanks to Graham, as well as some friends down south who drove me to parts stores for the two or so weeks when it was out of commission due to a sheared idler bolt. Soon enough Graham would be the one to find a rare 164Q engine just fifteen minutes from where I lived, and getting that engine to Detroit would prove to be its own story.