Italian stallion: Foley's Moffstang-beating Alfa
The final years of the Improved Production era saw big V8s battling it out, with smaller machines nipping at their heels, such as Brian Foley’s four-cylinder Alfa GTAm. Foley soon bought into the ‘big into little’ mantra by fitting a V8.
The advent of a multi-race series for the Australian Touring Car Championship in 1969 ushered in a new philosophy for the Improved Production class, whereby a car and driver could prevail as a result of consistency. That year, Alan Hamilton’s two-litre Porsche 911 T/R almost stole the title from Ian Geoghegan’s familiar Mustang.
Two seasoned class campaigners, Jim McKeown (Lotus Cortina) and Brian Foley (Morris Cooper S) took notice and both graduated to 2.3-litre Porsche 911STs for 1970. McKeown fared better, even snaring a win on his way to finishing runner-up in the series. For Foley it was a different story as he struggled to get to terms with the rear-engined Stuttgart stormer.
While McKeown remained with the German marque for 1971, Foley, who had just opened a new Alfa Romeo dealership in Parramatta in the heart of Sydney’s west, looked towards Milan, Italy for his next Improved Production racecar, an Alfa Romeo GTAm.
Alfa Romeo and its factory race team Autodelta had won the 1970 European Touring Car Championship in the wheel-lifting 1750 GTAm (‘Am’ for America, as the US 1750 GTV was homologated for Group 2 FIA-based series).
The GTAm featured an all-steel construction but with fibreglass doors, bonnet, bootlid and flared wheel arches. A two-litre engine – a development of the ‘Nord’ production engine with ‘monosleeve’ liner, a narrow-angle twin-cam and twin-plug head with Lucas slide-throttle fuel injection – gave over 200bhp through a closeratio five-speed gearbox to a ZF LSD with various diff ratios. Suspension was similar to the GTA, with front wishbones and a live axle located by trailing arms with lateral location by a crude but effective sliding block. Wheels were 13 x 9 inch Campagnolo (upgraded to 13 x 10 inch Minilites). Despite liberal use of magnesium, aluminium and fibreglass, the homologated weight was 920kg.
Foley’s sponsors, Chesterfield, Castrol, and new signing Alitalia gave Foley the green light to go Italian. With support from the new (factory) distributor Alfa Romeo Australia, Foley travelled to Italy in early 1971 to inspect his ‘new’ GTAm. Only it wasn’t new...
“Well, I think the fibreglass flares may have been new,” remembers Foley today. “They looked like they had just been riveted on. It had the fibreglass doors and everything it should have but everything was worn out – the engine, the gearbox and even the diff!”
The car didn’t come with a logbook or any competition history and was likely used as a ‘muletta’ – a development or practice car for Autodelta’s factory drivers to learn the Targa Florio circuit.
Foley’s chief mechanic Col Devaney remembers first laying eyes on the GTAm.
“It was like an Italian taxi! We rebuilt the engine and it gave 144kW (194bhp) on the dyno which was 30 less than the Italians claimed.” Ongoing development saw this rise to an eventual 162kW (217bhp).
The rebuild delayed the debut of the GTAm until March, missing the first three rounds of the ATCC. In its first race, a non-championship event, at Oran Park it finished a distant second to Ian
At the GTAm’s first ATCC round at Surfers Paradise it finished sixth behind the big V8s and McKeown’s Porsche. At the next round at Mallala the GTAm finished a respectable fifth and at Lakeside it was seventh.
The bottom-line was the GTAm wasn’t competitive against the V8s and without an advantageous class pointscore, which did come in 1972, it seemed futile to continue. Foley was a no-show at the season finale at Oran Park. In fact, his engine was powering the Chesterfield ‘series production’ 1750 GTV of journalist racer David McKay to a fine second in the Dulux Rally.
“The GTAm was quicker than the Porsches at Warwick Farm, but it struggled at longer circuits,” laments Foley. “It got around there in 1:40, not far behind Geoghegan in his Super Falcon. Indeed it was the tight Sydney circuit that would be the barometer of Foley’s future Alfa success.
At Chesterfield’s behest, Foley took the GTAm over the ditch to the end of year meetings at Bay Park and the NZ GP at Pukekohe in early ’72. Again the GTAm was outclassed by heavy iron, with Allan Moffat’s Mustang prevailing at the Auckland circuit.
Unwilling to make up the numbers in the (Improved Production) ATCC for 1972, Foley converted the GTAm to the sports sedan class by putting in a V8.
This was no ordinary American cast-iron V8. Foley had acquired a real racing Alfa Romeo V8 from the Alec Mildren Racing stable. This aluminium V8 with its flat-plane crankshaft, quad camshafts and twin-plug ignition had (in the back of a Brabham BT23D) taken Kevin Bartlett to consecutive Australian Drivers Championships in 1968 and ‘69. This V8 in various capacities was also used for the factory 33 Sports Prototypes and even briefly in Formula 1.
The V8 engine was in pieces when Devaney picked it up.
“A previous blow-up had damaged an oil gallery, so we welded that up. On Waggott’s dyno it made 228kW (305hp), more than when it was with Mildrens. I said ‘that will do.’”
Making the 2.5-litre V8 fit into the engine bay was a challenge. The floor had to be cut to fit the V8’s larger bell housing and Devaney devised a novel solution in converting the steering to righthand drive. “We did this at Ray Morris’s (father of Bathurst winner Bob) workshop. We actually reversed the LHD steering box by mounting it in the inner guard and fabricated the idler arm to fit. We also fabricated a restrictive exhaust system which cost us a lot of horsepower.”
Foley thinks the loss was as much as 50bhp, which along with the extra engine weight, 70kg, was not the advance that it may have seemed. Despite the new engine, the rest of the drivetrain and suspension was left alone. This was a testament to the strength of the Alfa’s original components.
After a low-key debut at Oran Park, the GTAm V8 went on to wins in Adelaide and Amaroo Park. There were strong seconds to top guns like Bob Jane’s Camaro at Wanneroo and Ian Geoghegan’s Mustang at Warwick Farm. However, the highlight of the Foley GTAm V8’s career was downing Allan Moffat’s Mustang at his beloved Warwick Farm.
“Warwick Farm really suited the Alfa,” reflects Foley. “The trophy event was the aggregated times of two races. I won the first race by a tenth and in the second he miscalculated and finished a tenth behind me over the two races. I got into the 1:38s, not far off the lap record.”
The GTAm V8 ventured to Malaysia in September competing in two events at Ipoh and Selangor. It beat the local GTAs at Ipoh but retired from the Selangor GP support race at Shah Alam.
The GTAm V8 was usually reliable, but towards the end of the year at Symmons Plains and Surfers Paradise it succumbed to niggling electrical problems that flummoxed the team.
Disheartened, Foley put the GTAm V8 up for sale, turning to his GTA Lightweight sports sedan (the former Mildren GTA raced by Kevin Bartlett) for the 1973 season.
Like most racing Alfa Romeos, the GTAm V8 headed west to Perth. Purchased by Fiat dealer Frank Cecchele, it was mainly raced by Gordon Stephenson before running into eligibility issues. Sports Sedan rules dictated production-based engines. The racing V8 engine may have inspired the V8 used in the exotic Alfa Romeo Montreal, but there were no interchangeable parts at all.
The Alfa was sidelined for a while before fellow Alfa racer Gordon Mitchell inserted a twin-turbo Rover V8. The Alfa won state titles into the 1980s before the Rover was replaced by a twin-turbo Fiat V6. Sadly, it was badly damaged testing at Wanneroo. The team parked the battle-weary Alfa in the corner of the workshop to concentrate preparing its (jinxed) Group A Fiat Uno Turbo for the 1986 Bathurst 1000 (see AMC #60). And there it sat for the next 20 years...
Off to Pace
Vin Sharp of Pace Engineering in Melbourne has been working on racing Alfa Romeos for 30 years and knew exactly where the GTAm lived. “A lot of people pestered Cecchele over the years, but he wouldn’t part with it. Anyway, the original V8 engine had been reunited with the Mildren Brabham. I only ever wanted to restore it back to its original GTAm specification,” says Sharp.
In 2006 Sharp persuaded Cecchele to sell the GTAm in its damaged state. “It wasn’t too bad really,” he recalls. “It needed a new front crossmember, chassis rail and front panel. The floorpan, firewall (altered for the V8) and boot floor (where a larger fuel tank lived) were reinstated. Otherwise the bodyshell was remarkably original – all the original suspension pick-up points were there. Cecchele used a Ford diff centre and axles but welded brackets to take the original Alfa suspension arms. They used a different Alfa gearbox and stored the rare original. All the irreplaceable Autodelta parts – Campagnolo wheels, brake calipers, front hubs, pedal box, race seats, 80-litre fuel tank, front knuckle risers and intricate sliding block were all there. Even the original alloy roll cage survived. I couldn’t believe it!”
The only significant part missing from the GTAm was the engine, but this didn’t faze Sharp.
“Back in the 1980s my late father and I purchased a narrow-angle eightplug engine from Gordon Stephenson. It was really only a collection of parts – magnesium sump and cam covers, a monosleeve, new special pistons and the like,” remembers Sharp. “We were going to build it up with Weber carburettors and use it for a rally GTV but it never happened. The engine was never built.”
Sharp believes this engine was quite likely the one from Foley’s GTAm. “I can’t be sure, but I have my theories as to what transpired. The only thing missing was the Lucas slide fuel injection, which is impossible to find. Luckily another collector who owned the ex-Foley GTA Lightweight at the time had the complete injection system which he sold to me.”
Well-known Alfa restorer Vyvian Hirons from Art on Wheels restored the body back to its original burgundy Chesterfield colours. He made a new fibreglass bonnet, bootlid and flared guards. Sharp rebuilt all the mechanicals and assembled the GTAm between paying jobs.
The GTAm was about 90 per cent complete when it debuted at the Victorian Alfa Club’s ‘Spettacolo’ display in 2013. Brian Foley was present for the unveiling.
The GTAm only needs plumbing and wiring and sorting the fuel injection before it can be fired up. Unforeseen circumstances have prevented Sharp from making this happen to date.
“I would like to be able to run it in Regularity and demonstration runs,” he says. “I’m hoping I can bring it up to the 2015 Muscle Car Masters.”
Top: The partially-opened bonnet was all about cooling. This is Warwick Farm in 1971. Right: The car’s local debut came in March 1971 at Oran Park. Foley believed the four-cylinder GTAm could beat the Improved Production heavyweights, such as Pete Geoghegan’s Mustang, at tighter tracks, but it didn’t come to pass.
Top right: Another car from the ATCC’s fondly remembered Improved Production era is back! What a little ripper. Far left: It lived in WA for 30 years until purchased by current owner Melburnian Vin Sharp who undertook a major restoration program. Right: Sharp says the engine likely comprises major organs from its days in Foley’s hands. Below: Brian Foley himself unveiled the restored machine at Spettacolo.