‘It came back from sodablasting in two Tesco bags. We were close to binning it’
When you’ve restored classic Ferraris, you know how involved the job can get. Imagine the resolve it took to apply the same process to a humble little Alfa
Sometimes the choices we make in the present have a lot to do with the past. More than 40 years ago Jim Needham lived next door to Bernie Fosker, who sparked an interest in Ferraris when he arrived outside the house in a 246 Dino. Much later, in 2010, Needham hosted an event for his friend Fosker, filling the grounds of his home with glorious Maranello machinery. In the intervening years Jim Needham did a series of jobs in the printing industry before a sideline in renting holiday apartments to friends ballooned into a serious business: James Villa Holidays. With the sale of his company in 2007 he could, as he puts it, ‘afford a few nice cars’. Among those on the lawn that day – his cars and other people’s – there were two little Alfa Romeo Giulia Spiders.
‘ They were lovely,’ says Jim. ‘ I’d started a small Ferrari collection but I really fancied an Alfa, so I went looking and found this one on the web in 2012.’
A few months of open-air motoring were made less enjoyable by frequent breakdowns and it became clear the little roadster would soon need attention. After having two classic Ferraris restored, Jim Needham knew what it took to create a good car… and how far from good his Giulia then was.
‘I had a chat with Ian Barkaway. His garage is just around the corner from my home and I used Barkaways for the Ferrari restorations. He asked me what we were going to do with the Alfa, so I said we should strip it and see what happens. It came back from soda-blasting in a right state… virtually in a couple of Tesco bags. We were close to binning it.’
There was worse to come. Parts supply turned out to be harder than for Ferraris of the same vintage and this car is one of just 400 right-hand- drive examples, making a number of parts rarer still. But Needham liked the car very much and you sense that he does not enjoy being beaten. ‘I didn’t spare any money on it. I said, “build the best Alfa there is”.’ This is an Alfa Romeo Giulia Spider, the 101- series introduced in 1962 rather than the 750- series Giulietta Spider that preceded it. The two look almost identical bar the bonnet bulge but, in the manner of eccentric Italian production decisions of the time, the 101 was slightly longer and shares relatively few parts with the 750. What they all have in common is a tendency to suffer serious rot.
Ian Tamkin was lead technician on the project from the beginning. He stripped the car and feared the worst when the bodyshell went away for blasting. ‘It was very, very holey,’ he says. ‘During the stripdown we noticed some damage apart from the corrosion – the rear radius arms were bent like bananas and would have to be cut off and re-made. The springs were too far gone and had collapsed on one side. But the real task was for the bodyshop.’
In the bodyshop is Graham Gilbert. Before he could begin the repairs, he had to mount and stabilise the shell and enlist the help of John Davies – an old-school metalwork expert with whom he had worked on previous projects.
‘ The first thing we had to do was brace it up,’ says Gilbert. ‘ It had sills tacked on over rotten sills. We braced it across the wheelarches and on top as well. Then we custom-made and welded on the fixings for the spit – the apparatus we used to turn the shell over and repair the underside.’
And those repairs kept on coming. The Giulia Spider is conventionally built for the time, with chassis rails and outriggers welded to a floorpan. Whole lengths of chassis rail had to be cut off, re-made and replaced; outriggers too. ‘ The scary thing is that Mr Needham drove it in… this was an Mot’d car.’
The bodyshop team at Barkaways used various tactics to keep the shell from deforming during such fundamental repair. ‘ You can use the floor of the workshop like a jig, dropping a plumbline from the suspension points and marking them with chalk. You keep measuring as you go and it can be remarkably accurate,’ explains Gilbert.
Another sensible principle was simply to cut off as little as possible – identify each repair and complete it before moving on down the car. But even at such a fundamental stage, the no- compromise approach applied, as Gilbert describes.
‘ We used a spot-welder to replicate the factory welds because it’s important to get them right when the underside is going to be finished to the same standard as the bits you can see.’ As a final check that everything remained straight in three dimensions, axle assemblies were ‘ dry-built’ back on to the car to check for fit before being removed again for the welding to continue.
Large areas of floor were too perforated to save and, while replacement sills can be bought, inner wheelarches are extinct as off-the- shelf parts. Gilbert discovered that MGB items could be modified to provide a very good fit. ‘It was slightly less involved than making them from scratch,’ he says. ‘ But only slightly.’ Several times it proved easier to make sections than buy them, not least around the boot area. Gilbert estimates 80 per cent of the bootlid frame is new metal, which then had to be covered in entirely new skins. Still… nothing the Barkaways team wasn’t used to, surely?
‘ The welding took months and months. It demanded a lot of patience,’ says Gilbert. ‘I think it’s the most involved one we’ve done.’
Mike Jordan took on the job of hunting for parts, chasing items from as far afield as Canada and Texas. Southern-hemisphere markets such as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa were more important for right-hand- drive Alfa sales than the UK, because our import duties were still high. With North America adding a considerable volume of LHD sales, it’s not surprising Jordan had to cast the net wide. Yet the most helpful find in the whole hunt was made much closer to home. Ian Barkaway takes up the story.
‘ When it arrived the car was jumping out of reverse gear and baulking into second and third. So we stripped the gearbox and discovered why – someone had been in there before.’
Whoever had attempted the previous work to the ’ box had reassembled it without the interlock pins for the selector forks and with part of the synchromesh hubs missing. This may not have been purely down to carelessness, because when Jordan started to look for replacements he discovered supplies were non- existent.
‘ There are two types of gearbox used in Alfas from this era,’ he says. ‘Of course, we had the one you couldn’t get parts for.’ That left only one solution – find another complete gearbox of the same type and try to build one good one from the two.
Low point ‘Fitting the windscreen frame was torture. You have to get spacers under the corners to get the rake to match the quarterlights. You try, try and try again’
Jordan soon learned enough to recognise that a Sixties Alfa transmission he’d spotted on ebay was mis- described. It wasn’t the more common type with a good parts supply, it was the model they needed. And it was in Canterbury – the one in Kent, not the one in New Zealand.
It was also Ian Barkaway’s job to tackle the engine rebuild. ‘For a small engine it needed a hell of a lot of machining,’ he says. ‘ You have to get every mating surface truly flat – cylinder head, block, sump, the sump mounting face at the base of the block and so on. Without doing that you’re just asking for oil leaks.’
The Alfa’s 1600cc twin- cam engine is a wet-liner design. The liners can be removed and replaced when they become worn, as these were, with no need to bore them out like conventional cylinders. But fitting liners is a time- consuming skill because each one must be carefully pressed into the block casting until they are 0.002in (two thou) proud of the block’s mating surface to compress the head gasket when the head is fastened down. What’s more, they must be perfectly perpendicular to the crankshaft so there’s no excess drag on one side of a piston.
‘ The cylinder head received new phosphor bronze valve guides,’ Barkaway continues. ‘ The old ones had heaps of slop in them and a couple of valves were burned out, which killed the compression on one cylinder.’ New valves and hardened valve seats were inserted to keep the engine safe from unleaded petrol and a fresh twin- choke carburettor completed the top end.
The bottom end of the engine was fairly straightforward in comparison. The oil pump’s gears were too worn to provide enough oil pressure, so with new gears in new bronze bushes, they were lined up to be properly central in the pump housing.
‘ They’ll sing if you get it wrong,’ says Barkaway. ‘It speeds up wear too. It’s a minor detail but we were doing everything to Ferrari 250 standards on this car.’
So a new water pump was fitted as a matter of course and the crankshaft – which needed only a polish – was sent away for balancing with all four conrods and pistons, then assembled with painstaking use of Plastigauge wax strips to ensure every tiny bearing clearance was exactly as it should be.
After much Googling, Jim Needham had decided on a paint shade called Celeste Blue, a period Alfa colour. As you’d expect, the approach to the paint finish was every bit as painstaking as the rest of the job.
’ The bodyshop put three heavy coats of primer on the car,’ says Ian Barkaway. ’ They left it a week to cure, then gave it a full blocking down, which involves plenty of hand-rubbing with a sanding block. Then came three more coats, with two weeks to cure and a final check to catch any tiny fixes still required. Once that was done, it was ready to paint.’
Barkaways prefers not to use any spray filler, believing it can increase the chances of sinkage in the final result. Before any of this was started, the Spider was seam- sealed underneath. Stonechip followed before the base colour and clear coat finished the job to the highest standard both above and below.
To go with the Celeste Blue paint, Needham picked navy leather with pale blue piping. It’s rather grander than the original monotone vinyl, but that had long since disappeared anyway.
The trimmer, Mark Webber, started by stripping the seats right down and repairing them. The frame of the driver’s seat had cracked and one shoulder was dropping.
With the frames ready to re- cover, Mark replaced the old fabric with tough new webbing straps, proper hessian and Connolly- standard leather. The Alfa’s minimalist door cards were treated the same way.
The roof is Mark’s masterpiece on this car. He started by repairing the bare frame and then made a new, fully lined roof from scratch, achieving a perfect fit all round and including a curtain behind the seats that drops to cover the spare wheel. It’s all held in place with the correct press studs.
Barkaways discovered some time ago that the only way to produce perfect chrome was to have control of the process throughout preparation. What this means in practice is that each piece – take the Alfa’s quarter bumper, for instance – is stripped and then immersed in a plating solution to acquire about 20 hours’ worth of copper coating.
This is then returned to the workshop and carefully fitted and hand-filed to get precisely the right contours with no dips, bumps or defects. And then it’s done again. When the copper- covered item finally satisfies the expert eyes at Barkaways, it’s sent back for a coat of nickel, a polish and then a coat of chrome.
‘It’s the only way to guarantee you won’t see wobbles in the reflection when it’s finished,’ says Ian Barkaway.
Chris Pratt took care of much of the detail work, especially in the engine bay. ‘I sorted out the correct hose runs, the re-making and application of the all the right labels and stickers, even the old hoseclips: they’re 50 year- old Cheney items and we were able to clean them and re-plate them.’
Pratt and Tamkin together assembled and fitted everything from the smallest trim items to the engine and gearbox, which was so tight on its mounts they had to be removed and machined to size.
They fitted a new fuel tank and lines, new handbrake cable, dampers, springs, bushes and ball-joints at each corner, and a rear axle assembly with new bearings and halfshafts but with the original finned, vented drums re-fitted with new shoes and cylinders. A bespoke wiring loom kept the amps where they should be and a specialist trim-maker managed to recreate the stainless steel strip below the doors. Even the drop- glass had to be re-made specially, though Jordan tracked down an undamaged windscreen.
‘Once the car was nearly finished, we had a bet with Ian Barkaway that we could get the exhaust on, the fluids into the engine, set the timing and have it running in 15 minutes. He took the bet, we managed it in 14 minutes and Ian had to buy everyone an ice cream,’ says Tamkin.
It was a happy ending to a huge job for the staff at Barkaways, but just a beginning for Jim Needham. He was invited to Salon Privé at Blenheim Palace after the show’s organiser, Andrew Bagley, had been to Barkaways to view another car and seen the Giulia in the final stages of the build.
‘People kept saying they’d never seen an Alfa like it,’ remembers Needham. ‘It got so much attention. Boodles, the diamond merchant, picked it as its car of the show and asked me to park it in front of its stand.
‘ We drove it across the lawn, Dean Martin blasting out of the radio… it was just what I hoped it would be. Yes, it cost the same as doing a Sixties Ferrari, but I love all my cars and I won’t be selling them, so why not?’
High point ‘Seeing it on the lawn at Salon Privé, or taking it out for the first time – it just makes you smile, even though it’s a quirky thing to drive’
Pre-restoration, the Alfa didn’t live up to its owner’s expectations