Alfa Romeo Mon­treal

Chris Bale asked us if he could drive an Alfa Mon­treal. Would it re­ally ex­cite this Delorean owner?

Classic Cars (UK) - - Welcome - Words RUSS SMITH Pho­tog­ra­phy: LAURENS PAR­SONS

‘I still can’t quite be­lieve this is hap­pen­ing – I’ve only seen th­ese before at car shows’

Wait­ing with a wel­come cup of tea for Clas­sic Cars reader Chris Bale I can’t help but feel a lit­tle ap­pre­hen­sive about to­day. There are a cou­ple of rea­sons for this – for a start Chris al­ready owns a Delorean DMC-12. That was a past dream drive car fea­tured in th­ese pages and about as iconic and at­ten­tion-grab­bing as any clas­sic gets, as I dis­cov­ered dur­ing our The List fea­ture just over two years ago – we were prac­ti­cally mobbed ev­ery time we stopped. Chris has also driven all the way from Nor­wich to our ren­dezvous in Som­er­set with Mon­treal owner Derek John­son. I’m nutty enough about th­ese Al­fas to think that’s OK, but I hope it’s go­ing to prove worth­while for him.

The early signs are good be­cause when Chris pulls up on the drive­way it turns out his daily driver is a red Alfa Romeo 159, and the clue that he’s prop­erly got the Alfa bug is con­firmed when he men­tions that this car re­cently re­placed a 156. Then I see the look on his face when he glimpses Derek’s Mon­treal. It’s like one of those rom-com movie mo­ments where they pull on the soft-fo­cus fil­ter and fade in some Lionel Richie on the sound­track. Maybe I shouldn’t be sur­prised – af­ter all, this is no or­di­nary Mon­treal but a tro­phy-win­ning ex­am­ple of just 180 right-hand drive mod­els out of the al­ready minis­cule to­tal of 3925 Mon­tre­als that Alfa Romeo built be­tween 1970 and 1977.

Chris is on the hook al­ready, say­ing in a slightly awed tone, ‘I did won­der if it would be left-hand drive, though it wouldn’t have been a prob­lem be­cause I’m used to that with my Delorean. I still can’t quite be­lieve this is hap­pen­ing – I’ve only seen th­ese before at car shows, and they’re so strik­ing and so dif­fer­ent to any­thing else ever built. I’ve been try­ing to re­mem­ber when I first came across the Mon­treal but in truth I can’t recall a time when I didn’t like them. I keep think­ing of Michael Caine in The Mar­seille

Con­tract, but I’m sure I first watched the film be­cause there was a Mon­treal in it rather than the other way around. I’ve al­ways been a car nut, I got it from my fa­ther – he’s owned two BMW 635s, a Holden VXR8 and a 1985 Chevro­let Ca­maro among other things. With all that go­ing on I prob­a­bly didn’t stand a chance!’

Ev­ery­thing goes quiet for a mo­ment while we sim­ply stare at the Mon­treal. Th­ese cars can have that ef­fect on peo­ple. Fi­nally Chris ad­mits, ‘That shape is re­ally amaz­ing, it’s so beau­ti­ful. I just can’t be­lieve I’m about to drive one of th­ese at last.’ Yes, it’s def­i­nitely time to put Chris be­hind the Mon­treal’s wheel before his ex­pec­ta­tions go right off the scale.

He eases into the driver’s seat and the grin re­turns. ‘This is a very nice place to be, with the leather and ev­ery­thing. Alfa Romeo is al­ways good at that sense of oc­ca­sion. My first sur­prise is that it has a very good and not typ­i­cally Ital­ian driv­ing po­si­tion. I’m com­fort­able in here right away and not hav­ing to stretch for any­thing or angle my legs awk­wardly.’

Time to twist the key, at which the pre-warmed en­gine churns en­thu­si­as­ti­cally into life with a tone that’s ac­tu­ally closer to Detroit than Maranello, at least at lower revs. ‘I do love that V8 sound,’ says Chris. ‘It’s muted but… as­sertive, I think that’s maybe the right word. And it sounds even nicer when you give it some revs,’ he grins af­ter a blip of the throt­tle. Af­ter a lit­tle prac­tice to fix the no­tion of a dog­leg first gear into Chris’s head and to get used to the clutch bite we’re off.

Straight away he seems im­pressed. ‘It pulls re­ally well at just about any revs – I’m re­ally sur­prised by the en­gine’s flex­i­bil­ity,’ is Chris’s first com­ment. ‘You have to be de­lib­er­ate with the gear change, which is also a bit notchy go­ing into first, and it’s so tempt­ing to keep it in each gear for longer so you hear the en­gine more – that sound re­ally makes you tin­gle at higher revs. The gear lever is well sprung to sit in the sec­ond-to-third plane, which helps re­mind me that I have to move it across and down for first. The clutch pedal is a lit­tle hard to mod­u­late when ma­noeu­vring in first and re­verse but fine through all the other gears.

‘At low speeds the steer­ing is also a bit heavy, but once you get above walk­ing pace it light­ens up per­fectly. With a lot of the older cars I’ve driven you tend to find a lot of slack in the steer­ing, like the 1965 Mus­tang I hired from Thun­der Road for a hol­i­day a year or so back, but there’s none of that vague­ness with the Mon­treal. I love the wheel’s thin rim too, it so suits the car. There’s so much feel and smooth­ness to the steer­ing, you can tell ex­actly what it’s do­ing all the time – it’s not numb like so many cars, es­pe­cially more mod­ern ones. You do have to work it a bit in tighter turns but it’s al­ways a plea­sure to use.

‘I like look­ing out over that sculpted bon­net with all those curves. It goes back to that Alfa Romeo sense of oc­ca­sion thing. The only down­side is that with the sun at some an­gles you get some quite bad re­flec­tions in the wind­screen, and glanc­ing across it looks even worse on the pas­sen­ger side.’ That’s some­thing I was try­ing to ig­nore from the pas­sen­ger seat but can con­firm. ‘I guess that’s just of its time – man­u­fac­tur­ers have got a lot bet­ter at deal­ing with things like that in the 50 years since this car was de­signed. There’s also a mas­sive blind spot in the rear three­quar­ters which you have to learn to make al­lowances for and the mir­rors don’t cover all of it.

‘My third, and I prom­ise fi­nal, crit­i­cism is that the elec­tric win­dows are re­ally slow, es­pe­cially go­ing up. I won­der if all Mon­tre­als are prone to that or if it’s just that th­ese are a bit tired?’

Be­ing mid­week a near-de­serted RSPB car park looks like a handy spot to take a break and talk some more. I’m also keen to probe deeper into the ear­lier com­ment Chris made about hir­ing a Mus­tang to go on hol­i­day in. That sounds a bit odd com­ing from a guy with a Delorean in his garage. ‘The thing is I can drive the Delorean any time I want, and I like to have some­thing spe­cial to go on hol­i­day in,’ he ex­plains. ‘I’m keen to try as many clas­sics as I can and have also hired a cou­ple of others from a more lo­cal clas­sic car hire place for other trips.’

I’m not about to ar­gue with that kind of logic, and Chris is un­der­stand­ably keen to put the Mon­treal back on its pedestal. ‘It’s sim­ply bril­liant – what a priv­i­lege. I love all the de­sign de­tails that are so glo­ri­ously un­nec­es­sary but com­pletely cap­ti­vat­ing, like those slat­ted eye­lids over the head­lamps and the rows of side vents. They’re what first catches your eye.

‘I can now re­mem­ber the first one I saw at a car show. It was in tan­ger­ine, which helps, and you just get drawn to those vents. The sweep of the door win­dow, which is just like that on a Miura, is great too. It’s prob­a­bly the best thing about a Mon­treal: you can just keep look­ing at it all day long. I won­der if that would ever wear off if I owned one?’

Back on the road Chris is still feel­ing the love and tak­ing in more of the Mon­treal’s myr­iad de­sign de­tails. ‘The gauges – with a take on the tra­di­tional Alfa twin-bin­na­cle lay­out – are so stylish with touches like the speedo num­bers that read times ten, so not clut­ter­ing the face with a load of ze­roes you don’t need. Then there’s the in­ter­nal door re­leases that are built into the door pull/ arm­rest. You can’t see them but they are so per­fectly po­si­tioned your hand just falls on them. This car re­ally is all about the de­sign, it wasn’t just thrown to­gether from handy parts.

‘I feel more com­fort­able and re­laxed in it now. I’m start­ing to drive the car with­out think­ing too much about what I’m do­ing, and the more I re­lax the bet­ter it all feels. To be hon­est it han­dles far bet­ter than I ex­pected. Be­fore­hand I thought it would ob­vi­ously look great but would drive like, well, an old car. But it’s so much bet­ter than that – you can drive it per­fectly eas­ily in to­day’s traf­fic and it’s OK, you don’t have to worry about any­thing. Once you get onto an

open road it just eggs you on to go faster and faster but never feels scary. I can imag­ine my­self driv­ing across Europe in it, eat­ing up the miles. Al­ready I can feel how you just start to flow with it.

‘The brakes are much bet­ter than ex­pected too, you sim­ply can­not fault them for stop­ping power and feel. That Mus­tang I drove wasn’t very much older, but with that I felt I had to keep look­ing far down the road and leave a big gap in front of it, just in case. I’m used to the gear­box now and feel­ing more con­fi­dent in chang­ing up and down it a bit quicker each time. It’s so pos­i­tive and you al­ways know where you are and can find the next ra­tio with­out hav­ing to look or re­ally think about it. It’s quite un­like my Delorean on that score.’

I’m also feel­ing pretty re­laxed in the pas­sen­ger seat, with my ear­lier ap­pre­hen­sions long for­got­ten. It’s been a real plea­sure watch­ing all the early ner­vous­ness Chris showed ebb away, to see him re­lax and start to gel with the Mon­treal. Pretty much the same hap­pened to me when I first drove one, so I can un­der­stand what he’s go­ing through and know how hard it will be to hand the keys back. This looks like one of those rare oc­ca­sions when you in­tro­duce some­one to one of their heroes and they wind up as friends. At least I’m pretty sure that’s how Chris feels, so I have to raise the sub­ject.

‘I’ve been try­ing to think of some­thing clever and ob­jec­tive to say about the car but even af­ter re­flec­tion I can’t think of a sin­gle thing to crit­i­cise about it,’ he replies. ‘Even those triv­ial things I men­tioned ear­lier don’t re­ally mat­ter or take any­thing away from the over­all experience. There’s noth­ing I’d change and there’s no need to make any al­lowances for the car’s age; the steer­ing, brakes and power all feel good by any stan­dards, not just for the time. I’m sure this is in no small part be­cause Derek has clearly kept his Mon­treal in im­mac­u­late con­di­tion. The car is a credit to him.

‘This was on my list mainly be­cause the car is such a work of art. Find­ing out that it is also great to drive was a bonus be­yond all hope. Is this Alfa still on my dream list? Ab­so­lutely. The Mon­treal is ev­ery­thing I had hoped it would be and much more be­sides. There’s such an amaz­ing sense of oc­ca­sion around the whole car – did I men­tion that ear­lier? If I had the money I’d def­i­nitely find room for one in my life.’

Thanks to the Alfa Romeo Own­ers Club and Derek John­son for let­ting Chris drive his Mon­treal.

Chris liked the driv­ing po­si­tion – so dif­fer­ent from many Ital­ian clas­sics

His smile says it all – and the 2953cc V8 pulls well at any This revs, late says Se­ries Chris2 Lagonda runs on four We­bers; elec­tronic in­jec­tion was in­tro­duced a year later

Mar­cello Gan­dini’s bold styling is what first at­tracted Chris to the Mon­treal

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