The CSI of­fers the CSL ex­pe­ri­ence for a lot less cash, and has more than just colour in com­mon with the ex­otic Alfa Mon­treal


Can’t af­ford a CSL? The CSI is al­most as good… but can it beat an Alfa Mon­treal?

Two ju­nior ex­otics in the Bre­con Bea­cons on a sunny day in June hardly counts as ‘work’ re­ally, does it? It was one of those days where that in­ter­nal voice re­minded me that this is a hobby I get paid for, not what most would call a ‘proper job’. Great scenery, great cars, great roads to drive them on and all with the full sanc­tion of Gareth Lewis, who (hand­ily) owns both and was en­joy­ing him­self as much as I was. The gen­eral mood was so pos­i­tive that I didn’t even let the frac­tious en­counter with an irate lo­cal or the fact that I lost my dig­i­tal voice recorder (to an in­quis­i­tive sheep) spoil our af­ter­noon.

No, it was an hour or two later, when that sil­ver Peu­geot 309 ‘re­versed’ silently out of the pub car park into the road in front of the or­ange BMW that I started to think some­body might have it in for us on this shoot. Fol­low­ing in the (also or­ange) Alfa, I was sud­denly plunged into a world of brake lights and scream­ing rub­ber as the BMW nose-dived and its Miche­lin XWXS locked up (in a nice straight line).

I fol­lowed suit, reg­is­ter­ing sur­prise and relief when, in plumes of burnt rub­ber, the Mon­treal’s snout came safely to a halt a mere six inches short of the BMW’S bumper; soggy pedal or not, there’s noth­ing wrong with those Alfa Romeo brakes. The only dam­age was a scuffed bumper on the Peu­geot, hav­ing slipped its moor­ings due to a faulty hand­brake.

Just be­fore all this drama un­folded, I was be­gin­ning to think I rather liked the swag­ger­ing Mon­treal. Com­pared to the el­e­gant, ca­pa­ble BMW it was as much a flawed odd­ity as ever, of course: poorly pack­aged, need­lessly flashy but also easy to drive, flex­i­ble, fast enough and sur­pris­ingly re­fined.

I was even start­ing to for­get about its heavy steer­ing and for­give its woe­ful ven­ti­la­tion (and vis­i­bil­ity), and just en­joy the so­phis­ti­cated war­ble of its quad-cam V8, the chunky machismo of its

ZF gear­box and the over­whelm­ing sense that I was driv­ing some­thing re­ally spe­cial and truly ex­otic with a sense of joy about it.

The Mon­treal was built from 1971-’77 to the tune of just 3925 cars. The shape, de­signed by Gan­dini out of Ber­tone, has its ori­gins in a pair of pro­to­types built in just nine months for Expo 67 in Mon­treal. This was not just an­other au­to­mo­bile sa­lon but the World’s Fair, hence Alfa’s un­der­stand­able flat­tery at be­ing the only man­u­fac­turer asked to con­trib­ute a dream car un­der the head­ing ‘Ul­ti­mate as­pi­ra­tions in the au­to­mo­bile field’. It emerged as a pro­duc­tion ve­hi­cle, sur­pris­ingly vis­ually un­changed, at Geneva in 1970. It was still swoopy and ag­gres­sive (with six gi­ant vent grilles on both its rear quar­ters sug­gest­ing a mid-en­gined con­fig­u­ra­tion) and over its (fixed) quad head­lamps sport­ing those slat­ted ‘eye­lids’, which were vac­uum-op­er­ated and flipped down rather than up.

The four-cylin­der don­key engine of the pearl­white show cars had been re­placed by a short stroke, 2.6-litre quad-cam V8, front-mounted and suit­ably civil­ianised (cross- rather than flat­plane crank and so on), but still recog­nis­ably the Tipo 33 sports-rac­ing car unit, class-win­ning star of the Targa Flo­rio, Day­tona and Le Mans.

Me­chan­i­cally fuel in­jected by Spica, with Bosch pro­vid­ing the big sparks from a fancy new ca­pac­i­tor-dis­charge tran­sis­torised ig­ni­tion sys­tem, this all-al­loy, dry-sump, wet-linered 200bhp V8 was a for­mi­da­ble piece of tech­nol­ogy – just what you would ex­pect to find un­der the bon­net of a car that looked like a baby Miura.

Not so the chas­sis ar­chi­tec­ture, which, with the ex­cep­tion of big ven­ti­lated discs all round, was the same well-honed and suc­cess­ful recipe found un­der Alfa’s 105-se­ries fam­ily of sa­loons and man-about-town GTV coupés.

At­tempts by Alfa’s brochure copy­writ­ers to make a virtue out of the fact that this near140mph, £5000 lux­ury grand-tour­ing car was run­ning a live axle (al­beit light, well-lo­cated and with an LSD) be­cause it meant that the road­hold­ing was more ‘pre­dictable’, sounded about as con­vinc­ing as its claims that they had put the body into pro­duc­tion sim­ply be­cause the pro­to­type had been so over­whelm­ingly well re­ceived by vis­i­tors to Expo 67.

As ever, the truth lies some­where in be­tween, prob­a­bly in the fact that Alfa Romeo needed a re­place­ment for the late, and not very lamented, 2600 Sprint as a flag­ship model. The com­pany was also, per­haps, look­ing en­vi­ously at the pro­mo­tional value of the Di­nos for Fiat. The Dino Coupé was cer­tainly a nat­u­ral ri­val for the Alfa Romeo Mon­treal – in­deed, the two would be built on the same pro­duc­tion lines at the Ber­tone fac­tory for a while.

Mon­treal pro­duc­tion be­gan in May 1971 and al­most 700 were sold that year; 1972 was by far its best year with 2350 sold, but it took Alfa un­til 1977 to dis­pose of the re­main­ing 900 ex­am­ples.

Mean­while, on the other side of the Alps, BMW was hav­ing a much hap­pier time with its six-cylin­der E9 coupés.

In 1968 2800 CS form it had al­ready re­ceived rave re­views in Amer­ica. With more power and bet­ter brakes as the 1971 3.0 CS, it was well on the way to be­ing the most suc­cess­ful car in the lux­ury-coupé class, de­spite no­to­ri­ously high prices and a nag­ging con­cern that its Kar­mannbuilt, pil­lar­less body was nei­ther as mod­ern nor as rigid as the E3 six-cylin­der sa­loons with which it shared its driv­e­train. Aft of the front wind­screen pil­lars, the E9 shell started life as the 1965-’69 2000 C/CS, but it had been sub­jected to such a suc­cess­ful front-end restyle in 1968 that buy­ers didn’t know (or per­haps they didn’t care) about its ori­gins.

The ba­sic shape can trace its roots back to the Ber­tone-de­signed-and-built 3200 CS, with its al­most iden­ti­cal gold­fish-bowl glasshouse. Thus, the link with Ber­tone was well es­tab­lished: I even have a the­ory that Gan­dini, work­ing for Ber­tone, gave the six-cylin­der E9 body that hand­some, pointed nose. It is cer­tainly, in my view, too pretty to be Ger­man.

‘The Mon­treal’s pur­pose was lost in trans­la­tion – BMW, in con­trast, knew pre­cisely what it was do­ing with the 3.0 CSI’

With car­bu­ret­tors, the man­ual 3.0 CS would pull over 130mph. With Bosch D-jetronic in­jec­tion, the 3.0 CSI coupés, with the manda­tory four-speed man­ual gear­box, would nudge 140mph. Thus on 200bhp (or, if you like, more than 1bhp per cu­bic inch), the big BMW coupés were in the 7.2-litre Jensen class, but with the po­ten­tial, when driven moder­ately, to re­turn 20mpg rather than 12.

Col­lec­tors tend to fo­cus on the CSL th­ese days, but th­ese ho­molo­ga­tion spe­cials, with their del­i­cate alu­minium pan­els and snug bucket seats, were a tough sell at the time and, in right-hand­drive form, hardly any lighter, or faster, than the CSI. What’s more, the CSI, with just 215 righthook­ers sold in the UK, was al­ways a much rarer car on th­ese shores than the right-hand-drive lightweights, which num­bered 500.

In a way, I was sur­prised to hear that Alfa Romeo shifted as many as 180 right-hooker Mon­tre­als, and that the firm even went to the trou­ble of cre­at­ing a dif­fer­ent ex­haust man­i­fold to ac­com­mo­date the RHD steer­ing box. Un­der the bon­net you can just see the four cam boxes al­most hid­den un­der the air-cleaner lid; re­move it and you would find the long cross­over in­let tracts and the Spica in­jec­tion pump nuz­zling in the mid­dle of the 90º vee.

The Alfa is a cosy car in­side with mas­sive, loom­ing in­stru­ment pods that (in con­trast to the BMW’S ob­ses­sion with warn­ing lights) con­tain gauges for ev­ery­thing. The driv­ing po­si­tion is re­clined, straight-armed but not ex­ces­sively

short-legged. Power win­dows were op­tional (but I have never seen a Mon­treal with­out them) and all this one lacks is air-con­di­tion­ing. The heavy steer­ing at low speeds and the ab­sence of a de­cent boot or mean­ing­ful rear seats make this an im­me­di­ately less handy car than the BMW. Yet it has a smooth, re­fined driv­e­train with lots of torque spread right across the rev range and the even, quiet tick­over of a li­mou­sine that is at odds with the silky ag­gres­sion it vo­calises when asked to ac­cel­er­ate hard – some­thing ap­proach­ing a cliché of what an ex­otic Ital­ian four-cam engine should be like. It sounds faster than it is, but in real terms, on the road, the Mon­treal is a match for the BMW in a straight line, par­tic­u­larly at higher revs where the spac­ing of its five gears, with a di­rect top rather than over­drive, are nec­es­sar­ily less of a com­pro­mise than the BMW’S four.

Not that there’s much wrong with the smooth, ac­cu­rate Ge­trag gear­box in the 3.0 CSI. The low first squats the Bavar­ian coupé on its semi­trail­ing arms and squirts it up the road with all the sweet lusti­ness you re­mem­ber, the noises up front the silky essence of what you ex­pect from a 1970s BMW. That hand­some, sin­gleover­head camshaft straight-six, canted over at 30º, has a slightly hunt­ing idle but makes a glo­ri­ously whole­some whine when ex­tended. Revved to 6500rpm it would show over the ton in third, but it is equally happy to pot­ter along the high street in that gear.

The fab­u­lous all-round vi­sion and the bril­liant driv­ing po­si­tion make you well dis­posed to this car even be­fore you’ve turned the key. It doesn’t have the groovy in­stru­men­ta­tion of the Mon­treal – if any­thing, the Csi’s di­als are on the small side – but some­how the el­e­gant, dull-fin­ish wood and the over­all sturdy feel give you a sense of con­fi­dence and so­lid­ity.

In a way, how­ever, this was partly an il­lu­sion, be­cause th­ese Karmann-built coupés, with their in­ter­nal rust traps and poor un­der­seal­ing, proved to be the fastest-cor­rod­ing ve­hi­cles this side of

an Al­fa­sud. On this point at least, the Mon­treal is al­most cer­tainly the more durable of the pair, even if it doesn’t look it.

Nei­ther of our con­tenders pre­tended to be ab­so­lutely the fastest way around a cor­ner in the early ’70s, but the Alfa was at a dis­ad­van­tage, partly be­cause it looked like a ‘su­per­car’, but mostly due to higher ex­pec­ta­tions. This, after all, was the flag­ship of­fer­ing from a marque that prided it­self on mak­ing per­haps the besthandling pro­duc­tion cars in the world.

Ap­proached with the right frame of mind the Mon­treal is a sta­ble, pre­dictable and for­giv­ing car to drive, that to some ex­tent tran­scends the lim­i­ta­tions of its live rear axle and nose-heavy weight distri­bu­tion.

With good power steer­ing, Alfa could have given it higher gear­ing, but once un­der way it’s a rea­son­able com­pro­mise be­tween feel, feed­back and ef­fort. Un­der­steer­ing gen­tly, it set­tles hap­pily into re­ally long, fast curves but is much less at home in slower, tighter ones, where the price of a sur­pris­ingly good ride on soft springs is more body roll than feels com­fort­able. The Mon­treal is fun to drive, but lacks the ef­fort­lessly sym­bi­otic flow that makes a 1750 or 2000GTV such a joy on a twisty road. Lat­ter-day own­ers have proved that this is easily cured with thicker anti-roll bars, but it seems odd that Alfa did not ad­dress it in pe­riod. It’s an omis­sion that tends to sug­gest its cre­ators lost in­ter­est in it al­most im­me­di­ately, or never re­ally knew what the Mon­treal was sup­posed to be in the first place, its pur­pose lost in trans­la­tion in the four-year hia­tus be­tween con­cep­tion and pro­duc­tion.

BMW, in con­trast, knew pre­cisely what it was do­ing with the 3.0 CSI. This was a car that suc­ceeded – and, in­deed, still suc­ceeds – be­cause it man­aged the tricky task of bring­ing the driver ap­peal as­so­ci­ated with smaller mod­els (such as the 2002) into the most ex­pen­sive car in the Mu­nich man­u­fac­turer’s line-up.

Drive it hard through sharp cor­ners or long curves, take it for a lengthy, quiet cruise down a mo­tor­way, or just see how easy it is to park at the shops. The sur­round­ings are posher, the ride is smoother and qui­eter, but the agile flavour is there, sure enough, with power steer­ing that’s as sen­si­tive a com­pro­mise be­tween ef­fort and ac­cu­racy as could be hoped for in the early ’70s, en­sur­ing that the car’s in­her­ently sure-footed poise on sup­ple but roll-re­sis­tant spring­ing can be fully ex­ploited.

It shouldn’t mat­ter all that much, 45 years or more down the road, that the BMW has fairly us­able rear seats and a de­cent boot but, in truth, it sort of does. They are in­trin­sic to the el­e­gant con­cept of a car that, for me, is still the most beau­ti­ful and de­sir­able BMW of all.

As for the Mon­treal? I loved it. Yes, there are bet­ter Al­fas out there, finer spec­i­mens of early ’70s ju­nior ex­ot­ica. But as an ex­am­ple of ir­ra­tional Ital­ian au­to­mo­tive de­sign it is a gem that is suf­fi­ciently dif­fer­ent in char­ac­ter from the BMW CSI that I, like the lucky owner Lewis, could very hap­pily own both.

The Ber­tone-penned Mon­treal has Miura-es­que lines, largely true to those of the two pro­to­types ex­hib­ited at Expo 67 in, you guessed it, Mon­treal

Clock­wise from top: a wealth of gauges in the cosy cabin; live rear axle doesn’t help han­dling; the front-mounted V8 has bona fide rac­ing her­itage

BMW sold more than dou­ble the num­ber of 3.0 Csis as Alfa Romeo did Mon­tre­als – and the Ger­man gi­ant did so in two fewer years

Clock­wise from top: great all-round vis­i­bil­ity and su­per driv­ing po­si­tion; big boot aids prac­ti­cal­ity; Bosch D-jetronic in­jected ‘six’ leans over at 30º

Just 215 right-hand-drive ex­am­ples of this Kar­mannbuilt two-door were sold in Bri­tain; it gives a pol­ished ride de­spite this ex­am­ple be­ing slightly low­ered

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