Classic Sports Car
DUETTO HIDES A SECRET IDENTITY
“So, it’s an Alfa Romeo?” My uncle looked suspiciously at the badge. “Yep,” I replied, failing to hide my pride. It was 1985, I was 21 and I owned a 1979 Alfasud 1.5 Super in Posillipo blue (I learned the colour very early on, along with the cost of body filler). Two engines, £1000 in parts and less than a year later I found myself back on the bus to work. There, my love affair with Alfas appeared to have ended.
Spool forward 35 years, after an XR2, a BMW, a Nissan 200SX, a Saab cabrio, a Mitsubishi Galant and several far more forgettable others, and I was at it again. A dear friend had passed away and left me an inheritance. She had died young so, full of feelings of ‘life’s too short’, I took the plunge.
The Alfa Romeo Spider had often caught my eye over the years but I’d managed to resist, until I saw a Series 1 project for sale at a good price. “Yes, it’s a 1967 car with a 1975 registration – it was imported to the UK later and that’s what the DVLA did back then,” the seller had told me.
All of the engine, chassis and registration numbers matched those on the V5C, so what could possibly go wrong?
“We need to talk.” When Ken Carrington, the Alfa Romeo Owners’ Club’s DVLA liaison officer, says that, you know you have a problem. That ‘talk’ was brief. “That is a Series 1 Spider, but that chassis number belongs to a Series 2,” he said. “Ahhh,” I replied.
I scraped off the paint from the area surrounding the chassis number, finding the expected evidence of previous welding. Under the dashboard there was further evidence of wrongdoing, with a rusty rectangular patch behind where the chassis number had been stamped.
Ken wanted to investigate further. Needless to say, I was delighted for him to take a look, so invited him and his colleague Stuart Taylor – the AROC registrar for the 105 series – to the bodyshop. Cutting into my car was the last thing I wanted to do but, even so, I asked one of the mechanics to help me. The chassis plate was detached revealing… nothing.
The metal on the bulkhead had been ground down and hammered in to allow space for the donor car’s chassis plate to be fitted. With no other way to retrieve the original number, we adjourned.
A short while later I went on a road trip to visit a mate in Glasgow. We drank beer and chatted. He’s an ex-copper, and he revealed that it was possible to retrieve ground-out serial numbers using acid etching, which was food for thought. Then on the internet I found an article about Fry’s Reagent. The metal under a die-struck number is ‘work hardened’ or stressed. The reagent reacts differently with the workhardened area, creating a visible outline. I contacted a chemical company, the reagent arrived a few days later and I purchased rubber gloves and enamelled bowls – just like the ones that drunken movie doctors drop removed bullets into, right after the patient has stopped screaming. I was ready.
As extra back-up to my O-level in Human Biology, I decided to extend my scientific knowledge by watching a Youtube video of a Mexican back-street Csi-style scientist carrying out the process, which he claimed to use often for retrieving the ground-out serial numbers of stolen weapons.
I tried swabbing the area with reagent in situ, using cotton wool, but it wasn’t working so I had the hammered-in plate removed and took it home. As per my Mexican mentor I built a caulk-walled vat on top of my sample to help retain the reagent in a sort of puddle.
I then poured the liquid on to the plate and watched as the reagent reacted with the metal and slowly changed from green to brown. Soaking up the spent liquid I saw… nothing. I was fast losing faith, but just two applications later I began to regain my belief as, almost theatrically, the distinctive ‘AR’ appeared. Then, all apart from the last digit slowly came into view.
The metal at that end of the number was badly hammered-in but, finally, it became just about visible. After much fiddling and angling I contorted the plate into a position where my camera could see it and I got an image.
After an unusual day, during which I had the surreal feeling of performing alchemy, I had acquired two things: the missing chassis number and a strange, permanent stain in my bathroom sink.
The following morning, I sent Ken the number and he contacted
‘After an unusual day of alchemy, I had acquired two things: the missing chassis number and a permanent stain in my bathroom sink’
the DVLA. I then awaited his call, not holding out a huge amount of hope for a positive outcome. Five long hours later, Ken revealed the news that there was nothing nasty recorded against the Spider, which was great to know.
We then got in touch with Alfa Romeo in Italy to acquire the details for my car’s chassis number and Ken approached the DVLA again, setting out our case.
Several weeks later, following a thorough investigation, I was declared the owner of the vehicle.
Imported in 1971 from Germany and given the north London registration number DLL 234J, my car was originally white. So, I decided to ditch plans of painting her red and to go for Biancospino (Hawthorn) instead.
Had I been more cautious and gone through the correct research before buying the car, I probably would never have done so. I would strongly recommend to anyone that they should contact their car club for help with provenance prior to purchase, yet despite the stress this has been a really interesting and weirdly enjoyable process.
From the DVLA records, I have mapped out the known movements and recorded mileages of the car, found several ‘smoking guns’ and figured out who carried out the historic changes. Although this was never about recrimination, but about righting a wrong, it was intriguing to follow the trail.
European road trips are now calling and I hope, one day, to pass this Italian lady on to a member of my family or another custodian, with her honour restored and her original identity firmly intact.