December 30, 2008

Shade Tree Lancias.

(Lancia Appia Second Series)

For your viewing pleasure: A couple of Lancia photos from Shade Tree Enginetrics in Nevada, Texas. This is the largest Italian junkyard in North America that I know of. Anyone have any other yards to suggest?

Unfortunately, much of the area is overgrown, thus making the cars difficult to get to. There are three separate yards and a covered area - together I think there are about 300 Italian cars on site.

(same Appia)

(Beta HPE/High Performance Estate)

(Beta Coupe/another HPE)

December 15, 2008

Road test: 1988 Alfa Romeo Milano Verde.

The Alfa Romeo 75 came out in 1985 as a 1986 model and was designed in-house by Alfa Romeo. It was called 75 to mark Alfa Romeo’s 75th anniversary and was available with a whole host of engines, gas and diesel, including Alfa’s venerable twin-cam. They were appreciated by the police and Carabinieri in Italy. It was imported to the U.S. from 1987 to 1989 where it was sold under the Milano moniker and was available exclusively with a V6. A vast majority of U.S. bound cars were equipped with the 2.5 found in the GTV6 and the Alfa6 but in the Milano Verde, this motor was bored out to 3.0, delivering around 183 horsepower. Alfa’s logs are notoriously unreliable and production figures are iffy but it’s estimated that no more than 900 Verdes came to the U.S. This is one of these cars.

Take a gander at it and right off the bat it’s unmistakably a product of the 1980s. Some say it’s reminiscent of a Jetta: the car is very angular, especially the trunk line which sweeps upwards. This is the kind of car that leaves onlookers with a strong impression either way. It was only available in sedan form though a wagon prototype that never saw mass production was built. On the outside, the Verde stands out from its 2.5 siblings with specific wheels, fender flares and a subtle spoiler on the trunk.

The driving position resembles something found in a yoga manual- the pedals are offset to the right. The clutch is where the brake normally is and so on. On that note, the whole interior is an exercise in Italian ergonomics: the handbrake is U-shaped, the window switches are up above the rearview mirror, there is a tray where the glovebox should be and the actual glovebox is a drawer below the tray, etc. It’s quite odd once you first sit in it but you eventually get used to it and after you spend enough time behind the wheel, some of it may even start to make sense. Some interior differences between the Verde and other models include orange gauges, a 160mph speedometer and comfortable Recaro seats. Instrumentation includes a tach, a temperature gauge, an oil pressure gauge and a fuel gauge.

It’s easy to live with everyday: it has ample trunk space and you can fit five adults in the car if you’re willing to sacrifice comfort. It’s unpractical to drive in the snow and tire chains are handy, as are 2nd gear starts. But, this isn't a boring family sedan. Fire it up and the exhaust note is your first hint of what’s under the hood. It’s very respectable performance-wise and road tests of the era suggest the car will do 0-60 in 7.7 seconds with a top speed of 136mph. That’s on par with a 1987 Porsche 944 S (normally aspirated model.) Granted, a Milano will never catch up to a 944 Turbo, but that’s a different story. The Porsche comparison doesn’t stop there- both cars have a transaxle.

This is my first Milano but I had a 1987 Gold (2.5 model) two years ago that I ended up parting out. When I bought the 1987, the owner told me “when you’re about to take a corner, don’t brake, give it some gas.” That’s an exaggeration but the car does handle very well courtesy of a rear-mounted transaxle that provides for near even weight distribution. The rear brakes are mounted inboard (bolted to the transaxle) to reduce unsprung weight. That gives it an edge over competition from the era (BMW E30 and the like) and it’s pure bliss to drive. It’s fun to toss around and the driver is always in control, though it’s forgiving if not. This transaxle setup has some drawbacks: the shift rods are unutterably long and the shifts aren’t as precise as they could be. Since these are now 20+ years old, new bushings in the shifter often do wonders. And, since the engine is in the front but the transmission is in the rear, the driveshaft spins at the same rpm as the engine. It’s kept stable with three driveshaft donuts (guibos in Alfa jargon) but the slightest disruption will offset the balance of it and vibrations will follow.

The steering is hydraulically assisted but it’s not overly assisted. Brakes are powerful enough to stop the car- that is, if your ABS works. The ABS is directly tied to the braking system so if the ABS doesn’t work, you get more than a warning light on the dash: half of your braking power is lost, rendering the car undriveable-- guess how I know? Since mostly Verdes came with ABS (some 2.5 Platinums did too), a way to fix a bad ABS that is to convert it to non-ABS using parts from a 2.5 Milano.

Earlier, I wrote that it’s easy to live with every day which will contradict this: I would recommend against using one as a daily driver. Why? Well, for one, fuel economy may be fine now but it won’t be when gas prices go back up-- I used to average around 16 miles per gallon in the city. Another setback with V6 Milanos of all types is that they are prima donnas when it comes to maintenance. The timing belt/tensioner/water pump unit needs to be done every 30,000 miles and it’s not a particularly enjoyable task. Servicing the inboard rear brakes isn’t enjoyable either.

Overall, the Milano Verde is a fun car and with such low production figures, I predict it will appreciate in value once it gets out of the typical worth-nothing rut that all cars go through in their lifetime. This may be a bit of a longshot but compare it to the Giulia T.I. of the 1960s- same principle, a sporty version of Alfa’s sedan built in small numbers, look at how much a T.I. is now worth. My advice would be to buy a Milano Verde and keep it as a weekend driver.

When buying one, avoid abused examples as they will most likely be money pits. Be very careful with the timing belt/tensioner unit. If you don’t know when the whole lot was last changed, change it. It’s an interference engine and bent valves are common if the timing belt service isn’t done right or in a timely manner. Other common issues include bad 2nd gear syncro, driveshaft vibration, rust, torn Recaro fabric and electrical gremlins. Milano parts are generally readily available but some Verde-specific parts can be dicey to find, especially ABS parts.

Note: I’ve owned this car for over four years and drove it daily for about two. It has 156,000 on the clock but according to the service records I have for it, the odometer has been replaced twice and I place the actual miles in the 170,000 range.

Practical European style?

Here's a relatively rare one... a Volkswagen 412 that I spotted in a Dallas-area junkyard. A fairly rare sight even when new, the 412 was an update of the 411, neither of which met much success in the United States. Sources suggest that about 110,000 Type 4s (411 and 412) were sold in the U.S. during a four-year model run, though I wasn't able to discern just what years were imported.

Unfortunately, I failed to get much more information out of this 412 since it reeked of a filthy, indescribable scent. Obviously the victim of a flood, it is nonetheless a quite straight, rust-free example of a very, very rare - and very practical - VW.

And if that wasn't enough, I also spotted this even rarer Opel Kadett three-door wagon. First, why can't anyone offer this bodystyle in a new car? The closest I can come up with is the Volvo C30, but it has about as much storage space as a shoebox. This three-door estate was also in remarkably solid condition despite last being registered in 1982. Sadly, these cars weren't sexy when new - and they're not much sexier today. Still, they're affordable and practical classics that should be kept on the road.

December 13, 2008

Great Automotive Failures*: AMC/Renaults

*Part 1 in a series.

American Motors Corporation didn’t have a whole lot going for it by the time the 1980s rolled around. Their Jeep division was more or less keeping the operation going and their somewhat less than stellar cars such as the Concord, Spirit, and Eagle were plagued by typical, gaudy, late 70s styling courtesy or designer Richard Teague, and aging drive train component designs – some of which dated to the 1960s. Fortunately for AMC, they were rather resourceful and had friends in a lot of places - most significantly with Renault of France. Renault had been selling AMC products abroad for decades such as the Torino in Argentina.

Renault had more or less “bailed-out” AMC from near imminent demise by taking controlling interest in1982. Renault utilized the AMC dealer network for their own cars and sold the Fuego and 5 (“LeCar”) along side the American products. Renault management started working closely with AMC and decided to sell the Renault 9 (and later 11) in the US market as the AMC/Renault Alliance and Encore, respectively. Interestingly AMC/Renault had chosen to produce the car in the States rather than simply have it imported from France. Manufacturing took place in AMC’s Kenosha, Wisconsin plant (which was inherited from Kaiser) and the interior was re-worked by their master of tackiness, Teague, to cater more to American tastes.

It seemed like a relatively good idea. The Renault 9 was voted European Car of the Year and became Renault’s best selling car. AMC was also in need of more economical cars in their model line up. The Renaults, with their 1.4 or 1.7 liter engines, were indeed economical, achieving over 50 miles per gallon depending on transmission, and they seemed to be a superior design to other American made compact cars of the time such as the Ford Escort. 

Unfortunately, shortly after the Alliance and Encore came to the American market, it became evident that the build quality of the Wisconsin produced French cars were rather lacking. Reliability issues popped up frequently and the reputation of the Renaults began to decline fast. Attempts by AMC/Renault to boost sales with the Alliance convertible and hot-rodded GTA (with 2.0 L 95hp engine) versions didn’t help much either. Especially considering the rising popularity of increasingly more reliable Japanese imports from Honda and Toyota. The writing was on the wall. 

The attempts to sell other Renault products such as the 21 (called the Medallion, and later Eagle Medallion in the US) also failed due to the poor image of the French carmakers products. The AMC/Renault partnership was going to Hell in the proverbial hand-basket and Renault also found themselves in a bit of a financial crisis by 1987 that was certainly not helped by their American counterpart. Renault dumped AMC to Chrysler, who was more than happy to get the Jeep division. The Alliance and Encore ceased their US production at that time and the Medallion would putter on for another two years as an Eagle until Chrysler killed it off too (along with the Eagle Premier, which was based upon the Renault 25 but never marketed as a Renault in the US.) The last vestige of the AMC/Renault partnership was the Jeep XJ Cherokee which had been designed with the help of Renault engineers in the early 1980s. May they all rest in peace (or pieces).

December 6, 2008

Going to Pieces

While home over break from Penn State, I snapped a few photos at the "progress" being made with our '74 Porsche 914 which some readers may recall was involved in a rather bad hit-and-run accident early this summer. 

My dad has been busy with the old angle-grider and cut some crumpled sections of the rear fender off. Also the trashed  trunk lid passenger side door is gone. We already have replacements for them which we picked up from the Stoddard Porsche swap-meed in Cleveland in June. 

So it's not a lot, but it's something. We're still in the process of a good body shell that can donate itself to the cause. The front and rear fenders are welded on, and some sections of the rear trunk floor will likely have to be cut out and welded back in. Stay tuned for future updates.