Fire up the Alfa!

Fire up the Alfa!

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For years Ive been wanting to do up an old car, wheeler dealers style. It probably goes back to an old harp lager (I think) ad on tv when I was a kid where a group of guys restore an old jag. Ive thought about an old jag, old rolls, old landrover even. Every event I photograph which includes generally older guys with beautifully restored cars makes me think about doing it again.
I have all the tools required, collected over the years although a lot remaining from my first cheap socket set when I was 18 and had my first car and was required to continually work on it given a student budget!
Ive replaced engines and suspension, done bodywork (badly, ok and ok in the rain) and Ive even been seen getting a bus to the North Antrim Coast with a car radiator and 10mm socket on a monday morning to try and put it in the car I abandoned by the side of the road on the Saturday afternoon!
I have two problems with this approach. Firstly I already have 2 cars, a campervan and a boat, all of which need a bit of work and I also have to rebuild the studio and am thinking about getting a loft conversion done to give me a bigger home office. Secondly I don’t have the time with all of the above and the normal amount of travel I do coupled with my workload at home.
Talking with friends after I came back from Antarctica, they suggested that I already have an old car that I can do up, my old Alfa 156.
It was in a bit of a sorry state having not been driven for almost 6 months with the travel and with the MOT falling due when I was in South America.

old alfa romeo 156

Back in early 2000 I was still recovering from my accident, had just returned to work after a year off and as I was now walking again, the doctors had just passed me fit to drive. My car at the time was an old Rover 214 which I generally did love but sitting outside for a year had not been kind to it and given that I couldn’t bend down properly, couldn’t change a tyre and all of the stuff required to get it back on the road and keep it on the road I started to think about getting a newer car. Id never before bought a new car so the same mate who suggested I redo up my Alfa had came up to my desk in 2000 and threw down the brochure for the Alfa 156. We had both walked past one in Prague a couple of years before, before they were even available in the UK/Ireland and I thought it was the most beautiful car Id ever seen, maybe with a little touch of sideskirts and rear spoiler, oh and decent alloys.
At the time anyone with a bit of wit was importing cars into the UK and with the land border with the rest of Ireland it made sense to see how much it would be to get one down in Cork and drive it up… just to see of course.
‘If you get one, I’ll get one and we’ll drive down to Monaco and drive the street circuit in them at night’, my mate said… yeah thanks for that.
I went for a test drive in one…
So I rang the dealers agent here in NI and enquired about how much it would cost…. …and then asked for his bank details for the bank transfer.
Id never ordered a new car before and having to get through the list of options could have been daunting…
…except this was an Alfa and every petrol head on the planet knows what they are. Just check out the numerous Top Gear references. Go here and skip it all to 6:44

Engine? 1.8 because if I get the 2.5 V6 I’ll be dead before I make the first repayment.
Level? Sport Pack 1.
Anything else? yes sunroof and low rear spoiler, not the pram handle one.
Do I need to ask which colour? Does it come in any other colour than Red?

6 weeks later I just happened to be in Cork on Easter weekend. I went round to the dealer on Easter Monday just for a nosey and told them who I was and what I had ordered. Apparently they had just had a consignment in and round the back was one ‘like mine’ if I wanted to go and have a look. It was straight off the boat with bits missing for transport, all the protective polystyrene and plastic still on it, things written in grease pen on the windscreen but it was still lovely.
I went home later that day whilst sticking on a cup of tea, I checked my messages. ‘Joe, just wanted to call to say your car is in in Cork, it needs some prep work and first service but it will be up to you in a couple of weeks.’
So I had been sitting in _my_ car after all.
Three weeks later a knock at the door and there was the salesman with my car sitting in my drive.
Fast forward 14 years later and its still there on the same drive but the tarmac has been replaced twice!
Last year I had the timing belts replaced as it was approaching 70k miles. A couple of years before (about 3000 miles ago) Id had to replace the clutch. A friend asked me to show my Alfa to his wife as they were thinking of getting a summer runaround car and he fancied and Alfa and needed to persuade the wife a little. She loved it..
..then over coffee she asked if it normally lost that much oil… A few drips maybe, a few litres, no… The Gearbox seal had gone leaking oil into the clutch housing, ruining the clutch and release bearing. They had an Alfa in their drive for 2 weeks until I got the new clutch and towed it to someone who would fit it.
Id failed the previous years MOT for the standard passenger side upper wishbone so had bought over 400 quids worth of rest of suspension and all round brake discs and pads, just hadn’t had the time to fit them yet.

Having wrapped up editing my Antarctic photos and waiting on the band schedule for the Canadian tour in September/October I found myself with a bit of time on my hands in July in Northern Ireland. As anyone familiar with this place knows, there’s not a lot of work about for corporate commercial photographers as its the usual 2 weeks holiday time and I normally go on a trip to keep working (last year was London, the year before Canada). With rare good weather scheduled I thought Id give the Alfa a go. I could work at it during the day and do the photo work at night, get the head down and get it done.
First I had to get it through MOT before Id even consider putting a lot of time and effort into it, so one rainy Thursday night with kettle on and fresh MOT in hand I sat about drawing up a list of everything that was wrong with the Alfa since I bought it and I was planning to put it all right and then bring the rest of the car back to showroom condition.
It was a long list.
A very long list.
I started small, I replaced the batteries in both key rings, and replaced the button rubbers. I polished the key up and ordered a new key ring for it. Small steps and all that.
With both keys now working properly I noticed the alarm wasn’t working properly so lost some blood sweat and tears removing the alarm module from the front wing. I needed to remove the front wing liner which needed a lot more grunting and swearing than the ‘undo the 6 bolts and remove’ that the internet said it would need. They neglected to mention the bending of the wing bit, the swearing and the bending of the wing back leaving not so noticeable crease marks… ah well.
The alarm was knackered, the internal battery had corroded and leaked all over the circuit board. A replacement one was ordered from ebay and installed only to find out I couldn’t reset it myself and needed the dealer to give me the master control code for my car. I went to get the code and the new franchise was able to tell me all the things Id had fixed on my Alfa, a small subset of them I knew about. One of the major complaints about Alfas was the dealers and Im not calling the previous franchise crooks but I had threatened to sue them on one occasion, had Alfa UK reimburse me for all my costs and they even gave me 1500 quid off a new Alfa (which I neglected to take up). One day I took the car in for a major service only to be told I would probably need 2 new front tyres and my brake pads were 90% worn. I asked the service manager to check again for me and he came back with the same figures. I showed him the less than hour old receipt for 2 new front tyres and all round brake pads. He mumbled something about 3rd party brake pad linings not being as thick as genuine ones…
I have every receipt for this car even down to the copper sump washers ordered 7 years ago. I have no record of some of these repairs so either they were done ‘under warranty’ for problems/recalls I didn’t know about and the dealer just forgot to give me the details or… well… lets just say ‘creative accounting’.
I love the Alfa brand but you can understand now why Id never buy a new one, although the previous franchisee had the franchise removed and the new franchise has been more than helpful so far.
One of the minor niggles was the inside heater fan controller. It would only work on max speed which was a simple enough fix, just change the controller. I had replaced it last year when I found the one in situ had been smashed. I couldn’t understand how it had been broken, it was well hidden down inside the interior of the car. Its not as if it could just break by itself and its not like someone replacing something above it could drop a spanner or something down the gap, break the resistor and not tell me…
…and people wonder why I like to do the work on my cars myself.
After hours of searching I managed to discover that because Id specified a sunroof and no aircon my car was limited to a very small number only available from 99 to mid to late 2000. This part only being assigned to this model. Being 14 years old there was no chance of a new replacement and because they were so brittle there are so few around 2nd hand by this stage. So I did an internet trawl on the forums and one kind soul managed to produce the circuit diagram from the original. Out with the components box and the soldering iron and now I have 3 of the 4 speeds. I did have all 4 on a bench test but somewhere between the bench and the tightening of the last screw I lost one. Still 3 is better than 1.
Since pretty much day 1 there has been a rattle under deceleration from the front of the car. Its the exhaust heatshield. The washer breaks through the thin aluminium headshield leaving one side of it loose and so vibrates under certain conditions. Its what we used to call in my engineering days ‘a feature’. Something that wasn’t quite up to spec but wouldn’t really kill you.
Some tinsnips and par of an old disposable bbq folded over and drilled to fit the gap sorted that out. It had only taken 13 years and 10 mins to fix.
Once the internal fan had been fixed I fixed the passenger footwell trim panel. It had been hanging down now for 14 years 2 months and another 5 mins…
As with all Alfas the front badge is slightly vampiric in that it fades away to nothing in the sun. I sourced a new one from a main dealer on ebay and spent an hour on that 10 minute job but it does look the business. I had thought about doing all the front end chrome plastic trim in satin black but bottled out at the last minute.
The rear badge wasn’t as bad but had started peeling so I ordered a new one off ebay. I had that transaction cancelled after a week as they had no stock. I ordered it again from a different ebay vendor and they cancelled after 2 days as they will never have stock ever again. The joys of working on an older car that used parts for a short production one. The swiveling boot lock badge, like the door handles in the windows, was one of those neat wee design touches that made me love this car. Of course that neat wee design touch costs so it was dropped after a few years and as all the badges go, new is the only way to replace…
…but they aren’t being made any more. So Ive got a ‘kit’ of laminates to stick in the places of the original lacquers to see if that brings it back to ‘close to showroom’ which I think is now what I’m aiming for.
To finish the front off Id decided to take the headlights apart and spray internal silver front ends satin black. This headlight was on the 156 GTA and it was an easy enough modification to do and the only thing Id do to take it away from standard. Id never really liked too much silver at the front and the black does add that edgyness. It also cuts down on the secondary reflections from the headlights which throw the light in all sorts of directions when trying to park at night.
Taking the headlights off also involved removing the bumper which for some unknown reason wasn’t the same to do on both sides, so whilst one side had 5 bolts and a pop rivet the other side had 6 bolts. Of course nobody else’s car seemed to have this on the net so I sat and swore for a while at the one remaining last pop rivet and then bent the wing with a pry bar trying to get it out. That would be another hours work with the pry bar and a hammer trying to bend the wing back into the shape it had been before I tried to ‘fix’ it. During this whole procedure I also found out that the front wing supports also rust a lot. They rust in a strange way that turns them very sharp at just the point where your arms need to go in to undo the last wing bolts. That wet feeling you get dripping down your arm when you know its not raining. After cleaning out the cut in my arm, I proceed to repeat the procedure with my other arm on the other side. So yes both sides rust equally as well and in roughly the same 1-2 inch position as the scar on the other arm!
Showroom finish is definitely now on the wish list rather than must have.
Some kind souls had keyed the car when it had been parked on the street once and mysteriously Id also had a wing mirror broken the same day that the bins get emptied. Probably just coincidence that last one.
Id picked a replacement wing mirror up from a scrap yard and it was another 10 minute fix that involved a cup of tea, some swearing and the loss of an hour for some reason.
I needed four new tyres so took all the wheels off and went into detail with the alloys, cleaning them with a toothbrush, polishing them up, coating them with a couple of coats of protectant and then 2 coats of wax. The results were amazing and with the new tyres and tyre slick they almost looked like new. Yes Id discovered that showroom from 50 metres was the look I was going for.
With the wheels off I cleaned out all the wheel arches, sanded down and treated any rust and then painted the brake calipers red in high temperature paint.
The wheels looked so well I did the same with the entire car. I used a universal cleaner to clean the whole car and did indeed use a toothbrush on occasion. Polished the whole car and two layers of protectant and finally two coats of very expensive carnuba wax over that. I did get a paint match and then go in and fill every single stone chip, scrape and whole on the car, but didn’t leave it long enough to harden and the polish took it all off again. Maybe next time…
I did manage to bring the pink rear spoiler back to a sort of reddish colour so again maybe next time. Falling short of a full respray or machine detail it doesn’t look bad at all.
With all the paintwork looking shiny and new, some of the plastic looked a bit tired and the normal plastic dressings weren’t working. I got some long lasting miracle cure stuff which was something like 20 quid for a 15ml bottle so it better be good!
During the MOT the windscreen washers had worked just enough to get me through but they needed an overhaul but it was just down to a broken valve in the Y piece. So all that sealed up and coated with the new restorer and to be fair it came back better than I remembered.
The old number plates were an MOT pass but now compared to the rest of the car they looked shabby so I got some nice new pressed aluminium ones that really set the car off.
Turning to the inside I wet vac’d the entire car and cleaned every single space out. I got new custom car mats and dressed the entire interior in a custom satin finish show shine. Apart from the slightly worn leather gearknob and one worn patch on the steering wheel, I never remember the car looking this good.
The engine compartment got the same treatment, cleaned up, any rust treated and protected and all the plastic and rubber parts shined up with a coat of wax for all the metal.
I replaced the coolant and did a oil and filter change as well as a lot of swearing at the unbroken air filter box, the partially broken air filter box and the now bouncing down the driveway air filter box. A couple of hours later it was glued back into one bit and with some old curtain rail clips was not looking its best but performing good as new with a new air filter in it as well.
One of the side skirts had been hanging off since the clutch change when the garage decided to jack it up on the skirts rather than the jacking points. Id sourced some tiger seal and propped the skirt up on breeze blocks and old bits of carpet to hold it in place for the 24 hour curing time. Next day I removed it all to see that Id missed a bit and spent the next 48 hours removing it and redoing it again properly!
I thought Id maybe leave the suspension and brakes for another wee while.
I thought Id leave doing the rust underneath the car and sealing the whole underside for another wee while.
Finally put a bit of chrome bling on the exhaust and fit some red led mood lights to the interior which will be a work in progress for optimum placement.

That’s about it for the minute, its not perfect, I couldn’t get any of the dents out as the dent removal kit I bought off ebay, didnt, and falling short of some major investment in time and money its as good as its gonna get for a while. Its certainly in a better condition now than it was when it was my daily driver 10 years ago.

All that was left was to fire up the Alfa and take it for a run up the coast to Ballintoy Harbour (one of the Game of Thrones venues), and as these stories are nothing without pictures…

Alfa Romeo 156
Alfa Romeo 156

rear of Alfa Romeo 156
rear of Alfa Romeo 156

alloy wheels and new tyres on an Alfa Romeo 156
alloy wheels and new tyres on an Alfa Romeo 156

engine cover on an Alfa Romeo twin spark engine in a 156
engine cover on an Alfa Romeo twin spark engine in a 156

rear spoiler and high level brake light on rear of Alfa Romeo 156
rear spoiler and high level brake light on rear of Alfa Romeo 156

alloy wheels and new tyres on an Alfa Romeo 156
alloy wheels and new tyres on an Alfa Romeo 156

Alfa Romeo dark seats with embroidered writing in a 156
Alfa Romeo dark seats with embroidered writing in a 156

steering wheel and interior of an Alfa Romeo 156
steering wheel and interior of an Alfa Romeo 156

tailored car mats in the interior of an Alfa Romeo 156
tailored car mats in the interior of an Alfa Romeo 156

key in the ignition of an Alfa Romeo 156
key in the ignition of an Alfa Romeo 156

badge and grille of Alfa Romeo 156
badge and grille of Alfa Romeo 156

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