It Followed Me Home. Can I Keep It?

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San FranciscoIN April 2010, while reporting on the California Mille, a vintage-car rally, I spent a memorable day riding in three Alfa Romeos: a 1928 6C 1500 Sport Zagato, a 1959 Giulietta Sprint Veloce and an innocent-looking 1967 Giulia Super sedan.

The 6C 1500, driven by the event's founder, Martin Swig, was stunning, an absolute museum piece. But I was smitten by the Giulietta and Giulia, whose suspensions were exquisitely supple on rough pavement, yet unflappable in the curves, and whose engines, spinning repeatedly to the redline, sang in voices at once angelic and satanic.

The effect was intoxicating, the hook firmly set. That evening, I vowed that if the stars ever aligned, the next car in my garage would be an Alfa Romeo. There was just one stipulation: my budget was a strict $15,000.

I turned first to the Giulietta Sprint, a sleek Bertone-bodied coupe introduced at the 1954 Turin auto show. In two years of searching, I found several Sprints under $15,000, all needing enough restoration to obliterate my cash hoard three times over. I was dismayed but not surprised because the Sprint is one of the most coveted Alfas.

Just as my enthusiasm started to wane, a twinkle of hope arrived. In January, a friend lent me the "Illustrated Alfa Romeo Buyer's Guide," which included a chapter on several models Alfa Romeo never exported to the United States, among them the Giulia 1300 TI. Inexpensive, and taxed at a low rate because of their small engines, the author wrote, the 1300 Giulias "opened the possibility of Alfa ownership to many who could otherwise not have afforded it."

The passage resonated, as did the car's design. Its gracefully boxy shape conveyed utility and style, while subtle creases in the metal above the headlamps suggested raised eyebrows, as if to hint that its 1,290 cc engine, like that of the Giulietta Sprint, was a high-revving twin-cam.

My wife, Belinda, and I were planning to visit Rome in July, so on the off chance that a 1300 TI was hiding out there, I started poking through Italian Web sites. In June, I found an ad for a 1969 1300 TI in the Rome postal code and e-mailed the lister.

Hours later, I got a reply from Alberto Viglione, an intermediario, or middleman, who described the Giulia, which had recently undergone a complete overhaul, as "bellissima." Its owner, he said, was "meticuloso" and had a diverse collection of vintage cars. Should the Giulia still be available in July, a meeting could be arranged.

A month later, my wife and I met Mr. Viglione at the gate of an apartment complex north of Rome's historic center. After an exchange of pleasantries in a makeshift blend of English and Italian, Mr. Viglione said, sotto voce, that the owner was the president of Registro Italiano Alfa Romeo, Italy's official Alfa Romeo registry.

As my head started spinning, Mr. Viglione led us into a courtyard and introduced us to Stefano d'Amico. Well dressed and superbly tanned, Mr. d'Amico emerged from a garage that housed a gorgeous silver 1963 Alfa 2600 Touring Superleggera.

After listening to me explain the origins of my hunt for a 1300 TI, Mr. d'Amico pointed to a pale gray sedan parked nearby. He had bought it only recently, to drive in a rally organized by the registry to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Giulia's 1962 debut. The car had just two previous owners and had spent its entire life in Florence.

Still wearing its original paint, the body was flawless, without a rust bubble in sight. Under the hood, the patina suggested a car that had been well used and well maintained.

Mr. d'Amico suggested a drive. As he feathered the car through the neighborhood, I struggled to remain objective, noting that the transmission, and particularly Alfa's famously weak second-gear synchronizers, were in good working order.

"How much gas does it drink?" I asked.

"Very little," Mr. d'Amico said.

"It's perfect," he insisted, as he steered toward an on-ramp for Via Flaminia. "You only need to put gas, water and oil. Nothing else."

Merging onto the highway, Mr. d'Amico explained that it paralleled an ancient road of the same name built in the third century B.C., leading from Rome to Ariminum on the Adriatic coast.

He then turned his attention to Mr. Viglione. The two spoke excitedly, after which Mr. Viglione said, "And now Stefano is going to give you a present -- a very big present."

Mr. d'Amico took the next exit and pulled into the parking lot of an auto mall. Stepping out of the Giulia, he and Mr. Viglione motioned for us to follow. Beside the parking lot was a trench, spanned by a footbridge with an iron railing. Mr. d'Amico pointed into the trench, at the bottom of which lay a carefully excavated stretch of road fashioned from large cobbles.

"That," Mr. d'Amico said, "is the original Via Flaminia." Gesturing to a pattern of ruts worn in the stones, he explained that they had been gouged by chariot wheels. Peering at the ancient road, and through 2,000 years of history, it struck me that those wonderful Alfa Romeo suspensions may owe their suppleness to the fact that many Italian streets are still paved with hand-laid cobbles.

Returning to the car, Mr. d'Amico drove from the auto mall to a tree-lined avenue. We switched seats and I set off. Even loaded with four adults, the Giulia felt ineffably light, its steering effortless and precise. Mr. d'Amico directed me to upshift whenever the tachometer approached 3,000 r.p.m. Easing back onto Via Flaminia, I listened to the barely perceptible whir of the 4-cylinder engine, wondering what beastliness it might produce in the high 5,000s.

The whole test drive had a certain surreal quality, but there were no untoward surprises. As Mr. d'Amico promised, the Giulia was "perfetto," and afterward there was little to discuss. I'd think it over and give him an answer soon.

"Take your time," he said, "I'm going to Sicily for 20 days. I'm in no hurry."

Back at our holiday rental, I requested quotes from several shipping companies in the United States. While the bids trickled in, a colleague suggested checking Italian magazines for local transporters. Wandering later that week near the Ghetto, the city's Jewish quarter, I asked a news vendor what he had in the way of vintage car magazines.

"Only this," the vendor said, handing over his last copy of Automobilismo d'Epoca.

Leafing through it at a nearby cafe, I caught my breath as I came upon a photograph of 10 Giulia sedans in a sun-beaten piazza. The accompanying article described the Giulia's 50th anniversary rally -- and included a quote from Stefano d'Amico. At that point I understood that my fate, and that of a certain gray sedan, were inextricably connected. It was no longer a matter of whether the car would follow me back to the States, but how.

Haggling was minimal: I made an offer; Mr. Viglione suggested raising it; Mr. d'Amico accepted.

After returning home, I settled on the Ted L. Rausch Company of Burlingame, Calif., to ship the car. Of the companies I queried, Rausch's quote was the lowest and would get the Alfa to San Francisco on budget.

Price wasn't the sole factor in my choice. When I asked Helmut Boeck, the vice president, about the company's experience with vintage cars, he said that it handled them regularly, adding -- out of the blue -- that it had only recently shipped a car from Italy for Martin Swig. It seemed a fitting footnote, as Mr. Swig, who died in July, had in no small way instigated this whole expedition.

On Sept. 23, the Giulia sailed from the port of Civitavecchia aboard the M.S.C. Octavia. On Oct. 26, the ship's hulking silhouette emerged above a sparkling horizon due west of the Golden Gate. Days later, in a San Francisco warehouse, I looked on with disbelief as the doors of a weathered yellow shipping container swung open to reveal the little gray car within.

The Giulia was eased out of the container, its hood was lifted and a battery cable was reconnected. Its Solex carburetor mixed its first breath of California air with a bit of Italian gasoline, and with a few pulses of the starter the engine woke with a soft growl. Like much of the summer's adventure, it felt strangely like a dream. If, however, it proves to be one, I have no intention of waking up.

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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