Smokey - The car that tried to kill me
Recently I’ve been reminiscing about a car I very much regret selling, a 1963 Giulia Spider christened Smokey after my first drive home when it tried its level best to kill me.
When I initially saw the car I was almost scared off by the amount of work it was going to need. The doors did not fit properly, we could not get the hood to fold away, there was a sizeable hole in the rear wheel arch skin, the battery was in the wrong place, the wiring harness had been butchered, the paintwork was pretty shocking and it would be fair to say that there was the odd sign of rust. The Spider actually ran very well but had throughout its life been treated rather badly and had the kind of genuine tattiness that you can’t help but find endearing. The current owner, Jago, had sourced it as a pile of bits and did well to put it back together in a short time but there was still lots left to do. I was doomed from the moment I took it for a drive, it was absolutely miniscule, delicate, with incredibly tactile steering, a gearbox that was slick and precise and a revvy engine, which sounded delightfully rorty on its Weber carb with homemade intake. It was also achingly pretty in its battleship grey colour.
I’m over 6 foot and despite looking like Noddy in a toy car I had to have it. Jago offered me a really good price and this actually made me a little more cautious. You see a few years ago I’d sold him my old Aprilia RSV and he’d not had the best luck with that bike, so I strongly suspected this was all part of an elaborate plan to get me back. But he’d been disarmingly honest with no attempt to hide anything so I went with my gut and a deal was eventually struck.
I’d been scanning the forums and had seen some absolutely immaculate restorations, splendid things lovingly brought back to life by what seemed to be mainly retired engineers, fabricators and watchmakers. These cars are mostly better than new. My car was not going to be one of those, I’ve seen what happens when you start to strip down a 1960’s Alfa and wanted to spare it the indignity of rising from a chemical bath missing the bottom 4 inches of bodywork and looking like a cheese grater. It had passed its MOT and my plan was just to keep it running, to resolve a few of the issues and make it more solid where necessary so it could be enjoyed till a full restoration became inevitable.
I picked it up from Camden and embarked excitedly on the drive back to Putney in West London. These Giulia Spiders are pretty things and I seemed to be attracting a fair amount of attention, on reflection I’m not sure if people were smiling at Smokey or laughing at my giant head floating on top of the little car. Either way I was starting to feel comfortable, revelling in the slick gear change and soaking up the details when it decided to throw a wobbly in the worst possible place. I was cruising on a three lane highway, just riding on the overpass without the emergency lane and suddenly all power cut out, followed by wisps and then clouds of smoke bellowing into the cabin. I managed to coast the car towards the next exit and just about got it off onto the beginning of the slip road. I jumped out and assessed the situation, it was pretty precarious with articulated lorries passing at full speed only a few inches off, each one almost blowing the little car away. I resisted the temptation to just run for my life, got back in and traced the smoke to the battery. When I looked more closely I found the metal securing strap had moved over and made contact with the battery terminals. Luckily it started up again and the return journey from that point was relatively uneventful. Smokey was christened!
I managed to find a garage with power and spent most of the following winter discovering the various 'foibles' and issues that needed attending to. It was a blissful time when I first learned to weld and came to grips with a fantastically simple car. In the early sixties cars had none of the incredible complexity of today’s behemoths, this meant I pretty much knew what everything did and roughly how it should be fixed or improved. I grappled with unfathomable Italian electrics, fixed the hood mechanism, re-sprayed the dash, fixed up the paintwork, patched a couple of biggish holes, and the battery was moved to the boot and secured properly to rule out any further incidents. It was fantastically rewarding work but the door fitment had so far proved hard to improve, the driver side in particular was so bad it was a struggle to get it to shut. The guys on the forums were immensely helpful, being unanimous in their diagnosis that the car was so rusty that it was folding in half. This gave rise to some panicked days till I reflected that that kind of structural flexing is normally quite apparent and Smokey did not feel particularly wobbly on the road, especially for a convertible. Various conversations with Jago and some judicious repositioning with a few homemade shims and after hours and hours of fiddling I finally managed to get a reasonable fit.
I won’t bore you with the details but there was loads more work that went on that winter and by spring Smokey was looking a lot better. At this stage I was confident enough to take it to Slough on a rolling road session to see how the fuelling was working out. I’ve never experienced such anxiety as when this little car was screaming away at over 5000 rpm on the rollers, I was absolutely certain it was going to explode. Instead it survived intact and managed to put out 77 thoroughbred horses, certainly a few had left the stable from new but it was still a good result. What was not so good was the excruciating backache I experienced after a couple of hours driving. This was the longest journey I’d been on and unfortunately it set the wheels in motion for our separation. The size of the car and the reclined driving position were toxic for my long running back problems and unfortunately I came to the conclusion that I would have to sell up.
Smokey found a buyer quickly enough and I prepared myself to let go of the little pup. The name of the buyer has slipped my mind, but I do remember he was a braver soul than me. His plan included a ground up, full restoration of the car.... Gulp.
It’s now been a couple of years and I often wonder if I made a mistake in selling it.
- Car: 1963 Alfa Romeo Giulia Spider
- Engine: 1,570 cc twin cam
- Top speed: 172 km/h (107 mph)
- 0- 60: 9.5s
- Clarksonism: If this car was a woman it would be Kristin Scott Thomas in a négligée