Italian cars – the affair continues
Fast forward several years. The Lancia had bitten the dust and I was staring at an offer of employment letter that came with a company car. Even better the company did not specify the car or give me a shortlist – it was entirely up to me to choose the car I wanted.
It had to be new or near new and the only restriction was the budget. Yee ha – Christmas had come early.
So did I go out and religiously check all the features, fuel consumption, headrests, cup holders etc? Did I already have a brand in mind? In fact neither. At this point I wasn’t really an Italian car nut, I just happened to have owned one I enjoyed driving while it lasted. Nope.
I had only one consideration – what was the fastest car I could get for the money? Pre internet days here, so I couldn’t just jump online and do a quick search. No, I had to buy a car magazine and pore down the columns (well just the top speed column) and see what the fastest car I could afford was.
Surprise, surprise, it was another Italian, this time the Alfa Romeo 33 16v came up trumps. In fact on perfomance it killed all the other contenders at its price tag. A bit of flash for not much cash. Not to put too fine a point on it, but resale value, repair bills and low maintenance costs weren’t even on my radar screen.
My job was to drive around the UK and Europe and visit people and I don’t think I could have had more fun in any other vehicle. As soon as I could without arousing suspicion, I arranged a trip to Germany and put the Alfa through its paces. And it delivered – 130mph on the open speed limit sections of the Autobahn, giving the BMWs and Mercs a run for their money.
One small tip – the motorway exit roads curve around much more tightly than on UK motorways, and if you’re not careful in wet weather and high speed it can be hard to stay on the road, and you can easily end up in the patch of grass in the middle. Apparently.
More adventures ensued, including one regrettable occasion when I mistook a pedestrian underpass behind Rotterdam railway station for an underground car park, causing unnecessary distress to some Dutch cyclists and pedestrians. I’d driven down a few steps before realising I probably wasn’t in the right place, but a quick reverse up the stairs and everything was good. I blame the signage.
The 33 had a 1.7l boxer engine that had a very distinctive sound – friends said they could tell I was coming down the street well before I rang the doorbell.
I had the Alfa for three great years, but I still wasn’t really an Italian car fan as such, I still had no real loyalty to Italian brands. Anyway, it was time to change jobs and again I was offered a company car. Funny thing, it was a bigger job, but the car allowance was just the same, and the price of cars had gone up in the interim.
There wasn’t a new Alfa I could afford, even if I’d wanted one. So I went through the same exercise as before. You’ve guessed it. An Italian won again. This time it was a Fiat Punto, but not just any Fiat Punto. It was the top of the range Fiat Punto GT, equipped with a 1.4l turbocharged engine.
By this time car maunfacturers had stopped putting the word ‘turbo’ on the back of the car – it just led to more cars being nicked by joyriders, so the Fiat had a subtle little badge saying ‘GT’.
For a car as light as the Punto, the size of the engine is almost immaterial, and with the turbo punch it actually accelerated quicker than the Alfa and had a higher top speed. And, because it looked like a car that you’d go down to the shops in, other drivers sometimes got a bit of a surprise at the lights. And driving a turbocharged car is so much fun!
Again I had an opportunity to take the car over to Germany and beat my last record, the difference was the German Merc and BMW drivers had no idea a Punto could be so fast. At this point I was living in London and another benefit of the Punto – short and really easy to park – was pretty handy.
Two years later, when I shifted jobs again, handing back the keys was really hard.