Sometimes I am not sure if my stepdad Mike is more mentor or fellow addict who gave me my first taste. Mike has a passion for what a normie might call hopeless cases. His inventory of project cars includes an old XKE, a Westfalia that’s destined to move with him and my mom to Peru, and an e39 540i that’s been parked under an oak tree for six years.
Mike introduced me to the wide world of being a car guy, and it all started in 2007 when he brought home the first Alfa Romeo I’d ever seen. In this case, it was a red and black 1991 Alfa Romeo 164S sedan with a five-speed manual gearbox. To a 12-year-old me, the 164 was a flamboyant, fast, loud Italian four-door sports car made by a company I’d never heard of but somehow instantly loved. And it only cost Mike $3,000. I was hooked!
Fast forward 13-years to a pandemic-stricken L.A. I was healthy, I’d just graduated college, secured my first pad in L.A., and had landed a fun if not socially distanced job with an exotic car parts supplier in the Valley. So, after lusting for more than a decade, my Dream Alfa was looking more attainable.
On the first trip back home to Sacramento, I finally had The Talk with my stepdad. It was a pitch I must’ve rehearsed a thousand times in my head. And it finally came out something like this:
Hey Mike, you told me if I found a job and came up with three-grand you would think about selling me the Alfa. I got the job and the money. Is the deal still on the table?
Sure. It’s yours.
I can’t really put to words what his casual ‘O.K.’ meant to me. The suspense had been eating at me for months and in a blink, I got what I had wanted since I was 12 years old. Holy shit!
I gave him the biggest hug. He tossed me the keys. And together we drove my first dream car all the way to the bank.
Back in L.A., my 30-year old “shoebox” felt like the coolest ride on the road. The Busso, three-liter, 200 horsepower, V6 made a Ferrari-like wail under every bridge and in every tunnel. And even with front-wheel drive, nose-heavy weight distribution, terrible steering lock, and a worn rack, my 164 still managed to blitz canyon roads with enough enthusiasm for me to embarrass a few Caymans. The 164 was the brightest, loudest car I’d owned since my own crapped-out 914 left me stranded roadside for the last time before I waved Auf Wiedersehen. The red and black bodywork, (my favorite color combination) never failed to make an impression.
I suppose it’s key, at this point, to give you a little broader perspective of where the 164 falls in Alfa’s history as well as my own. In 1987, a financially strapped Alfa Romeo unveiled the 164, a car that bore almost no resemblance to its Tipo Quattro stablemates: The Fiat Chroma, Lancia Thema, and Saab 9000. Alfa’s new sedan, the 164 was such a showstopper not only because it shared no obvious body panels with its badge-engineered trans-European counterparts, its bold Pininfarina body was something both as special and as singular as Alfa Romeo’s own iconic shield grille. The 164 was more than a pretty face with Alfa’s legendary Busso V6 under the hood. Jeremy Clarkson even called it the “Alfa Romeo License Loser” in a more contemporary review.
The Busso was a noteworthy engine in that it could only be matched for excitement by Lancia’s Ferrari-sourced 328 V8 in the Thema 8.32. More importantly, unlike Alfas of the 70s or 60s, all 164s were built with galvanized steel, and good weather stripping, so three decades on my car was rust-free.
Yet, when I solicited advice from Facebook Groups or gear heads friends, invariably the comments would come back at me like this:
Where are you going to find parts?
Have the timing belts been done? You are too young! You need something reliable (read: boring)!
Just buy a Toyota!
If you want fun, Miata is always the answer.
On the scale of bad ideas, buying a 30-year old Alfa Romeo for a daily driver ranks somewhere between talking up Chevys in Dearborn and vacationing in Chernobyl. Yet one month in, the Alfa made it to its first oil change – no problems. Even the hot girl at the local O’Reilly Auto Parts who handed me the new Bosch filter took notice of my new whip – and she really didn’t make a habit of noticing anything that wasn’t lifted and ready for Baja.
“Nice car. What is that?”
“It’s an Alfa Romeo. Italian.”
In my mind’s eye that’s when I remember her biting her lower lip. But maybe I’m embellishing a little – though – she did pull out her phone to take a shot of the car for her Insta.
The 164 seemed to strike the ideal balance between reliably, practical four-door transportation and visceral excitement – fun! As commutes go, the daily trips into the Valley were one of the highlights of my day. Two cranks and the V6 fired right up every morning. The shifter was a little sticky at first, that is until the gear oil warmed up, and then the action was precise enough to match that of any Honda. The front aftermarket racing seats were firmly supportive, the clutch forgiving, the symphonic Busso euphoric. The 210 to La Tuna Canyon Road felt like my own bit of Laguna Secca. Really, as far commuter cars go, there wasn’t much more I, or, I’d say any car guy could ask for from the 164.
So, what lay on the horizon then? Living the L.A. dream with the Dream Alfa? As it happens, plenty.