What is the toughest repair job you have ever taken on? Turns out the Alfa would soon present me with a new challenge that would become a yardstick I would measure all other hard mechanical fixes by.
Friday January 15, 2021, Ontario CA 7:30 PM
On the way to the bank, I made the mistake of trying to overtake a slowpoke Prius and –
Oil pressure 150 PSI
Oil pressure 100
Oil pressure 90
Oil pressure 80…
Oil pressure warning light
My landlady must think I’m out of my mind. This is the second time I’ve shown up on her doorstep with one of my cars on a tow truck. The last time this happened, I had to hobble my old Mercedes up the driveway with the differential sitting on a moving dolly. I’m not sure what’s worse, that, or having the tow truck driver help me push the Alfa into the backyard, with the oil pan in three pieces. At least this time we are doing this under the cover of darkness. The rent was due yesterday, and I still have to get to work on Monday. More importantly, I have a place to work, and miraculously I have a line on a new oil pan in Burbank.
Changing the Alfa’s oil pan was, at the time, the toughest job I had ever taken on. Every bolt that held the pan on had a non-captive nut, and was either around a corner, hidden behind accessories, wedged between the engine and the intermediate shaft flange, or just a bitch and a half to access.
By the time I finished the job, I spent four days waking at dawn, rolling around in the dirt under that car, gashing my fingers, swearing this job was beyond my skills and swearing some more until it was too dark to keep going. When I finished the job, there was no sweeter sound than hearing the big Busso squeal back to life (tensioning belts is a bitch on this car).
Enterprise Nissan Altima rental $225
Alfa Romeo 164 S oil pan $250
Fresh oil, oil filter, gasket material, sealant $150
The look on the O’Reilly hottie’s face when she saw the old oil pan in three pieces. Priceless.
Unlike most cars, this pan was not a two-piece aluminum and steel unit where you can replace the lower section in an accident. The Alfa’s oil pan is a one-piece finned aluminum unit that hangs all of four inches off the ground so it wouldn’t stand a chance against an LA rain gutter.
Fortunately, everything seemed to be running right, with no signs of oil starvation. I only missed two days of work and my childhood dream car was back to being brilliant. If I had accepted defeat then, I would’ve started looking into getting that new Honda. But I had slain this dragon and, for what it’s worth, I loved the fact that my Alfa was still faster than the brand new Altima I’d been driving for four days. I reasoned that every Alfa from Dustin Hoffman’s Duetto to the GTV6 has this problem of low-hanging oil pans and that this situation was due to operator error.
My 164’s supposedly uncharacteristic reliability combined with an addictive ability to blitz every canyon front-wheel drive be damned and the intoxicating Busso howl, combined with the Italian flair for style meant that I was recklessly willing to overlook the Alfa’s other problems. Even though it started right up every morning my Busso exhibited the notorious Alfa thirst for oil, lackluster air conditioning, and the occasional rough idle. Minor quibbles, really. So, every day I repeated this simple mantra: If I keep up on the maintenance. I’ll be fine.
Signal Hill, California 2:30 PM
Driving PCH back from Crystal Cove Cars and Coffee, I had just met another Italian enthusiast and was reflecting on having traded numbers with her when the V6 inexplicably cut out.
Ok. I tried the ignition.
Maybe it’s a loose wire, I thought. No big deal.
That’s when white, electrical smoke started curling into the cabin through the air vents. With what momentum I had left I coasted another 100 yards downhill and into a strip mall that was home to a veterinarian clinic and maneuvered my way past a long line of dogs and owners waiting to be seen. As I stopped, smoke was now billowing out from beneath the hood like a carnitas truck with a grease fire.
Ignition off, hood up, smoke is still roiling out from somewhere in the engine bay.
I cut in front of the Vet line waiting and straight to the nurses.
Hey guys, I need a fire extinguisher right now!
A look of confusion washed over one nurse, who eventually nodded and said she’d be right back.
I waited what must have been three minutes only to look back on my 164 which now has orange flames licking up through the smokey engine bay.
I pivot back to the remaining receptionist and say, with my last ounce of courtesy:
If you don’t want to have a car burning down in your parking lot, I need an extinguisher right now!
Maybe it was the horror registering on my unmasked face and frantic eyes, but they got the message this time and a fire extinguisher materialized.
I ripped the pin out as I ran back to my burning car and started spraying. White powder erupted out of the hose and within seconds the fire stopped. I’d caught it just before the wiring could melt any of the fuel lines.
Taking a deep breath, I sat down to register what had just unfolded. And that’s when the strip mall owner’s wife backed her brand-new G-wagen right into the front of my smoldering car.
Let’s just say many cold beverages were consumed that night.
Did I mention that my stepdad Mike is a hero? When he heard about this double mishap he and my mom were on the road to L.A. from Sacramento (a seven-hour drive) the next morning. It looked like all I had to do was wait for the cavalry to arrive.
Unlike most attorneys, Mike never minces words.
Here, you’ll need this.
Mike handed me a brand-new fire extinguisher as walked over to assess the damage.
One look under the hood was all Mike needed to tell that the singed wiring and fire extinguisher dust were symptomatic of a much more critical issue.
Holy Shit, David! I’ve never seen electrical fire damage this bad.
My Alfa was seconds from having exploded, Michael Bay style.
A section of wiring harness about as thick as a garden hose runs along the driver’s side fender under the overflow tank. One minute that wire was fine, happily conveying electricity through the Bosch fuel injection system. The next – it was on fire.
That critical vein of wiring runs right next to high-pressure rubber fuel injection hoses that supply gasoline to the engine at 80 psi. Fixing this was obviously critical to getting back on the road. One problem, well actually two: I didn’t do wiring and 164 wiring harnesses are next-to-impossible to find. With my job (from which I was once again forced to take time off), I couldn’t afford to search for a month to source one. And as not-so-cheap but still cheerful as my Hyundai Kona rental was proving, I needed my own wheels back. I needed my Alfa back.
But it got worse.
On further examination, Mike’s surgical exploration was turning more and more into an autopsy. Pulling the torched harness from the engine bay he discovered that the fuel injection harness, which hangs over the rear exhaust manifold, fell off its mount and burned up which shorted out everything in its path. The original plan of taking the harness back to Sacramento and using it to build a new one evaporated with the old harness’s immolation. Mike tried everything, to no avail, even a new harness off of a 164 L which he found 300 miles North in Fairfield after three days of hunting.
He returned with the new-old harness only to find that the 164L’s wire routing was slightly different from the 164S. The two were completely incompatible.
After three roundtrips to L.A., days of Internet research, and one hail marry examination of the wiring on a friend’s 164 S, and the procure on an unreadable CD from the early 90s that supposedly contained the wiring diagrams from all 164s, we were out of options and time.
It would be one thing if this happened back home in Sacramento where Mike and I could take our time fixing it in the garage in spare time over what probably would’ve taken half a year. But this was reality, I had a job and no other means of transport.
With no more time or energy left to keep up the fight, Mike declared my Alfa dead on March 15, 2021 after 5 months of the most fun daily driving I have ever had. Buying the Alfa was never a good idea, but damn to see it all end like this – literally my dream up in smoke – hurt me more than I expected.
In the days after Mike left to return home and I started advertising the wreckage of my non-running 164S online to anyone who would take her for parts, I found myself wondering, is this how Romeo felt when Juliet died? It’s easy to hate a car when it gives you trouble and nothing in return, but the Alfa had romanced me every day; how it drove, how it sounded, how it greeted me every morning in the driveway. In all seriousness, it’s just a car, but that day, it felt like I’d lost a partner.