COAL: 1987 Alfa Romeo 33 – Project Car Hell, or How to Own a Car Without Driving it Even Once

Alfa Romeo. The name alone is enough to set a car nut’s heart aflutter. So much history, romance, myth and legend encapsulated within those two words. So much in fact, that you tend to forget that the majority of their products for the last 40 years or so have been front wheel drive econoboxes  based on Fiats. Ah, but that’s never really the whole story is it? Even the least celebrated of Alfas (think the late 80s/early 90s fare) somehow manage to feel quite special when you’re sitting behind the wheel. Even cars that were critically panned like the early 155s somehow come alive when you’re giving them some stick on a nice winding road. Alfa always knew what it took to make a car feel a bit special.

At least that’s what I told myself when I stumbled headfirst into this particular episode of my automotive misadventures. To be fair, I actually do believe the above to be true, having driven a handful of 80s/90s Alfas and finding them to be quite lovely to drive, even with some bits not working. I have wanted to own an Alfa for as long as I knew about their existence, but things never lined up well enough for me to actually get one. The really good Alfas were rare to begin with here and after the usual things like rust and attrition had taken out a few the survivors were firmly ensconced in the hands of collectors. So the only possible options were the 80s/90s cars.

Behold, the 80s glorious-ness!

I’m lucky enough to have driven a couple of Alfasuds and their handling abilities permanently imprinted onto my psyche; it seemed like you could go into a corner at ANY speed you wanted and the little Alfa would just scoot around! A Sud would have been ideal but there are only about 4 cars left in the whole country and they are all with owners who love them, but a couple of Alfa people told me that the replacement 33 was actually something of a hidden gem, being Sud based.

Now this doesn’t track well with everything that has been written about them, because the 33 is generally considered a step or two back from the Sud, with a fair bit of de-contenting (rear drums instead of discs for example), and diminished capabilities. “Alfa tried to make a Golf and failed” just about sums up the conventional wisdom. But a vocal minority insisted that this conventional opinion was wrong, that in fact the 33 was the next best thing to an Alfasud, and with a few tweaks could even exceed its legendary predecessor. In early 2018 I was going through a bit of a tough time and felt that a good way to get my mind off things would be to buy a project car and what better choice than an Alfa Romeo? Yes, I can hear you rolling your eyes from here!

The budget for this whole thing wasn’t big, so the purchase would have to be cheap for it to make sense. The network of Italian car enthusiasts in this country is active and very encouraging so the moment I put the word out that I was thinking about a car, a few options were sent my way. I would have really liked a 164 or a 155 but those were significantly more expensive, so the final choice came down between two 33s. One was a  top of the line 1.7 Sportwagon, while the other was a basic 1.3 hatchback. The Sportwagon is actually becoming a collectible now and this example was one of very few in all of Asia, but it did have some issues with the ECU, to which a solution still hadn’t been figured out by the owner.

The Sportwagon, which I should have bought.

So I decided to buy the hatchback, which was cheaper anyway. Since I anyway planned to do a full build on the car, I wasn’t too bothered by the overall condition, but I got it inspected anyway just to see if I’d missed anything while looking it over. The owner of the inspection service I used (who is also a good friend) practically burst out laughing when I booked the 33 in for an appointment, and after the inspection he made it a point to say “I REALLY don’t think you should buy this car”.

He was right of course; by any objective assessment, it was a complete shed. Oil leaks, worn shocks, suspension needing a rebuild, running on 2 or 3 of the 4 cylinders, interior completely shot, broken and missing plastic trim and more besides. The only positive was that the body was in decent shape with no crash damage and almost no visible rust. So of course I bought it(!) and had it transported over to a workshop that was famous for their work with Italians. If you’re wondering whether I drove the car before I bought it, the answer is, nope. Had I even driven a 33 at all? Also, er, nope.

This is the closest I got to even sitting in it.

So the car got to the workshop and they began to strip it down. The idiot optimist that lives in me assumed that they wouldn’t find anything too problematic, but there’s a reason I said “idiot” there. Once the car was stripped, it turned out that it had originally been a left hand drive car which had been converted to right hand drive, and also had been fitted with air conditioning at that point. While this seemed to have been done reasonably well, whoever did the conversion didn’t bother covering the holes in the bulkhead made by moving everything around, so on the left side there was a gaping space covered by a sheet of tin!

At this point I should explain that the Alfasud and the 33 obtained a large part of their structural rigidity from a dual bulkhead/firewall, as they have inner and outer bulkhead between engine and passenger cabin. This acts like gigantic strut brace, which apparently helps their handling abilities. On my 33, the inner bulkhead was about 60% not there! So reconstructing it properly became job 1 on the to do list, along with addressing any other structural issues.

A view of the front end, with the double bulkhead clearly visible.

Thankfully there weren’t too many other major problems. There really wasn’t a lot of rust for an Italian car, only a few patches here and there, which were quickly dealt with. I was curious to find out more about the conversion so I did some investigating and eventually found out that the Alfa Romeo agent in Sri Lanka in the late 80s/early 90s had actually been issued this car for free as a demonstrator. It had originally been part of a batch ordered by the Italian Police, but was surplus so had not been collected. So it must have made perfect sense to someone at Alfa Romeo to ship this car over to the new dealer in the remote tropical island.

Pretty much what it would have looked like

Anyway, that’s what had happened and since LHD cars are not allowed over here, the local agent had converted it to RHD as quickly as possible without worrying too much about the details, and eventually sold the car which was supposed to be a demonstrator on to a paying customer. That sort of approach to doing business is why Sri Lanka no longer has an Alfa Romeo agent! Be that as it may, my plans for the car were quite extensive; I wanted to replace the stock 1.3 with a 1.7 as found in the top spec cloverleaf model (the workshop had an engine they were willing to sell me), top it with twin Webers, put on a custom exhaust, lowering springs and sport shocks, fully refresh the suspension and fit aggressive wheels and tires. I also discussed the possibility of converting the rear drums to discs (why? I’m not sure).

This was the goal, more or less.

But the first order of business was to finish up the bodywork, which progressed quite nicely. The paint was completely stripped to bare metal, the little rust that was found was sorted and the bulkhead was repaired properly to how it was supposed to be. Within a couple of months all the body repairs were done and they were ready to start painting.

The bulkhead, properly sorted.

Unfortunately, this coincided with a couple of things going wrong in my life, starting with the end of a relationship, which led to a series of sub optimal decisions that ended with me crashing into a 4 foot deep ditch while trying to correct a slide during a visit to a racetrack. The bills that resulted from that episode both provided a rude awakening and also took away the fund I had built up for “Progetto Trentartre”, so I asked the workshop to stop work for the moment while I sorted my life and my finances out. That conversation happened in September 2018.

For the next two years I basically forgot about the Alfa as I simply had a lot of more pressing things on my plate. I would occasionally get gentle reminders from the guys in the workshop about it but they were ok for it to be there, so I was too. Finally in September 2020 I got a message saying that they really needed the space and could I move it out. This was a real problem because at this point the car was basically just a shell since all parts were out of it. I didn’t have the space to store it, and I really didn’t have the time or the money to finish the project, so I tried to see if anyone would be interested in buying it off me.

Would YOU pay money for this? Neither would most sane people, it turned out.

Unfortunately even Alfa 33s in good shape are not exactly in high demand so a non running project Alfa 33 was obviously about as desirable as a used diaper, so there was exactly zero interest. I was just about getting ready to ask them to scrap the thing and be done with it when one of the owners of the workshop, a guy we call Sri Lanka’s “High priest of Italian cars” (No kidding, the man owns FOUR classic Alfas, one modern Alfa and a couple more Italian cars besides) started a conversation about taking on the project.

He was one of the people who encouraged me to get the car in the first place and he had a soft spot for the 33. His offer didn’t even cover my costs on the project thus far, but it was better than nothing and at least the car would get done. So we shook hands and my Alfa Romeo ownership officially ended. COVID has slowed progress on the car but it is definitely seeing progress and last I heard from him the paint was underway, in a classic Alfa red no less. It really will be nice to see the car completed and on the road, and he’s even offered me first refusal if and when he decides to sell it, though I’m not sure that’s an offer I’ll take up!

Red manages to make even mundane cars look interesting, somehow.

So what did I learn from this whole episode? First up, buying a car to distract yourself from stuff you need to address is never a good idea (duh!). Next, If you’re going to do a full  on restoration project, try to pick a desirable car to do it on (gee, ya think?). And finally, If you really want to own an Alfa, it’s a much better idea to buy one that actually works well enough to be driven!