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The Alfa that could bend time

The very Giulia that was raiding the streets of Budapest in ‘67

10/04/2013 07:51 |  Comments: 


The guy behind the idea of the English-language Totalcar site, the, also serving as an editor at the Hungarian , our mother site. Serial collector of sorry old things that have internal combustion engines in them, as a newfound religion, Zsolt is keeping a family under the terror of rust. Being in the business for the best part of the last 19 years, he landed at Totalcar after serving at a huge round of printed automotive magazines. Has a wife, two small(ish) children and a pet rabbit.

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A European capital in the Eastern Bloc. We’re in the 60’s. Poorly dressed people, gloominess and, apart from dilapidated trucks and state-owned Volgas, not much to see in the way of cars. But the high-tech DOHC engine’s boom of this very car is already reverberating from the walls of old houses in Budapest.

I had an Alfa 75 recently. For a whole year it was the only means of transport at my disposal. It belonged to the older generation, having the “Nord” engine, which could trace its roots back to the 50's, and all the glorious history coming with it – TZ-s, Bertone GTAs, the Dustin “Graduate” Hoffman Duetto, Carabinieri Giulias and the rest. With its De Dion rear end, meticulously precise steering, transaxle drive, quad-Weber carburettors, scarily offbeat idle and glorious blare at speed, it was a classic Ferrari-wannabe clothed in a washing-machine cardboard box.

In exchange of all its merits I could easily tolerate its horribly dead gearchange and complete absence of synchronization on the 1st, 2nd, 3rd gears (a most usual thing in these cars), necessitating a double-clutch gearchange not only downwards, but also up. But I couldn't stand its hunger for fossil liquids, that made me dead broke every month. 14.8 litres in the summer, 15.3 in the winter for a measly 100 kilometres, and I rarely pushed the throttle more than halfway. Okay, sometimes I did.

So I sold it. But before this sad occasion, my new Alfa met my old one – the car which I probably loved more than almost all my 30 plus cars I had in my life, but was forced to sell sooner or later.

Oh yes, the 1300TI. It was an Alfa Giulia from 1967. Would that make it an old car? You bet. Take a look at the picture. The washing-machine box is the 75. The Lada-looking car next to it is the Giulia. In relative terms of the Alfa-continuum,t, it's as old as a 1928 Mercedes from before Hitler's time.

By the time my ex-75 was made in ‘86, most of the Giulias have rotten to dust, leaving only their indestructible stainless steel bumpers to posterity. But this '66 car, which miraculously survived all the years, is more interesting than just a simple Milanese product from the “La Bambola”-era, that by chance lived to see the 21st century. See, the first owner of this car was a Hungarian in a time when no Hungarians had Western cars, especially not double overhead camshaft-, five-speed-, four disc brake-Alfa Romeos.

It was bought by Mr. Trefán, an agricultural engineer, who was sent to work in Italy for half a year in 1966. Not many Hungarians had the chance to travel abroad in those times, even less had the opportunity to see the West. The authorities gave tax exemption for one car, one motorbike, one motorboat(!), one hi-fi equipment, one camera, to people who were able to prove that they had been officially working abroad for more than half a year. All the items one could bring along with him were listed in a document called “the green book”.

Mr. Trefán lived six and a half months in Northern Italy. Just enough time to be able to bring this car home. Since it was the smaller “sister” of the original Alfa Romeo Giulia that debuted in 1962, it had a 1300 cc engine instead of the 1600, only two headlights in the place of the “big” Giulia's quad-light arrangement. The chrome strips on the body were also missing and the rear seats were flat instead of being semi-buckets.

But the four disc Ate brake system was installed, the reliable Bosch electric system was also given, the sensitive, pseudo-double wishbone front suspension, the light but rigid, rear axle attached with an A-bracket to the top of the differential, the state-of-the-art worm and sector steering system were all parts of the package. And since this car was the more expensive, “TI” version of the small 1300-series, it had five gears in the box and 82 horses at the motor – unbelievable specs at that time. This was more than what many sports cars could show off – an MGB was a truck compared to this Alfa. At the end of the 60's this car was the cold, cutting edge fashion of the day, a double overhead camshaft wonder clothed in a metal-sheet Armani suit.

Let's take a look around the city of Budapest in '67 for a moment. There are pedestrians and bicycle riders everywhere, motorized traffic however is sparse, you see heavy traffic only in the main streets. But there, it's really terrifying . Most of the cars are utility vehicles. Trucks with misadjusted sidevalve engines limp along, differential gears howl their protest to the God of Communism, unsynchronized gears grind their teeth in anger, the knocking of poor petrol in pitted combustion chambers is the constant source of a very special rhythm in central places like Moscow square. The cacophonic clatter of trucks reverberates from the crumbling plaster of the houses that haven't seen a repaint in all the 100 years of their lives.

Dutra dump trucks play Morse-code in their stumbling, cracking voices, and all this is rounded up by the offbeat yakking of two-stroke Pannónia motorbikes and the shriek of trams that survived the war, but hadn't seen much TLC in the decades after. Heavy smoke of low-grade two-stroke petrol mixes with the black puffs shot angrily at house walls by buses living on their seventh lives. Every now and then you catch a glimpse of a new(ish) passenger car, but most of those are state-owned Soviet Volgas; you also see lots of Polish Warszawas and Soviet Moskvitches used as taxis. Privately owned cars are a rare sight, many of them being pre-war Fiat Topolinos, Balillas, Mercedes 170s, Adler Juniors.

But suddenly, all this cacophony is split by the clean wail of a race-bred engine arriving from the direction of Lenin Boulevard. No doubt, pedestrians dressed in worn, grey trench-coats look up in disbelief. The engine plays its tune to 6000 revs. The gas escaping the hemispheric combustion chambers enters the 4:2:1 downpipe at the speed of sound, where it broadens into a pulsating, throaty moan. This unusual song scales from low to high four times –­ totally unbelievable, hence it adds up to four shifts, all of them upwards. In other words, five speeds in total. No car with a licence plate has five speeds, even kids know that. Cars have three speeds, the new, expensive ones, maybe four. But five? That stuff is only for racing machines.

The space-age wonder cuts into the gloominess of the Tuesday morning as hot knife separates the slices of a sponge cake. It has a top speed of 160 kph, a real, cable-driven rev counter at the end of its elegant strip-speedometer. It's an Alfa Giulia 1300 TI. And it's grey.

Behind its wheel you find a civilian in a grey suit. Not a government guy , not even a race driver. He's Mr. Trefán. By the time the two policemen with the blue and white police Moskvitsch lurking in the side street would have a chance of starting the engine of their car, the Alfa gets to the next district in Budapest. In 1967, only János Kádár's and Pál Losonczi's cars – Fintail Mercedes 220 SE's - could possibly match the speed of this otherworldly vehicle, the former being the First Secretary of the Communist Party, , the latter the President of the Hungarian Presidential Council.

What a picture... And this used to be the regular way of things back in those times; at least this is what I heard from László Trefán Jr., when I bought the car from him. Tough luck I didn't know the Alfa in its heydays, back in ‘67. No chance, I was only one year old...

But – as we all know – these Alfas had a tendency to rust to dust before you could blink an eye. No wonder most of them have disappeared by today, even in Italy. This grey Giulia escaped the combined attacks of the Budapest Streets and Sanitation Company and the Hungarian winter, because it was kept in a garage. This was unexceptional for a car in those times, it was akin to Britney Spears getting invited to a Rotary Club dinner. And because Mr. Trefán Sr. preferred a 110 forint monthly bus pass and, as a consequence, the rattling thrum of the Ikarus bus's engine, for going to work instead of the Giulia's offbeat 4:2:1 thrum, the car only saw the streets on weekends.

I got to know this car in 1990. We often met with László at the BP petrol station near the Round Hotel in Budapest. This wasn't a coincidence, since both of us bought petrol in five-liter rations, neither of us having too much money, but both of us having Italian cars (mine was a Fiat 128 Rally from 1971) made before the first Oil Crisis. It was on one of these occasions when I made a proposition: if it ever goes on sale, I'd be willing to buy the Giulia. I just had to wait seven years...

Mind you, the car had its original factory paint, it hadn't ever been welded, the interior was near-perfect, the engine was sound and nearly everything was original on it. And probably it was the only Alfa Giulia to have worn Hungarian licence plates from its toddler days. Even in 1990 it was a sensation to see it in the traffic, among square Wartburg Knights, smoky Trabant 601's, unbelievably boring Ladas and suspicious Dacia 1300's.

On a fine day in 1996, the phone rang. It was László. “I have taken the Giulia off the road a year ago, because the floor panel in the right footwell has rotted away and the brake master cylinder gave up its struggle for life. I don't think I have the patience and the ability to take it through the checkup (MoT, TÜV, Pickerl, call it what you like) once more,” he said.

I knew I had to get into full swing.

Looking back, it was a miracle how I scraped the 330 000 forints (about 2600 DM, 800 GBP at the time) together that László asked for the car. It seemed to be a huge amount of money to me at the time, but believe me, it wasn't a lot to ask for such an original vehicle. By that time Trefán Sr. was not with us, but the car retained the mark of one of his most important habits: the paint had flaked off the metal panel above the central ashtray, where he used to put out his cigarette butts. It still has it that way.

There was a slight problem. The car lived in a garage on a steep hill. The brakes were gone, the handbrake was also remarkably weak. I had no way of driving it to the welder's shop, because first I had to find a way to fix the brake master cylinder. But it was a single-circuit, dead-end cylinder, and I knew of no methods to repair such an object.

One of my club mates came to my help, he even manufactured a special tool for honing it. Then I bought some oversized Ate-sleeves for the cylinder, bled the system, and off I went. There was just the footwell panel to weld on the body, and that was ready in a week. Some new brake pads and hoses, a little bit of polishing and minor adjustments later the car went through the checkup smoothly.

The Giulia was with me for five years and I loved every minute of this time. I had to change the gearbox once, there was the obligatory contact problem at the fuse box during an Austrian trip, but apart from these there wasn't a hiccup in all those years. I went everywhere with it and each trip was a present. It was my only classic that could hold 130 kph on the highway without a sweat. I had to polish its dead-dull paint three times to make it look acceptable – and by the way, it still wears that original paint on its body today.

But there was no way of keeping it when my first son was arriving and we were moving to a new apartment, both at the same time. By that time I had at least ten phone number from people who all said they would be buying the Alfa if it ever goes on sale. When it was my turn to call them, each and every one of them declined the offer. In the end a journalist friend of mine, Gábor Széchenyi bought it, who by chance happens to have Italian ascendants. He still has it, he still loves it, and it was he who gathered together all the ex-owners of the car, plus one of his colleagues who also had a red Alfa 75. László, Gábor, Miklós and I all found ourselves standing beside the old Alfa on a hazily sunny Saturday at one of the outskirts of Budapest. László came with his company 1-series BMW, but that was left in the parking lot. It looked so out of place among these three glorious old cars from Milan.

After a long drive, lots of switching of cars, and having been soaked in fumes of unburnt petrol for hours, we got back to out starting point. That was the moment when László, the son of the original owner, said: guys, I don't feel too happy about gettin back behind the BMW's wheel. I'll just have to buy an old Alfa again.

See that? Old Alfas stick to your soul like a moth does to flypaper. Anybody, who ever had one, knows this.

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