The New Jersey Chapter of the Alfa Romeo Owners Club (AROC), under the able leadership of Chapter President Enrico Ciabattoni, held its first event of 2019 by organizing a luncheon on Saturday April 13. Our hosts were the fine folks at Driving Impressions, a Dover N.J.-based business which sells racing accessories in the front, and has ample garage space out back.
We had a small but enthusiastic turnout of about a dozen, consisting of a mix of AROC-NJ members with some local friends. The lunch (Italian food, whaddya expect?) was grand, but we were really there to get together to talk about our #1 passion, cars. There was lots to talk about, starting with the cars on either side of the lunch table. The service bays were occupied by Italian cars OTHER than Alfas, and there were interesting non-Italian toys too.
One corner of the garage is rented to a tech who specializes in Porsches. A 928 with its drivetrain removed was high up in the air, and next to it, on the ground, was a 356 coupe which appeared to be in original condition. It actually gave off the vibe of one of those barn-find 356s I’ve seen at auctions that hammer for 300 large.
Three Italian cars competed for my attention: a current-generation Fiat 500, with turbo and other goodies under the hood, claimed to be the fastest 500 on earth (based on a magazine article I was shown, so it must be true); a Fiat 600, with its cheeky water-cooled four-banger out back, appeared to be in the throes of major reconstruction; and a Lancia Delta Integrale, all ‘80s squared-off inside and out, lounged in the corner, looking like it was daring the turbo 500 to a duel.
A quick peek outside revealed the 3 classic Alfas which dared make today’s drive. It stayed warm and dry, so it was an ideal day to cruise in our classics. Alas, no modern Giulias or Stelvios made the trip.
With the AROC National in Pittsburgh fast approaching in July, there was some discussion among the Alfisti about who was attending, who was driving there, and who might want to caravan. Your author has volunteered to lead the caravan; now I just need someone to agree to join it.
When I bought my Alfa Romeo GT 1300 Junior in March of 2013, it was for the express purpose of using it to participate in automotive events. There’s no denying that I have piled on the miles. The four New England 1000 rallies of 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2018, the Alfa National (International) excursion to Montreal in 2017, and two trips to the Greenwich CT Concours have accounted for the bulk of the mileage. Add to that the innumerable local breakfast drives and car shows, and you can understand how in 6 years of ownership I’ve managed to spend 11,000 miles behind the wheel of this fine Italian automobile.
Alfas, and Italian cars in general get a bad rap as “unreliable”. That’s not been my experience. Except for a dead battery right after purchase, and a failed alternator on the ’18 NE1000, those 11,000 miles have been trouble-free. I’ve mentioned to those who ask that the more I drive the car, the better it seems to run. The other side of that coin is that, as a ‘60s European thoroughbred, the car’s mechanical state of tune must be strictly looked after; indeed, the Alfa maintenance schedule, which requires more frequent service than an American car of similar vintage, should be followed as closely as possible. This is where ability to work on your own vehicle becomes a significant advantage compared to needing to pay someone to do what is in essence straightforward service work.
After I finished the valve adjustment a few weeks ago, I noted that the idle was terrible, and in fact, it was difficult to get the engine to consistently respond to accelerator inputs. My first suspicion was the car’s ignition system, so an order was placed with Classic Alfa for the suite of tune-up parts. (And they spoiled me again, with the package on my front porch is less than 48 hours.)
The service books recommend removal of the distributor for service work, and it’s held in place by a single 10mm-headed bolt, so it’s easy to pop it out. Checking the usual suspects for wear, I didn’t see anything severely out of the ordinary, although the points were badly pitted, and the gap was too small.
I ended up replacing the spark plugs, plug wires, cap, rotor, points, condenser, and, for the first time under my ownership, the coil, which looked original. The car fired right up, and as I’ve noticed immediately after prior tunes, the tip-in is magnificent. I took the car for an all-too-brief run around the neighborhood, and felt infinitely better about all the driving I’ve got planned for the Alfa for this year, especially the Alfa Club Convention in Pittsburgh in July.
The one remaining item on the tune-up to-do list is the ignition timing. If I’m reading the books correctly, the best way to set the distributor timing for utmost performance is by checking it at 5,000 rpm. At that engine speed the “M” (for “massimo” or maximum) should line up with the timing pointer. The books also recommend NOT adjusting the distributor while at 5,000 rpm, and that’s good advice.
Note to self: every year, the ignition system needs to be checked, adjusted, and renewed as necessary at the start of every driving season.
As you read in “Alfa Romeo Valve Adjustment, Part 1” (or if you skipped your reading assignment, you can find it here), the valve gaps on my 1300 engine were out of whack, especially on the intake side. With cams temporarily removed, I measured all the existing shims, did the algebra to calculate the sizes of the needed shims, and placed my order with Classic Alfa in the UK. I was not the least bit surprised when the order I placed at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night landed on my front stoop before I got home from work on Tuesday. (I need to email them and enquire what happens after Brexit, presuming that Brexit happens.)
The following weekend, all the old shims came out, and the new shims went in, again following the “one cylinder at a time” rule I established so as not to cross-install the followers which must remain with their original cylinders. When reinstalling the cams, I could not get the timing marks between the cams and front bearing caps to line up. It made me nervous enough that I removed and reinstalled the cams a second time (remember that the timing chain remained attached to the sprockets). I finally convinced myself that once I released the bolt holding back the spring tension in the timing chain tensioner, all would return to sync, and that is exactly what happened. With the tensioner pressing against the chain, I rotated the crank and cams through two complete revolutions, and then tightened the bolt in the spring tensioner. The marks were still aligned, thankfully.
I double-checked and wrote down all the new valve clearances, and all seemed good (but read on). Since I had the spark plugs out, a new set of NGK B7ES plugs, which are in stock at my local Advance Auto Parts store, went in. With plug wires, intake plenum, and air filter hose back in place, it was time to attempt to start this baby, remembering that the engine had not been run since the car went to sleep the previous autumn. The engine started on the second try, however, there was an unhealthy miss at idle. I shut it down, and made plans for a complete tune-up, which was next on the Alfa’s to-do list anyway.
Postscript: I jotted down all the “new” valve clearances, and really didn’t give them a second glance, undoubtedly presuming that everything was done correctly. Today, while composing this blog post, I noticed that my spec for intake valve #3, .450mm, was unchanged from its original measurement, yet I have no doubt that the 2.15mm shim which had been in there was replaced with a 2.10mm shim, which means that the new measurement should have been .500mm. For now, I’m leaving this alone for several reasons: valve #3 was the closest to spec of all the intake valves during the original check; testing the thicknesses of the new shims revealed that how tightly I cranked on my micrometer made a difference in the measurement (including the effect of residual oil on the shim); and I’m not yanking that cam again for 0.05mm!
The owner’s manual for my 1967 Alfa Romeo GT 1300 Junior calls for the engine valve clearances to be checked every 18,000 kilometers. According to Google Calculator (before Google Calculator I would have used my slide rule), that’s every 11,185 miles. Coincidentally, I’ve put almost exactly 11,000 miles on the Alfa since purchasing it in March 2013. So in part to prepare for what is anticipated to be a very busy 2019 driving season, and in part because I really don’t know when this was last done, I decided to check all 8 valve clearances (4-cylinder engine, 2 valves per cylinder equals 8 valves).
Accessing the valves and followers is the simple part. This overhead-cam engine has its two camshafts at the very top. The valve cover can be removed once the spark plug leads, air hose, and the top of the intake plenum are out of the way, which is a 10-minute affair. The valve cover is held in place by 6 large Allen screws along the top, and two bolts at the front. I had never had the valve cover off this engine before, and my first reaction was one of pleasant surprise at how clean the engine looked.
My first task was to find the camshaft part numbers, to verify that these were Alfa Romeo cams and not some hot aftermarket replacements (in which case the clearance specs would be different). A prior conversation with Pete, the family friend who sold me the car, revealed that he wasn’t sure what cams were in it. The part numbers of both cams were readily visible, and verifying them against my technical literature confirmed that these are indeed the factory cams.
Now it was onto the actual clearances. To rotate the engine, I first tried getting a socket on the crank pulley bolt, but the fan shroud blocked that. The next-easiest way to spin the engine was via the nut on the front of the alternator. Popping out the plugs provided less compression resistance, and some moderate thumb pressure on the alternator belt was all that was needed to get the crank and cams to spin.
Paper and pencil at the ready, the valve clearances were checked in firing-order order (1-3-4-2) and recorded. While my owner’s manual provides specs in both millimeters and inches, I decided to stick with the metric measurements – I have metric feeler gauges, and the needed shims are sold in metric sizes.
The spec for the intake valves is 0.475-0.500 mm, and the exhaust spec is 0.525-0.550 mm. Six of the eight valves were out of spec: all 4 intakes and 2 exhausts, and, all 6 showed too little clearance, meaning the valves were not seating completely, subjecting them to less cooling since they were not making full contact with the valve seats.
The worst measurement was #4 intake: 0.350 mm, meaning it was 0.150 mm too tight compared to a correct outer range of 0.500 mm. Yes, we’re talking fractions of a millimeter, but specs are specs, and I felt that the clearances should be corrected.
Here is where it got interesting. My Alfa engine was originally designed in the early 1950s. It’s a very sophisticated layout, with not only overhead cams, but all-aluminum block, wet cylinder liners, hemispherical combustion chambers, etc. However, like most other OHC engines of its time, adjusting the valves requires removing the cams to allow access to the followers (buckets) and shims which are under the buckets. Most friends to whom I mentioned this procedure looked at me with a combination of horror and pity. “It’s really easier than it sounds” I would retort, which did nothing to alleviate their sympathy for me.
(As a complete aside, the first OHC engine to incorporate a valve design which allowed for adjustments with cams in place was the Fiat twin-cam engine, introduced in 1966. My 1970 Fiat 124 Coupe used this design, although I never did adjust those valves!)
The official Alfa procedure calls for locating the timing chain’s master link, disconnecting it, and swinging the two chain ends out of the way. This method opens the possibility that the cam timing would need to be adjusted at reassembly. Of course, some very clever people have devised a work-around. One of the service books I own is the Alfa Romeo Owner’s Bible, written by the late Alfa expert Pat Braden. He describes a method that does not involve unhooking the chain. Instead, he suggests loosening the chain tensioner, pushing the tensioner all the way IN (making for a loose chain), locking the tensioner in this position, and then lifting the cams toward the center of the engine without disturbing the cam sprocket/chain connection. In this way, on reassembly, the cam timing does not change at all. Ideally, this is done with both cam timing marks lined up with the bearing cap marks.
This is exactly what I did. With the tension off the timing chain, I started on the intake side and removed the 3 cam bearing caps (Alfa thoughtfully numbers the caps 1 through 6, and I documented everything with photos before turning the first nut). The intake cam was lifted and placed over the spark plug holes (which were protected with clean rags). The chain remained on the cam sprocket.
The next trick was getting the buckets out, as they were oil-covered and lacking a way to grab them. I realized that a magnet might do the trick, and it did. The bucket came out, and under it was the shim, which was also removed.
Working on just one cylinder at a time so as not to mix up any of the locations, I measured each shim with a digital metric micrometer. The value was recorded on the same sheet of paper as the clearances. I started on the #1 intake valve, went down the line to the #4 intake valve, then did the same thing on the exhaust side. Once all these measurements were taken, the shims and buckets were back in place on the engine. I gently placed the valve cover on top of the engine, lowered the hood, and took my measurements inside so that the ‘new’ shim sizes could be calculated.
I knew that all the out-of-adjustment valves were tight, so I needed greater clearance, so all the new shims needed to be thinner than the current shims. I found an online “Alfa shim calculator” someone built in Excel, and I used it, but I also checked all my numbers two more times. I aimed for the higher end of the spec, figuring that if the valves are tightening up over time, I had best start by providing the maximum clearance while remaining in spec.
My go-to Alfa supplier, Classic Alfa in the UK, sells shims in increments of 0.125 mm, so it was a fairly easy task to calculate my needed shim sizes. The order was placed, and now I just needed to wait for the shims to show up. But it certainly felt like the hard work was behind me!
My Alfa is a mostly completely original car, meaning that it’s never been “restored”, not in the sense that classic cars are restored with all-new cosmetics and completely overhauled mechanicals. Yet with 65,000 miles on it (and counting), there have been maintenance and wear items needing attention.
The car is wearing about 90% of the paint and 100% of the interior with which it left the factory. The engine, gearbox, and rear axle are likewise the same assemblies that Tony, Vito and their fellow factory workers installed. During the past 51 years, the car has gotten new tires, brakes, belts, hoses, bulbs, shocks, clutch, tune-up parts, and fluids. I’m very conscious of my role as “steward” of this car, and hope that when it eventually moves to its next owner, the preservation efforts will continue.
As you may know from reading this blog, I’m not shy about putting several thousand miles a year on it, and if the paint gets a little worn or slightly chipped from my enjoyable time behind the wheel, so be it. But I would never consider repainting the car. Likewise, should a major engine component fail, I’ll repair it as necessary, but I’m not going to seek out a larger engine from another Alfa. I’m continually striving to maintain that balance whereby I get to enjoy the car while only fixing what needs fixing.
Earlier this year, I discovered that the reverse light didn’t work. The truth is, in the 5 years I’ve owned the car, I don’t think I had ever checked the back-up light. Its inoperative status gave me the impetus to remove the light assembly (there’s only one, below the rear bumper) and get it working again. The overall goal was not to replace it, but refurbish it, reusing as many of the original components as possible.
The first challenge presented itself when two of the four fasteners snapped during removal. The clear lens was held in place by two Philips head screws, and half of one stayed in the housing. The housing itself used two studs with nuts, and one stud broke in half. Unlike the recessed screw for the lens, the broken stud projected far enough above the housing that a pair of locking pliers got it out the rest of the way.
The gasket beneath the lens had been some kind of rubber that had turned to stone. It’s likely that it had never been disturbed until now. The chrome housing was somewhat pitted, and looked like it would respond to some metal polishing. The rubber bezel, mounted between the housing and the painted rear valence, would be treated to a trick I successfully deployed during the Isetta restoration: using Meguiar’s #40 Rubber Reconditioner, the bezel would be submerged and soaked for several days, hopefully returning some of the rubber’s pliancy.
While that sat in its bath, I tackled the removal of the old gasket. This was more of a fight than I anticipated. Not wanting to damage either the housing or the lens, I started with a plastic scraper, but made little progress. Next, I tried various solvents, attempting to soften the material. WD-40 had a minor effect on it, so I kept at it with that, fearful that anything stronger would also harm the lens. The most effective removal tool turned out to be a single-edge razor blade, but this took time. Eventually, both surfaces were rid of the hardened white material.
Instead of purchasing a replacement gasket, I fashioned one from sheet cork which I keep just for such purposes. I tacked it in place using non-hardening gasket glue. Three days in the conditioning bath brought the rubber bezel mostly back to its former glory.
The broken screw was drilled out, and retapped with my metric tap and die kit. The studs were installed with a dollop of thread-locking compound. The old incandescent bulb was replaced with an LED bulb from CARiD.com. As the repair books state: “reassembly is the reverse of disassembly”.
As you can see, the back-up lamp burns brightly. There’s just one more thing to report, but before I do, I must ask you to think like an Italian. You see, when I first tested the refurbished assembly, it still didn’t work. And that’s when I remembered: in 1967, as far as the Italians were concerned, a driver didn’t need the back-up light to illuminate everytime you put the car in reverse! After all, it would provide little or no help in daylight. But if the headlampsare on, indicating it’s dark out, THEN a reverse lamp would prove helpful. So the back-up light is wired to come on only when the light switch is on. I’ll be taking a night cruise just to confirm how well I can see behind me….
I just recently came across these photos, which I had frankly forgotten about, which is why this technical procedure, performed in May, is only getting its own blog post now.
If your memory is good, then you’ll recall reading back in May’s report on this year’s New England 1000 that the Alfa’s alternator failed us in the middle of the rally. If your memory is not so good, or if you’re just joining us, you can read about it here.
The truth is, I should have been wise to an impending failure, as even with the Red-Top Optima battery on trickle charge, the car would still occasionally need a boost. Alternator output measured at the battery was barely 13 volts, a weak statistic which I rationalized to a low idle.
As mentioned in the rally write-up, the drive to our starting destination was done in a steady rain, with lights blazing and wipers flailing. It’s likely that was enough to seal the fate of the battery.
Tuesday morning, we bought a NAPA-brand battery, and leaving the Optima in its place in the trunk, we simply swapped the cables onto the new unit, using bungee cords to keep it from sliding around. The alternator wasn’t completely dead, just on life support. With the new battery, we had zero starting issues the rest of the week, and coasted home on Friday.
Once again I must give a shout to my friends at Classic Alfa in the UK. A new alternator, ordered Tuesday afternoon after they had closed for the day, arrived at my house on Thursday evening. I dare say that most U.S.-based suppliers would not have been able to get me one with such speed. So Memorial Day weekend was spent in part performing the alternator-ectomy.
Access to the unit in the engine compartment was quite good, improved by the battery’s relocation to the trunk, performed by the previous owner (PO). The PO had also removed the factory generator (which I still have) and installed this alternator plus an external voltage regulator. My new replacement alternator has an internal regulator, and it’s a so-called one-wire job.
I photographed the wiring to help with any reinstallation questions, then removed the two components. I noted that the alternator’s upper mounting bracket was at a slight angle, and vowed to focus on improving that geometry when putting it all back together.
With everything hooked up, I measured a steady 13.8 volts at the battery (yet another new Red-Top that I purchased to be on the safe side). I was able to recover the old Optima by very slowly trickle-charging it, and both that battery and the barely-used NAPA one were sold to a young man in my office who is always working on 3-4 project vehicles at a time. (And for the record, both the old alternator and regulator were put in the trash. I don’t keep worn-out parts around.)
The only issue, and it’s the smallest of nits to pick, is that the one-wire alternator needs to be ‘excited’ after initial start before it will charge (much the same can be said about me). The ammeter reads zero until I bring engine revs above 3,500 rpm (waiting a few minutes so that oil circulates), at which point, the amp gauge needle jumps to life. It’s a small price to pay to be secure in the knowledge that the battery’s got the juice to crank that 1300cc monster to life.
As happens every winter, the collector cars (loosely defined as the cars that don’t get driven in snow) are put away for the winter. The ritual is one that has evolved over the years and is now consistent: fill the tanks with fresh fuel, add Sta-Bil, pump up the tires at least 10 p.s.i. over normal to avoid flat-spotting, put a trickle charger on the batteries, and cover the cars with a dedicated car cover. It’s easy, takes little time, and doesn’t cost very much.
Before going further, let’s take a moment to say a few words about the brands I use, and have continued to use. (I’m a firm believer in finding good products and sticking with them, even if they cost a trifle more. As the cliché goes, ‘you get what you pay for’.)
The Sta-Bil brand of fuel stabilizer, made by Gold Eagle, has been in use in my garage since I’ve owned powered lawn and garden equipment. Many moons ago, I heard stories about lawn mowers and snow throwers, two examples of gas-engine devices which see seasonal use, failing to run because the old gummed-up gas gummed up the works. As soon as I got my first lawn mower, Sta-Bil went into its tank. The gumming has never happened to me, and I’ve stuck with the brand ever since.
Yes, I had my doubts about their ethanol treatment after it seemingly made the Alfa run worse (a conclusion which I now doubt since discovering my carbs are running rich and fouling the plugs a bit), but your basic ‘storage’ version of Sta-Bil is the way to go for any fuel tank in which fuel may sit more than 6 weeks or so.
It’s a similar story with battery chargers. I still have my dad’s Sears charger, which looks like it was made in the 1960s. It works great to jump-start a dead battery, but it ain’t no trickle charger. Long-term battery storage requires both a slow charge (the “trickle”) and a volt-sensing cut-out that won’t overcharge the thing and boil it to death.
The Deltran Battery Tender brand came onto the market several decades ago, and they found their niche for the car collectors whose vehicles are stored in the off-season. While many competing brands have since been introduced, I’ve stayed with what I know works. I think I’m up to 3 of these Battery Tenders in the garage.
Car covers are a relatively new accessory to my winter arsenal. Up until a few years ago, frankly, I didn’t believe in them. It was a combination of fear of paint damage from moisture trapped beneath the cover, and frustration with my inability to find a custom-fit cover for the BMW Isetta (my expectations were a bit high with that one).
Since working at CARiD, I’ve learned a lot about the usefulness of good quality car covers, and one thing I learned is that the Covercraft brand is my favorite. The fit is perfect, and the variety of material choices will satisfy any indoor or outdoor cover needs at any price point.
The Alfa has a Covercraft Block-It Dustop (yes, they had the ’67 Alfa pattern in stock), and the Miata wears the Covercraft Evolution indoor-outdoor cover. In the garage, both covers do more than keep dust off the paint; they also protect the interiors from sunlight, and provide some protection from wayward nuts and bolts spinning out of control off my workbench. I would never again think of storing a car without a cover. Even in the nice weather, if it’s going to be more than a week or two before one of the cars gets driven again, the cover goes on.
All this is a prelude to an announcement about my Mazda Miata: after giving some thought to selling it, I’ve now decided to keep the car. What’s more, next year, in 2018, this 1993 automobile will be 25 years old, making it eligible for AACA events. So I’m going to turn it into a show car.
The plan is to spend the winter tending to some mechanical maintenance, but also attending to some detail work in order to display the car at shows next year as a 25-year-old original unrestored car.
The mechanical list includes new rear brake calipers (one of the parking brake adjusters is stuck), new tires (tread is good, but they’re 10 years old), and a continuation of the LED bulb upgrade. The detail work involves a new convertible top (worn and dirty), an engine compartment detail, Paintless Dent Removal work on some small dings, and a complete polish and wax.
Here’s hoping for a mild winter, which will encourage me to get out to the garage! As long as the temperature is above freezing, I can spend a few hours out there. Watch this blog for updates on my progress with the Miata.