Alfa Romeo brake system overhaul, Part 1

Now, the full story as to why I was not able to drive my Alfa to this year’s AROC (Alfa Romeo Owner’s Club) annual convention in Pittsburgh can be told. In my initial post about the convention, I wrote:

Let’s get this bit of disappointing news out of the way: while this Alfista was in attendance, his ’67 Alfa GT Junior was not. Four days before the scheduled departure, the car’s right front brake caliper locked up, and although repair parts were obtained, there wasn’t enough time to effect a safe and sufficient repair. So the green stepnose stayed home.

This is what happened: Four days before we planned to leave for Pittsburgh, I drove the Alfa to my friend George’s house. George (Geo to his really close friends) lives just five miles away, and while he was excited to join in the weekend’s festivities, he had never driven my car before. I thought it only fair that he have a crack at it before we commenced on a 6-hour journey.

As soon as I pulled out of my garage that morning, I sensed that something was amiss. The car seemed a little down on power, and it pulled to the right. Other than that, it drove OK, so I pushed onward. The moment I entered Geo’s driveway and killed the engine, smoke emanated from under the closed hood. I popped the hood but saw nothing obvious. When Geo came out, I explained what had happened, and we both decided to let him drive the car, if only for 2 or 3 miles.

Once Geo got the car back to his place, the smoke returned, only this time, the source was clear: it was pouring off the right front brake. Hindsight made the drifting and low power obvious: this brake caliper was seized. I was lucky we weren’t seeing flames.

We pulled the wheel and there was nothing visibly wrong that we could try to fix on the spot. Putting the wheel back on, I reasoned that I could “carefully” drive the 5 miles back home, and work on it there. As soon as I bade Geo ciao, I started the car, put it in first, and headed down his driveway to the street, where I would need to turn left. Hitting the brake pedal, it sank to the floor. Thankfully, my parking brake (sort of) works, and I used it to stop at the bottom of the driveway. I backed the car up the drive, and started to figure out what Plan B looked like.

Geo couldn’t understand the loss of the pedal. I reasoned that the heat had caused the fluid to boil. Sure enough, 15 minutes later, a firm pedal returned. But I wasn’t driving this car home. There’s a reason I carry an AAA card. I called, they said one hour, and the truck was there in 90 minutes. In seven seasons of ownership, and in over 11,000 miles of driving, this car has never ridden on the back of a flat bed – until this brake failure. But the risk in driving it wasn’t worth it.

 

There’s a first time for everything

While waiting for the truck, I had time to calculate how I was going to get this repaired by Friday morning, just a few hours shy of four days away. My go-to Alfa parts supplier, Classic Alfa in the UK, was still open, if barely. I had always placed my orders via their website, never by phone, and this seemed like a most valid reason to spend the money for an international call. Given their stellar shipping reputation, I could have the parts by Wednesday, which I reckoned would still allow enough time to make a repair.

I called. ‘Chris’ answered. I explained my dilemma and asked him about my options. He quickly offered the choice of either remanufactured (reman) ATE calipers, or brand new ones. I asked him for the price difference, and he replied about 20 British pounds (approximately $25 thanks to the Brexit-depressed value of the pound). I figured that the small differential between new and reman made the new ones a deal, so I ordered a set. Since a core return wasn’t required, I asked Chris to include a caliper rebuild kit, thinking that I would eventually refurbish the old ones. It was now close to noon on Monday in New Jersey, and Chris said I should see the parts by late Wednesday.

Chris was wrong. The parts were in my hands at 5:30 pm ON TUESDAY. This was a miracle, and I presumed that the boys in the UK pushed the order through, having heard that I was planning on driving this thing to the U.S. Alfa convention in 4 days. So far, so good.

Shiny new caliper, ATE-like

Opening the box, the first disappointment was to discover that while these were certainly new calipers, they were not marked ATE, and I had to conclude that they were ATE copies. I unbolted the offending caliper, and an eyeball comparison proved that the new one was identically shaped. All I had to do was swap over the pads, connect the hard brake line, and bleed the system.

Right front rotor shows slight scoring, looks salvageable

With the existing pads and pad hardware installed, I knelt at the right front knuckle, held the 11 pound caliper in my right hand, and began to thread the brake line fitting into the new caliper with my left hand. The threads would not start. I tried every trick I knew; after perhaps 20 minutes, it felt like the threads had started, but I was unable to turn the fitting by hand more than half a turn. Of course, the dreaded fear is that I might cross-thread it, and ruin the caliper and/or the brake line fitting. After another 20 minutes, with blisters forming on the pads of my fingers, it felt again like it started. I picked up the flare nut wrench, and slowly, carefully, brought the fitting all the way down. It was about 8pm on Tuesday night. I was drenched, from both the 100% humidity and the nervous energy.

Flare-nut wrenches (this fitting is 11mm) indispensable for brake line work

The next evening, I removed the (good) left front caliper, and, convinced that the previous night’s issues were behind me, went through the same routine: swapped the pads, held the caliper up to the knuckle, and began to thread the pipe fitting. SAME PROBLEM. Desperate, I removed the hard line from the car, and brought it and the new caliper to the workbench, where I wouldn’t need to struggle with the caliper’s weight. I never came close to getting the threads to start.

New caliper looks great, too bad it leaks

I rationalized: I have the new caliper on the right front, to replace the known bad caliper. Certainly, I can keep the existing left front caliper in place and drive the car a few hundred miles. The left front caliper was reinstalled. Geo stopped by to assist. We were ready to bleed (the brakes, not us). I filled the master reservoir, asked Geo to climb in, and we began the “pump, hold, release” routine of manual brake bleeding.

There was a drip at the fitting at the right front caliper.

Reluctantly, I put a wrench on it and got another 10-15 degrees in clockwise motion. The bleeding resumed, and so did the dripping. I told Geo that we were done. While I did have the rebuild kit, it was now after dark on Wednesday, and I was out of time, patience, and confidence. Working on a car under such duress only encourages poor decision-making, unnecessary shortcuts, and botched repairs. My only desire was to enjoy the AROC convention, knowing that I would resume this wrenching at an unhurried pace upon my return. The new calipers would go back to Classic Alfa as defective or unusable.

… to be continued …

All photographs copyright © 2019 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

The Alfa Gets Its 2019 Tune-up

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.

 

Bosch rotor, unlike ones I serviced on Volvos, uses a set screw to hold it in place.

 

Old rotor showed tip wear, but appeared normal to me

 

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.

C-clip holds points in place; tricky to remove and hold onto

 

Points showed rather severe pitting

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.)

Bosch rotor is different part number for 1300 compared to US-spec cars- note German “OEL” (oil)

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.

Freshly-serviced distributor, with new points, condensor, and rotor

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.

In addition to replacing coil (old one here), I fabricated a new coil-to-distributor wire

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.

 

All photographs copyright © 2019 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

Alfa Romeo Valve Adjustment, Part 2

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.)

This magnet was very helpful in encouraging the slippery follower to come out

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.

 

Never-seize coating on plug threads
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!

 

All photographs and video recordings copyright © 2019 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

 

Replacing the Alfa’s Alternator

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.

Old alternator and attendant wiring connections

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.

 

Old one again. Note alignment of upper bracket.

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.)

New alternator in place, and better aligned too

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.

 

A good number

 

All photographs copyright © 2018 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

The Alfa Gets a Tune-Up

A tune-up? Who performs “tune-ups” anymore? Modern cars have spoiled us with their extended service intervals. My 2014 VW Jetta calls for an oil and filter change every 10,000 miles, and spark plug and air filter replacement every 60,000 miles. That’s about it. There are other new vehicles for which the manufacturer recommends spark plugs every 100,000 miles. You might forget they were in there if you wait that long.

It’s different, of course, with an older car. The ’67 Alfa Romeo GT 1300 Junior taking residence in my garage still uses an ignition distributor with a cap, rotor, points, and condenser (ask any person under 30, even an auto buff, what are points and condenser, but be prepared to ‘splain).

GT 1300 Junior used Bosch electrics. Other Alfas used Marelli.
GT 1300 Junior used Bosch electrics. Other Alfas used Marelli.

When I obtained the Alfa in March of 2013, with 54k on the clock, I did what I normally do with any used car that’s new to me – I attended to all the normal maintenance items as a proactive measure, no matter how meticulous the previous owner may have been. In my case, the Alfa’s 1.3L engine got new plugs, wires, cap, rotor, points, and condenser. There was peace of mind knowing the tune was good for a while.

Remove air hose (2 clamps) and all 4 plugs are readily accessible
Remove air hose (2 clamps) and all 4 plugs are readily accessible

Right now, the car barely has 62,000 miles on it, so it’s only been eight thousand miles, but it’s been three and a half years. Earlier this year, I ordered a full complement of tune-up items, just to have them on hand. My plan was to revisit the tune at the 10,000 interval, or at 64,000 miles.

For some reason, last weekend, I decided to pull the plugs. First of all, I can’t think of an engine on which it’s easier to change the four spark plugs. Yes, I need to remove the air filter hose to access the #4 plug, but that takes 30 seconds. Once that’s out of the way, the plugs are RIGHT THERE. So out they came.

The 4 old Bosch plugs
The 4 old Bosch plugs

Plugs numbers one, two, and three looked almost identical. That’s not to say that they looked good. All three of them had significant carbon deposits on them. They were not wet from gas, nor oily, nor sooty with unburned fuel, which was some good news.

The shock was the fourth and final plug, which had so much material deposited on it that I seriously questioned how this thing was firing. (The engine mostly ran fine before I pulled the plugs, with the very infrequent high-speed miss. I was still attributing the miss to a fuel issue.)

I've been working on cars for 40 years. I can't believe this plug fired.
The #4 plug. I’ve been working on cars for 40 years. I can’t believe this plug fired.

Before proceeding further, I went into the house to pull my invoices on the car. When I bought the plugs, early in 2013, I had not yet settled on an Alfa supplier which I felt met my needs. The plugs were purchased from a U.S. supplier with whom I no longer conduct business. They were Bosch plugs, and from everything I’ve since researched, no one today recommends these plugs for Alfa engines. My principal supplier, Classic Alfa in the U.K. exclusively recommends NGK plugs, and that’s what went in as replacements.

Photo documents rotor direction, for correct orientation when reinstallling
Photo documents rotor direction, for correct orientation when reinstallling distributor

While I was under the hood, I removed the distributor (one 10mm hold-down bolt), and replaced the points and condenser. I lubed the distributor in three places, put on the new cap and rotor, and put it all back together. She fired right up, of course! – unlike three years ago, when I accidentally grounded the points….

Service book recommends distributor removal for points replacement
Service book recommends distributor removal for points and condenser replacement

Taking the car for a test drive, I was not expecting any significant power improvement. I mean, we’re starting with 100 hp, so, who’s going to feel a 5% increase? What was noticeable was the difference in throttle response. Touching the accelerator pedal gave an immediate jump in RPM. The car was such a joy to drive that I stayed out for about 30 minutes, taking it through the gears, and bringing that rev-happy Italian engine up to 6 grand on the tach. Oh, and no high-speed miss.

So, lesson learned. European sports cars which get driven infrequently need to have their state of tune checked more frequently. It’s easy enough to do, so there’s no excuse. This ain’t no 2014 VW. Thankfully.

 

All photographs copyright © 2016 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

 

New Tie Rod Ends for Enzo’s Alfa

My good friend Enzo (“EC” to his buddies) bought his first collector car, a 1991 Alfa Romeo spider, last autumn. This was not Enzo’s first Italian car, as he had Fiats as daily drivers, albeit 30 years ago. But upon retirement, he decided to treat himself, and found this pristine low mileage beauty locally. Like any other 25-year-old vehicle, it needed attention to some small details, but EC has been fastidious about staying on top of needed repairs.

When I had had the chance to go over the car with him late last year, we found that one of the tie rod end boots was torn. It didn’t require immediate replacement, but over the winter he ordered parts, then invited me to his home for a day to be spent swapping out tie rod ends.

One of the outer tie rod ends, about to meet its demise
One of the outer tie rod ends, about to meet its demise

Upon arriving one day last week, I saw that he had ordered ALL SIX tie rod ends. I was under the now-mistaken impression that we were replacing only the two outer. (All 4-cylinder Alfas on the 750-, 101-, and 105 platforms use recirculating ball steering, with a center link and two tie rods. Each rod has two ball joints, one with right-hand thread, and one with left-hand thread, to allow for toe adjustment.)

One of the tie rods is out, with parts and parts bags strewn on the bench
One of the tie rods is out and is measured

We got to work. First order of business was to pull out the cotter pins, but these pins were so thin and rusted that half of them broke before we could retract them. We ended up forcing the socket over the castle nuts and using an impact wrench to remove all six nuts.

Part numbers marked on each end to keep track
Part numbers marked on each end to keep track

A trick I had remembered from doing the same repair on my Alfa was to rotate the steering wheel to bring the center nuts to an exposed position from within the engine compartment. Then, using a long extension, we could gun the nuts loose from up top, which was much easier than trying it while on our backs.

Next came out the pickle fork. Persuasion from a two-pound hammer was all it took to get the links to drop.

We were cranking the tunes in the garage!
We were cranking the tunes in the garage!

With the three links off the car, we counted threads AND measured overall length, as our best attempt to reassemble the car without changing the alignment too much. We matched up old and new parts (with EC marking part numbers on each component using a Sharpie), and had all six tie rod ends installed into their respective links within minutes.

This may have been the point when we took a lunch break. Prosciutto, Parmesan, salami, olives, and wine (!) were on the menu. Lunch concluded with a nice cup of coffee (to wake me up after the wine), and we were back to the garage.

Masking tape helps keep identification straight (wine does not)
Masking tape helps keep identification straight (wine does not)

The new parts, bought from Classic Alfa in the UK (the author’s favorite Alfa parts supplier) used castle nuts and cotter pins for the four outer ends, and locking nuts for the two inner. We did not have the correct-sized cotter pins on hand, so the ever-resourceful EC made his own from coat hanger wire. The temporary pins will be replaced with authentic pins once he gets to the store.

Much to my surprise and satisfaction, all six nuts tightened right up without giving us any trouble. I had concerns that the ball joints might spin and prevent us from reaching the proper torque, but that didn’t happen. With everything buttoned up, Enzo took the car for a test drive, and came back to report that the only issue was a steering wheel which was slightly off center. The car will need an alignment after this work anyway.

Front wheels remained attached during driveaway
Front wheels remained attached during test drive

At the rate my friend EC is moving, there is very little else that needs attention on this gorgeous drop-top. It’s running great, and he’s got the summer to enjoy it! I know that we’ll see him and his Alfa out with us on our weekend jaunts.

 

All photographs copyright © 2016 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.