I came to the realisation over the last month or so that the Alfa won’t be ready for any track fun this year (not if I want it done properly, anyway). The departure of the AMG in February means there’s not been much car fun in my life of – the temporary BMW shed that replaced it was exactly that – temporary.

So time for something else.

It needed to be fun, affordable and reasonable to run – the fuel bills on the merc almost killed me. Spurred on by Dave‘s recent decision to buy a VX – and following a three year soap opera (amongst my petrol head friends, anyhow) of “will I, won’t I” I finally did it and took the plunge on an Elise. And here it is:


It’s a very straight 2 owner, 36k miles 2001 S2 Sports Tourer.

Now, there’s no way I was ever going to settle for the factory 120 ponies afforded by the unfettled K-Series Lotus bolted to the middle of Elise Sports Tourers of this vintage – but nor was I going to start forking out a lot of foldy for engine and suspension modifications – that kind of money pit activity is what the Alfa is there for. You never get back the money you spend on modifications, so for a change I let someone else foot the bill and bought a pre-loved and pre-fettled example.

The previous owner (of 4 years) bought the car after he ditched a S1 111S on a wet roundabout made even more fun by a diesel spillage – he intended to keep this car for some years, and as such had spend some cash on numerous yet sensible modifications. However, impending nuptials mean he hadn’t used it much in the last year and couldn’t see that changing, so he’d decided to cut his losses and reluctantly moved it on.

Now this guy is exactly the kind of buyer you dream of when purchasing a used car privately. He’d done the right modifications: expensive engine strip, rebuild and head work conducted by revered K-Series expert Dave Andrews, liberating an extra 40 ponies the right way and protecting against the dreaded K head gasket failure at the same time. Expensive suspension upgrades (Nitrons with new springs and a stiffer bar) that don’t make the ride so hard your fillings fall out. Receipts for corner weighting and full geo setup amongst the extensive and expensive mound of paper work. Nothing visual like silly spoilers or after market wheels to hint at the extra potential.

He’d also had it serviced meticulously by Plans Motorsports, Elise Motorsport extraordinaries, based on the Top Gear test track at Dunsford airfield. Aside: When they do tickets, perhaps they get the stig to perform the road test portion of the MOT? And when I say serviced, I mean annually (should that be anally?), even if it had only done a couple of thousand miles since the last oil change. Unlike the joker in Bristol who boasted full service history on his 6 year old Sport 135 I’d seen the previous week – only had three stamps in the book!

He was honest about the car’s use – used to commute daily before a recent change of job forced him onto the train, done a couple of track days, trip to Italy to blast up and down the Stelvio pass – all the kind of stuff I’d likely do with a car of this kind. Does anyone ever believe those “never tracked or driven hard” classifieds for proper fast metal?

It could do with a respray on the front clam – not excessive but noticable due to the dark colour – but the asking price more than compensated…

First impressions? Fast, but not crazily so – the AMG would eat it in a straight line above 60mph. Handling – awesome, but need to do some geo fiddling to dial out a touch of understeer. Fit and finish and practicality – pretty impressive, no rattles, actually pretty cosy once you’re in, although a longer run gives you ear ache and the induction drone at a constant speed mean motorways are best avoided. Also I’m getting over 30 to the gallon despite driving like a complete loon – at its worse, the Merc managed 8mpg (round Donnington) and on average you got just over 200 miles for £60 at the pumps. I’ve just brimmed it with £30 of Optimax and the trip is showing 195 miles from the last tankful…

So, what’s the other recent addition to the fleet? Well, just a week of driving the Elise revealed its not for shrinking violets – and you feel like a complete tool running down to the shops for a pint of milk. Bobbie wasn’t keen travelling in it at all with the roof off, and it’s not really practical for long motorway journeys due to the damage to the ear drums.

On friday evening, a routine scan of the AROC forums revealed a solution by way of a member’s Alfa 164 luxo-shed for sale, converted to LPG. These cars are literally worth less than their tax discs these days, but I know they’re pretty bullet proof – a lot of Alfa specialists run them as loan cars – I had one for about 3 months a few summers ago when my last Alfa engine was being fettled at Jamie Porter’s. With basic care, the engines go past 200k with ease and there’s no cam belts to snap as they have a chain to drive the camshafts. They don’t rust (some really poor examples might have a bit of bubbling on the arches – but nothing of note for the MOT inspector).

What really attracted me about this example was a load of recent work for the MOT, a leather interior and the LPG conversion – £30 of gas will get you 400 miles if you’re light footed! That’s the equivalent of about 60mpg. Check the pic – Zender alloys! And factory “Designed by Pininfarina” badges! Check out the two-tone red wine over tarmac grey paint job!

A very small purchase price (about the same as an interim service on the Lotus) combined with the LPG savings and the fact that the insurer on the classic will cover this on the same policy means this really is budget motoring. In stark contrast to about every other car I’ve bought recently….

Having had all its paint removed, the marathon that is the refurbishment of the Alfa’s shell is finally in the home straight. It’s at Rugby Autobodies awaiting a skim of filler (to smooth out the 35 year old’s wrinkles) and many coats of AR501 twin pack paint.

Here are some pictures of the naked rolling shell as it was when I picked it up from Sodablast Systems in Tyersley a couple of weeks back (the day I flew back from Beijing, as it happens…)

The blasting revealed nothing more sinister than a touch of corrosion around the rear window frames under where the chrome trims sit (must have got some damp under them over the years – this will be treated before the car is pained.

Kind of sad seeing the old girl so far from being road worthy – however this is rock bottom – every job on the car from now on sees it a step closer to being reassembled into a formidable track tool, starting with the paint.

In other news, batman has been scheming on the engine build, planning to tempt a great and renowned Alfa engine guru out of retirement to build up the head. Can’t wait.

Alfa update

March 22, 2008

It’s been some months since I posted on the progress of my Alfa build. There’s been a fair bit more welding – rear panel and inner/outer arches plus middle and outer sill on the offside in addition to those on the nearside since my last report. Although its been a touch expensive at least I know the car is 100% steel and the repairs should be good for many years to come.

One positive to come out of this was an opportunity to sort out once and for all the fit of the driver’s door – the gap between the bottom edge and the sill was always too big (around a half inch) and it didn’t sit too well with the b-pillar. Now we’ve replaced the outer sill properly, the fit is much better, and Pete (aka weld-o-man) took to opportunity to roll back some metal out of the rear wing and butt-weld the seam back up to get the b-pillar to door gap looking just right.

Meanwhile, I was tasked with stripping everything from the car. Seeing as I’m never going to have the car in this many pieces ever again (engine and gearbox out, pretty much the bottom 6″ of the car replaced) I’m going to take the whole lot back to metal and respray it inside and out. This means I’ve spent about 3 weekends stripping the whole interior, wiring loom, hydraulic lines, exhaust and all the trim off the car so it is now a bare shell. The photo shows the car halfway through this process (you can see the brake servos are still in).

The loom came out in one piece and looks in pretty good condition – I’ve managed to keep the stalks and the buttons attached so re-fitting it shouldn’t be that difficult. The hydraulic lines, however, were a complete nightmare and I resorted to cutting them in places – so much corrosion where the lines enter under-floor master cylinder that trying to unfasten the unions resulted in them turning to brown dust. As the lines were all steel, they could do with complete replacement with copper items which won’t rust.

I also took the opportunity to ask Pete to weld in some proper seat mounts – the existing arrangement consisted of bolting the buckets to universal Sparco mounts bought from Demon Tweeks, and then bolting these in turn onto the captive nuts (mounted on the floor pans) that held the old runners. After a quick personal fitting, with the seat roughly in place thanks to two antique blocks of wood (Pete’s main business is restoring old French furniture) he welded two hefty cross members (per side) between the inner sills and the transmission tunnel. The universal mounts now sit on these instead. Much safer in the event of an “off”.

So, although it looks like complete shit at the moment, the project is actually coming together nicely. With just wheels still attached so the shell is mobile, the next step is getting all the paint and old filler blasted off and then it’s ready for a fresh skim of P38, prime and a very neat paint job inside and out. Then comes the tedious job of a re-fit.

Meanwhile, batman is having a tinker with the engine side of things. He’s making noises about throttle bodies and re-using the actuator from the doner engine that can alter the cam timing with revs – a primitive form of variable valve timing – we could end up with an engine pushing near or even over 200 ponies at this rate. Now the car’s got some metal in it making it nice and stiff, this is shaping up to be one cheeky little track weapon.

Full photoset of latest progress here.

AROC Track Day @ Donnington

October 14, 2007

Some photos from today at Donnington:

Flickr Slideshow

Unfortunately, my Alfa is broken, so I took the Merc instead. I managed to set a 1m 30sec lap time which, according to a chap who came up to speak to me afterwards, was as quick as a Caterham Academy car also lapping in my session. Unfortunately, I only managed to do one 20 minute stint before the belt tensioner which keeps the belt driving my power steering, alternator and fan decided to squeal itself to death, putting an end to the day’s on-track activity. Do you think the Alfa club appreciated my Max Power stick on badges? 😉

New LSD

May 9, 2007

Gripper diff I sent a spare Alfa rear axle up to Charlie Skinner at Cloverleaf Transmissions in Cumbria today to have it fitted with a “Gripper” LSD (Limited Slip Differential).

A differential allows driven wheels on the same axle to rotate at different speeds – this is essential for proper handling going round corners – the inside wheel always travels less distance than the outside one. The characteristics of a normal diff detnote that power will be transmitted to the wheel with the least mechanical resistance to motion. This means under hard cornering, it is possible to “spin up” the inside wheel (which is subject to less weight transfer) than the outside one, meaning it is more difficult to get the power down out of tight corners, as it is wasted driving (and thus spinning) the inside wheel which has the least grip.

Conversely, a limited slip differential can sense the wheel with the most mechanical resistance (and hence grip) and transfer power to this wheel instead. Indeed, it was possible to specify an Alfa GT with a LSD from the factory way back in the early 70’s – and I’ve had one fitted to my GT Junior for a couple of years now. Seeing as it’s a rear wheel drive car, fitting an LSD means it’s possible to powerslide the car out of corners (see photo taken on the way home from Le Mans 2005 😉

The original Alfa diff created its locking effect using clutch plates – these eventually wear out, and the diff needs rebuilding – and this happens even more quickly when you increase the engine power. With the track use my GTJ gets, the diff is now pretty much toast and has lost its locking effect – out of Goddards at Donnington I was spinning up the inside wheel again.

The gripper diff I’ve bought doesn’t rely on friction plates for its locking effect – it’s a geared mechanism that requires no maintenance. The other advantage is that it has two different “ramps” depending if you’re on the power (up to 70% lockup) or on the over-run (up to 40%). The standard Alfa unit was just 25% from the factory regardless. This allows more precise positioning of the car on the approach to corners, reducing the tenancy of LSD diffs which can feel like they are pushing the car straight on into corners on initial turn in.

I’m also taking the oppertunity of reducing the final drive whilst having my diff rebuilt from the long 4.1:1 of my current setup (great for motorways, but barely get into 4th gear on the track) to 4.55:1 (max top speed of about 120, but much better acceleration). This should work much better on the track – I’ll let you know how I get on.

Donnington

May 5, 2007

Yesterday I had the pleasure of driving round Donnington for the very first time, quite how it took me so long to do a trackday at a venue less than 20 miles from where the Alfa is garaged escapes me.

One of the advantages of being just 20 miles from home was that at lunch, with my 35-year old Alfa’s brakes fading (poor fluid and air in the system) and front wheel bearings wobbling (already bought some heavy duty ones for the run to the ‘ring) I took the old girl home for a well-earned rest and picked up the C43 (pictured with Ian Pleeth’s silver GT Junior step-front, below).

Alfa and Merc in Donnington pit garages

The Merc is a complete contrast to the Alfa, much much quieter but with a more sophisticated V8 rumble, so much quicker on the back straights (100 vs. nearly 125mph) and much, much more sideways. But was it any quicker? Certainly up the hills, the Merc with nearly double the torque of the bertie was sensational, and you actually found you had to brake before the Craner Curves, unless you fancy taking them at 110mph in a car weighing over one and a half tonnes (the Alfa, in contrast is well under 1000kg, and probably bearly more than a modern Elise). Through the slower corners, though, the Alfa was undoubtedly quicker, thanks to its better balance and the inability of the Merc’s slushbox to work out what you’re doing, dumping you down a couple of gears at wholely unappropriate moments causing ridiculous oversteer!

Overall I think the Merc was somewhere in the order of 3 seconds a lap quicker. That doesn’t sound a lot and it isn’t – and I think all of that is probably gained on the straight. In addition, the Merc used £10 of petrol for a 15 minute session (around 8mpg – frankly ridiculous) if you regularly tracked it, replacing those SL600 brakes would cost you a packet (they smoked after 3 hard laps) and the cost of the tyres would be prohibitive.

The Alfa on the hand (a not insubstantial 35 years old) uses about £40 of fuel for 6-7 20 minute sessions, my last set of tyres lasted about 7 or 8 trackdays plus road use, excusing today the brakes normally stand up well to repeated abuse (only just replaced the discs after 3 years) and is just as much fun if not more. Plus people come over and talk to you in the pits with comments such as “just beatiful” and “goes well, what engine?” (quote from a Caterham Superlight driver to both me and Ian who we were both barely slower than – driver error).

I’d say on track, Classic Alfa-Modern Merc 1-0.

Couple of photos of me from my trip to Castle Combe early last month. First one is me in the passenger seat of Seb Greenwood’s Maserati Quattroporte Evolution V8:

Me in the passenger seat during a hotlap in a Maser QP V8 twin turbo

…and this one of me driving (BFU 800K) trying to overtake a GTA into quarry:

Me into quarry