Owner Review

1986 Alfa Romeo Sprint review

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Full disclosure – I owned this car with my son 11 years ago, and it is no longer in our possession. Recently, I came across this photo and it brought back a flood of memories. I thought I would share.

As a parent you kind of hope that one day your children will reward all stress and headaches they give you by taking an interest in your passions. As a car enthusiast, I’m afraid none of my kids have become petrolheads, but over the years there have been glimmers of hope.

At one stage, my daughter thought it would be cool to drive an old classic, and she bought an EH Holden from the side of the road. The infatuation did not last long, and the car was soon moved on when the truth of owning a rusty, uncomfortable and unreliable old car became a reality.

The whole thing might have been a bit of a disappointment for my daughter, but it did give me my coolest dad moment ever. One day, she was stranded with a broken gearbox linkage, and I was able to come to her rescue with nothing more than a pair of pliers and a piece of wire coathanger!

My oldest son was always far too busy chasing a football around to give much thought to cars. When he got his licence, we looked around but there really wasn’t very much available in our price range.

I was surprised and pleased when he took an interest in a brilliant red 1986 Alfa Romeo Sprint Veloce that we saw advertised close to home for surprisingly little money. On the phone the seller said he had just finished the restoration, and when my son saw the fresh red paint gleaming in the sun and heard the rasp of the exhaust note, his eyes lit up and the deal was done.

Now, in this safety-conscious age, a Sprint may not seem an obvious choice for a first car. I’ll admit that ANCAP would be more likely to rate it five 'black holes' for safety rather than five stars. Despite this (and the horrified look on my wife’s face when we got home), I’m going to stick up for the Alfa and argue the merits of this car for P-platers.

The Alfa Sprint was based on the famous Alfasud. The Alfasud was an Italian government program to bring employment to the economically depressed south of Italy in the 1970s. What Alfa Romeo came up with was a small front-wheel-drive hatchback with a flat four-cylinder engine for a low centre of gravity. The Alfasud was light and nippy, and famed for its spirited handling.

The Sprint was essentially the same mechanicals wrapped up in a sexy coupe body. My Alfa Sprint Veloce had the full-fat 'big bore' 1500cc engine with two twin-barrel carburettors, one over each bank of cylinders. This produced a heady 105hp, which pretty much tested the full capability of the front-wheel-drive chassis.

It wasn’t a fast car by any means, but it always felt like you were going 100 miles an hour. The engine would roar, the interior would creak and groan, and the steering wheel would wrestle in your hands. You were always engaged when driving this car. There is a saying that it is much more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow, and this car proved the point.

The Sprint handled well, the steering was heavy but had great feel, and the brakes were good. The gear shift may have felt vague and there was a fair amount of torque steer, but add this to the false sense of speed, and the driver was always far too busy keeping the car on the road to even think about reaching for a mobile phone. Driving this car was never a passive experience.

To my way of thinking, all that made it a great first car. My son remembers the car as “gritty, cool and stylish”, and for him it felt much more special than all his mates' Commodores and Japanese hatchbacks. For a small car, it also had a surprisingly spacious cabin with lots of head and leg room, which was important as my son is close to six-and-a-half feet tall.

Of course, not everything was perfect. We kind of got the idea that the restoration may not have been the best, when one of the front suspension struts collapsed while driving down the road. Later we found out the whole strut assembly had been put on backwards! The build quality was not first-rate, fuel economy was poor as the carburettors liked to slurp premium fuel, and of course the Italian electrics were diabolical.

Italian cars of the past are notorious for dodgy electrics. This stems partly from the fact that Italy is very poor in natural resources, but one thing they do have plenty of is aluminium ore. This is great for making lightweight revvy engine blocks and lightweight body panels, but terrible for electrical connections.

Because the electrical connections are not made from copper but from the equivalent of alfoil, every drive in the Sprint was an adventure. The headlights and indicators would mostly work, but never at the same time. Both would stop working if you put the wipers on. The high-beams would stay on with the indicators, but stop working when reverse gear was selected. Like I said earlier, this car needed all your concentration to drive. At least, after having owned this car, my son now feels that he can drive just about anything.

In the end, my son ended up inheriting my Honda Accord Euro when the lease ran out and it was time to say arrivederci to the Alfa Sprint. I thought I would cheekily try to trade it in on a new Alfa Romeo. The sales manager spent nearly an hour calling every wholesaler he knew, but nobody wanted to touch it! In the end, he gave me $2K trade-in towards a new 159 (black with red leather seats – bellissima), and said he would worry about what to do with the Sprint later.

Perhaps this was out of pity. Or he was just desperate to sell me the 159. But I think just possibly, just maybe, I may have seen a little twinkle in his eye. I wonder if he had an 18-year-old P-plater waiting at home ready for an adventure.