How reliable is a £50 Alfa Romeo 156?

Feb 24, 2019 9 min read
How reliable is a £50 Alfa Romeo 156?

We buy a 2000 Alfa Romeo 156 for the grand total of £50 ($63) and embark upon a tour of  Cumbria and Scotland. What could possibly go wrong?

I didn’t plan on falling head over heels for an Alfa Romeo 156. Like most enduring love stories, the dynamics between X993 FAE and myself resulted from a long combination of circumstance and timing. Things lined up, and now I’m the proud owner of a troublesome Alfa. Apparently this makes no sense to anyone but me.

I happily signed the V5C just over a year ago and have driven little more than a handful of miles since, due largely to impending mechanical self-detonation. Regardless, I’m the content custodian of a 2-litre Twin Spark 156. It may have failed its MoT in spectacular fashion and left me with a repair bill that would send most running for the hills, but I love it. Did I mention this made no sense to anyone else?

My initial introduction to this particular Alfa took place in Cambridge, where I was helping a fellow motoring journalist collect the 156 from yet another motoring journalist. You could say this 156 had been around the houses! Upon a successful purchase, our first task was to get the Alfa out to its new residence in a nearby Fenland village. Except this was Cambridge, in gridlock on a Sunday afternoon, and the Alfa wasn’t getting anywhere fast.

Ahead in the queue, I caught glances of the 156 in my car’s door mirror. With its pointed snout and angular headlights it looked irritated by the hold-up, or was it more moodily sexy? I never got to my conclusion for that’s when I noticed flustered waving from my friend.

The Alfa had started to overheat and suddenly required a quick exit from the glut of traffic. We diverted into a narrow side street and enjoyed an impromptu lunch on the backseats while allowing the Italian engine to cool. I told my friend he’d picked a nice, if somewhat problematic car. It was just a pity it wasn’t mine.

Over the next few weeks, I saw the 156 on and off as my friend’s path occasionally crossed with mine. I didn’t believe that my mind was thinking about it that much, but I was being lured in, albeit on a subconscious level. You might say the die had already been cast.

1. £ 50 Alfa Romeo 156 Bangernomics

I already carried potential as an Alfa Romeo customer, appreciating character over dependability. Now I was hearing the soulful acoustic of a 2-litre Twin Spark and it felt as though the soundtrack travelled a direct route from my ear down to my yearning heart.

But this yearning was soon replaced by dismay when my friend said he’d chosen to part with said Alfa. He agreed it was a shame, but that the 156 had actually been bought as a ‘spares or repairs’ car three motoring journalists ago. Almost everyone in our immediate circle had played with it since, while the list of maladies under the crisp Italian lines had grown ever longer. He was bailing before the dreaded MoT, hoping someone could take it off his hands while it still possessed a few weeks more legality. Living on a shoestring only freelancers can relate to, I was not positioned to absorb the problem and I sighed.

I truly believe the only way you can decide if you and a car will make an agreeable coupling is to disappear together on a long journey. This allows you to relax behind the wheel and assess if you find satisfaction in operating the switchgear and working through the transmission. It allows day to slip into the dark of night and then back again, while the car gets the opportunity to present its personality and let you know exactly what you’re in for.

I told myself I did not plan to own the 156, I was merely curious. One of the local motoring publications had asked me to travel long-distance to Scotland to review several classic cars, so I requested a borrow of the 156, to which my friend agreed with a chuckle and ‘You’ll never make it.’ To a stubborn lady like me, his quip merely poured fuel on the fire.

Within only a few miles, things were clicking into place in the 156 that had struggled to find a long-term home. I immediately adored the interior. Steering and gear changes were deliciously smooth thanks to the polished wood fitments within my hands. Knowing exactly what was going on was effortless thanks to large dual binnacles ahead reminiscent of many classic Alfas, with all the other gauges on my left angled back at me.

I sat in surprising comfort, with no need to twist myself into the stereotypical ‘Italian driving position’, surrounded by velour on the seats and all down the doors. Before I’d even reached the motorway, I’d concluded that the 156 interior was a special place to be, despite the air conditioning system exercising a mind of its own; it mostly did exactly the opposite of what I requested. Merging from the slip road, I figured I could live with this fault. Not that I was going to, but it was good to know for reference of course.

The A1 was predictably manic but I soon found that passing the various lorries, white vans and caravan-burdened tourists was joyfully gratifying as we navigated further and further north. As the sun began to slip from the sky, the white dashes on the road flashed past the Alfa’s front lights and sped under the chassis, disappearing out of sight in the rear view mirror while being chased by the most sensual engine note I’d ever heard.

I delighted in the experience so much, I was happy to freeze by an open window to listen to it even more. The Alfa should have been able to warm the cabin back up for me but it had decided it didn’t want to. I laughed in the realisation that I liked this car. It had character and I strangely didn’t want the A1 to run out.

In the dark, we pulled into North Berwick so I could find something to eat. I headed straight for an old haunt run by a Scots-Italian family. Their initial query as to why I was driving so late quickly became a discussion over the 156 parked outside their restaurant. There were observations of its good looks but many questions over whether it was giving me any trouble. To my answer ‘Mostly No’, the chap who was serving me frowned.

He asked if it overheated in traffic and I thought of Cambridge. “Water pump sounds bad. You will need to remove engine to fix it. Will be expensive.” was the advice handed across along with some spaghetti bolognese. This was disappointing news to contemplate as I savoured their flavoursome cooking.

However, the Alfa’s temperature stayed exactly where it was supposed to as I commuted from car dealer to car dealer, testing the required classics as I went, but it was proving anything but a simple trip. Originally I was only supposed to visit two dealers and then return home but, while the Alfa had eagerly lapped up the A1, Storm Doris had crossed the Atlantic and began to interfere with our plans.

Doris brought high gales, snow and hail to proceedings. I was effectively stuck away from home until the weather cleared. Stopping for fuel, I admired the 156 in front of me. I thought it ironic that despite my friend’s lack of confidence in the car, out of everything, the Alfa was proving the most reliable aspect of my trip. Just as well really, for we had much bigger obstacles ahead.

All I had to do was get the Alfa and myself to the small village of Coniston, where I’d have a bed for the night. Those angular headlights came into their own, lighting up grey stone walls and dancing back at me upon reflections on Ullswater. We passed through Glenridding and then Patterdale, where the road then rose sharply as we took on the Kirkstone Pass. This weaving grey ribbon of tarmac climbs up from the Ullswater valley to a height of 1,489 feet where, in daytime, there’s an awe-inspiring vista to be had out of every car window.

It was almost midnight when the Alfa began its ascent and consequently there was no panoramic view for me to revel in. Soon there was no view at all for we’d driven straight into a heavy layer of fog hanging over the mountain. I slowed in the knowledge that there were notable drops either side of the road. I switched off main beam and couldn’t see. I switched off dipped headlamps and couldn’t see. I fumbled around for a fog light but couldn’t find any trace of it. There was just white nothing ahead, behind and out of the now open side windows.

My slowing became a complete halt on the road. Apart from the Twin Spark idling on its own, there seemed to be no other sound. I’d never felt isolation like it and was slightly unnerved. I momentarily got out, but upon standing in fog so thick that I felt like I would drown if I breathed it in, I quickly got back inside.

I considered manoeuvring the car for a turnaround back to visibility but I could see so little that I decided against it. Being on the main road, I knew I couldn’t just sit there. Safety Gill, safety – where was that damn fog light? I switched on the interior light and looked all around. Nothing. ‘It can’t not have fog lights!’ I muttered, opening the glove compartment and reaching for the driver’s handbook.

'Between the driver and passenger seat' the handbook said. My hand reached behind my seat and found some unexpected buttons. I pressed and it was like I’d personally rung the bell for the hand of God. Suddenly red fog glowed angrily out of the rear window, while the light ahead of the 156 had somehow dropped, allowing me to just make out a faint white line highlighting the edge of the road. I could have cried and cheered at the same time. Instead ‘You are a beautiful car and I love you!’ was exclaimed as the handbook was placed down on the passenger seat and we gingerly crept forward.

Coniston never felt so far away as I guided the 156 as if it were made of glass. I hesitantly took a fork to the right, onto a particularly steep descent known locally as ‘The Struggle’ and hoped for the best. This was the only route to my destination without having to retrace my steps through the fog we’d blindly snaked through. The Alfa and I would just have to keep going. I would have to concentrate as we tiptoed our way back down to civilisation.

It was with much relief that we emerged into the twinkling streetlights and slate grey buildings of Ambleside. I concluded that after so many miles I was in fact smitten. Something had changed. Not only did I like this Alfa, a sort of bonding had just occurred up in the black of the mountain and the encompassing fog. I wanted to keep this car despite its impending MoT. I wanted it to live.

With the bad weather subsiding, the Alfa and I were now free to head home. Not that Storm Doris made it easy time for us as she pushed the 156 around with her strong winds, me jostling with the steering up on the exposed M62. It was here, as the wipers struggled back and forth against the glass, that I noticed what had been a tiny chip in the lower corner of the windscreen had grown into a crack on the passenger side. This Alfa was clearly going to need some love if it were to survive. We ploughed on, eventually making it home later that evening.

“Please let me buy your Alfa …” I said to my friend eagerly. He shook his head. I put some money in his hand. He gave it back. I put the same and then some more money in his hand. He also gave that back. “Gill, that 156 is Alfa shaped scrap – there’s far too much wrong with it and I can’t sell it to you.” I sat back frustrated.

A week later, my friend asked me why there had been an electronic transfer of £200 to his bank account with the label “TO BUY THE ALFA”. I laughed and said “You can’t refuse sale of the car if I’ve already bought it. I want it. Please.” He was a man defeated. He knew how stubborn I could be. He agreed to sign the V5C as long as I fully understood what I was buying, and even gave me £150 back as a good luck gesture. The deal was done.

There was just enough time before the MoT expired to transfer the Alfa to a storage area, where it could sit even if it failed. Too broke to book the MoT, I opted to SORN the Alfa until finances were stronger. Work soon called me away again and upon my return, I found out that my friend had taken the 156 for its MoT on my behalf meantime. It had failed catastrophically, with the longest list of faults on a car I’ve ever seen and a story of how it had broken the garage’s brake testing machine.

As it turns out, I've a scary amount of work to undertake on the car. Yet, where others would dispatch such a vehicle to the claw, I'm instead saving for parts. The Alfa will return. Besides, I like eating gruel...

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