The Alfa Romeo Montreal is a beautiful, underrated Italian hero
Alfa Romeo’s Montreal is stuff of legend. First seen in concept form at its namesake city’s Expo 1967, it won the hearts of the masses and it wasn’t long before production plans were in place.
While the concept car featured the 1.6-litre engine of the Alfa Romeo Giulia TI and the short wheelbase chassis of the Alfa Romeo Giulia Sprint GT, the production model that debuted at the 1970 Geneva Motor Show was an entirely different beast. The 33 Stradale-derived 197bhp, 2.6-litre cross-plane, oversquared fuel injected V8 was coupled to a five-speed ZF manual gearbox – the same as in the Aston Martin DBS – and a limited-slip differential. The chassis and running gear, which included double wishbone suspension with coil springs and dampers up front, were taken from the Giulia GTV coupé.
But one aspect that remained, for the most part, unchanged, was the body by Marcello Gandini – the man behind the Lamborghini Countach and Miura. Designed during his tenure at Bertone, the Montreal was a striking, transatlantic-styled fastback, with an ever-subtle nod towards the Miura shape.
Around 3,900 were built, the majority of which were left-hand-drive. But there were some – 180 to be precise – destined for this side of the Sleeve, with a larger diameter, thinner-rimmed steering wheel placed, importantly, on the right-hand-side. Why the different steering wheel, no-one knows, but one owner of such a model assures us that it makes getting in and out of the car rather tricky. Grahame May made the admission at Goodwood’s Classic Car Sunday Breakfast Club, as he introduced me to his 1975 Montreal near the Motor Circuit’s Old Control Tower. Parked up in the leafy shadows, it was a magnificent machine, immaculate inside and finished in a gleaming ‘Rosse Chine’ red.
“The paintwork was resprayed about 30 years ago,” he explained when I remarked on the shine. “And when I got it, I went over it with a clay block to get a really good finish, which is a good way of removing any imperfections in the paintwork.”
Marine engineer May has owned it since 2008, when he bought it for a measly £12,250. Nowadays, its valued at £66,000.
“I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t more money when I bought it, because they are such a unique car,” he said. “I think the main issue is that in the early days, there was no internet and so it was difficult to find advice on how to maintain them, because it’s quite a technical bit of kit with that injection pump, so I think quite a lot fell into disrepair.
“Then I think there was a fallow period where they bumped along at the bottom of the valuation scale, then I think about four or five years ago some in America sold for quite a big amount and then that started it really. And now, my wife always jokes that she wants to sell her half.”
Bought from a retired toolmaker, the car had covered 45,000 miles. A decade later, at 53,000, it’s certainly no garage ornament, but May keeps it for sunny Sundays and club meets.
“I do maybe a couple of hundred miles a year, and so every time I do take it out it’s like a new experience for me, especially compared to modern cars – the steering’s not power-assisted so you have to really turn that wheel hard. It’s really, really heavy, but once you’re on the move it’s fine.
“I’ve always had a classic car, my previous one was a TVR Taimar. Which was a nice car, but a really different animal to this. That was a genuine sports car, whereas this is a GT in so far in that this suspension is quite soft actually, and it has a live rear axle, so it’s not particularly nippy around corners – it does wallow a bit and it’s a bit shimmy over bumps. It’s a nice car to drive and the acceleration is good, with a lovely V8 noise as well.”
“It makes 200 horsepower,” May continues. “That was quite a lot when it was brand new. 0-60mph when it was new was 7.6 seconds I believe, which was pretty quick, but the main thing about these cars when they were new was that they were very, very expensive. This would have been, in 1974/75 about £5,000 pounds, which would have got you a couple of E-type Jaguars.
“The unfortunate thing, also, is that this came into being in the early ‘70s, when the fuel crisis was happening and its very thirsty – it does 18mpg.”
With heavy steering and poor fuel economy, I wondered aloud what had initially attracted him to it.
“Because it’s such an unusual car and a rare car as well, particularly the styling of course, and being an Italian red sports car.”
But why this over a Ferrari? I interjected.
“Cost, number one, and this is a very rare car compared to a 308 or a GT4.”
It certainly was a very rare car, for a remarkably low price. But being so cheap, you would surely expect the car to need some touching up around the edges? Surprisingly not… “It was in very good condition when I bought it, not much different from what you see now,” May assured me. “The previous owner had had it for 20 years. He was a retired toolmaker, so obviously very good with his hands. When I went to see the car, the cylinder heads were off, exposing the pistons and he was about to take the engine out of the car. One of the weak points of this car is that the cooling pump seal can leak, allowing oil and water to mix, which isn’t a good combination and he was in the middle of fixing that problem. He did much of the work himself.
“When I had it, for the first two or three years, I did quite a lot of work on it – not necessarily myself, but specialists. I had to have the driveshaft stripped down and the bearings replaced and balanced, the clutch was replaced, the engine was basically tuned – it’s a fuel injection V8. It’s a mechanical fuel injection system, which is quite a tricky bit of kit. The only real specialist is in America, funnily enough.
And does May have any big plans for the future with it?
“I’d like to change the brakes, because they are a bit of a weak point and not effective at stopping, so I will uprate the disc and calipers,” he pondered. “Also, people usually upgrade the roll bars front and rear, gas shock absorbers, change all the bushes. I wouldn’t do that to mine because it’s not really original as such then. It’s fine, provided you’re aware that it’s not designed to go around corners exceptionally fast.”