A tale of two Alfa Romeos 'Under the Tuscan Sun'
Sometime last January we were planning our summer trip to Tuscany and really wanted to make it special. Out of the ordinary. Exciting!
So, as one does, we spend hours poring over Trip Advisor and other less refined corners of the World Wide Web for ideas. Research aside, deep down we already knew what we wanted to do and it revolved around one particular name. Pininfarina!
Once this idea took a hold of our imagination there was no going back and so we began the arduous task of finding an exotic car rental company that doesn't charge an arm and a leg, or attempts to scam you altogether. In the end we chose Zephyrus, a small Tuscan outfit, which offered a Ferrari 308 GTS amongst a handful of other vintage vehicles in its fleet. We immediately started daydreaming about a surreal world where 'Magnum PI' was morphing into 'Under the Tuscan Sun,' but as luck would have it the 308 was already booked on our dates. Instead we decided to settle for the next best Pininfarina design in the available lineup. Namely, a 1966 Alfa Romeo OS in beautiful Rosso!
When we first contacted Zephyrus it was easy enough to communicate over email, as the owner was responsive and provided accurate information in a timely fashion. The prices were more realistic compared to others as well (see price list here). The booking form and rental terms were also quite clearly worded in English. In general, Ermanno and Matteo (the owner and his assistant) were very friendly and tried their best to answer all our questions.
In typical Italian fashion we were assured not to worry about anything and so we proceeded to make arrangement for our epic three day road trip under the Tuscan sun. On the day the rental was due to start, things started to take a turn for the worst. First, we had agreed a delivery time days in advance, but we were asked last minute if we could postpone the appointment by 30 min without any reason being given. We didn't think much of it at first and agreed as the traffic in Florence can be difficult at times. The Duetto was eventually delivered and at first glance all was well. The exterior had been washed and the interior had been vacuum cleaned although it had been a half decent job which left lots to be desired. Ermanno handed us the keys and walked us through the basic features of the car. He quickly explained how to use the choke and advised us to check the coolant level every morning. Little did we know at that time what this particular Alfa had in store for us and so we set out on the road. We were heading to Chianti for a drive through the famed wine region south of Florence.
I had been anticipating this moment for months, as I was inspired by the articles I had previously read on Petrolicious regarding this particular Alfa and I had also watched the video review by Matt Farah from 'The Smoking Tire', in which he proclaims that he totally gets the appeal of driving one of these. In my mind this beautiful boat-tail masterpiece of aesthetic design promised to deliver many smiles per gallon with the top-down cruising along vineyards, rolling hills, and Tuscan villas. To fit the occasion I had naturally prepared a gentleman's outfit to suite the car and scenery. Prior to our departure, I even sought out one of the oldest Italian manufacturers of hand-made leather goods in Florence in order to get a set of appropriately elegant pair of driving gloves (Madova Glove Factory)!
Ecstatic at the prospect of finally living the fantasy that had been brewing in our minds for the past couple of months we proceeded as planned on route to Greves in Chianti where we wanted to grab our first espresso of the day in the charming town piazza. My memories of driving the Duetto OS for the first time are a bit hazy, as I was trying to get accustomed to the car on the busy streets of Florence and attempted to navigate out of the city with nothing but a map all at the same time. It immediately became painfully obvious that I was driving an analogue machine from another era that lacked any of today's creature comforts and aids, but that is what we wanted and what we actively sought out on this adventure. Even so, we were a bit surprised by the strong smell of a rich fuel mixture coming from the apparently not-so-well adjusted Weber 40 DCOE carburettors. Another curious and unpleasant surprise was that some sort of liquid was pouring on my feet from the driver side footwell making it increasingly hard to double clutch and manage gear shifts. I also noticed little spots of what appeared to be oil on the windscreen. At our first stop I tried to diagnose these issues, but without much success, so I did what any self-respecting Italian would do and I left the issues to sort themselves out (and enjoyed an espresso in the sun instead).
After the quick pitstop and around 50 km into the trip we were driving up a beautiful hill when we started to realise that we should not have ignored the signs our Alfa was giving us along the way. Without much notice our beautiful Italian cabriolet started to act up on us. Within a minute we lost power and the engine cut out in the middle of the road twice in a row. As we were attempting to climb our first Tuscan hill the engine gave up the ghost completely, as it started blowing white smoke out of the exhaust indicating that the head gasket had failed.
The Duetto had left us stranded on the top of the hill from where we attempted to get in touch with the company. We were both worried and disappointed, but couldn't help feel a sense of adventure in the air. Having no tools at hand or the mechanical knowledge of a seasoned Alfista we decided to use the time instead to do a little photoshoot before parting with this broken beauty.
At first no one answered the phone and we only got a response after emailing Matteo. To be fair though once we got him on the phone he was quick to respond and promptly organised for a colleague of his to pick us up. One hour later he arrived with the replacement! A younger reincarnation of the '66 Duetto. Our new road trip companion - the 1985 Alfa Romeo Spider 1.6 in white.
To our eyes this automobile was not as beautiful as the original design of the first generation and the fact that it didn't come in Rosso was also slightly disappointing, but it still fit in beautifully with the Tuscan landscape and our idea of a good time. So without much fuss we grabbed the keys of Matteo's hands and were once again back on the road.
Although, this second Alfa did get us through the next two days of our road trip it was a constant struggle to keep up with the numerous mechanical faults of the car. For starters, the synchros on 2nd and 3rd gear had seen better days as they were very difficult to engage without making awful grinding sounds. On the second day as we were going fairly slow through a local village the car's horn fell straight out from under the car and caused an alarming noise as it hit the bottom of the chassis. We stopped and picked up the part, but were left to drive without a functioning horn for half of the trip. As we attempted to drive up yet another Tuscan hill we started to see the temperatures of this engine climb above the norm as well. A light started flashing on the dash indicating that the cooling system was running hot. As a precaution we ended up stopping to top up the radiator with water in random places throughout the trip, which slowed us down significantly but at least we managed to get it under control this time.
When it was all said and done this trip turned out to be a real adventure under the Tuscan sun. Our first Alfa might have been on her last leg and we wish she didn't meet her maker on our watch, but at least now we have a crazy story to tell, as all the breakdowns and worries meant we were forced to slow down and connect deeper with this land and its friendly inhabitants. What more could we ask for!?
In conclusion, we would like to say that Zephyrus has the potential to provide a great service and inspire visitors to enjoy these beautiful vintage cars in the magnificent Tuscan countryside, but without much needed work on the maintenance of their fleet it will remain an attraction only for the adventurous or brave hearted types. Those who nevertheless decide to take their chances will undoubtedly be in for hell of a ride!
At the end of the day, no matter how poorly these two Alfa Romeos might have faired on the road, all was too easily forgotten while sharing a delicious home-cooked Tuscan dinner with our friendly hosts accompanied by a bottle of the region's finest wine. With the benefit of hindsight, we have no regrets and are convinced that more adventures await for us inTuscany. We are already daydreaming about our next visit, but perhaps next time it will have to be in a prancing horse after all ;)