Finding love in Vatican City with an Alfa Romeo Giulia

Recently, I spent two weeks in Rome reporting on the election of a new pontiff. Pope Francis’ surprising selection (British oddsmakers and Vatican pundits both thought white smoke would rise for an Italian) was accompanied by a fervor for his grandfatherly style (“You’ve worked a lot, eh,” Pope Francis said with a smile when he met with some 3,000 journalists). But while all that made for great copy and indelible images, an unexpected encounter of an automotive kind ranked almost as high on the memory-o-meter.

“Will you be at your hotel at 2:30 this afternoon?” an old Roman friend asked, not really waiting for a reply. “I’ll come by.”

And then there he was. Make that she was: A merlot-colored 1970 Alfa Romeo Giulia Super, just as I’d remembered her. Back in the ‘70s, when I was grinding my way through elementary school as a fish-out-of-acqua New York kid in the Eternal City’s public school system, my new friend Renato Gatto would occasionally ask if I’d like to accompany him and his father on a road trip. Sometimes to the beach, others to the hilltop town of Perugia. But it didn’t matter where we were going. The journey in that Alfa always threatened to outshine the destination.

A quick primer on Alfa Romeo, now a Fiat/Chrysler-owned brand that soon plans to stage a U.S. comeback, includes the salient fact that its cars were racing champs in the early part of the 20th century. Enzo Ferrari drove for Alfa before deciding to start a little company of his own. Although Alfas entered our popular consciousness when Dustin Hoffman ripped around California’s sun-splashed highways in a convertible Duetto in 1967’s “The Graduate,” European buyers knew the Milanese automaker for its light, zippy and handsome Giulia sedans.

The Super in particular made waves. Introduced in 1965, its twin-Weber carb,1.6-liter, light alloy twin-cam engine revved easily to 6,500 rpm. Some 160-hp pushed the car to 62 mph in an era-respectable 12 seconds, while top speed was 106 mph. Disc brakes all around slowed the car with reasonable haste. Inside, massive twin gauges sat behind an elegant if thin wooden steering wheel. The Super looked the business, an Italian job that the carabinieri, Italy’s state police, adopted the model as their personal chase vehicle.

As my friend darted through notoriously chaotic Roman traffic and wound his way up to the summit of Monte Mario, he reminded me of the car’s impressively simple story. His father had taken the entire family to a local dealership to collect the new car. “He was very proud of it, and always kept it in amazing condition,” my friend said.

What’s more amazing is that despite having the means, his dad never once thought of upgrading to a newer model over the decades. When he passed away a few years back, Renato expressed interest in the car. Not that anyone else in the family was clamoring for it.

“Are you kidding?” he said. “My mother still asks me why I don’t get rid of this old thing.”

Sorry, mamma, as far as one-owner, unrestored cars go, this would be any Alfista’s dream purchase. It’s got original vintage Roma plates and 43 years of maintenance records that include details on an engine upgrade by late and legendary Alfa racing mechanic, Franco Angelini. Not that my buddy is selling, ever.

I got a sense of why after he encouraged me to drive the car back to my hotel, the long way. Up and down a few of Rome’s seven hills, along the Tiber River and past the imposing Vatican. Although I’d been reluctant initially, fearful of an accidental encounter with the city’s manic drivers, my concern was unwarranted. Instead, I rediscovered what it means to drive, capital D.

For starters, the steering was crazy heavy; making a sweeping turn meant not only planning early and apexing correctly, but also wrestling with the steering wheel. Understeer is an understatement. I flashed on why old-time drivers like Sir Stirling Moss were short but positively barrel-chested; my efforts were workout-worthy.

Braking also required a good measure of planning and muscle, while signaling with the car’s tiny tail lights was at best a suggestion to other drivers. At one point, I went to check the driver’s side mirror and could barely make out a thing, as it was mounted around my left elbow.

“That’s an improvement over nothing,” Renato said, noting that he usually resorted to turning his head and looking backward through the glass-filled back seat area. “The car didn’t come with side mirrors in those days, so it was added later. Same thing with seat belts.”

The real seduction, however, happened each time I shifted. There was something about the way this Italian machine slipped from gear to gear that was both entrancing and familiar.

Long before I’d changed my four-wheeled allegiance to a series of German cars, I had a few flings with cars from the land of my ancestors. My first car was a rather pedestrian Fiat 131 coupe, which one Venetian friend would sarcastically remind me was the “top car of choice for taxi drivers.” Then I upgraded big time and for three years danced with a 1978 Alfa Romeo Sprint Veloce 2000. I was smitten. Centrally mounted tach. Rakish bodywork. Wooden steering wheel. And … nothing but trouble. Always in the shop. First gear would grind. As would my teeth.

But those unpleasant memories were distant as I slowly got to know the Super’s likes and dislikes. I’d forgotten how, unlike with most German-made machinery, Italian cars need to be understood. Put in the time, and the car rewards you with nothing short of a borderline human interaction. And there was one other thing. With today’s modern steeds, you can do 120 mph and wonder if you’ve hit 40 mph. In this Alfa, I never exceeded 40 mph and felt like I was flying.

When I finally pulled up to my hotel in the shadows of the Vatican’s imposing walls, I was literally in love. This aging but loved Alfa Romeo Giulia Super had reminded me of something that I once knew well, but had forgotten after decades in the throes of engineering perfection. People are memorable because they’re imperfect. And the same goes for cars.