Contributed by Doug Hodson
It all started when I first saw The Graduate and was totally mesmerised by that Duetto being driven by Dustin Hoffman, sounding like a Ferrari and looking like something that might have been driven by a Martian. In other words a spaceship.
Anyway I had to have one and when several years later in 1976 having married and moved to our first place down in the valley at Biggin Hill I spotted one for sale up the top in a garage that sometimes had several Lamborginis in stock. It was a 1969 1750 Spider so not a pure Duetto for you purists but I wanted it. When they agreed to give me £400 for my MG Midget to set against the £1000 asking price the deal was almost done.
In those days credit was not as available as it is now. I duly turned up at Mercantile Credit in Bromley to be interviewed so as to assess my suitabilty for some Hire Purchase. After due consideration the loan was agreed and I was able to take delivery of my first Alfa. However having got my hands on the old style green log book I had to present this to Mercantile Credit to prove I really had bought the car.
So there I was a callow and ignorant youth with a SuperCar or so I thought. Well it wasn’t long before I realised that it was surprisingly rusty for a car only seven years old. Then the head gasket went after the water pump sprung a leak. No problem I thought – after all I had a set of spanners (AF and BSF) so off came the head and on with a new gasket. Connect up the cam chain and ready to go. I knew that you had to let the tensioner take up the slack in the chain but not that this had to be done with the engine ticking over nice and evenly. So anyway the tensioner was pushed in as I tried to start it up and the chain jumped a few teeth and all eight valves contacted pistons. Calamity!!!
Anyway I learned my lesson fairly early on and gradually improved what was initially a pretty knackered car until I then thought it would be a good idea to take it back home. To Milan that is! So in September 1977 we set off for Allassio which was deemed close enough to Milan and our apartment overlooked the Med. It was a magical drive down to Italy over the Grand San Bernard pass and the car hardly missed a beat. We took it easy driving in Italy as you had to buy your petrol using coupons which you bought from the Italian Tourist Board over here and which entitled you to cheaper petrol than the locals got but did we have enough? Our budget was pretty tight.
We decided to head up to the factory on the middle day which was a Sunday. When we pitched up at the gates of the factory it all seemed strangely quiet. The security were particularly dim and didn’t speak the Queen’s English. However I managed to get them to understand that we had come a very long way and the Museum couldn’t possibly be closed. After much gesticulation and looking very miserable they called someone from within who we think was the curator and mercifully he was a bit brighter and understood what I was getting at.
Unbelievably he decided to open up for us and just told us to look around at our leisure although it wasn’t very well lit. I told you already that I was an ignorant and callow youth so I don’t think I got as much out of it as I should. After all you need a certain amount of knowledge to understand what you are looking at. Oh well we still enjoyed it and realised what a privilege had been given to us.
So with a couple of days before I had to reappear at work we set off for home. We decided to go via one of the tunnels through the Alps (Mont Blanc or St Gottard ?) and once through the other side stopped for some sustenance. All the chocolate, biscuits and cake looked wonderfully cheap until we tried to pay with our French Francs where we were severely informed that we were in Switzerland – Doh!. Out came the Access card – remember them? For younger readers these were one of the first credit cards.
Onwards we drove and were heading for Paris and on the lookout for a petrol station that was both open and took a foreign credit card. No luck so into the Champ D’Elysee where I parked up and marched into one of the top hotels where I asked to draw some cash on my card. Mr Snooty Nose behind the desk was just about to hand over 1000 Francs when he took a closer look at me ( filthy clothes, unshaven etc.) and asked what my room number was. Doh!
The tank was showing about a quarter left as we tried to get out of town. Could I find a sign that said “England”. We went round and round until I decided to try out my schoolboy boy French on a local. “Escusez Moi – quelle directione est Boulogne” I asked. This happened several times until eventually “Ici” was the reply. We were bang In the middle of the Bois De Boulogne which is pretty near the centre of Paris and apparently where “Ladies of the Night” whatever they are hang out (female insomniacs?). So I asked ” Quelle Directione est La Manche – you know – Le Channel Anglais”. The penny dropped and we were sent on our way through the night towards the Channel Ports.
Still no petrol stations so after about 50 miles we came upon a Les Routiers truckers café and we decided that with the needle bang on empty we should stop get some sleep and wait for the café to open. It wasn’t long before another Brit in the same situation stopped behind us. Come the dawn the café owner directed us to a petrol station a few miles away and I was able to use our last 19 francs to get some precious Elf essence – still no credit cards though.
Still quite a way to go and by coasting down the hills and going up the other side as gently as possible we managed to creep into Boulogne and onto the Pride of Kent ferry. We were starving having not eaten for at least a day so it was off at a gallop up to the restaurant for the most welcome and excellent fish and chips we have ever had all paid for with the remaining pennies we had. So home safe you reckon – I don’t think so.
Off the ferry through immigration and up to customs. Everyone being smoothly ushered through until I was told to “pull over there”. It must have been our scruffy, hippy appearance so they went over the whole car tapping every panel and then getting very twitchy over the loose aerial. After my protestations that it was a bugger to tighten as you had to removed this underseal, that panel etc. they relented and let us go. I couldn’t resist asking what happened if they stripped the car to it’s last nut and bolt and was told that would be my problem. Nice!
Finally home and Old Blighty and Dover Town never looked so good especially as straight away there was a petrol station which took my trusty Access card. Anyway I’ve still got the Spider – watch this space.
Incidentally The Graduate has a nightmare ending where Dustin abandons his Spider for a woman. Blasphemy!!!
So home scruffy and dirty like its owner.