Passo del Stelvio and Lake Como

Contributed by John Third

Early on a Saturday morning in June the 4C was fired up and headed down the M20 bound for the Folkstone terminal of the Channel Tunnel. The weather was fine enough and the traffic was light, there had been no second coming and neither had Elvis been spotted riding on Shergar across Hampstead Heath. However, perhaps more surprisingly, the vote on Europe was in and we were “out”!

Being out of Europe did not matter and, equally, getting into Europe was not a problem. Neither was an intermittently wet drive to Nancy by way of Namur followed by a similarly damp jaunt to Curon Venosta, by way of the Rhein crossing near Marckolsheim (the one which goes over the hydro electric scheme). Curon Venosta is a small border town on the Pinot side of the Italian/ Austrian divide so the trip entailed a very boring drive through Switzerland. In the later stages, the roads opened out and the 4C zipped and squirted through the alpine countryside catching curious glances from large cows wearing bells. The zippy, zappy, squirty car was out-weighed by most of these beasts as they all were large and at least 900 kilos. Dong went the bells as the heads turned.

Thus began a scenic drive of five star quality with spectacular scenery, some great roads and wonderful company provided by the other members of our mixed marques tour party. The group comprised fourteen cars, including two Porsche Boxsters, four MGs, two BMW’s a Healey 3000, two Alfas, a MX5 and a Lotus Elise. I spent a fair bit of time with Ray, the Elise pilot, swapping notes and tales of derring do on wet corners. But what really surprised me is that his Elise has more luggage space than my 4C!

Not that luggage space was a problem because one of the BMW’s, a nicely turned out E36 328i, was being driven by my eldest son Finlay and had the official title of back-up vehicle. Finlay carried the luggage and, for parts of the tour, his mother – my wife Ann.

On day 3 of our jaunt, we drove South through the Italian Alps along the S40 then joined the South West going SS38 to Bormio, which is the road into the Parco Nazionale dello Stelvio. The mountains begin to rise steeply close by the sides of the scenic road which initially follows the Rio Solda. The 4C snarls its way around the tightening bends, blasts along the short straights and provides a soundtrack like ….. well like nothing else really.

On day 3 of our jaunt, we drove South through the Italian Alps along the S40 then joined the South West going SS38 to Bormio, which is the road into the Parco Nazionale dello Stelvio. The mountains begin to rise steeply close by the sides of the scenic road which initially follows the Rio Solda. The 4C snarls its way around the tightening bends, blasts along the short straights and provides a soundtrack like ….. well like nothing else really.
The trick with the Stelvio Pass is to approach from the West, as described above. The road into the National Park is well signposted and, importantly, it takes you up the pass on what is best described as the steep side! An alternative is the SS41 which approaches Stelvio from the North West through Mustair but if you go this way you end up at the top without having done any of the hard work! The hazards you can expect to meet are, in no particular order, cyclists, the Stelvio bus, and a flat bed trailer laden with a broken down car! Often it is an MG but this year it carried a Renault, or was it a Pug. To be honest I don’t know because I went past it so quick it was a blur! I do recall the smell of burnt out clutch which caused my eyes to flicker briefly to the 4C’s dash. Anyway when you meet one of these hazards you need to be “safely bold” otherwise your day will be ruined following traffic in the equivalent of “limp” mode and quite frankly no-one really enjoys holding up a 4C in full zap and blatter!

4C brightens up the Alpine scene.

At the bottom of the steep bit is the Berghotel Restaurant which always provides an opportunity to collect thoughts, drink a coffee, take photographs, scan the mountainside for the Stelvio Bus and, in our case, for my wife to decide whether she fancied a trip to the skies in a loud 4C or a more sedate, but nevertheless very quick, E36! After a morning coffee I set off “solo” and launched the car up the mountain. The road crosses the slopes and ascends with a series of 180 degree turns. The roadside has a stone embankment on the “mountain” side and there is a low castillated concrete wall on the … (how best to put this?) drop to oblivion side!

The main difficulty in a right hand drive 4C is that right hand turns are on a very tight radius and it is best to sweep left and use more of the available road. This reveals a disadvantage shared between the 4C and the Lotus Elise. The car is very low and, as a result, only becomes visible to cars coming down the hill at the very last moment as it shoots into view from behind an embankment wall! It pays to be cautious on these bends. All I can say is thank goodness that there were no other 4C’s (or Elises for that matter) coming down the mountain on the day of my visit.

The left hand bends are a different proposition and, although there is a wide turning radius available, the 4C driver has a problem in that almost everything abaft the beam (a nautical expression) on the left hand side of the car is hidden from view … in one of the car’s charming blind spots.

At this point it is worth mentioning that the ascent of the entire Stelvio road benefits from Mr. Tom Tom because you get a very good idea of how the corners are shaped as you bear down upon them. As it turned out on this trip the satnav extended this benefit to the Furka Pass which was enveloped in cloud on the day we traversed. It definitely helps to know when you are approaching a 180 degree bend in 25 metre visibility.

I have now driven the Stelvio Pass in three Alfa Romeos. The first two trips were in my Alfetta GTV6, a 3 litre engined car with RS suspension and extremely quick – and also very noisy. A later ascent, actually two ascents, were in a Spider (Brera style) with the 2.4 Jtdm engine, and now this latest effort in the 4C. The diesel car cannot be compared with either of the petrol cars, mainly because with the roof down I could see a lot more of what was going on. It was a cruise rather than a sprint. The GTV6 was hard work because it is a beast of the early 80’s and requires effort, with its heavy clutch and unassisted steering, although it is rewarding in the extreme. The 4C was a dream with the TCT gearbox taking care of the shifts in a seamless manner and, because the car weight is similar to that of a mountain goat, the direction changes are precise and very quick.

The 4C conquest of Stelvio was relatively early in the season and biker numbers were down. The leather clad motorised variety were there in some numbers guzzling bratwurst at the summit but the lycra variety were thin on the ground. The self propelled cyclists can cause mayhem to an ascent as they have a habit of swooping across corners without warning and directly into your path. However, it was not a problem this year and the gods of lycra and leather were smiling on us.

From the Passo Dello Stelvio we continued on the SS38 to Bormio which is provincial town fortified by the Polizia, generating revenue from over enthusiastic alpine motorists in 50 kph zones. Speed trap numero uno was negotiated successfully to the visible disappointment of those nearby. We stopped for a pizza on the South side of town and were “jumped” by a squadrone of Maserati test pilots who were driving some heavily masked and camouflaged 4×4 type vehicles. The pizzas were excellent and the cars were not too bad either!

Speed trap “due” was an absolute hoot. It was on the road heading East out of Sondrio and I was trickling along at the statutory 50 kph (55 on the 4C’s speedo which is a bit optimistic in whichever mode you drive) and the E36 was similarly trickling along in my rear view mirror, although that is more of a sensation rather than a visible interface because the 4C’s view astern (another nautical term) is c**p! Suddenly, into my left wing mirror comes a Renault or a Peugeot or something, steaming along up the yellow stripey centre part of the road. That’s brave I thought. Clearly here was Luigi (or it could have been Mario, or Giovanni) utterly fed up with this Brexit convoy immediately ahead crawling through Sondrio at 50 klicks.

As Luigi’s Reneot, or whatever, came abeam to my left side, a youthful poliziotto appeared from stage left (yes indeed the opposite side of the road) and the stuck out a bright red baton showing the Peugault the way to the nearest layby which was cheerfully staffed by two female ufficiali holding card readers and cash boxes. The poliziotto was uncompromising with his baton leap and must have been very familiar with stopping distances because I would not have jumped in front of Luigi as he did. Maybe the MOT tests are particularly good on brakes in Italy.

Well, how we laughed as we downed our birras by Lake Como in the evening! We had made it to the base camp without troubling the speeding polizia.

Lake Como is a beautiful location and our hotel was metres from the shore. It is quite possibly the best place to sip Pinot in Northern Italy. We were in Cremia on the North side of the lake and quite close to the town of Dongo which many years ago rose to make the headlines as it was on the road between Cremia and Dongo that the Italian dictator Mussolini was captured in 1945, hiding, so the local museum says, in the back of a German truck. He was shot dead about five or six miles back down the road in a quiet side street by a very pretty villa.

Lake Como is within an hour or so of the Museo Storico Alfa Romeo at Arese on the Northern outskirts of Milan. It is a pilgrimage well worth making and a fellow traveller told me that he thought the cars were better set out and displayed than at the equivalent Maranello museum.

The trip back – well the Passes beckoned and the 4C blasted up the Gothard, Furka and Grimsel without missing anything except the traffic.

I have now completed two continental runs in the 4C. The first in 2015 was to Bavaria which was very wet and now this year to Stelvio and Como, mostly, in the dry. Driving long distances on motorways is not the way to go. The A roads are much more fun, quieter and more scenic. As for the Autobahns, these are super high speed versions of the Milan ring road … extremely busy but with everything travelling very very fast. In a brief autobahnic foray, the 4C had been happily keeping a stone chip gap with vehicles in front when the E36 backup BMW, some two cars ahead, disappeared off towards the horizon as if the Brexit door was open and we were being prodded out with a red hot poker! Engage sport mode then 15 seconds or so at throttle max and the Beemer came back into view quite quickly. At “confession” that evening the reported top BMW speed was 130 of your miles per hour! I did’nt look at the speedo as I was passing a Nissan GTR but it seemed quick. Well, said Finlay, the sat nav said “no limit” so I just got on with it! The conclusion – if you are lucky and brave enough to have a 4C – get out there and get on with it. It is a great car.

Credits: Wolfe’s “the Mask” for keeping the front of the 4C looking beautiful, Jamie Porter for curing the 4C’s nervous handling, Alfa Romeo for creating such entertainment, the Polizia for preventing young Luigi from wiping himself out and the driver of the Stelvio recovery truck for rescuing another broken car.