Berlina Register Newsletter No. 16 (May 2003)
Notes and Comment
Hello all. I bought yet another Berlina, a cream 1973 2000, which, from long-distance, I thought was a candidate to replace my beige 1973 car. On balance, I decided not to keep it than the Berlina I already have, but it has a better structure and cosmetic appearance. It's been fun to own, and not-so-fun to have changed the head gasket and head on. I drove it home from Phoenix over two days (900 miles), and it didn't miss a beat until it blew its head gasket once I got here. I'll write up something about it in a future issue. It's for sale in the classified section.
Many Berlinas have changed hands lately, several on ebay, and various $1000 daily driver cars around the US. Several have gotten resurrected, which is always nice. I just received pictures of a natural-gas Twin-Spark race Berlina from the Netherlands which I hope to provide more information on in the future. All in all, a variety of fun things going on.
This issue includes a piece I wrote tying together a bunch of loose-thread thoughts on what happens to old cars generally and Berlinas specifically, and a piece by Howie Stein on dealing with his insurance company when he needed to get his Berlina fixed. Send articles! I'll print them!
The keeper of the Berlina Register is Andrew Watry, 1284 Monterey Ave., Berkeley, CA 94707 USA. Phone (510) 526-0391. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Send me corrections to your register information or any other Berlina-related facts, rumors, tips, or needs. Always seeking articles for the newsletter. Free Berlinas and parts gladly accepted.
Where Have All the Berlinas Gone?
In the United States, there are a lot of poor-condition Berlinas around. In fact, there are a lot of poor-condition Alfas, period. Most of the Berlinas for sale in the US are in poor condition, you hardly see Alfettas anymore, and Milanos and 164s are getting to the point where they're available in questionable condition for next to nothing, just like Berlinas and Alfettas in years past. Why is this? Why don't people maintain their Alfas, as they do their BMWs, Saabs, Porsches, whatever? I bought my first Alfa, a 1964 Giulia TI, in March 1977. It was already a rusty pile at age 13 that had major problems with every system. My second Alfa was a 1967 Giulia Super, bought a year out of high school in May 1978. The car was then only 11 years old, but like the TI, it already was an unloved, unmaintained eyesore; an automotive oddity. It was usable, but it had been front-ended once and had worn seats, a questionable engine, dents and rust, and utterly flat silver paint. I paid $800, which included another Super's worth of parts. By way of comparison, at the time of this writing (April 2003) a comparable-age car would be a 1992 164. Is that car already considered such an oddity that it practically has to be given away? Maybe so. I guess I'm marveling out loud about how individual Alfas can descend so quickly into weird-car status, along with Renaults, Fiats, Borgwards, whatever. These were originally sporting stylish cars, admired by the public at large, but shunned when it came to actually owning one. How did this happen? And to bring it up to the present day, it seems still to be going on, as we see from the condition of the majority of Berlinas that get sold. Or Milanos for that matter, which are available cheap or are donated to charity when they have major failures; they're not worth enough to fix. Here are my thoughts about what's been going on to lead to this.
The first likely factor in the descent of old Alfas into beaterdom is that, although they were expensive when new compared to say, a VW or Chevy Nova, they were cheap for a European sedan. They were often bought by people who could afford to purchase them but could not afford to maintain them. And so they got driven, but not kept up. A Giulia sedan cost $2,995 in the 1960s. In 1969 a US Berlina cost $3,495, stressed by Alfa in a magazine ad as at least $1,000 less than any other comparably equipped car. Therein lies the root of the problem. Alfa wanted the cars to be cheap to maximize sales, but a higher purchase price would have led the cars to owner who could afford, and were inclined, to maintain them. A German car in 1969 cost a lot more: a BMW 2500 sedan cost $5,600; a base-level Porsche 911T cost $6,000. Those who could afford the high price of a German car could afford the regular upkeep required, which in those days was high compared to American sedans that were then the norm. Alfas survived reasonably with this lack of care when they were relatively new, but the newest US Berlina is now 29 years old, and we've been seeing the results of that neglect for some years.
Another factor is that the German manufacturers, including VW, convince buyers that the cars needed regular maintenance, in spite of the cars' obvious durability. VW made its name in the US on build quality and reliability, but also managed to convince owners that regular oil changes and valve adjustments, at more frequent intervals than on American cars, were essential to keep Bugs happy. BMW and Porsche followed this approach; Porsches in particular require expensive regular maintenance. Buyers paying German car prices were happy to get their cars serviced. Somehow Alfa never got this point across and the cars suffered. Italian and French car companies have the same inclination, that their cars were stylish and fun, to be enjoyed, not robust work-a-day machines requiring service, as with German cars.
Part of the cause for the lack of servicing is that with Alfa's ineffective and sporadic marketing in the US particularly as to sedans, and Alfa's come-and-go attitude to the US market (with no US-market Alfas in 1968, 1970, and after 1995), Alfa sales never gained momentum, and so there was never a "critical mass" of Alfas in the US, that among other things, would support an extensive network of dedicated repair shops, as is true of BMW and Porsche. (Also BMWs and Porsche cost more, so shops could make more money on service.) So owners didn't get a lot of feedback, except from Alfa dealers, on what was needed to maintain their cars. This was doubly reinforced on SPICA cars from 1969 on, because when these were new, Alfa absolutely would not allow repair, adjustment, or tampering with the injection pump, and would service it only as an exchange item through the factory, fearing federal government backlash concerning emissions systems if it did so. So independent shops had a hell of a time dealing with SPICA cars and with Alfa (and ARDONA) as a company. Most folks went to the dealer for service and repair, and probably didn't get recommendations about driving and maintaining their cars, and didn't establish a relationship with a mechanic that led them to want to own more Alfas. People who could barely afford to own an Alfa, if they could afford to maintain it at all, probably couldn't afford dealer rates, which are high compared to independent shops. So the cars deteriorated, or sat, if they had problems.
A related factor is Alfa's "orphan" status in the US. In addition to having no new cars for sale in the US in 1968 and 1970, Alfa withdrew from the US market after 1995. A few authorized service facilities remained, but most dealers, and many independent repair shops, closed. So it was hard for people to get parts and repair for all Alfas, particularly old ones. This led to more cars being taken off the road due to major problems. And it further drove Alfa out of the consciousness of the average car buyer, because they didn't see new Alfas, Alfa dealers, or Alfa ads anywhere. The marque all but evaporated from the everyday scene in the US.
In the US, Alfa has always been known primarily for its coupes and convertibles. The average person, if they'd heard of Alfa at all, didn't know Alfa made sedans. I get this even today, with people asking me if my Giulia or Berlina is a (pick one): BMW, Fiat, Volvo, Renault, Datsun. This is in spite of the fact that world-wide, Alfa sold more sedans than anything else by far (500,000 Giulias; 200,000 Berlinas). In the US Alfa never sold more than a couple thousand sedans a year. Alfa's US marketing was oriented toward the sports cars, and probably the introduction of the Giulia as a sport sedan was a bit early compared to what the market was ready for. BMW had comparable 1800 and 2000 four-door sport sedans at the same time as the Giulia, but they didn't sell well in the US. The sport sedan didn't really take off as a concept in the US until the BMW 1600 morphed into the just-right 2002 in 1968, a year in which Alfa had just dropped the Giulia Super from the US lineup and had no cars at all for sale in the US. And then when Alfa did return in 1969 with the Berlina, it probably looked and felt big and awkward compared to the sleek little BMW. This is irrespective of the actual abilities of the cars, which were pretty evenly matched; in marketing and sales, perception is everything, and BMW was much better at presenting itself than Alfa.
Another factor: a sad fact of life is that a lot of cars get wrecked. I've been slow to realize this. Anectodally, it seems Alfas get wrecked more than normal. Maybe as sports car they get driven harder and so wreck bigger when they go off, or maybe with good brakes they stop short compared to the car behind them and get rear-ended. Whatever. But I know of four Berlinas that got wrecked in the US just in 2002. So, many cars have been written off by accidents that caused too much damage to be fixable. And more recently, with Berlina values low and insurance and body shop rates high, it doesn't take much for the cost of repair to exceed the value of the car, at which point the car is "totaled" by the insurance company, the owner is paid for the value of the car, and the car goes to scrap. Sometimes the owner buys the car from the insurance company with a salvage title and pays for the repair, parts the car out, or lets it molder in the backyard. At 2002 California labor rates, it takes very little body damage to equal the insurance company's assessment of the value of a typical Berlina (which is entire subject unto itself). In some cases one moderate dent is all it takes to consider the car "totaled."
The spiral of worsening condition and falling values is a vicious circle. Once a car gets into poor condition, its resale value drops. Once its resale value drops, an owner is reluctant to spend money maintaining it, knowing it can't be recovered when the car is sold. So when a car gets to a certain level of poor condition, it basically gets driven, with band-aid fixes and minor maintenance, until enough items accumulate, or a major failure occurs, at which point the car is left to die or is sold for whatever can be got. Sometimes that amount is close to zero. Is a typical owner inclined to spend $1,500 on a head gasket for a car that has a resale value of $1,200? You often see this with former daily-driver Berlinas. The car will be generally shabby, but there will be one or more big-ticket items that finally pushed the owner over the brink to stop propping the car up. These include injection problems, head gasket, clutch, or in places like California, failing a smog check, which is a death sentence. Sometimes it's something as innocuous as the need for new tires or a new battery for an especially marginal car. For a car that has almost no value, even that expense is not justified, and the car sits or is sent to the junkyard or donated to charity.
You also find Berlinas, and other Alfas, that have had a lot of fixup work done recently, but are nonetheless for sale, often at a price less than the cost of the repairs. You'd think after putting all that work and money into the car the owner would keep it. Often I think this is a "straw that broke the camel's back" situation; that is, the owner has done a ton of work to keep the car going and finally either has hit a predetermined limit on cost or has gotten frustrated with the car and given up. This commonly occurs with cars that have been resurrected after having been off the road. After a car sits for a significant period, it is not unusual for a bunch of things to wear out quickly when brought back to life, due to accumulated rust, condensation, accelerated wear, bad vibes, whatever. But serial breakdowns and repairs can lead to early sales or donation of cars that have had a lot of work done. This can be a good deal for a buyer, if you can buy a car at a good price that's had a lot of repair done, or a bad deal, if the car has not finished breaking down yet and will continue to do so.
As I mention at the outset, this trend of trashed Alfas is nothing new. There is an article in the April 1985 Alfa Owner entitled "Last of the Clean Alfas" about an owner's difficult search for a decent GTV. This was when a GTV was only 11 years old, yet the owner had a hell of time, even then, finding a decent car. And in Alfa Owner classifieds from the late 1970s, there ads for already-rusty Berlinas and other cars, when just a few years old. It's no wonder there are so many beater Berlinas now, 18 years after that article pointed out the already apparent problem.
How Persistence and the Internet Saved My Berlina
by Howe Stein
It was just another 6:30 AM weekday commute when a guy in a Honda beater elected to turn right on red directly in front of me as I was going through an intersection on the green. When he realized there indeed was traffic coming down his back, he decided to stop dead in reaction. While the mighty 4 wheel discs did what they could, my right front and his left rear met in a tangle of $5.5K of body damage to my pristine green Berlina 2000. Dents are expensive these days. . remarkably, I couldn’t see any damage on the very rough Honda’s rear!
Despite some curious ‘logic’ presented by his insurance adjuster, there was little problem convincing my insurance company that this event wasn’t my fault. I figured that first obtaining an estimate from an ‘authorized’ shop and subsequently securing claim $ would be a ‘normal’ process, leading to timely repairs - how very wrong. Five weeks+ of multiple daily calls and a 1/2” thick file later, my unnamed insurance company (something about a good neighbor) caved in and reluctantly agreed to fix the car they had been diligently insuring for 15+ years.
For some bizarre reason, I thought that after consistently and promptly making premium payments, my efforts and coverage would hold some credibility in case of an accident. What was I thinking? The insurance industry is configured to repair 3 year old Toyotas; people in these companies have little desire to flex the rulebook and recognize what you’re likely driving. Be warned - and be very careful. My company’s reaction was to immediately total the car as repairs would be ‘too problematic’ and if I elected to dispute their decision, prepare to do battle through several levels of bureaucracy. If I accepted the decision to total the car and receive a token payment, I then would have a great option: buy back my Berlina for $167 salvage value, then after repairs, re-register the car with a salvage title - with little hope for securing future insurance or body repairs based on ‘value.’
Fortunately I have a tight relationship with a body shop (way too many people driving into me over the years) and partially through the shop’s efforts, though mostly through acting like a bulldog, I was able to change apparent fate. [Let me recommend Classic Auto Craft, San Rafael, California (415) 459 1246 Andres Vu, owner]
Next step: find body parts (right front fender and grill). Having driven Alfas the last 25+ years, I know all the numbers to call - and called them all and then some. The known US network of new/used Alfa parts sources turned up one rusty fender in Texas ($400), two available (and questionable) roller cars for free or very cheap (one in Sacramento, one in Monterey) that would need to be disposed of post-fender removal) . . and a lot of ‘good lucks.’
Head for the internet - with first news reports of the untimely death of Alfa man extraordinaire Pat Braden - R.I.P. Of course there was no fender or grill on eBay or elsewhere for sale - but an eBay ad for some other Berlina parts seemed interesting. I sent the seller a note, asking if by chance he/she might have a fender - five minutes later, I got confirmation of a new old stock fender being available - $165 + shipping ! The seller said he could have it in my hands in 1 week for $65 shipping or within 3 weeks for $45 - express shipping confirmed and 7 days, later, the brand new fender arrives from Amsterdam, Holland. May I recommend Wil van den Bussche, Automobilia. Nl [email@example.com].
Next up: find a grill - Eureka ! great looking used one - $75 from Suzie @ Alfa Import Center, Queens, New York [firstname.lastname@example.org, (718) 381 6764] - this shop seems to have many interesting Berlina + other older Alfa parts available.
No on to the real fun: convincing my insurance company that the Berlina is worth repairing. First appraiser (works for the insurance company) gave up; 2nd appraiser (independent company) about gave up but found a car for sale in Hemmings for comparison and eventually said my car was worth $4175. Next: sent the insurance company $10K worth of repair receipts from the last 18 months (new engine, upholstery, etc, etc) - no interest in this work.
Like a godsend, the new issue of ‘Sports Car Market’ arrived - which amazingly in a full page documented the recent sale of the infamous 1969 ex-Bay Area maroon 1750 Berlina that found itself on eBay way too many times but eventually sold for $6995, now setting a new market standard that could be used to help value my car. But . . the claims person at my insurance company will not recognize this car’s value because it might have options not on my car that enhance its value. I tried long and hard to convince the claims person that people don’t buy a 30 year old Alfa sedan based on the factory radio . . then I engaged our esteemed Register founder/editor and all around Berlina expert to offer a testimonial about the value of my car - thanks Andrew, this indeed helped. At last, some proof that my very choice Berlina might indeed be worth more than $4175.
Now . . work with the body shop, get the estimate lower, please please . . .
Success: I now have cracked the insurance company’s stated policy [“repair costs can’t exceed 80% of the car’s market value”] by 1. lowering the cost of the repairs estimate and 2. raising the recognized market value. Success ? No, rejection, new problem: the insurance company will not repair any frame damage on a 30 year old car - and mine needed some minor tweaks to properly attach front sheet metal. Go for the Claims Supervisor - same stock answer.
Next chapter: brought in yet another appraiser [#3] to confirm that frame repairs will not jeopardize future safety of the car . . .
Meanwhile, I play the ‘loyalty’ card - let my agent know that my 25+ year continuous Giulia Sprint GT policy, my 15 year continuous Berlina policy, my 164S policy, the truck insurance, my 18 year continuous homeowners policy, our life insurance . . all will find new providers if the insurance company can’t figure out how to fix my car.
A few days later, just 6 weeks after the accident, I came back from a work lunch greeted with 3 phone messages: body shop, insurance agent, and claims person. Seems like at last ‘we have a match’ and the car will be fixed. Of course the agreed newest estimate the insurance company paid was $1400 less than actual repair costs . . but bottom line, the Berlina now looks again as it did at 6:29 AM a couple months ago . . I have a bit less hair, and currently am pursuing renewed efforts to change my insurance policy to respect a ‘stated value’ meaning next time (hope not) no long story, just a claim and repair. I urge my fellow Berlina drivers to heed warning from this story and if you can’t avoid an accident, at least try to have some insurance understanding in place so you might get cooperation for repairs.
1969 US 1750 Berlina. Black/tan. Originally metallic olive. Claimed 9,800 miles and excellent condition. $3,000 internet ad. Front Royal, VA (10/02). Little money for what looked online like a good car, though paint turned out to be poor and it needed refurbishing from years of sitting. Amazing if it really has less than 10,000 miles. Original asking price was $7,500. As always, new paint, seals, and fluids from years of sitting can amount to a lot of money pretty quickly.
1971 US 1750 Berlina. Grey/tan. Original, clean, solid car with tired engine. $3,000 Internet ad. Santa Barbara, CA (10/02). Very nice, unmolested example of the best year for US Berlinas. Valve job to refresh engine was arranged long-distance separately before sale; poor result led to post-sale difficulties and negotiations, but this was a very clean Berlina for a fair, probably low-for-condition, price.
1974 US 2000 Berlina. Blue/tan. Solid daily driver with below-average paint and body work, converted from rubber to stainless bumpers. Plus engineless 1974 maroon rubber-bumper Berlina. Both cars had cracked windshields. $800 eBay. Oceanside, CA (11/02). Pretty cheap for two cars. You could swap components around to make one good car or get an engine for the extra car, which was the more solid, and have two. It takes the right person though, with time and space to work on them. Paying a mechanic to do this kind of work quickly results in a $5,000 Berlina. PS: I later learned that the North Carolina buyer paid over $2,000 to transport the cars from California, so now he has two beater Berlinas for $3,000. That doesn't make sense.
1974 US 2000 Berlina. LeMans blue/tan. Solid, well-maintained one-owner Calif. car with no problems and just a tiny amount of rust. $3,500 internet ad. Encinitas, CA (1/03). A true one-owner car, bought in LA in 1975 as a left-over. A great car, well cared for by a retired Navy officer, with new paint, interior, good rebuilt mechanicals. Detracting items are minor: rubber bumpers, Pintoesque color takes getting used to, and very slight rust. Pretty good deal for the buyer, but not a steal either.
1973 US 2000 Berlina. Giallo piper/tan. Clean, straight, complete, rust-free maintained Arizona car with nonworking AC. $1,000 internet ad. Phoenix (1/03). A cosmetically very clean car that lived its whole life in AZ and NM with just tiny rust. Mechanicals a bit tired with noisy rear axle but basically fine car. Buyer got a solid car that needs minor attention for a very good price.
1973 US 2000 Berlina. Beige cava/tan. Straight and complete, moderately rusty car with decent mechanicals and poor interior. $850 internet ad. Alexandria, VA (1/03). This car had moderate rocker and door rust, but ran acceptably, if not well; it made it across Virginia OK on the drive home. Had broken crank bolts years ago in Seattle, apparently fixed. For an Eastern car, probably relatively rust-free. A reasonable price for an average daily driver that needs some attention.
1972 US 2000 Berlina. Maroon/tan. Complete driveable car with moderate rust. Turbinas. Much recent maintenance. $950 internet ad. Santa Cruz, CA (2/03). Car was repainted poorly from blue to maroon, and had moderate rust. Complete and driveable though, and had a reasonable velour interior and lots of recent fixes. Typical price for typical beater California Berlina. Went immediately to eBay, "selling" twice for $2500, a very high price for this condition.
1974 US 2000 Berlina. Gold/tan. Complete rubber-bumper car that ran but was somewhat rusty and could not be driven. $1208 eBay. Baltimore, MD (2/03). Repainted from original maroon, looked solid but could get expensive to fix rust and sort out cause of non-driving status. Slightly high price for condition, perhaps because few Berlinas come up for sale in the eastern US.
1969 US 1750 Berlina. White/tan. Complete, straight, rusty car with blown 1750 and extra 2000. Car sat unused for 10 years. $300 Alfa Digest. Felton, CA (2/03). Car was given away free on the Alfa Digest about 1997, and owner intended to get it back on the road, but life intervened. Had lots of good 1750-model parts and two engines, but shell is probably too rusty to be viable to fix. Buyer got a straight shell that needs lots of welding and a lot of good pieces for the price.
1969 US 1750 Berlina. Green/tan. Very solid, nice driving, competent car. Owned by Alfa mechanic for 25 years. Recent paint, interior, rebuilt engine, Bosch wheels. Nonoriginal forest green, velour upholstery. Slight bubbling in paint. $4500 Internet ad. Oakland, CA (3/03). This is a complete, nice driving car that at first blush seems worth the high price, but the paint is an ugly color, the seat material is weird, and the brakes are spongy. Bubbling in the new paint is cause for alarm. The owner got a solid, nice-driving car, but price seems a bit high due to cosmetic oddities.
1974 US 2000 Berlina. White/black. Nice looking, two-owner car that was well cared for and had recently rebuilt engine. Converted from rubber to stainless bumpes. Despite care, moderately rusty. $2500 eBay. Seattle, WA (4/03). Relatively high price considering rocker, fender, and windshield rust, but otherwise a very nice looking car that probably runs and drives well and doesn't need mechanical attention.
Berlina Classified Ads
New rubber windshield gasket and good used aluminum inserts (complete) for 1750 Berlina/Super/TI, also for gasket type windshield in 2000 Berlina, $85. 2-liter longblock from 85 spider, 35k miles, $400. Used seats for 1750 Berlina, front and rear, need re-upholstery, hate to trash, cheap. Roger 714-751-0272, email@example.com
1973 2000 Berlina, cream (originally giallo piper)/tan, very good overall cosmetic and mechanical condition. Straight solid car with very minimal rust; everything works well. Recent head gasket, valve job, timing chain, thermostatic actuator, tires, battery. Working AC. Smog-exempt. Email for description and pictures. $3750/BO. Calif. Andrew Watry; firstname.lastname@example.org (510) 526-0391
1971 Euro 1750 Berlina, cream with black interior. Best-year Berlina. Very fast; has carbureted 2000 engine with 10548 cams; hanging pedals; 4.3 axle; low-back seats. Good condition. $2,850/BO. John Elrod. Calif (510) 558-1818 or email@example.com