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Buying a Berlina; Values; Inspection Tips

Buying a Berlina

In thinking about buying a Berlina, the first issue is to even find one for sale. In much of the United States and throughout the world, there are almost no Berlinas to be had. In other places, such as California, Washington, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Netherlands, and Sweden, there are a number of Berlinas still around, some of which periodically come up for sale. I hope I'm not being chauvinistic, but there probably more Berlinas existing and for sale in California than anywhere else. For example, in April 2001, there were four different cars for sale just in the San Francisco Bay Area. I keep my eyes open, looking at the major newspaper classified ads, Alfa club newsletter ads, throwaway "Recycler" type papers, Internet ads, eBay auctions, and the active Alfa grapevine. If you're in the U.S. and want a Berlina, you can probably find one. Also check the Berlina Register classifieds here.

The second big issue in looking at Berlinas is condition. Berlina values are not especially high (though they went up appreciably 2004-2006), but what value a particular car does have is largely a function of its condition. Most Berlinas, in the U.S. at least, are in so-so condition, so their values aren't great. The rare nice cars that come along do typically have higher asking prices, but I don't know what someone is willing to pay for a nice Berlina. A few cars have sold in the $10,000-15,000 range, but it remains to be seen if that will continue. If the rest of the classic car market hold up, I expect those prices to continue.

Berlina Values

As with any old car, it costs a lot more to buy a poor car and fix it up than to buy a car that has been kept decent or that someone has already corrected all the problems on. For example, a decent Berlina with a bad engine might sell for $2,500, and it may cost $3,500 to rebuild the engine, for a total of $6,000. But a similar car with a good engine would probably sell for in the range of $5,000. You get the idea; the money put into a car like a Berlina is not typically reflected in its resale value. If you're a seller that's bad, but if you're a buyer, addicted to buying cheap old Alfas, it's good. As they recommend in the Porsche circles, buy the newest and best car you can afford (rubber bumper U.S. Berlinas the possible exception).

I can only speak of values in the U.S., and generally only West Coast values. This is based on the relatively large number of cars that have come up for sale in the past year. This is a very broad guideline, subject to all kinds of caveats. Berlinas are notoriously hard to value, because they are fairly rare and not especially popular. So actually values can be all over the map. See "Berlina Market Report" in recent Berlina Register newsletters for an update on actual sales and asking prices I've seen around. And in the end, what it really comes down to is what the car is worth to the seller and to the buyer. Negotiate vigorously and fairly in good faith. And no hard feelings; it's a business deal. If you don't like the price offered or asked, say "No thanks" and walk away.

Extremely nice to perfect cars (very rare): $7,500 - $12,500 (asking prices can be higher)

Nice cars with no real problems (unusual): $7,500 - $4,000

Typical good driving cars, minor rust or problems (most common): $4,500 - $2,500

Driveable project cars, typically more rust and/or bad interiors: under $2,500

Rusty projects, nonrunners, other big problems: under $1,500

For the average Alfa owner who can't do his or her own work, buying in the lower end of the scale doesn't make sense because it costs just as much to fix up a Berlina as it does a GTV or Spider, but the resulting value will be much lower. If you want to fix a car up and keep it to drive, that's great, but you'll never get your money out of it. It's always better to start out buying a nicer car. For grease-monkeys like me and other shade-tree mechanics, these crappy Berlinas are great, because they can be bought cheaply and fixed up at home, and can be great fun to drive.

Inspecting a Berlina

As with any Alfa, a potential Berlina purchase needs to be inspected thoroughly before buying. This can be done by a knowledgeable amateur, or by a professional Alfa mechanic. It's easy to fall in love with old Alfas, so try to maintain an objective outlook, and not get swept away by a problem car. It's probably a good idea to prepare a checklist and bring it along, going over each item systematically, as it is easy to forget some of the many problem areas. Here is a checklist I've prepared for Berlina, Giulia, or other Alfa prepurchase inspections: Inspection Checklist .

An important point to remember is that these cars were made between 1967 and 1976. They are now old cars, and are going to have old car problems. It is not reasonable to expect them to be in exemplary condition. The occasional pampered or concours example does come along, but generally Berlinas were used as family cars or beaters, and the condition will reflect this. People are starting to appreciate their appeal, so some are now being treated better or restored, but most cars are going to have some problems.

The starting point should be the body. Check for rust in the areas listed [see "Problem Areas," above], and especially look underneath at the floors and suspension attachment points. Also pull up the trunk mats and look carefully all around the trunk. This leads to the second concern, which is repaired body damage. Alfas get hit a lot, especially in the rear. So look inside the rear panel and at the trunk floor for deformation. Also feel inside the rear wheelwells for bulging or poor repairs. The sides of the car should curve smoothly and subtly with no bulges. Look for bulges over the rear wheel wells, indicating a rear-end collision. These bulges are common, and show corresponding bulges in the unibody channel beam just inside the wheel wells. Look where the rear door meets the rear quarter. This should be a narrow and even gap. The gap will be too thin and uneven on a car that has been hit in the rear, and too wide on a car that has been hit in the side.

Check the fit of the doors, trunk lid, and hood. Check all over for completeness and fit of trim, lights, bumpers, and badges. It is common for the heart-shaped Alfa grille to be broken or pitted, and stainless steel bumpers are rarely undamaged, as they are very lightweight and weak. Headlight rings are often missing as well.

The second inspection area is the interior. This is the hardest part of the car to restore properly, especially if items are missing or modifications have been made. The dashboard will likely be cracked on top, but how is it otherwise? Is the wood facing in good condition? Do the instruments work? How are the seats, carpets, door panels, and headliner? These are all difficult items to restore to original condition.

The next area to check is the engine. Any US Berlina should have Spica injection; if it doesn't, someone has tampered with it. Other countries' cars will have dell'Orto or Weber carburetors. Check the condition of the oil and water (for evidence of head gasket failure), look around the head gasket for leaks, and do a compression test with the throttles held wide open (with the spark plugs all out). The absolute readings are not all that important, but all the cylinders should be within 10 percent of each other. Check the oil pressure (at least 55 psi when driving; 7 psi is OK at idle). The engine should start easily, idle smoothly, and pull strongly without much smoke. Alfa engines have a high amount of mechanical noise by modern standards, but worn pistons, loose valves, and loose timing chains will all make distinctive noise.

The clutch and transmission should work smoothly together. The cars were designed to shift very well. For someone who hasn't driven an Alfa before, the long angled shifter takes some getting used to; if it's working right it is a joy. Some of the synchros, especially on second gear, are likely to be worn, so you need to upshift slowly and double-clutch on downshifts. Some bearing noise, especially in neutral, is common, and some gear noise, especially in third and fifth gears, is also normal. Excessive gear noise, jumping out of gear, and excessive backlash are not normal.

The brakes should work smoothly, with no grabbing or pulsing, and the brake pedal should be high and firm, and should not pump up, which indicates air in the system. The brake disks should be smooth looking, without grooves, scores, or rust. The parking brake should hold the car on any normal hill. On a 1969 LHD car or any RHD car, both brake boosters should be in place and should be plumbed into the hydraulic system. They are commonly removed or plumbed around when problems are encountered.

Check the steering and front suspension by grabbing the tire at different locations and trying to tip or twist it. Not much movement should be found. In and out movement at the top of the tire indicates worn upper ball joints or bushings; a banging sound when the tire assembly is pushed sharply forward indicates worn caster ball joint, and excessive movement when pushing in at the rear of the tire indicates worn steering tie rod ends. Also rock the steering wheel to see how much free play there is. Jounce the front end to check the shock absorbers and to listen for creaks, groans, and clunks.

Not much can be checked on the rear suspension. Rock each wheel to check for excessive movement, jounce the rear body to check the shock absorbers, and look underneath for general condition, and to see that the limit straps are in place. Make sure the pinion seal and the axle seals are not leaking too much.

Gizmo (rear) At the right we see a picture of a federally certified impact vessel testing whether this former rubber-bumper 1974 US Berlina, converted to early stainless bumpers, still complies with the federal 5 MPH bumper impact standard in effect when the car was sold new. This is not a normal part of a Berlina inspection, but it never hurts to be thorough, and this test vessel may be available for inspections on suitable cars. Results of the test were inconclusive, but the impact vessel (in real life, named Gizmo) had a hell of a time eating everything he could on the Berlina, especially the rubber trim and rust spots.

When driven, an Alfa should feel tight and responsive, and very connected to the road. The driver should have the impression that the car is telling him or her exactly what is going on. These are very communicative cars. All the pedal efforts are normally very light. (Note that if a dual-booster car has had its boosters removed, which is not uncommon, the brake pedal will be very hard.) Normally the steering should be very light and responsive, if wide tires have not been fitted. In corners the car is likely to lean over some, but it should corner well. Similarly, Berlinas tend to pitch forward heavily in braking, but should nonetheless stop quickly and straight. Any decent Berlina should be able to cruise easily at 80 mph without heating up or having other problems. And a Berlina should be able to top 100 mph with ease if there is enough road to do so.

Copyright © 1997 by Andrew D. Watry
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