My Soul Was Saved By Jazz

In my fifth decade on this planet I believe I have reached a point in my life where the feeling, “Inside every old man is a young man wondering what the hell happened,” is a daily occurrence. The landmarks, cultural conventions, and things that I have come to know are disappearing. The family owned restaurant where I waited tables and tended bar I as a young man during my college years is gone. Language, dress codes, personal etiquette on the sidewalk and on the road seem non-existent. Kids don’t play baseball in the street, fewer young kids don’t ride motorcycles, and the cars many seem to want don’t even require an active driver. Even at very fine restaurants families and couples spend more time considering their smartphones than the food in front of them. Much popular music has truly devolved in to rhythm generated by a computer, and little, if any actual melody. The lyrics are at often offensive (at best) and downright violent (at worst). Culturally we seem more divided than ever, the failure of our democracy as a possibility, an outcome encouraged by leaders who drive wedges in between our differences on a daily basis.

The saving grace for me is that despite having listened to it my entire life, all of these aspects of modern life have made the art form of jazz even more meaningful. Jazz shines a white hot light on these things, exposes them and then, like the deck of a beach house exposed to the sun, bleaches their darkness until it fades and is gone. Jazz is not only a uniquely American art form, it, along with the Constitution, and baseball, remains a touchstone for where we are in the world. Music written by and played by King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Charlie Parker and countless others is relevant not only in its original form, but equally important when reimagined by new young artists. And yes, there are still young people worthy of the title “musician” playing live jazz in front enthusiastic audiences (if small) without a sampler or drum machine in sight. Wynton Marsalis, the elder statesman of jazz, continues to educate, evangelize, (and sometimes even occasionally pontificate) support and promote the music to all who are interested. Most importantly, he encourages young musicians in both word and deed, examples of which I will share later.

The volume and catalog of jazz that has been produced up to the present day is so massive, so diverse, so rich in every aspect, that it could sustain us for the rest of our lives. Perhaps the only frustration I have with it is that there is simply so much great music to explore, and not enough time to hear and appreciate it all. And jazz rarely exposes its genius early on. It sometimes takes dozens of listenings before we begin to understand its message, and even after hundreds of listenings, it continues to reveal. Jazz truly is the music of all time. A random selection of 10 jazz recordings from the 40s to the 70s will last you the rest of your life. You’ll never be bored, and no matter what your age, it will serve you well, celebrating in joy, commiserating in sorrow, reminding you that there are some things in this world always worth having around.

IMG_2644

I was a musician from the moment I was old enough to operate my parents’ hi-fi. My parents loved music and my father had a record collection that included Stan Kenton, Benny Goodman, Mel Torme, Ella Fitzgerald, and George Shearing. My mother had Herb Alpert, and musicals, in this case “The Music Man.” Apparently I went on a bit of a tear for a few weeks during which I would get up early in the morning, put the needle on the record and blast “76 Trombones” for the entire family. Mic drop.

I began playing the trumpet at age 7 and for the following 15 years of my life, it was a significant part of my identity. I played in every band I could be in from elementary school through high school. The quotes under picture in my Senior Yearbook has numerous references to music, including that I wanted to “revel in it” for the rest of my life. I was in the Santa Clara Vanguard Drum and Bugle Corps, and earned a minor in instrumental and vocal jazz.

I listened to all kinds of music as a young person, but classical and jazz (the only music I felt was “legitimate”) were in my heart, mostly the latter. I wasn’t good enough, or suitably dedicated to get good enough to be a professional musician, something I’d known for years.

After college I began working in sales for a software company and for the following 25 years I almost never even touched my horn. Music was still a huge part of my life. I consumed it voraciously, went to concerts, and there was always music playing in my house, from dusk to dawn. In my workshop there was (and is) always music. I stopped thinking of me as “a musician.” It was part of my past life, and while I could still make a note on the horn, I had not “made music” in so long I doubted if I could even remember how to read.

5 years ago the Santa Clara Vanguard Drum and Bugle Corps celebrated its 50th year of existence with an “Alumni Corps,” and without much hesitation I committed to doing it. I got my old Benge out of the attic. I opened the case and pulled the horn out. It immediately felt at home in my hands, as if I’d played it the previous day. I would not experience the same comfort when I pressed the mouthpiece to my lips and tried to make a note. ppppppPHWuhhhhhh. I knew it would be a long road to recovery, but I was energized and focused.

The Vanguard is an organization which demands excellence, and I resolved that if I was going to wear that uniform again, my level of performance would be as high as it could be. I knew it was going to take practice. Lots. Of practice. I knew it would not be easy at first. I had many years to make up for in a short amount of time but I also committed to myself that I would not be the weak link in the soprano (trumpet) line.

The 18 month journey that began on a cold, gray January day at San Jose State University, and finished on a warm Friday night in August at Lucas Oil Stadium was one filled with all kinds of lessons, new and old. Past the thrill of performing in front an audience of over 10,000, the joy of making music that is sacred to all Vanguard alumni, and the permanent bonds sealed with every alumnus with whom I performed, I almost felt like I could call myself a musician.

After the final note of the final performance of the Vanguard Alumni Corps my very first thought was, “what now?” I wanted to keep playing my horn, but I knew that without a band to be a part of, it would be hard to remain motivated to play every day. There are only so many lip slurs, scales, and etudes one can practice before making music with others becomes an imperative.

Luckily, within a few weeks I found a local community big band. Playing new charts every week and learning how to prepare for gigs was a new and exciting challenge, one that I relished. I was still far from being what I considered “competent” on the trumpet, but every day I practiced, every rehearsal I attended, I got better.

Soon after that, I found another big band. The book was more challenging, and the caliber of musicians in it, higher. I told the band leader I wanted to be in the trumpet section and told her I’d commit to doing whatever I need to in order to be a permanent member. Those early rehearsals were challenging. I’m not a great sight reader. My trumpet chops as well as my musical chops were still weak. But I practiced. And practiced. I took the music home with me every week and practiced it until I could play it with a modicum of proficiency. I took private lessons, began reading books on jazz chord theory, and started listening almost exclusively to jazz. I revisited old loves (Miles, Diz, Bird, Kenton, Chuck, Duke, Count, and Maynard) and discovered new ones.

Prior to 2016, my passion was cars and motorcycles. My father instilled a love of vintage machines in me from an early age, and from the time I was old enough to have a license I bought, repaired, restored, and drove vintage cars and motorcycles. I raced motorcycles, did track days, and my wife and I spent hundreds of days riding our dirtbikes at off highway vehicle parks in California. For the previous 15 years I’d been obsessively restoring several Alfa Romeos, one of which after 8 years is still in process. My free time, money, and energy were devoted to the cars. They were my hobby, my raison d’etre, my inspiration. The management of their restoration gave my mind something to chew on, plan for, and dream about.

One morning I awakened and for the first time in a long time, the first thing I thought about was not going for a ride, or what I was going to do in the shop, but that I couldn’t wait to play my horn. I was feeling like a real musician!

During the years when my horn and I were not seeing each other, music had remained my antidote to the challenges of the world and life. Listening to it, always with an appreciation gained from having spent a good amount of my life studying it, gave me joy, inspiration, and energy. Once I started playing my horn, that joy, that inspiration, and that energy was intensified tenfold. The music that I immersed myself in almost exclusively, was jazz. I was once again a boy of 5 or 6, wanting to play my horn like the cats on the records, or in my iTunes library anyway.

The world in 2019 is a crazy place. Past the insanity in our country, as well as the unrest that is global, it feels like everything that we used to know is either going away, or changing significantly. Internet and mobile device technology, something that I spent 30 years evangelizing, has changed our world in so many ways that to attempting to quantify it in even a few paragraphs is impossible. It’s easier to talk about the things that haven’t changed than what have. Many of the material objects we desire are essentially disposable. Few things that are part of our daily lives will be around in 10 years, or perhaps even 5. That’s not exactly new, but it seems to have accelerated, and it’s always bothered me.

One of the reasons that I’ve always loved vintage cars and motorcycles, mechanical watches, tools, and well made clothing, is that they’re always worth having. The Omega Speedmaster on my wrist right now was my first mechanical watch, and I bought it over 30 years ago. I just replaced my 2000 Ford F150 (purchased new) which had 272,000 miles on it with a 2019 F150, and I hope it’s the last vehicle I ever have to buy. I’m under no illusions that I’ll be able to perform routine maintenance on the new one like I did the old truck though. Technology….

Experiences, especially those shared with others, are more important than material objects, but surrounding ourselves with well made things is not only satisfying, it’s good for the soul and the planet. Anything that endures long enough to be handed down from one generation to another carries with it not only the spiritual attributes of timeless style and quality, but also bears witness to the life experiences of its owner. Imagine the watch that Charles Lindbergh used when he made his famous Transatlantic flight, or a vintage radio on which a family listened to FDR’s fireside chats. They can’t tell share their own stories of these historic events, but they can help us get closer to them.

The “things” in which I’ve chosen to invest have been mostly vintage cars and motorcycles. Aside from a handful of watches, a small collection of books (usually about vintage cars and motorcycles), a nice set of tools (to keep those vintage cars and motorcycles on the road), my material possessions are relatively mundane. A nice suit, a few pairs of shoes, some boots, and a small selection of leather jackets. Many of my clothes have been in my closet for decades, and you’d never know it.

Unfortunately vintage cars are beginning to lose, or have already completely lost much of their utility. As more Electric and Autonomous vehicles make their way on to our public roads, even the relatively high performance cars of only a decade or so ago, are being literally passed and left as ghosts of the past. Cars like the ones I have, built in Italy in the 50s and 60s are almost unusable on the highways and byways of Northern California. They’re too slow to accelerate, too slow to stop, and even too small to be visible to the drivers of today’s massive and heavy machines, insulated as they are from the traffic around them. The person behind the wheel is likely paying more attention to the texts on their phone than they are the traffic around them. I gave up my life long love of riding motorcycles on the street a few years ago after too many close calls with distracted drivers. Now I ride on race tracks or on dirt, where there is no threat of errant automobiles.

As their utility wanes, so does the interest of new generations of vintage car enthusiasts. There’s a reason why few people want Model T Fords. It’s kinda morose so I won’t say the words, but I think you get it. With fewer people interested in old cars, and increasingly onerous environmental regulation the small, independent shops that service and restore them are being pushed of business, it’s becoming harder for enthusiasts to keep their old cars on the road. Platers, painters, and many other services are either non-existent, or extremely rare and expensive as the economic realities of low supply and low demand weigh upon both customer and vendor.

I’m fortunate in that I can do much of the restoration and maintenance on my cars and motorcycles. And I don’t need to ride or drive them in order to enjoy them. I can go out to the shop with a cup of coffee in the morning, or tumbler of bourbon in the evening, sit in a chair and regard them. I can putter around the shop, cleaning a cam cover, checking fluid levels, or even just sit in or on one, and remember dreams future and past.

And yet, the feeling that their place in my life is fading. They are after all, meant to transport me from one place to another, not just figuratively. My motorcycles rarely get ridden, the cars, only a little more frequently. What does a retired 53 year old man do with his life?

For me, the answer was in jazz. As a young man the musician who most profoundly influenced me was Miles Davis. After years of listening to big bands like Ellington, Basie, Kenton, and Maynard, the spare and modern sounds of the jazz quintets of the 50s and 60s were life changing. The first Miles Davis record I listened to was “Four & More.” I was 15 years old and it was one of three records I bought simply because a friend who I looked up to (and who was a jazz drummer) said, “hey TJ, you should listen to Miles,” more like a directive than a suggestion. I went down to the local record store, bought the live record already mentioned, along with “Miles Smiles,” and “Milestones.”

The way Miles solo’d was a revelation. A neophyte listener seeking to understand the essence of improvisation need only listen to Miles. He played with such spontaneity that you could hear ideas, in the form of notes, pass across his cortex, sometimes at lightning fast tempos. His tone could be soft and breathy and meandering, or it could be edgy, and open, phrases sometimes falling apart but magically reassembling before they concluded.

Then as now, I wanted to be a proficient jazz improviser. Now, unlike then, I’m much more disciplined and able to focus on learning the art and science of jazz chord theory. I have no desire of developing my trumpet craft to the level necessary to play lead. My role as 4th chair in the big band affords me the opportunity to be part of the trumpet section, play some cool harmonic parts, and work on my improvisation skills. It is the pursuit of that kind of competence that has saved me. I know that even if I am able to play my horn for 40 more years, I will never truly master jazz chord theory. I’ll never know it all. I won’t even be able to scratch the surface. I will likely never be able to truly understand the changes to John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” Hell, I’ll likely never even be able to fake it. Depressing you think? Nope. Despite the fact that the lives of many jazz musicians were short and tragic, (many never saw their 30th year) there are some truly legendary musicians still alive and making music. Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Chick Corea, Arturo Sandoval, and many others are not just coasting, they’re driving with the pedal. The aforementioned Wynton Marsalis is at 58, a relative youngster but he is truly honors and practices the tradition of shepherding young musicians. Years ago some friends of mine went to hear him at a club in San Francisco. They were 18 at the time, and sitting in the audience, grooving to his band, Wynton took notice. After his set, he invited them back stage, ended up offering one of them a horn, practice books, and lessons. He told them to “come see him when you’re in Manhattan.” They did, and he welcomed them in to his home, to visit, talk about and make music. His book “To A Young Jazz Musician-Letters From The Road” is a collection of missives written during his long bus rides across the country with his band, and sent to a young musician. The lessons he shares transcend the usual dogma of “practice your scales and develop your own voice,” aspiring to a meta-level discussion of what it means to be an artist today. Imbued with philosophy as well as strongly worded opinions on what Wynton sees as the degrading nature of popular music, especially with regard to todays “Negro” his tone is both stern and loving, cautionary, and uplifting.  “Moving To Higher Ground-How Jazz Can Change Your Life” inspired me to write this.

As a child, early in life, jazz chose the trumpet for me. As a young man, the trumpet chose jazz as the music that would help me navigate life, even when my horn didn’t leave its case for a couple decades. Now, life has reunited me with my horn and a new relationship with jazz, a relationship in which I seek a deeper and more profound understanding of it and the musicians who made, and continue to make it a world treasure, made in America.

IMG_2643

References

Jacob Collier discusses harmony with 5 people of varying ages https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eRkgK4jfi6M

 

The Alfa Romeo 1900C SS-So Rare That No One Cares?

The Alfa Romeo 1900C SS-So Rare That No One Cares?

The author with a 1956 Super Sprint at the RM Sotheby’s Auction at Monterey Car Week in 2015.

The collector car world always loves the rare. We are always excited to see cars that were built in low production numbers, and usually, but not always, models of which few were built results in high valuations. Would Ferrari GTOs be selling for upwards of $70,000,000 if 336 were built instead of just a mere 36? Of course not. The law of supply and demand still exist, just like gravity.

Still, rarity is not the single factor that determines how the market will price a given vehicle. If you accept that there really is no inherent value in an old car, a fact that is becoming more apparent as modern cars get better while their drivers get worse, the demand component of determining a car’s value sometimes is not based on small supply.

A perfect example of this is the Porsche Speedster. Over 2000 pre-A models were built from 1954 to 1957, a rather large number when compared to the Alfa Romeo 1900C SS, and yet the German car’s valuation in today’s market is significantly higher than its Italian counterpart. I’m generalizing across Speedster variants but regardless, the Porsche was originally a budget model, with virtually zero concessions to occupant comfort. The design is pure and iconic, and they are fun to drive, but they remain car that is at best simple, and at worst, crude. The contain none of the components that are usually a necessary part of collector car cache. The body is steel. The interior spartan, devoid of leather or ornamentation. The suspension is simple, and the power plant generic. And yet….

My belief is that vintage Porsches fetch high prices largely because owners of modern Porsches who want the classic car experience love the idea of having an old Porsche next to their modern one, and if the modern one is a 911, even better. Porsche also does a fantastic job of marketing to and supporting their millions of global fans.

With that rather lengthy background, let us consider the Alfa Romeo 1900C SS, a car which confounds the usual laws of desirability and price. To be clear, while I obviously have a vested interest in the model, my argument they are undervalued and overlooked is not really to justify the time and expense to which I am going in my own car’s restoration.

My frustration is that for some reason the coach built 1900 Alfas seem undervalued largely overlooked today. I can’t even those words can existing the same sentence; “coach built Alfa…..undervalued. It doesn’t make sense, but what is so frustrating is that because of this fact, restoring them is extremely challenging.

Examined more closely, the various ingredients should add up to more. Only 580 versions of the final and most refined version of the Touring bodied 1900C SS were built from 1955 to 1958. Fewer than 200 known examples exist today. They were built with Touring’s patented “Superleggera” process of a hand formed aluminum skin wrapped over a tubular steel chassis. That same technique was used on highly desirable Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Aston Martins, to name just a few. Like the Porsche, 1900s were raced in the Mille Miglia.

Unlike the Speedster, the Alfa had a relatively opulent interior with a 5 speed gearbox, a sophisticated suspension up front, a live axle in the rear, and coil springs all around. The Alfa had a 1975 cc twin overhead cam engine that made 115 horsepower, tubular headers, twin Solex carbs, massive alfin drum brakes and even a heater. That heated cockpit was complemented by leather and cloth upholstery, a set of 6 elegant Veglia gauges. Finally, that beautiful aluminum body, largely minimalist in terms of external trim, rolled on Borrani wire wheels, and when it rolled, it did so with a combination of comfort, performance, and style. Like the Speedster the 1900 is eligible for the Mille Miglia and other tribute events.

The Super Sprint (that’s what the SS is for in the name) was expensive new. Only a little more would buy a Mercedes 300SL. Like many European cars only a few years after it was built the Alfa was almost worthless. 62 years later the market in North America for very nicely restored examples seems to be in the $300,000-$350,000 range.

At this price they are out of reach of many owner/restorers. Their aluminum bodies are very expensive to repair and restore, and well beyond the ability of do it yourselfers. I can build engines, and assemble a car, but I can’t hand form aluminum panels, and tig weld them together. Add to these challenges the fact that the Touring factory burned to the ground in 1966, resulting in their being almost no period photos, documentation, or factory tooling and you have a car which is very hard to restore.

Until a few years ago there was one book dedicated to the model, and it was written in Italian. H.-J. Dohren’s “Millenove Alfa Romeo” is the most recent book on the 1900, is printed in English, and considered the definitive book on the model and yet many questions regarding the car persist, simply because the answers were lost decades ago. Something as simple as the correct orientation of the chrome “spear” that bifurcates the hood is almost impossible to determine because among the very small number of factory photos that exist, none that answer the question definitively.

I did not acquire my 1900 for its “collectibility” and it does not matter to me whether other people like it or not. I certainly do not think that it is the best looking, best driving, or most unique car built in the fifties, nor is it the most usable vintage car today. To me, it checks a number of boxes, not least of which was that it is a unique, beautiful, and historic car from a historic marque and that’s all that really matters.

Now if I could just find an NOS CarrozzTouring badge for my trunk lid. The reproductions need significant modification to make them fit properly.

Keep ‘er pinned!

-tj

Carchaeological Dig-Alfa Romeo 1900C SS #AR10321

Alfa Romeo Super Sprint photo

People are drawn to vintage automobiles for many reasons. Some prefer the style, while others like the nostalgia of owning a car that they admired when they were either too young, or too poor to afford when new. Many vintage car lovers appreciate the design, and technological advances of a specific model. Personally, I find the entire experience akin to being immersed in an old movie, book, or piece of music. It’s a time machine of sorts, one which hearkens back to a period when things were simpler.

Cars were largely assembled by human hands even in to the 70s, and those built in the 40s and 50s saw few if any power tools at all. Each nut and bolt was tightened by hand which imbued a humanness to the machine. The result was a vehicle built for humans, by humans, giving them soul which is hard to find in today’s computer designed and assembled automatons.

Another aspect of vintage car ownership that I thoroughly enjoy is discovering the machine’s history. Think for a moment about your first car. Remember the nights you dreamt of it, the money you saved to buy it, and the places you drove it, and the memories you made in it. No matter how humble, your first car was a big part of your life.

Now imagine what it must have been like for the first owner of a car in the 40s, or 50s. Despite the post war economic boom in North America, cars were still not something that everyone could afford, and when it came to an exotic car from Europe, they were even more expensive, and hard to keep on the road. “Expensive new, hard to keep on the road (largely due to lack of dealer support and available parts), and nearly worthless used” is how I describe many Italian cars in the 50s.

When I came to own 10321 I was immediately interested in learning as much as I could about its past. Alfa Romeos were not widely sold in North America, and coachbuilt models like the 1900C Super Sprint were even more scarce. Past my own interest in the car’s past, knowing who, where, and when previous owners called the car their own increases its desirability and value. If owning old cars costs money, it makes sense to at least try to preserve as much value as possible. On top of all of that, carchaelogy is just plain fun.

During the many years that the 1900C SS was away undergoing surgery I had lots of time to research the car’s history. I was fortunate that in addition to the car being something of a “barn find” it came with a sizable stack of receipts and paperwork with the names of at least a few of its previous owners.

Here is what I have learned about 10321.

The following facts and statements regarding my 1957 Alfa Romeo 1900C SS, body by Touring are based upon information collected from Marco Fazio at Automobilisimo Storico Alfa Romeo, John deBoer of the Italian Car Registry, “Millenove” by H.-J. Dohren, “Alfa Romeo-Production Cars from 1910” by d’Amico and Tabucchi, “Carrozzeria Touring Superleggera” by Giovanni Bianchi Anderloni. Additionally, the owner’s own research and communication with Peter Marshall, Joost Gompels, Daniel Allen, Conrad Stevenson, Martin Swig, Andy Rottman, Bob Mirvis, Bernhard Fleischacker, Giovanni Bianchi Anderloni, and other prominent members of the global Alfa Romeo 1900C community has helped to reconstruct the car’s life from date of production to present. 

Due to the car having been in storage for 30 years when I purchased her, and the sizable collection of documentation that came with the car, I have been able to track ownership history since new, with only one small possible gap. Last, but not least, I have exchanged numerous emails and photos with whom I believe to be the first North American owner documenting his time with the car.

January 8th, 1957, Alfa Romeo 1900C SS #AR10321, Engine #AR10327, Carrozzeria Touring #4867, was completed. The original color was “azzurro verde oceano” with red leather and gray fabric interior.

January 23rd, 1957 “10321” was sold on the 23rd of that month by Ditta e Moretti e Coperiani in Verona, to Dr. Bruno Menini of Legnano, Verona for 3.010.000 lire . The license plate number was VR50158.

August 8th, 1958 the car was sold to Enrico Cairoli of Brienno, Como for the sum of 1.698.000 lire. The entire amount of money to purchase the car was loaned to Cairoli by “Ditta Industriale Salone Oberdan,” owned by Mario Fraccaroli. The license plate number was CO65946.

July 7th, 1959, the car was either taken or “purchased” in lieu of payments by Mario Fraccaroli, Ditta Industriale Salone Oberdan, in Milan.

August 6th, 1959 the car was registered by Piero Predelli of Milan. The license plate number was MI437377. Piero Predelli was granted a USA patent in 1990 with a Milanese address of Via Imbonati 17.

There is no information available for the period from 1959 to 1964 in Italy. 

July 30th, 1964, the car was purchased by Dr. Pasquale M. Sforza, of Douglastown, NY, USA. Dr. Sforza is Professor Emeritus at University of Florida. Pasquale Sforza received his PhD from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn in 1965. He has taught courses related to commercial airplane design at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn and the University of Florida. His research interests include propulsion, gas dynamics, and air and space vehicle design. Dr. Sforza has also acted as Co-Editor of the Journal of Directed Energy and Book Review Editor for the AIAA Journal. His previous books include Theory of Aerospace Propulsion and Commercial Airplane Design Principles. I have exchanged numerous emails with Dr. Sforza and he has sent me photos of the car during his time of ownership, as well as a copy of the sales receipt from Trencher Motors Limited, of Amityville, Long Island, New York for the sum of $1500. According to the receipt Trencher Motors was an Authorized Dealer for Triumph, MG, Austin Healey, Sunbeam, Fiat, Hillman, TVR, Humber, and Alfa Romeo. The photos sent to me by Dr. Sforza show a car that had already been damaged and repainted in white. There is significant damage to the nose, with the incorrect chrome trim for the air intakes, non-original fender mounted side markers (perhaps installed upon entry into the United States), and other body damage.

August of 1972 Dr. Sforza sold the car to George Bauer. I have a New York state DMV Registration card with the date of transfer and Mr. Bauer’s name written on it. In email conversations with Dr. Sforza he remembered “selling it to a gentleman who had driven sports cars in Italy in the 50s and early 60s.” I believe that the George Bauer who owned 10321 is the same George Bauer who competed in the 1960 Targa Florio, in an OSCA along with Carroll Smith, author of “Nuts, Bolts, and Fasteners.” Sadly both men are deceased and I’ve not been able to contact next of kin.

1975-Dr. William Meinhardt of Burlington, Vermont has taken possession of 10321 and apparently undertaken a complete restoration of the car. Numerous pieces of correspondence with known figures in the Alfa Romeo and racing community are in the vehicle’s vast records, including David Yager and John Buffum of Intrepid Racing who road tested and stored the car, and removed the engine and transmission for rebuild. There are many receipts with Dr. Meinhardt’s name on them for engine components, machining, wire wheels, interior, and other parts. It appears that Dr. Meinhardt never got the car running before it was sold it its next owner.

August 29, 1981 the car was sold by Dr. Meinhardt to Dr. Bruce Curley of San Jose, California for $6900. Numerous receipts show Dr. Curley made the trip to the east coast towing a trailer to pick the car up and return it to San Jose. A small number of receipts show that Dr. Curley began to attempt to reassemble the car but apparently lost interest. Mutual friend and Bay Area Alfa Romeo expert Tom Sahines stored the car at his residence for nearly the entire 30 year period before I purchased the car in November of 2011.

When I took delivery of 10321 she was a rolling chassis. The 5 speed gearbox had the optional Nardi floor shift conversion. The engine was out of the car and most of the exterior trim was removed. The original steering wheel was on the car and not in great condition. The seats, door panels, carpet and interior had been recovered in red vinyl and the headliner had been replaced. The passenger window had been replaced with a plastic one, the spare wheel was missing, and many of the engine’s components were in boxes. 

I knew that the car had significant amounts of body filler on the front end, and that fact, combined with the missing chrome trim around the intakes on either side of the center grill had convinced me that a complete and thorough restoration was the only option for me. The car was white at this time and when I sanded a small section to see what was underneath I found 9 layers of alternating red and blue paint, which I now assume to be primer. At the time I didn’t know that the car was originally “azzurro verde oceano” and I didn’t know that she’d been white since at least 1964, when Dr. Sforza purchased her. I personally disassembled the entire vehicle. The original door panels and other interior parts have “67” written on the back, referring to the last two digits of the Touring body number (4867). Underneath the red vinyl seat covers was the original red leather and gray, square weave upholstery. After removing all of the trim I discovered two very small areas where the original pale green color lay undisturbed; on a small tab that is welded to the bottom of the dash beneath the choke knob, and underneath the drip rail on the driver’s side which is covered by a chrome trim piece. I then received confirmation from Marco Fazio confirming the original color of the car; azzurro verde oceano. 

Despite the wrong interior, non-original paint, and poorly executed bodywork, many other discoveries support the car’s status as somewhat of a time machine; a car which had been used somewhat regularly until the early 70s, then disassembled and put into storage for 35 years.

Many rare and hard to find items, such as the original Solex carbs, engine components, Nardi steering wheel and floor gear shift conversion, remained with the car. The front windshield still bears a New York State inspection sticker from 1971, and the 4 Borrani wheels have “CB 56” date stamps on their rims.

There was a good amount of very poorly repaired damage on the nose however, and with it, missing or incorrect parts. The chrome trim around the air intakes was missing, the headlights and buckets were crudely modified Lucas units, and the front turn signals were also not correct for the car.

In the fall of 2011, I began what has been an 8 year journey to restore this beautiful Alfa to the most period correct and highest quality that a owner/restorer of relatively modest means can achieve. As someone who was restored many cars and motorcycles in my life, I considered the faithful restoration of this Alfa Romeo to be my magnum opus. The goal was to restore the car to a state as close to the functional and cosmetic state condition it would have been in when it left Carrozzeria Touring in 1957. Parts, trim, plating, materials, mechanical components and the paint finish are all as close to period correct as I have been able to determine. The only visual component that may be a slight deviation from factory original is the finish on the wire wheels. My research indicates that Borrani offered several options of their wheels in the 50s, including all steel wheels painted silver, steel wheels in chrome finish, and wheels with polished aluminum rims, steel hubs and chrome plated spokes and nipples. I do not know for sure that 10321 left the factory with chrome wheels but I have seen period era photos of Series II Super Sprints with wheels in this finish. 

 

Building A Model Car-Part 1

For the first time in 7 years, for the first time ever here at the property we call “Pacific Haven,” which we purchased almost 5 years ago, 10321 is home. It’s been a frustrating, at times torturous period with well documented episodes ranging from breach of contract to complete dishonesty. Thankfully, those days are in the past, and this beautiful car has reached a significant milestone toward being on the road again for the first time in over 40 years.

Yesterday the crew at Nicks Old Car Specialty, where she spent 2 years undergoing a body off restoration and the complete fabrication of a new front end, pushed her out of the shop and in to my trailer. Following a 6 hour drive home, and a rather tricky ascent of our “not designed for gearheads” driveway, she was rolled in to my shop.

So begins the first step in what I hope is the final stage of her renaissance. Despite being largely complete, there are a few parts I am missing, and as the car was never completely assembled when I took ownership, I am sure there are some parts I’m missing that I just don’t know about yet.

The goal is to build her to as close to “factory” correct as is possible, and to as a high a standard as possible. Candidly, the goal is an example which could gain entry to the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance were the stars to align. Regardless of whether or not that happens, I will do the best job that an owner/restorer can do.

As with any build, there will be challenges, and there are still many questions I have regarding finishes, functions, and assembly. I hope to continue the story that I began here many years ago, and with your help hope to have those questions answered. I will also be writing about the build on my blog so that it is documented for the general public.

I have the buck we used to build the front end and under the right circumstances can be made available to members of the 1900 community who may be in need.

The body is in primer, still mounted to the dolly on which it has sat for over 7 years. Before it is sent to the painter it will need a skim coat and many hours of blocking and sanding. I aim to have a period appropriate finish in paint, chrome, and interior. Currently the big jobs left are rebuilding and painting the suspension, running gear, and engine, and the completion of the interior. I have the right leather but need to source the square weave gray fabric for the seats, the right material for the headliner and carpet.

The first step is to assemble the entire car to a drivable state to fine tune fit of all mechanical and cosmetic components. That process began today as I started unboxing parts and slowing installing them. Among the items I’d been keen to check for fit were the badges. The Tipo IV body is delightfully minimalist in terms of ornamentation, but what is there must be perfectly installed.

The first thing I noticed is that the “CarrozTouring” badge for the trunk lid, admittedly a repop, does not appear to be proper. The shape is flat and thus does not fit the curved portion of the trunklid at all as you can see. It is completely unusable and I’m currently looking for a source for the right one.

Another area that needs attention is the spare wheel. I have no reason to believe that the spare wheel well has been modified from original but the large aluminum “wing nut and washer” that hold the spare wheel in place does not line up with the center of the wheel’s hub as it should. The tire is the stock size and the bracket that is welded to the trunk appears to be in the right place, so I’m confused. As they say, “a picture’s worth a thousand words.” Thoughts?

The coming weeks and months will no doubt bring moments of satisfaction as well as frustration, but I’m extremely excited to embark on the process of what I aim to be the best and most rewarding restoration of my life.

Keep ‘er pinned!

-tj

Building A Model Car-Prologue

Building A Model Car

DSC_7662

Since I was a boy I have built things. My father was an airline mechanic and from the time I was old enough to walk he taught me how to use tools, and to behave in a shop. He loved Jaguars and from before the time I was born until shortly before I turned 30 spent all his time restoring an XK120 Fixed Head Coupe. I built u-control airplanes, pinewood derby race cars, model cars and airplanes, and my BMX racer. Later I built Vespas and Lambrettas before graduating to cars. Among the cars and motorcycles I have built and/or restored are:

1957 oval window VW

1966 VW transporter

1965 MGB

1973 BMW 3.0 CS

1973 BMW 3.o CSL

1966 Alfa Romeo Giulia Sprint GT Veloce

1970 Norton Commando

1969 Triumph TR6R

1969 Triumph Bonneville

1963 Lambretta Li150

1964 Lambretta Li150 Silver Special

1974 Vespa Rally 200

All of these vehicles were fun to build and own, and in a perfect world I’d still have all of them. As a life long lover of Italian cars I’d always dreamed of owning a historically significant example of a car built in the country where my grandfather was born. Front engine V12 Ferraris were on my wish list, as was a Ferrari with neither of these features, the Dino. I’d loved and owned Alfas for years, including my 1966 Giulia Sprint GT Veloce, but if my “last great build” was going to be an Alfa, it would have to be special.

So it was that on the same day I looked at several Ferraris, I looked at a car I’d only seen several of in my life time, a car whose existence I learned of via word of mouth. I am referring to the 1957 Alfa Romeo 1900C SS, a noteworthy car by almost any classic car enthusiast, one rare enough to be interesting and challenging, yet still not commanding the 7 digit prices of many mid-60s Ferraris and Lamborghinis.

The 1900C was based on the 4 sedan that helped Alfa Romeo get back on its feet in post WWII Italy, indeed the first cars to be built out of the rubble of the war. Prior to the war Alfa Romeos were almost all “coach built” machines with 6 and 8 cylinder engines, and extremely expensive. The factory decided to honor this tradition by offering a rolling chassis, shortened by almost 4 inches, to the popular coach builders of the time. Pinin Farina, Zagato, Boano, Ghia, Stabilimenti Farina, and Touring bought the rolling chassic, complete with engine, and gearbox, added their own bodies and sold them either direct to their customers, or through Alfa Romeo dealerships.

My car is one of only 580 examples built between 1956 and 1958 by Carrozzeria Touring of Milan, and has a rather fascinating history which I will share in a later post.

I purchased the car in 2011 as a rolling chassis with the engine out of the car and most of the mechanical components in boxes.  I immediately began to disassemble the car for a complete restoration. Following several miscues (one of which was the inspiration for this entry) I finally found the right shop to help repair and fabricate a new front end for the badly damaged car). Now, almost 8 years since I brought her home, she is ready to begin the first step in the final phase of her rebirth.

I hope that you enjoy following along as complete this restoration and to getting this beautiful and unique car back on the road for the first time in over 40 years.

Keep ‘er pinned.

-tj

 

Tales Of Woe And Aggravation-How Not To Get Burned During Your Restoration Project

Tales Of Woe And Aggravation-How Not To Get Burned During Your Restoration Project

Published Date : December 12, 2014

Anyone who has ever enlisted the services of a professional shop during the course of an automotive restoration has likely experienced levels of frustration ranging from mild to extreme. At best, maybe they only missed their deadline by a few days. At worst, your car, or parts were either returned no better than when you dropped them off, or they weren’t returned at all, with the hundreds or thousands of dollars you paid in advance not refunded.

Many of us undertake the restoration of a classic vehicle with the understanding that we cannot complete all the work ourselves. Some of us can overhaul an engine (although unless you’re a machinist even some of that work will need to be outsourced), and many of us can assemble completed components, but few amongst us possess the ability to fabricate and repair body panels, sew interiors and install headliners, and shoot paint to show quality standards. Unless you’re an professional, you’re going to need some help. In the extreme case, you drop off your car at a shop, tell them what you want and when you want it, and sign a blank check. If all goes well, they meet their deadline, on budget, and you return months or years later to see your dream car just as you envisioned her. Your drive home is like you always imagined it. The sun shines brightly off perfectly chromed trim and polished paint, the engine sings, she drives like a dream, and you don’t hit a single red light on the way. More likely your experience is one of missed deadlines, expectations not met, cost overruns, all of which are not clearly communicated to you, the customer.

The fact is that these individuals are artists firsts, and businesspersons second, and candidly that’s the way it should be. Your beloved car was most likely created in an era before cost controls and accountants ruled manufacturing processes and materials used. It was an expression of artistic and technological vision first, and business third. Cars were built by hand, using techniques long lost to efficiency and expediency. The very fact that there are people left who know how to hand form aluminum bodies, recreate fabric sheathed wiring harnesses, or source and sew period appropriate fabric and leather for the interior of your 60 year old classic. The individuals who still care about and practice such skill sets are often times throwbacks, oddities, and don’t easily assimilate to modern life. The very fact that they revere such arcane methods and practices is itself a denial and repudiation of the mass produced products which have contributed to the “disposable culture” which now rules our world. If you’re lucky they’ll have a cell phone and use email for regular communication. If you’re fortunate enough that they send you regular updates and photos to chronicle their progress consider yourself doubly lucky. What you should not expect however, is that they’ll tell you “I’ll have it done in three months, and it will cost $5,000. I expect a third of the total amount paid upfront, another third when we review progress in 6 weeks, and the final third upon completion. I accept cash, checks, and all major credit cards.” It’s more likely that they will not be able to tell you when it will be completed, “yeah, I dunno, I can probably do it pretty quickly, it shouldn’t take too long,” how much it will cost, “I charge based on time and materials, there’s not that much there, so it shouldn’t cost too much,” or tell you exactly how it will look, “it’s not too hard of a job, we just need to figure out x and y and we should be able to get pretty close to what you’re talking about.” It’s unlikely that there will be any sort of contract, written estimate, or statement of work. There will be no legal documents to sign, which you may think is a good thing until such time as you find them in breach of contract and seek legal action against them. Most frustrating is the fact that you can either play by their rules, or find someone else to do the work.

For those of us with business backgrounds these practices seem not only hard to accept, but completely implausible. After all, who would willingly engage in a business relationship with someone who could not commit to a delivery date, a total cost, or a level of quality? Apparently, most of us who patronize such craftsmen do, every year. If you think that such challenges are only experienced by cars of lower pedigree, you’re wrong. Walk past the rows of cars at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, or any car show for that matter and if the owners are honest, they’ll tell you horror stories about the pain and suffering they endured to get their car finished. Be it Pontiac or Packard, Alfa Romeo or Aston Martin, Dodge or Duesenberg, at some point some part of that gleaming example of automotive perfection you see in front of you was being worked on by a talented if curmudgeonly guy in a dark basement who was months behind his deadline.

Our Gearhead friends may recall the restoration of our own Alfa Romeo 1900C SS. We had hoped and expected that it would be ready for the summer of 2014, in time for the car shows of that year. Our goal was to have it accepted in to the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, a world class car show with few peers. The car was delivered to a well-known, and seemingly respected craftsman, we will call him Sean, located in Lebec, CA in February of 2012. This individual has two websites which profile work that he has completed on rare cars such as Carroll Shelby’s personal Cobra, and a Toyota 2000GT which was repaired for the Toyota museum in Long Beach. He is considered the world’s leading authority on Toyota 2000GTs, having written what is the definitive book on the car. His practice consisted of just himself and one employee, a man we’ll call Tony who had worked for Lockheed building titanium parts for the SR-71. He told us that he had begun his craft in Italy, apprenticing for Elio Zagato at the Zagato factory in the 60s, and that his current customers included the King of Sweden, and other well-known automotive collectors. He is an artist who creates painstakingly rendered cutaway drawings of dozens of cars, works of such intricate detail that would seem to define him as someone who not only can see the proper curve of a vintage car, but who also has the patience, skill and dedication to create such works in metal. As is often the case, we felt as if he was interviewing us (rather than the other way around) when we first reached out to him. It was clear we’d be playing by his rules. No definitive time to complete. It would be done when it was done. The initial quote was subject to change (and it did). It would require lots of consultation and visits on our part. We knew that there are few people capable of fixing a 60 year old car, made by hand (no two are the same), out of aluminum. We knew that there were virtually no other examples available for us to use for guidance, and we knew that our Alfa Romeo had sustained numerous damages which had been poorly repaired over the years. We knew that the services of an individual capable of, and willing to tackle such a challenge would not come cheaply. So we did not blink when the initial quote as about the same as you’d pay for a new Toyota Camry. This guy knows Jerry Seinfeld, and worked on Carroll Shelby’s own car! He’s even appeared on Jay Leno’s Garage. He is a world renowned artist and revered restorer of old cars. Surely he’s not only capable, but trustworthy as well. His is an honorable man who can be counted on to do what he says he’ll do.

Arrangements were made to deliver the car to his shop and we personally trailered the car to him in February of 2012. At this point we’d not met him in person. Our discussions regarding the car were conducted over the phone and his verbal quote was based on photos emailed to him. We wanted to make sure that when he saw the car in real life, he was still willing to stand by his initial quote, and that he would commit to repairing the car. After inspecting the car he remained confident that he could and would repair it, with a Pebble Beach quality finish. There was no explicit timeframe stipulated, but we kicked around rough goals of “a year or so.” At that point we remitted to him 95% of the total amount he’d quoted, in cash, with only a handshake, and a receipt showing the amount paid for “restoration services for Alfa Romeo 1900C SS.”

This is what our car looked like upon delivery, in February of 2012.

As mentioned earlier, this specific Alfa Romeo is unique in that its construction is a combination of a welded tubular steel frame over which hand formed aluminum panels are wrapped. The manufacturing technique was pioneered by Carrozzerria Touring of Milan, and is renowned for its combination of light weight, rigid structure, and beautiful body panels. It was a technique that was way ahead of its time when the car was built in the 50s, and it was extremely labor intensive. Forming aluminum is a skill that has been lost in recent decades as few car manufacturers used the lightweight metal (a trend now being reversed in a quest for lighter and more fuel efficient vehicles). Forming, fabricating, and welding aluminum require unique talent, and many body shops and restoration professionals are unwilling or incapable of working on old cars. When the car was new, its skin was formed over a wooden buck, and so fixing our car via the same practice made sense from both a historical and authentic accuracy perspective. We were told that the wooden buck would be ours once the job was done, which had additional value should we ever need to repair the car, or use it for creating reproduction panels for other 1900 owners. 95% of the damage to our 1900’s body was from the front windshield forward. The plan was to fabricate a completely new front end, entirely out of aluminum sheet. Done properly, the body would be “metal finished,” which means that no body filler, or skim coat would be used. For a fabricator with the right set of skills, this is not a stretch, and in fact no proper craftsman would allow anything other than a metal finished car to leave his shop. Aluminum is softer, and more challenging to work than steel, and the proper way to weld it is with a Tig welder, which gives the fabricator very fine control over the amount of heat that is put in to the metal, minimizing warpage and hardening of the work. A metal finished aluminum body is so pretty you almost hate to paint it, and many times hot rodders leave the bodies unpainted so that you can see the quality of work that was done.

Here is an example of a metal finished 1900C SS. This is the work of Bernhard Fleischhacker, of Graz Austria. It is a thing of beauty and Bernhard is one of the most talented fabricators in the world. He has restored numerous 1900s like ours, and has probably restored more than any other single individual. He would have been our first choice, but the logistics of sending our car half way around the world did not make sense, and we figured we had our own version of Bernhard here in California.

Over the coming year we visited his shop and our car numerous times. Every couple of months we would make arrangements to come by to check progress, assist with specific details, and bring the relevant parts (headlight buckets and trim, body trim, etc.) required to make sure that the body fit. Our car was not the only only project in his shop as he was working on a couple Toyota 2000GTs, but he told us that our car would be his final project, and his legacy. Numerous prospective clients requested that he restore their cars, but ours would be his last, he said.

About 6 months after we delivered the 1900 we were informed rather hastily that more money would be required. This was the first indication that perhaps something was amiss, for even two guys working 40 hours a week would have spent more hours, and made more progress than was evident on our car, which looked very similar to the condition it was in when we’d dropped it off. How could tens of thousands of dollars have been spent already, when the only cost other than labor was a big sheet of aluminum? With some reluctance we immediately delivered another $10,000 in cash with the reassurance that no additional money would be required to complete the work.

To be very clear, the job was not an easy one, but it should not have been hard for a body repairman or fabricator with the background and skill set we’d been told our guy had. Subsequent visits revealed additional challenges related to the shape and size of the apertures for headlight buckets, and grilles. An obvious lack of progress was evident and shortly thereafter Sean told us he was being sued for $1M by a very bad man who was unhappy with a custom built version of a Toyota 2000GT. Sean claimed that the man suing him was unrealistic in his expectations, and that he’d done nothing to warrant such a libelous claim. He’d need to sell his prized car collection to pay for an attorney, he said. He would need to declare personal bankruptcy to prevent losing everything, he moaned. At first, we sympathized. We wanted to believe that Sean was being victimized, treated unfairly by a man who sought only to ruin the lives of good, decent and hardworking souls. We and other friends of Sean’s rallied around him, defending him and offering to speak on his behalf in any legal proceedings which might occur.

At that point, things started to come unraveled. Sean’s attention on our car was lost, but as we later learned, it had never been a focus of his in the first place. When we questioned certain techniques, “why is he using a Mig welder?” we were told “Tony says that’s the way to do it.” When we pointed out that certain shapes or details were obviously incorrect, he again blamed it on Tony. We gently insisted that the work be done over, reminding Sean that we we’d agreed upon, and paid for, a Pebble Beach Concours quality restoration. A few months later we were told that Sean and Tony had a falling out, and that Tony no longer worked there. Sean blamed Tony for all of the poor quality work on our car, while we reminded him that it was his name over the door, and his reputation at stake. Even worse, when we first entered in to this business arrangement, we had expected that Sean would be the one doing the work, not someone else.  Sean then filed for personal bankruptcy and it was at that point that we realized we needed to get our car back. After all, if he could not pay his creditors, who was paying for the rent on his shop? Concerned that his landlord would install new locks on the building and our car might end up on a late night “lost treasures” show, we high tailed it south to retrieve our car. In the weeks leading up to our eventual retrieval, Sean assured us that the car would be mostly finished, but that several small items had not been completed. He claimed he was working soley on our car, that it would be his legacy, and he wanted it to be right. We wanted to believe. Oh how we wanted to believe.

When we finally laid eyes on the car, nearly two years and a massive sum of money later, we were so stunned that the poor quality didn’t sink it. It was so bad in so many places that we couldn’t process it all. It was as if a cruel joke had been played up on us. It seemed incomprehensible that someone with such apparent ability could let something so horribly wrong happen to such a rare and special car. Shocked in to silence, we said few words, but pushed the sad car, with its horribly botched repairs in to our trailer, and drove home.

Over the next few days and weeks, the reality of the situation set in. We’d been taken. We’d been lied to by someone who likely never had the ability or even the real desire to restore our car to the level we’d agreed upon. At first, excuses were made, and then came admittance of shame and failure. Sean told us to bring the car back, that he’d make it right. “I have to,” he said. “It’s my legacy.” In the weeks following its return home some newly found local craftsmen helped us to remove almost 5 gallons of body filler off of the car. What we found underneath it was appalling. A lot of work remained uncompleted, and what was done was awful. Nothing fit, shapes were wrong, new metal was simply laid over old metal, and crude welds scarred the body. The quality of the work and repairs were so bad that the only words that came to mind would not be uttered in even casual conversation. Despite Sean’s insistence that he repair our car, we knew he was incapable of performing the required work and in fact, he had never possessed the skills to do so.

Here are a few photos of us stripping the body filler and the “repairs” that we found underneath the nearly 5 gallons of the stuff that had been slathered on the front end of our car. We will spare you the photo of the large cardboard box containing the gallons of body filler that we removed, it’s just too painful to look at.

It is now over a year later and our 1900 sits in the shop in virtually the same condition it was before we delivered it to Sean almost 3 years ago. Barely one quarter of the money we paid was refunded, and that happened only after persistent badgering on our part. While Sean admitted he’d failed to meet even the lowest standards of repairs to our car, he was unwilling to do right by us. We continue to seek legal avenues toward recovering some of our money, but it is unlikely we’ll be successful in that endeavor.

And so our beloved 1900 sits, awaiting the attention and love of someone worthy of her trust. What have we learned from all of this? What good can come from this horrible and heartbreaking experience? Quite a lot actually. We now understand that we were fooled by what we wanted to believe rather than what was rather obvious. We’d been blinded by a good story, a romantic history, and the dropped names of a few celebrities. If we’d taken time to ask for references, to speak to previous customers, we’d likely have spared ourselves a lot of pain and suffering. Following then, is a short list of recommended best practices that we will follow with any in any future business relationships that we enter in to regarding automotive restoration.

1. Create a detailed statement of work, with key milestones, and dates of completion.

2. Provide photos of similar kinds of work that reflect the desired objectives, fit, and finish.

3. Agree upon a final completion date, and only pay in full once the work has been completed in its entirety.

4. Include language that stipulates that an attorneys’ fees provision, so that should you be unlucky enough to have to take legal action, those costs are included in a settlement.

5. Utilize an attorney to help draft an agreement which contains legally sound and rigorous language relating to all of the above.

The lessons we learned from this are as painful and costly as they are valuable. We have not yet given up recovering more of our money, but we’re not optimistic. And what about our friend Sean? He’s still out there, still in business, still calling himself an artist, restorer, craftsman, and practitioner of time honored methods of automotive repair. We can only hope that whomever he’s managed to convince of his ability has very low expectations.

Keep ‘er pinned!

-tj

Ducati 900 Supersport-The (almost) perfect cafe racer

Ducati 900 Supersport-The (almost) perfect cafe racer

Original Published Date : September 14, 2015

Cafe racers have been cool since birds rode pillion on their blokes’ bikes to the Ace Cafe for a late night cuppa. Stripped down to bare essentials, the cafe racer epitomized form and function. BSAs, Triumphs, Nortons and cocktails which combined the best elements of each gave us some iconic motorcycles, including the hallowed “Triton.” The Norton part was the “Featherbed” frame and suspension, while the Triumph Bonneville engine provided the “go” part. Has there ever been a motorcycle more perfect than this iconic 60s machine? Looking through the modern optics the Triton’s lean and handsome looks are still hard to beat, but let’s face it, parallel twins leave much to be desired on modern interstates, and while the superslab is not the cafe racer’s happy zone, it’s almost inevitable that the modern Jet Boy will find himself on one more often than not. Herein lies the trouble with such purpose built motorcycles. Their spare, light, narrow appearance looks the business and works well scratching a twisty backroad, but can be less than ideal in modern traffic jockeying for position amidst the minivans at 70MPH. Further demerits are issued for drum brakes, candle-like lighting, and the vibration inherent when two pistons rise and fall in unison at freeway speeds.

Over the years numerous manufacturers have built “factory” cafe racers, ranging from demonic two-strokes like Yamaha’s RD350 and RD400, to retro models like Honda’s GB500. Both have their strengths and weaknesses but I submit that the Ducati 900 Supersport may be almost perfect not only as a cafe racer, but as a modern classic sportbike. Before we get to deep in to this, let’s remember we’re talking about a sportbike, even more specifically, a “cafe racer.” So no, it’s not going to be all day comfortable. Yes, the suspension will be a bit more firmly sprung than is ideal for street use, and no, neither the range, or the seat invite 300+ mile days. Oh, and no, you can’t see anything in the rearview mirrors except your elbows. That’s the thing about cafe racers, though, they’re unapologetic about what they are; edgy, a bit hooligan, and sometimes ill-tempered. The trick is to find the right combination of those things, plus enough real world usability to make their benefits outweigh their liabilities. Make no mistake, the Ducati 900 Supersport has some liabilities, but through the right lens they’re the kind that we find charming in an Italian way. Like when Enzo famously said that his cars were meant for driving, not sitting in traffic.

First launched in 1989 as the 900 Sport, the factory finally found the secret sauce in the 1991 year model machine. By then it had received 17 inch wheels, had its funky carbs sorted, and gotten a face lift which would remain mostly untouched until it was discontinued in 1997. And while it was Erraldo Ferraci’s efforts with racers like Doug Polen, and Raymond Roche aboard 851s who revitalized Ducati’s name in North America in the late 80s and early 90s, it was the 900 Supersport which was the most popular Ducati until the Monster was released in 1993. Compared to the liquid cooled, fuel injected, 4 valve, “racebike with lights” 851s and 888s, the Supersport was lighter, simpler, more affordable, and more accessible to all but the most hardcore of racers or track day junkies. Back in the early 90s, if you encountered a new Ducati, it was most likely a 900 Supersport. Here in the Bay Area, they were still relatively rare. Remember that Ducati’s exported hundreds, not thousands to North America in the early days, so they were not common. When one pulled in to the parking lot across the street from Alice’s Restaurant on Skyline Road, it drew immediate attention from every sportbike enthusiast there. It’s trademark jingly dry clutch, desmodromic whirr, and booming exhaust note were so more engaging than the sterile 4 banger howl emanating from every CBR600F2 (affectionately known by many as the “Goof2”). With its white frame, minimalist blood red bodywork, white faced Veglia gauges, and that narrow frontal profile, it was truly exotic, and it seemed everyone wanted one. So what if it was relatively slow steering, down on horsepower, and came with brakes so spongy we wondered if someone at the factory injected air in to the brake lines before they left Bologna. Even if it didn’t set the fastest lap times, or couldn’t out drag a GSXRZX7CBRYZR, it was damn fun to ride. The Italians once again had found the perfect formula for fun…rider engagement. Whether on four wheels or two, it is no secret that less horsepower, lighter weight, and unfiltered feedback can lead to fun, and that’s exactly what the 900 Supersport gave the lucky chap tucked in behind that beautiful fairing, knees were gripping that delightfully narrow tank.

Out of the box it was pretty damn good, a far cry from the early 70s when Ducati built fantastic engines mounted in excellent frames, while substandard electrics and other compromised components hampered the rest of the machine. The minor changes that did need to be made could be blamed on North American noise and emissions restrictions (big bore v-twins are loud doncha know). Most new owners chucked the 37 tooth rear sprocket for one a couple teeth larger, installed a jet kit to cure that way lean mixture, and replaced the heavy, restrictive exhaust canisters with something more conducive to exploiting that beautiful booming voice. Staintune, D&D, and Fast by Ferracci’s carbon fiber versions were the most popular back in the day. Other performance modifications existed but they were hardly necessary.

The Italians are famous for long term evolution, rather than revolution, of their engines, and Ducati continued this with the Supersport. The 904cc engine is the mechanical evolution of previous 750 Pantah based design, which can be found in the F1 of the late 80s, but now with a dry clutch, revised carburetion in the way of Mikuni units, updated cylinder heads, and improved oil cooling all combined to provide a powerplant worthy of the new chassis geometry, braking components, and wheels which could be fitted with high performance rubber. Several different models would be offered through the years (including 750cc, Superlight, SP, CR and Final Edition versions) and the Supersport would continue to be refined throughout its lifespan.

Back in the saddle, the Supersport feels just right for anyone under 6 feet tall. The riding position is a sporting crouch, but does not place any weight on the wrists. With your feet just below your knees, the brake and gearshift levers are easy to operate. It’s a perfect balance of racer cool crouch, and real world ergonomics, without the wrist punishing, spine tweaking torture of the later 916. When moto-journalists of the day first got their hands on it back in 1991, most loved it. They were candid about its relative lack of outright power, speed or comparatively slow lap times. There was no 4 cylinder top end rush like you’d find on a ZX-7RR or GSX-R 750. What it did have was devastatingly sexy styling, character to spare, and it was so fun to ride. Just pulling in to a parking lot aboard one invited a crowd, and females seemed to love them, even those who didn’t care about motorcycles.Cycle World wrote something about it being so attractive to women that it suggested picking up a female companion was as easy as flipping the foot pegs down and trolling through town. I’ve owned three 900 Supersports. I bought a 1993 which I later sold and replaced with a 1995 900SS SP. During the period in which I owned my first 900SS, I received numerous compliments, a request for a ride (shouted from a window at a stop light) and a phone number from women who probably wouldn’t have asked me for directions had I not been sitting in the saddle of the Ducati.

The model enjoyed great success until 1998 when it was replaced by an updated version and while the new Supersport may have been more refined, with its Weber Marelli fuel injection and updated handling, it lacked the charm and classic good looks of its predecessor. With the newest “square headlight” Supersports closing in on 20 years of age, they’re becoming classic in the true definition of the word. They were produced in large enough volumes that they are available for less than half the cost of a new sport bike, but many will likely have been ridden hard, and low mileage examples are hard to find. As the title above says, they’re “almost perfect,” and the significant flaw in the design only began to manifest itself after 5 or more years in to production. A weakness in the frame near the steering head inevitably results in the frame cracking. It’s not a question of “if,” rather “when” the frame on any 900SS will develop this crack, and it doesn’t seem to be related to miles ridden. My 1992 900 Supersport, which I purchased from the original owner with only 16,000 miles on it has the tell tale crack on the frame tube, as does nearly every Supersport I’ve ever seen. The good news is that long time Ducati performance parts house and service shop Nichols Sportbikes has designed and sells gussets which can be welded in place in order to prevent the frame from further flexing and cracking. The bad news is that proper installation requires almost disassembly as the frame will need to be repainted after welding. No motorcycle is perfect, and frames (and other components) have been suffering from vibration and stress induced cracking for decades. If you’re considering buying a Supersport, make sure to check for a cracked frame. The fissures will be on the upper frame tubes just a couple inches on either (or both) side of the steering head. The photo below shows the crack developing on the frame of my personal Supersport. Again, it’s a 1992 model with just over 17,000 miles on it. The thin black line just above the corner of the black Ducati frame tag is the crack.

Ducati’s marketing department concocted numerous iterations of the 900 Supersport, which I’ll attempt to describe here. Note that these descriptions will focus primarily on the models offered in North America, and will include only the major differences. For a detailed analysis of the entire range of Ducati Supersports I suggest Ian Falloon’s “Ducati Super Sport.”

91-92 year model

The original, and some say the best looking model came with red bodywork, and white frame and wheels (handsome but impossible to keep clean). The “Ducati,” “Supersport,” and “Desmodue” tank and fairing decals were white and in the familiar Cagiva font. They were available in both 750cc and 900cc versions and could be fitted with either a full or half (bikini) fairing. A small number were made with metallic gray (anthracite bodwork) and they are stunning. In 1992 the “Superlight” was first introduced, first in red, and later in yellow. 1317 Superlights were produced and they were mechanically identical save fully floating cast iron rotors and two piece Marvic wheels, which would prove problematic as their bolts were prone to loosening while in use. Visually the Superlights had a proper solo tail section with a white number plate, upswept exhaust, and a numbered plate on the triple clamp. Today they are the rarest and most highly valued (if not the best) variant of the line.

1993

Visually very similar to the original but now with a bronze frame, black wheels, and a nifty cover for the rear portion of the seat which when in place, gave the appearance of a solo tail section. Decals changed to bronze color. Also available in 750cc and 900cc versions.

1994

The 750SS is dropped in North America and the 900SS  is made available in two versions; the SP (Sport Production) and CR (Cafe Racer). The SP featured fully floating cast iron Brembo rotors at the front, an underslung caliper at the rear a carbon fiber clutch cover, front fender, and a numbered plate on the triple clamp. The CR had a non-adjustable front fork, stainless steel rotors a narrower rear wheel, and a half fairing.

1995-1996

Relatively few changes were made to the models during this period as Ducati itself was struggling. These were the years prior to the TPG takeover and the factory was struggling to produce many models, including the coveted 916.

1997

As the model neared the end of its life, minor mechanical and visual updates were incorporated, most notably a slightly redesigned fairing and graphics, a carbon fiber fender and clutch cover and a numbered plaque on the triple clamp. A final batch (500 in Europe and 300 for North America) of “FE” or “Final Edition” Superlights were produced in silver, with black wheels and the new “TPG era” Ducati logo.

In terms of value, the Superlights will always be at the top of the heap. Despite the fact that they are nearly mechanically identical to the rest of the family, they have the cachet and cool factor in their favor. Expect to pay $10,000 or more for a nice one. Beneath the Superlights only in cost, are the SS SP models, which are probably the best of the bunch. They’re sprinkled with enough blingy bits to make them interesting, while retaining all the traits that make the model so appealing. These can be found for $6,000 or less, depending on mileage and condition. Also desirable are the early white frame versions, which are so pretty and relatively rare, especially here in North America. If you find a clean one for less than $4,000 I suggest you buy it, ride it, and love it.

As mentioned above, clean, low mileage examples are getting hard to find. With world wide production values totaling over 20,000 these machines will never be as collectible as their 1970s bevel drive counterparts, but they are most likely the next Ducati to begin appreciating. Many are being modified such as this stunning build by the talented guys at Austin, Texas based Revival Motorcycles. For every master piece like this one, however, 5 or 10 are being subjected to barbaric treatment at the hands of less capable builders. So if you want one, my suggestion is to get one soon. All but the lowest mileage SS SPs and Superlights can regularly found for less than $5,000.

I mentioned earlier that I’m on my third Supersport. When I sold my 900SS SP in the mid-nineties, I’d been doing track days on it, and had begun to run in to some of the bike’s limitations, most notably dragging the lower exhaust header on the ground. As mentioned before, these bikes are not outright track demons, rather usable street machines, capable of hanging with just about any machine ridden in what could be described as “acceptable street speeds.” I ended up selling the SP and buying a 916, which I raced with AFM for 6 seasons, and which I love and still own today. It’s a brilliant motorcycle, but is as frustrating on the street as the Supersport is on the track. I always missed the Supersport and always rued the day that I sold mine. That longing ended last Spring when I found a 1992 model, for sale by the original owner, and in nearly impeccable condition. It has become my favorite street motorcycle, and it makes me happy every time I ride it.

Keep ‘er pinned!

-tj