The Passion for Pistons

by John Mayhead
4 February 2015 3 min read
The Passion for Pistons
1971 Alfa Romeo Spider Kammtail

The fact that you are reading this means that you have, in all probability, fallen in love with an old car, bike, lorry or other vehicle at least once in your life. For some of you, there will be many loves. You probably like the challenge that buying a new car brings- you enjoy the search, the haggling, the excitement when you get behind the wheel for the first time. You thrive on finding out the vehicle’s hidden secrets, and seeking the help of others who have trodden the path before you. For a few of you, there will just be the one love- maybe a car owned since youth that survived the tipping point when a car kept for its utility suddenly becomes a luxury.

My love affair with classic cars began when I was eighteen. My dad, a mechanical engineer, bought me a 1968 VW Beetle, a brush-painted monstrosity with its engine in a box on the back seat. Together, we took the car apart, fitted new panels, restored the engine and re-sprayed her red. I say we- I watched my dad do most of the work and cleaned a few bits here and there. But I started to understand the emotional connection that can exist between a mechanical object and a human being.

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My next- and I think I would say true- love was foreign, with a great body and amazing pedigree, and she went like the clappers. PYY70K was one of the first Alfa Romeo 2000 Veloce Spiders, made at the very end of 1971 (as was I) and first registered in 1972. I bought the car without knowing anything about the model, and suffered as a result- it was a dog from day one. Poor repairs had been made to rusty wings and valences, the floors were rotten, and an incorrect spark plug and badly set-up Solex carbs punched a hole in a piston a few months after I bought it. But it was my car- my only car- and with time, money and more money, over the years I improved the car until I felt I knew every single nut and bolt. I even bought and stripped out a donor car, learning as I did the different variations between years and models. What had once been a necessity became a hobby, and I bought and restored other Spiders, then other 105 series Alfas. As my confidence and knowledge grew, I branched out into the Alfa 2600s, then onto other marques. At some point along the way, I started to write about them, ran a classic car inspection company, a classic parts company…. and the rest is (as they say) history.

I kept my first Spider for nearly 13 years, and I probably owe that car my livelihood today although my relationship with it, like any relationship, varied over time. At some points, I wanted to set fire to the bloody thing as it sat there merrily soaking up cash that as a 20-something I wanted to spend down the pub. At other times, I was convinced it was trying to kill me- one snowy night, driving through Belgium at about 90 miles an hour, all the lights suddenly went out: all of them. I screamed, then they all came back on again. It never happened again. But that car also gave me something that I just didn’t find anywhere else. That car knew when I had almost reached the end of my tether, when the advert had been written or the petrol can and lighter readied for action. And just at that point, I would drive the car down an unknown road on a nice sunny day. The top would come down, the road would be empty and full of sweeping bends, and the sound of the roaring twin-cam engine would bounce off of the trees and flow back to my wind-blown ears. The wood-rim steering wheel would dance in my hand as the tyres gripped at the tarmac, and the world would seem just perfect again. Finally of course, everything comes to an end. I was seduced by another Spider, and PYY70K was sold to a friend.

For me, the objects of my affection have mostly been Italian (although I seem to be getting a bit of a Porsche thing going on recently). But the element of this job I love most is seeing the pleasure that different people gain from totally different vehicles.  Whether the machine that flicks your switch was made in 1908 or 1988, whether it is totally unique or one of thousands, whether powered by a tiny engine or packing hundreds of bhp, it doesn’t matter. This hobby is a series of love affairs, and we at Hagerty embrace all of them.

Post Script.
Over the last few months, I have managed to track down PYY70K. She is in a sorry state, having been involved in an accident a few years ago and subsequently stored in a barn. But she still exists, and maybe, with a bit more money thrown at the problem, we may be together again!  I’ll keep you posted…

John Mayhead is Hagerty’s Online Content Editor. You may have seen his column in Sunday Times Driving section, and his articles in various other classic car magazines.

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