I guess this is what Top Gear mean when they talk about Alfa Romeos…..

2012 has sucked so much it ought to be called the Year of the Dyson.

I’ve owned four Alfa Romeos.

The first was an early 1980s Alfasud Sprint. It was a terrible car in the way that most early 1980s cars were terrible. Everything was shoddy. It wasn’t the Alfa’s fault, per se. It just hadn’t been looked after and I couldn’t redeem it.

I’ve had two Alfa 33 16V’s. One was absolutely fantastic. I’d buy that car again in a heartbeat. The other wasn’t so good. It was an impulse buy, a poor decision against my better judgement.

My current Alfa, a 1984 GTV6 has been absolutely wonderful……. until today.

I took my car into the workshop yesterday for some standard service work. Fluids, filters, brake pads, a thermostat, etc. Nothing too onerous.

Late in the afternoon I got a call saying there was a problem. It was late in the day and they hadn’t figured the problem out yet, but I should wait an extra day before coming in to pick up the car.

Today, I called them and the car still wasn’t running. I called in at the workshop on my way home and things were much worse than I figured.

When I first bought the car, the hydraulic cam belt tensioner had a small fluid leak. A common fix is to replace the hydraulic part with a mechanical tensioner from the later model Alfa 164. I got this done. It seems there’s been a problem with this part – we don’t know why yet – which has led to the belt being loose yesterday when the mechanic tried to start the car.

I should emphasise here that there have been no problems at other times. The car has driven beautifully for me and drove perfectly when I took it to the workshop.

When the mechanic had done his work, run the car briefly and then shut it off, there was a loud clicking sound. Whatever that was, the end result is that the car wouldn’t start afterwards. The mechanical tensioner seems to be involved and the working theory right now is that the belt got loose enough on the re-start for the belt to skip a few teeth, thereby putting the timing out. (I think I’ve got that correct)

End result – cylinder #3 now has bent valves.

We can go ahead and replace the valves, but there’s a deeper problem here that needs to be solved. What caused the tensioner to fail on this occasion? It’s still in one piece, it’s still in position and it’s an original part that doesn’t appear to have any defects.

Steve’s giving it some more thought and I’m fretting over the potential argument that might ensue about cost and responsibility. These are good guys and I like to believe that I’m a good customer. There is an element of ‘shit happens’ here, but on the other hand, I delivered a functional car for routine service work and I’ve only ever followed their advice on repairs and maintenance (including the installation of the tensioner).

I just want my car back and running again. It’s been such an enjoyable drive, everything I’d hoped for when I bought it, and more.

Top Gear used to say that you couldn’t call yourself a true gearhead until you’d owned an Alfa Romeo. It’s not a theory I subscribe to, but I can understand why they say it. It’s the exhilaration and the frustration. I guess I’ve got both of those in plentiful supply with this car.

Here’s how I’ll try to think of it over the next few weeks. I really hope it doesn’t take longer than that!

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  1. So sorry to hear about the fustrations with the Alfa. Bent valves… OUCH.

    Better solve the mystery of the tensioner. Maybe they will discover some clues to the mystery when they remove the cam shaft to replace the valves.

    Hoping for a happy ending to this one.

    1. You and me both, mate. The last thing your sister needs to come home to is a massive and ongoing drama on a car that only I really enjoy.

  2. I can empathize, Swade! When I took my Sonett III in for a new clutch (I was hoping it would not need one this soon, but I knew that was a chance), the noticed some places where welds on the firewall were showing some fatigue just due to the age of the car (apparently a typical problem on the Sonett as it ages). So, it was fortunate they found that while working on the clutch, otherwise in few months I might have hit a bump and some key things might have come loose.

    So, what started out as fairly straight-forward clutch replacement turned into a whole “body off” job to repair the welds and add some extra metal bracing at the top of the firewall to ensure everything stays good and tight. (And here I had hoped to buy a Sonett that had already been sorted.) One advantage of having the whole body off the chassis, though, was a chance to fully inspect the restoration work the prior owner had done, and while it is not concourse quality, it was a good job and the car is solid. The guys at this shop (who know a lot about V4 Saabs) said it is in really good shape so, even though I will now likely have sunk another $1500-$2000 into this Sonett, at least I know now it should be good to go….as soon as they finish with it and I get it back (hopefully later this month).

    I hope they get the root cause of your Alfa’s trouble sorted soon!

  3. Wow. That’s a spot of bad luck. Of course, the fact that it happened on their watch is certainly suspect.

    I had a similar situation with a former car. Frustrating, because the shop can’t assume responsibility for the whole car, and yet they should assume responsibility for the mistakes that they make. Their inability to diagnose the issue is also then somewhat suspect, since that could be cover for their negligence OR a symptom of the incompetence that lead to the failure in the first place. In my case I could never believe that the mechanics would be that stupid not to see how the ‘incident’ happened and so I was left with a cloud of suspicion about their lack of success finding the root cause. I left and never returned.

    I hope that your experience is better than that.

  4. I would tend to cut the shop some slack. It’s an old car, these things happen.
    If they did install the tensioner (and the belt, I presume), then they should replace it and give you a deal on the valve replacement. That would be fair even if the belt had slipped while you were in possession of the car.
    I would settle for free labour and a replacement belt and tensioner. Obviously, you should start by asking them to fix everything at their cost. Make sure they use an OEM belt.

  5. I would kind of agree with what Bernard advised, however, I would be a little suspicious of a young mechanic doing a little joy riding and over-revving on a test run. But I’m not very trusting of people. Hope it all gets sorted out with minimal expense.
    Reminds me of my Dad’s 55 Ford wagon. He was puzzled at how it could have dropped a valve retainer, while I acted totally innocent. I never mentioned that I didn’t shift until the engine clattered.

    1. There’s no “young mechanic” scenario here. Both techs at the workshop are older men and quite experienced. They’ve built multiple tarmac rally cars for customers over the years. They do say things that make me wonder sometimes, but over all I trust them.

  6. Oh sh1t.

    An unfolding drama that you didn’t need right now. From your account I’d say it’s pretty clear that the onus to fix the problem less with the mechanic at his cost….Is he the chap who fitted the mechanical tensioner? The only caveat is if it was a second hand part? Either way its less than a year ago and as you state the car has been running fine including your drive to his workshop. Hopefully he will take the same view and all will be well; I wonder if his own insurance covers him for such situations?

    If I were you I’d probably try to get some advice from a third party Alfa specialist on possible causes and to confirm that the deviation from spec by fitting the mechanical, as opposed to hydraulic device, is a bona fide alternative.

    Its a delicate relationship with a mechanic, particularly when you have car which is not mainstream and you inevitably place a good deal of trust in that person. In addition you want to preserve that relationship when marque specialists are few and far between. All of which leaves you in a bit of a spot…which I’m no doubt you’re all too keenly aware.

    The Holden Statesman we owned came with a similar story: I had a pre purchase inspection done which highlighted the need for a routine service of the V6 engine. So we went ahead with the (private) purchase and booked the car in at the same place the inspection was done at, in order to get the service work done. The car drove well in this case too. On completion of the job we also got a call to say all was not well. On test driving the car, they found a ‘bottom end’ knock which turned out to be a bent con rod with associated worn out bearings on the crank shaft. But this was only apparent after they serviced the car and their theory was that the previous owner had filled the sump with an additive to muffle the knock. Of course he vehemently denied this when confronted, so we were left with no choice but to fork out for a new engine which added $4k to the purchase price. A small part of me will always wonder whether some misdemeanour on part of the garage, was really what lead to the engine failure but I’ll never know. The car only had 112,000km on the clock at the time of purchase. C’est la vie.

    1. To answer your questions, Ian….

      Did he fit the tensioner? Yes.

      Second hand part? No – brand new, OEM part with Fiat/Lancia/Alfa part number on it.

      Accepted fix? Yes, it is. Quite common and talked about amongst the wider ownership community. One guy here has completed two Targa Tasmanias on the same part with no issues whatsoever.

      I’m sure it’ll all work out OK. It’s just extremely frustrating when it first happens.

      1. Swade,

        Did they fit a new timing belt at the same time?

        I know that my mechanic has had issues with aftermarket timing belts. Sometimes the fit isn’t right, so they start their life close to their adjustment tolerance. He’s had at least one jump a cog. That was on a non-interference engine, so no harm done (other than swallowing the cost of re-doing the job).

        He only uses OEM belts now.

  7. Aww geez mate. I hope the last quarter of the year gets better for you. Poor Alfa. I’ve only ever spent a small amount of time under the hood of one Alfa and I did not enjoy the experience at all. Goodluck getting the old girl back on the road.

  8. Swade, I assume there aren’t that many Alfa specialists in Tasmania so you need to be on good terms with them and can’t afford to be overly harsh.

    In any event, the “common fix” (to replace the hydraulic part with a mechanical tensioner from the later model Alfa 164) you talk about, is this an officially approved repair procedure? This might well be the cause of the damage.

  9. Fingers crossed that it will all work out for you Swade:)

    I had the same problem gut with a tensioner some ten years ago but that was on an (Po)Opel Astra..

    And I who was just looking at maybe getting an Alfa 166 for fun sake..:)

    Anyway. It is a beautiful car and the garage should fix it since they were the ones replacing the tensioner.

    Again. Fingers crossed.


  10. Hmmm. You take it in and it is ‘fine’. It breaks on their watch. Sounds like an amicable result is required, where you both go Halves. That way no one can complain more than the other. It is a lose-lose situation that can’t be skirted around. You pay for the parts, he pays for the labour. Even.
    Rubber toothed belts do slip. Tensioners do fail. Even new ones.
    Imagine if it happened on the way home. At least it happened in their workshop!

    I lived alongside exactly the same car (hope it isn’t the one actually) back in the early nineties for a few years. Every two weeks there was an issue, electrical gremlins, mechanical grumbles, body rattles. But it is an ALFA V6! And it is RED!! and it makes THAT NOISE!


  11. Yow!….Every mechanics worst nightmare, the car that arrives running “fine” and craps the bed in the shop! My sympathies to you AND the mechanics! Hope this plays out in a manner that is clear as to who/what is responsible and leaves you with a functional vehicle and sustained good relationship with your chosen wrench without draining your pocket! As I’ve always said, all techs are human and capable of error, the best ones are those that can quickly ‘fess up so that we may proceed and rectify the issue! As for timing belts, I avoid them like the plague….One of the reasons I’ve always favored Saabs. With a few exceptions (and barring that cursed GM V-6 boat anchor) they have always been durable and provided peace of (mechanic’s) mind while racking up the miles!

  12. You and me both. My front engine seal started leaking severely on the Jag. So, I’m in a similar but not as disastrous situation. I hope things work out better for you.