Preserved classic with sporting history wins prestigious Concours award, but technical issues nearly threatened win
By Nigel Matthews, Driving
Originally published: May 22, 2014
My last judging assignment at the Pinehurst Concours in North Carolina was a bit more hectic than usual.
In addition to judging the largest class of 11 cars, I was also showing a car in the limited production category. Preparing the car early on Sunday morning, attending the judges meeting and then judging my own class as well as presenting the car to the class judges was a cake walk compared to the afternoon before and those 11 cars.
The car in question is a rare 1954 Alfa Romeo SS with a body by Zagato, one of just 34 built and a one-off Series I model. The car was raced in the 1954 Firenze Siena and placed first in its class and fifth overall. Between 1955 and 1968 it had six different owners. The seventh owner placed the car in a garage in Rome in 1969, where it remained for the next 44 years covered in boxes and junk.
The rare Alfa Romeo SS with body by Zagato as it was found in a garage in Rome after being there for more than 40 years.
Nigel Matthews, Driving
It is a preservation car, meaning it has not been restored, but rather lovingly disassembled, cleaned and put back together. It is so significant, that it is currently on display at the Simeone Museum in Philadelphia.
I called the museum a week before the huge 18-wheeler transporter was due to pick it up and deliver it to the event. I asked if it could be fuelled up, the battery charged and to make sure that it runs smoothly.
When Felix the driver from Reliable Carriers called me on Saturday morning to tell me that he would be dropping the car off and coming back the next evening to pick it up, I replied that’s great, and then came the “Oh, by the way, the car does not run.”
The car when it was new competing in the 1954 Firenza Siena Race.
Panic set in. The rules of Concours judging state that the car has to be driven onto the show field and over the podium if it is selected for an award. If it does not run, it’s disqualified. I waited anxiously for Felix to arrive. The ignition switch does not work, he told me, it is jammed and the key will not turn. He unloaded the car and lent me a screwdriver so that I could disconnect the six wires going into the back of the switch. I fiddled with it for half-an-hour hoping one of the tumblers would release, but no luck.
I went in search of a locksmith and found two, but they were both closed, like just about everything in North Carolina on a weekend. I stumbled across an auto-parts store and jokingly said, “Do you have an ignition switch for a 1954 Alfa Romeo?”
“A what? Sounds like a foreign job,” was the reply.
I knew I was in trouble, but the counterman was very helpful and showed me to a stash of old boxes in the back of the store and, as luck would have it, I found a switch for a boat with a barrel size that matched the size of the hole in the dashboard. And it had four terminals was a two-position switch, on and then start. It cost me $8 and two tickets to the Concours.
The Alfa was displayed recently at the Pinehurst Concours in North Carolina, where it won a major preservation award.
Nigel Matthews, Driving
Returning to the car with the switch in hand but lacking a test light or a meter, I embarked on the trial and error of fitting the six wires into the four terminals. A few sparks and two blown fuses later, the car worked and the switch placed in the hole in the dash looked like it had been there for 60 years.
I drove the car onto the field to save time the next morning, parked it and placed the car cover over it. The car was facing down hill. I woke up in the night in a panic: Had I engaged the park brake and left the car in gear? Had it rolled down the hill and hit the car in front of it?
The 6 a.m. field inspection and car cover removal revealed that all was well; all I had to do was wipe the condensation off the inside of all of the Plexiglas windows and go to the judges meeting.
The car was judged by Ed Gilbertson, the ex-chief judge at Pebble Beach, and East Coast automotive journalist Larry Prinz. The Alfa won the prestigious F.I.V.A. (Fédération Internationale des Véhicules Anciens) Preservation Award.
Having driven over the podium and picked up the large silver trophy, it was time to rendezvous with the transporter, I drove the car onto the rear platform and remained in the car as the platform was raised to the second level of the trailer, turned the key to drive it into the rig and nothing happened.
I called the museum a few days later to ask if the car had arrived safely and was told that it had indeed arrived. Better yet, it started immediately and will be ready to go to “The Elegance” at the Hershey Hotel in Pennsylvania in mid-June.
I will be taking some tools with me and perhaps another ignition switch if it arrives in time from Italy.
Nigel Matthews is the director of sales and marketing for Hagerty Canada, LLC. Hagerty is the world’s largest specialist provider of collector car insurance and provides many resources that support the classic car lifestyle. Contact him at [email protected] or visit hagerty.ca