Featured: Alfaholics: The Story Behind The Banks Family Alfa Romeo Parts Emporium

Alfaholics: The Story Behind The Banks Family Alfa Romeo Parts Emporium

Andrew Golseth By Andrew Golseth
September 26, 2017
5 comments

Photography by Andrew Golseth

If you’re at all familiar with the cross and serpent badge I’m sure you’ve heard of Alfaholics by now. The Bristol-based Alfa Romeo parts specialists are world-renowned for their extensive catalog of restoration and go-fast goodies. Whether you’re building a 105 Series back to original specifications, dialing-in a dedicated track weapon, or blending bits of both for a street-able hotrod, Alfaholics has been the go-to for Alfisti for a while now. They also happen to build a bespoke, made-to-order GTA-R, which is both parts work of art and an instrument of function.

The industry’s top motoring journalists have all raved about the GTA-R 290, and rightfully so. After a spin in one, I can attest it’s an astonishing machine. In fact, I’d take one over anything else on earth. Period. It really is something else. But what you might not know is just how organic Alfaholics operates. It’s a passion-fueled business in every sense of the word. Founded by Richard Banks, his two sons Andrew and Maxim have taken the wheel and shifted gears by transforming Alfaholics from England’s number one Alfa restorer to the world’s premier Alfa Romeo mail-order parts distributor and beyond.

While on a recent trip to the country, I made it a point to stop at Alfaholics. I knew it’d be special, but what I didn’t expect was how humble and honest this team really is. So, after a tour of their parts distribution warehouse and their build garage (which has a three year wait time behind Gordon Murray), I sat down with Max Banks to get an Alfaholics history lesson.

Andrew Golseth: Max, take me back, how did Alfaholics become what it is today?

Max Banks: Alfaholics as it is now has really been an evolution of what’s been going on within our family since the ‘70s. My dad got started with Alfas in 1977 when he was running race teams. Alfa had just launched the Alfetta 2.0-liter GTV at the time, with its transaxle setup, which gave it excellent weight distribution, and he bought the first one in the UK to use in the British Production Saloon Car Championship. So, being a production-car-based class, the Alfetta ran largely within factory spec with only minor modifications, so the transaxle configuration was a big help in making the car competitive.

After that, he bought a 2000 GTV as a secondhand car, did some bits and pieces to it, and sold it the same day the ad in the paper went out. So, he thought, “Well that was a pretty easy sale, I’ll buy another one of those.” From there, it progressed. Through the ‘80s, the cars were getting older so he started restoring them and he became known as the UK’s number one restorer of 105 Series Alfas. He’s restored literally hundreds of GTs over the years.

The economic downturn at the beginning of the 1990s made selling restored cars a very difficult thing to do with the amount of money needed to do them properly. Everything that my father had done was restoring his own cars. He never restored other people’s cars for them because he wanted to do them to his high standards and his quality. So, he always felt it was better to buy a car, restore it, and then sell it. The recession made that side of his work very tricky though, so after some careful consideration, he thought it might smart to take all his knowledge and experience in Alfas and use it to start supplying parts to owners. Effectively, offering a level of service nobody else was. That is where Alfaholics started. My parents ran the business, supplying the reproduction parts that were available whilst also giving the best level of technical advice with regard to the installation. Within a couple of years, my dad thought offering performance parts was the next logical step. Off the back of his own cars, which he had modified with different spring rates, wheels, roll bars, and things like that, he started by offering an Alfaholics sport suspension package and GTA wheels. That was the main part of the business before I joined.

AG: So it sounds like you didn’t have a choice growing up. Your family had Alfa fever long before you came around.

MB: Right. I grew up with cars. I was born into a family full of 105 Series Alfas. There were never less than 20 at home when I was growing up. My brother and I used to get taken to school in Giulia Supers. Really, it’s all I’ve ever known. I’d come home from school and sit in the cars, spending time with my dad while he was restoring them. Obviously, I absorbed all this information without realizing it.

I went through school, did law at university, but decided being a lawyer didn’t sound terribly interesting. So, I went back home to join the family business and help out. This was around 2004.

AG: That’s when your influence on the business model began?

MB: Well, I had been racing Alfas the year before. I was about 20 years old when I started competing with the family’s race car, a car my brother Andrew had been racing for years. We were winning a lot because we had developed it really well. I took components off the car, primarily suspension parts, and I said to my dad, “I’d like to offer this stuff through our web shop to our customers.” And my dad very kindly let me sort of run with it.

Some first generation family businesses have a struggle with releasing control and letting the second generation take over what they founded and evolve the concept. However, I was lucky. My father was very supportive in letting me run with my ideas. So, I went down to this fabricating company that initially helped us build our suspension components and asked them to make batches of these new kits. When the first batch came back, we photographed the kits and posted them for sale on the website under a new performance and racing parts subsection. Immediately, the parts were flying out the door. There was no delay in getting this stuff sold. Obviously, the market really wanted this stuff and the demand was pent up. From that point on, my role became focused on developing new products and using my personal GTA-R as a testbed. Over the years, that idea has developed into what we are now.

These two things went hand in hand: there was my desire to make my personal car better, to make it more like our race car, but also wanting to retain some refinement. That’s what led to our parallel line of products. We have a complete out-and-out racecar, which is a very fast car, and took the theories we learned from that to make a fast road/track day car. We didn’t want to just build a racing car with number plates on it; we wanted to make a completely refined and fast road car. It was the development of those two cars combined with the knowledge that there was a market out there keen for performance parts that drove the business development over the years.

AG: It seems the market is very much in love with the Alfaholics parts catalog. What do you think the reason for this is?

MB: Alfa owners are quite unique. For the most part, people who love Alfas think about their cars differently than most. For instance, in the world of Ferrari, you have to be very original in the sense of sticking to the originality, and to do anything else is seen as a really blasphemous thing. Whereas, with Alfas, I believe it’s a younger audience who are far more open-minded in modernizing and improving their cars for 21st century use.

With that market existing, and coupled with our personal racecar and streetcar development, we were developing both lines of products for the respective applications. We deliberately separated these two types of parts on our website, “service & restoration parts” and “performance & race parts,” but we find a lot of customers often buy out of both bins to meet their desired build specs.

What’s really special about Alfaholics though is we haven’t tried to mold or push the business in a particular way, it all developed organically. What started off as me developing these parts for my personal car evolved further and became our official Alfaholics GTA-R program.

AG: How did the demand for customer ordered GTA-Rs come about?

MB: I did some writing about taking my GTA-R to the Nürburgring and covering the development of the build, and the phones started ringing and the emails started coming in with people asking, “I want a car like yours, can you build me one?” That increasing demand brought us full circle, back to my father’s roots as a restorer.

Now we have a garage where we restore cars and build GTA-Rs. We do everything: whether it’s restoration back to original specifications as a road car or a very important Autodelta ex-race car setup back to how it raced in period, or building a GTA-R, or developing, selling, and distributing parts, we do it all now. Through building the GTA-R, we’re able to continuously improve and develop parts that we are then able to sell to customers all around the world who are self-building.

AG: That 290 is something else—I didn’t know a 50-year-old Alfa could move like that. How many have you built now?

MB: We’ve built and finished 16. And numbers 17 through 23 all have deposits paid and are being built currently.

AG: Including a rather special one for Gordon Murray I hear?

MB: Yes, we’re very excited about that one. Gordon Murray called me and said he’d been following us for a couple years and loved what we were doing. He liked our philosophy of building these lightweight, focused, fast road and track cars. He said he’d love to have one built with the caveat that it be a Junior Zagato.

He wasn’t sure what all would be involved in building a GTA-R on a Zagato, but it’s the same 105 Series platform, so really it’s not all that difficult from a mechanical perspective. It’s mainly a project in implementing our existing parts and packaging them into a different and much smaller body shell. The biggest challenges are in the internal cockpit size and the quality of the special Zagato-made components; nearly every Zagato part is poor quality and needs complete re-engineering.

AG: I imagine having Gordon Murray as a fan and customer is about as big a compliment as they come.

MB: To hear those words from him was very humbling. It’s the sort of thing that makes you realize that what you’re doing is quite a big deal.

AG: Time and time again, it’s been stated that Alfaholics is to Alfa Romeo what Singer is to Porsche and what Eagle is to Jaguar. Yet, that seems to be a bit of a shallow comparison. Alfaholics is different in that you offer all your parts online, whereas those other brands would never let you build your own car using their stuff.

MB: I agree, in a way. I get that the overall concept of what we’re doing with the GTA-R is similar to what other companies do, which is modernizing a very iconic classic to make it suitable for everyday use. That’s where the similarities are, but I think the way we go about running our business and making our product is different. As we are primarily a mail-order business that has turned full circle to restoring and building cars again, we offer all our GTA-R components on our web shop like you said; we allow enthusiasts and owners around the world to buy these components to improve the performance of their home built cars.

We are also very happy to help people out with our advice and knowledge to ensure they can best achieve their goals for their cars, right down to cam timing figures and suspension geometry advice. Due to the other aspects to our business, our GTA-R builds are very low production by volume. Indeed, we could never build many GTA-Rs at once due to the scarceness of suitable original donor cars. Because of our long family background in period-correct concours restorations, we take as much pride in restoring very significant factory Autodelta race cars down to the smallest period-correct details as we do from building the latest evolution of our own GTA-R brand; GTA-Rs account for only half of our overall builds.

It is also fair to say that we’re working with 50-year-old cars that, as a complete series, were only in production for 8 to 10 years. Unlike some other manufacturer brands, there was no factory evolution of these products over the decades, so when we want to install an improvement, we have to design it from scratch.

AG: What is it about these little charming Italian coupes that make them so wonderful, in your words?

MB: I think the overriding thing about the 105 Series cars is that they are actually better than the sum of their parts. They’re better to drive than they should be, and that makes them incredibly special. The balance of the steering to the grip level to the handling—they are fantastic cars to start off with. We’re just bringing out the best in them. The other side of the GTA-R, which I’m really passionate about, is making sure we don’t just rip the unique character out of the cars. Where, in theory, we could improve the car’s performance by switching out steering systems for more modern units, or removing the original live-axle rear-end for an independent setup, we have no interest in doing that. The problem with going that route is that you’re fundamentally taking out the original Alfa feel, and even if you ended up with a potentially more competent car, you’re also making it far removed from what it was.

I guess it’s our background in period-correct restorations and racing a period-correct FIA-specification car that gives us this mindset. I think perhaps it makes our job harder sometimes, but the results are always better and more rewarding. As an example, making a GTA-R lap the Nürburgring in under eight minutes as we have done with its original style of live-axle and reaction trunnion is a far greater achievement than having done it by installing an independent rear-end, and the net result is that you haven’t diluted the “Alfa-ness” of the package.

What we’re trying to do is hone, refine, and optimize all those original components so that you have something that performs on a totally different level to what Alfa originally achieved, but when you get in it blindfolded and drive it, there is no question that you’re driving a 105 Series Alfa. Doing what we do and keeping it unmistakably Alfa Romeo is key.

AG: According to the world’s most respected motor journalists, you’re quite good at it too.

MB: You know, being in this business I’ve been fortunate to drive a lot of different cars over the years. When compared with other cars, irrespective of what badge is on the front and regardless of price point, these GTA-Rs are just a very unique thing and incredibly special in the way they connect you to the mechanical components. Somehow, when you’re driving around in this beautiful little car whilst going that fast with an unmatched level of real mechanical feedback—through the steering, through the seat of the pants, through your feet on the pedals—it is absolutely unrivaled.

Our GTA-Rs are as good as they are because our family has been involved with the platform for so long. There’s been somewhere north of 75,000 development miles driven over the years now, and we’re still at it. When ramped up to full 290 specification, the performance level is a match for a significant number of modern high performance cars.

Driving modern supercars, they’re devastatingly fast, but you’re often using only 10% of the performance capabilities, and that’s with ESP, ABS, electric power steering, all these bits and pieces that dull the experience. You can’t help but be impressed with how fast they are, but it’s diluted. With these little Alfas, you’re achieving performance levels that realistically, on the road, you just do not need to exceed whilst the driving experience is all encompassing and completely undiluted.

You are in total contact with the controls. Doing that in such a small, lightweight package, built to such a high standard with all the Giugiaro details makes it quite an intoxicating experience. So much so, that when compared to all the cars I’ve driven, after getting back into my GTA-R 290, I don’t know why I bother having other cars because I just think the driving experience of the 290 is better than anything else.

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5 Comments on "Alfaholics: The Story Behind The Banks Family Alfa Romeo Parts Emporium"

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Andrew Horning
Andrew Horning

Is covetousness still bad?

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith

I wouldn’t mind doing a trolley dash around that warehouse.

Kiwiboy105
Kiwiboy105

Great article and nice to hear about the background to the business. Thanks for sharing the passion ?

Sergio Lavermicocca
Sergio Lavermicocca

“Hear, Hear”

Paul Steel
Paul Steel

My 105 has spent some time with Alfaholics in Clevedon, all the staff are knowledgable Alfisti, and there’s always something interesting in the workshop.
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