Featured: I (Almost) Conquered The 2016 Targa Florio In A 1957 Alfa Romeo

I (Almost) Conquered The 2016 Targa Florio In A 1957 Alfa Romeo

May 16, 2016

Photography by Afshin Behnia

Of all the events to shut down entire regions of Europe during the year, none is as magnificent and memorable as the Targa Florio in Sicily, Italy. This is especially true if you’re racing around in a 1957 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint Veloce Alleggeria, a light and nimble two-place GT that seemed built for these roads.

My friend and co-driver for this journey was fellow Alfista Manuel Leon Minassian, who was the perfect companion—but as you’ll soon read, everything didn’t quite go to plan.

First, how did I get to participate in the Targa Florio? Let’s just say there are some fringe benefits to being a founder of Petrolicious. Our good friends at Zagato contacted me sometime in April, informing me that they had an invitation from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) that they would be happy to extend. There was one requirement, however: I must participate with an FCA-brand car.

Let’s see: I’m an Alfa Romeo addict, and I keep two of my Alfas in Italy for road trips and rallies, so this requirement was akin to saying, “You’re invited to a dream vacation, but you must attend with the love of your life…” I quickly accepted—and already knew which car to drive.

Three years ago, I took possession of a 1957 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint Veloce Alleggeria (yes, a mouthful!) which I specifically bought because it is Mille Miglia-eligible with the hopes of doing that rally at some point.

The “Veloce” is the factory hot-rodded version of the normal Sprint, with twin Webber carbs and hotter cams, and the “Alleggerita” (meaning “lightened”) is the most special variant of the Veloce. The Alleggerita features aluminum doors, hood, and trunk lids, plexiglass for the side and rear windows, and other details to make it the lightest, fastest Giulietta Sprint variant.

Unfortunately, prior to the Targa Florio I had only driven my Giulietta Sprint Veloce Alleggerita for 10 minutes around the block. Due to some misplaced paperwork and not having a pressing need to drive the car, the bureaucracy to get the car registered and insured did not get completed until just a month ago…we were about to experience baptism by fire.

This year being the 100 year anniversary of the Targa Florio, the organizers created four events in one weekend. We were participating in the main event, the Targa Florio Classic. This is the three-day “regularity rally” featuring about 80 to 100 classic cars of “specific historic or sporting value” made between 1906 and 1970. The rally traces the routes of the historic Targa Florio on the first day and adds a couple of new destinations on days two and three.

There was also a true speed rally in which the rally legends of the ’70s and ’80s compete. But the biggest attraction for spectators was undoubtedly the Historic Speed. This commemorative race took place on the last day and featured racing legends of the time, reunited with the machines they raced to victory. So many of our childhood heroes were present reliving some of the best years of racing: Arturo Merzario, Jacky Ickx, Nino Vaccarella, Sandro Munari, Carlo Facetti, and Nanni Galli, to name a few. Unfortunately, being part of the classic rally, we did not have the opportunity to witness these racers getting back behind the wheel of the various Alfa Romeo T33 variants, Ferrari 330 P2s, and glorious Porsche 908s, and Carrera RSRs.

My co-pilot was my good friend and fellow Alfista Manuel Leon Minassian. You may remember him from such Petrolicious classics as Never Enough Alfa or All-Wheel Dominance.

If you live in California and own an Alfa Romeo, chances are that at some point Manuel owned your car before. Having bought and restored over 100 Alfas to date and being mechanically inclined and a much better driver than myself, he was my obvious choice as my co-pilot. In fact, we split the drives, with me driving the morning legs and Manuel driving the afternoon ones.

Let’s just say it was a nice bonding experience.

Importantly, to both the story and our rally, you should know that we didn’t really prepare.

Seriously, we showed up like a couple of fools, never having driven this specific car before, and with no tools, not even a rag to check the oil, we placed our fate in the Alfa Romeo gods. On top of that, Manuel had never done a regularity rally, and I had only done one two years ago with my wife, Kika. Did we spend some time reading the roadbook and familiarizing ourselves with the navigation signs and terminology? Nope. We were here to drive and have a good time.

Though this Giulietta has been in my possession for three years, this was my first time driving it for an extended distance, and it was love at first drive!

There’s everything to like about this Giulietta. The little 1300-cc twin-cam loves to rev and has great torque throughout its RPM range. The chassis and handling are way ahead of the car’s time, and make it ideal for the twisty roads of the Targa Florio. It’s even comfortable, roomy, and has great visibility. It’s an extremely usable high-performance sports car. And I just love the Bertone styling! It’s hard to think of what else could compete with it back in 1957—only the Porsche 356 comes to mind.

We did have a second-gear synchro issue, causing us to cringe each time we had to downshift to second, and our most important gauge, water temperature, was not functioning. Fortunately, we never overheated despite the heat and the hill-climbs.

As for the Targa Florio itself, where to begin? It was three intense days of pleasure of the senses. I’m having a hard time ranking what was best: the driving, the beauty of the Sicilian countryside, the peerless cuisine and wines of Sicily, or the comradery of all the participants.

As I think back, a few random highlights flash past me: the raw seafood we ate at Cefalù with the master shoemaker Ciccio, the crisp Etna bianco made with carricante grape grown on the volcanic soil of Mount Etna, driving through the Madonie mountains and thinking of Derek Bell in the 718, and of course the cassata made with fresh ricotta that’s unobtainable anywhere else. Yes, I do have a tendency to remember things with my stomach. I did coin “Drive Tastefully”, after all.

Meeting Jean Todt was rather cool as well, but it wasn’t as satisfying as when I sped past John and Lavinia Elkann in their Giulietta SZ Coda Tronca.

Alas, there was one other problem with the Giulietta that I didn’t mention before. On the third and last day of the rally, I pushed the Giulietta at 6,000 rpm on the Autostrada for about 15 minutes, which in itself did not cause any problems. Immediately after that stint, however, we were confronted with the chaos of our classic rally co-mingling with one of the other four events. Apparently, the organizers did not communicate with each other, leading to a big traffic mess and lots of stopping and starting.

All this to say that we fouled up the plugs on the Giulietta, and it started running rough. During the last leg, again confronted with a traffic mess akin to the one engineered in the Italian Job, the poor Giulietta stalled and wouldn’t start again. Had we had some basic tools, we may have been able to clean the plugs and get going again.

The ACI breakdown truck that was there as support for the rally asked us if we want to be placed on the flatbed and towed down. We only had five minutes to decide. Manuel really wanted to give it another try and was quite annoyed that we weren’t better prepared. We opted for the conservative route, and went with the tow truck who took us back to the transport that would take the Giulietta back to Milan. As such, we did not finish the rally.

Naturally, as soon as the tow truck arrived down the hill and lowered the Giulietta, she started up immediately.

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Per Christensen
Per Christensen(@perseattle)
5 years ago

What a beautiful Alfa in a wonderful setting. Many of your photos are little masterpieces — have you considered making some of them available to download or for purchase (framed or not) in the Petrolicious store?

I would love to have one of these wonderful photos framed on a wall or as a screen saver/background.

Gareth Ashworth
Gareth Ashworth(@garethashworth)
5 years ago

Afshin! What an experience, in what I believe to be one of the prettiest cars ever produced.

Per Einarsson
Per Einarsson(@per_einarsson)
5 years ago

Oh boy!

What a fantastic experience that must have been. Good choice, that SV.
I can’t wait to see what you will publish after (eventually) taking part in the Mille Miglia.

Amir Kakhsaz
Amir Kakhsaz(@zamirz)
5 years ago

Aaaaah! I’ve been waiting for this for a while. So awesome, you guys had a blast!

Matthew Lange
Matthew Lange(@365daytonafan)
5 years ago

Looks like you had a fantastic time Afshin, and all good old car stories need a breakdown!

Afshin Behnia
Afshin Behnia(@afshinb)
5 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Lange

Yeah, it does add some flavor, doesn’t it? Hope we do another rally together soon.

La Dolce Vita
La Dolce Vita(@la-dolce-vita)
5 years ago

What a fabulous experience not withstanding the fact you did not get a chance to complete! Hopefully you will get another shot at it.
But the experience of participating in one of the finest road races, in a gorgeous Italian car, in sun drenched Sicily with such enthusiastic and passionate spectators will take some topping.
All the best with your plans to do the MM next.

Afshin Behnia
Afshin Behnia(@afshinb)
5 years ago
Reply to  La Dolce Vita

It really was! Definitely an experience of a lifetime especially when done with a good friend. Looking forward to the MM — it’s an exciting month!

Benjamin Shahrabani
Benjamin Shahrabani(@ben-shahrabani)
5 years ago

Great story. Sorry you didn’t finish the rally…but there’s always next year.

Cars have a funny habit of starting right up once they get off the tow truck.

Afshin Behnia
Afshin Behnia(@afshinb)
5 years ago

Thanks Ben. Yeah, I almost wish it hadn’t started right up after the tow!

Sam N
Sam N(@samson518)
5 years ago


Marius Pop
Marius Pop(@marius_ashi_bv)
5 years ago

Awesome! I have attended as a spectator the Mille Miglia many times, but I have yet to witness the Targa Florio. One for the bucket list!