Red Orange: A Tale Of Two Montreals
Photography by Adrien Acquitter
There seems to exist a multitude of unwritten laws governing that impenetrable world that is the car designer community. Some are pretty obvious even to outsiders: wearing black is permanently the new black, adorning a scarf is a pre-requisite of the job, listening to avant-garde electro-pop tunes in expensive ear buds while sketching away on the computer another. Less evident laws include the peculiar ritual of trying everything from Yankee candles to keeping a smelly dog to somehow cover that persistent, sneaky odor of clay models once back home from work. But deeper still in the rulebook lie some truly perplexing precepts, such as the mandatory fascination with the work of one car design guru above all others, Ingegner Marcello Gandini.
You are not worthy of calling yourself a designer, it seems unless you have an almost religious reverence for all things Gandini. In a field where everyone vies to distinguish themselves with disruptive, off-the-beaten-track tastes and references, the baffling exception seems to be the general consensus that the most daring and awe-inspiring automotive shape ever created is Gandini’s Stratos “zero” prototype. Which, interestingly, followed a mere four years behind the Lamborghini Miura, one of Gandini’s earliest creations for Bertone, which is universally accepted – not just by designers – as one of the most beautiful cars of all time. It follows that, if designers had their pockets loaded, they would all be driving around in Stratos Zeros and Miuras. Alas, there is only one Stratos Zero in the world, while even the rattiest Miuras command prices in excess of a cool million bucks. Countaches, Khamsins, even Espadas are all too rare or out of reach. Pure unobtainium.
Young designers willing to dress in Gandini sheet metal can happily start at the bottom of that ladder, with either an Audi 50, a Renault Super5, a Citroën BX, or a sporty Fiat X1/9. But for those with a little bit of cash in hand one car that looks the part and that, some 10/15 years ago could still be obtained for a reasonable outlay, is actually one of Gandini’s most striking creations: the Alfa Romeo Montreal.
The two cars featured here belong to two designers just old enough to remember the joys of getting off on a wild creative trip after inhaling toxic fumes from an expensive AD Chartpak marker set. Both work in Northern Italy, somehow walking in the footsteps of ex-Ferrari chief designer Donato Coco who himself owns a Montreal and used to go on camping trips across Europe with it.
The first of these tells the story of how he came to purchase his splendidly original, full-option metallic orange example.
“My Montreal was bought new in 1973 by a doctor from Rome and kept at his holiday home in the Marche region where it was regularly maintained by a local mechanic. Even when the owner had reached an age where he could no longer drive it himself, he refused to sell it or hand it over to relatives.
“In 2002, the doctor passed away, and finally, the family could get rid of the “old car.” They left in the hands of a family friend who owned an antiques trade in Umbria, but who knew nothing of the Montreal. He put the car outside his shop, slightly hidden to make sure it wouldn’t hide the furniture he had in the window.
“I have always been in love with the Montreal, I was 22, a penniless car design student in Turin and I had never seen a Montreal in real life. I spent my summer holidays in Umbria, and one Sunday, as I drove past this shop, I saw an orange dot and turned round to have a closer look. I was speechless – it was the first time I’d ever seen a Montreal in the flesh. It looked abandoned, dirty, and the tires were slightly flat. There was a “Vendesi” (for sale) sign, but there was no contact number. I phoned all my friends in the area and somehow managed to get the phone number of the shop owner. He confirmed that the car was for sale and that he didn’t know the price.
“We met the next day, and he turned the car on, revving the cold engine like mad – “listen to that! Works fine!” I knew then I had to “save” the car from murderers like that. The odometer showed 43,000 km… Who knew if that was realistic? He called the owners who asked me to make an offer because they didn’t know its value. I came up with a ridiculous price and they said they would think about it. The following day they called back, having found out that the car was rare and valuable, so I had a feeling that the dream was over. I gave it one last try, bringing an old classic car magazine showing out-of-date quotations for the Montreal (the magazine was from the 90s, but they didn’t notice). That would have been my last offer, for half the amount they were now asking, but still a lot for me. They accepted.
“I used a big part of the loan for my studies to pay for the car, but it wasn’t until three years later that I finally put a bit of money together to spend on the car and took it to an Alfa specialist, hoping that brakes, engine or other mechanical elements weren’t seized. Apart from some fuses and electrical issues, everything turned out to be fine, and much to my surprise, the Montreal was in incredibly good shape. The car had original stickers, original paint, all its original paperwork, and the owner’s manual with the notes of the mechanic that used to look after it. The leather belts to hold luggage in place were still there, and it even had the factory plastic covers on the rockers.
“I’ve had the Montreal now for 18 years. I keep the car like its previous and only other owner. I enjoy it every time I use it and keep it in good shape. It turned out the 43,000 km were original – I’ve added 6000 km since, and I am sure it’s happy to keep doing many more.”
The story of the red Montreal is more succinctly told, as next to nothing is known about its early life, apart from the fact that it was the 48th produced. The car was sold new in Austria in 1972 and remained there until the other designer came to hear of it, in around 2008. Again it was a case of rescuing it from what purists would consider a potentially fatal blow.
“This red Montreal belonged to one of my wife’s friends, who casually told her over the phone one day that he had started stripping it down to transform it into a Group 4 version for historic racing. My blood boiled upon hearing this, and we quickly decided to make him an offer. A deal was sealed, and within days, he delivered the car on a trailer down here in Italy. The car was running and partly dismantled, but complete. We rented a garage and stored it there for about four years before we finally found the time and money to tackle the task of putting it back on the road.
By necessity, we focused our resources on the running gear, leaving the possibility of a thorough restoration for later. The car had been repainted resale red at some point – not even an original Alfa red. Originally it was finished in arancio pastello, that very 1970s bright orange shade which is something of a signature Bertone color. So the plan is definitely to return it to its full former glory one day, especially since there are several small defects on the body. And the black-painted lower rear fascia and sills disappeared with the respray, which makes the proportions somewhat “heftier”.
Marque specialist Pietro Ferraresi, who is an authority on Montreals in Northern Italy, rectified some earlier bungling on the tricky Spica injection system, and we have taken it back to Austria for two special trips already, taking in the Alpine passes without a single glitch.
“On one of those trips, the Montreal was entered in a rally tour alongside other classics, which included a flamboyant red Lamborghini Miura. To this designer’s eyes at least, the similarities between the two cars are striking. With all due respect for the Miura of course, I can’t help but feel that they are two sides of the same coin. One being mid-engine and the other front engine, there is a yin and yang element to them. The lines are the same, the construction of the body surfaces are very similar. Even the detailing is all in the same vein. You can certainly recognize the pencil of Marcello Gandini in both.
“In 2016, that same friend who had sold us the car offered to buy it back. We were strapped for cash, pouring all our savings – and then some – into buying and restoring our first house. He made us an offer we basically couldn’t refuse, and a friendship was nearly lost when I finally turned the offer down. My thinking was, with classic car prices soaring the way they had in recent years, if I sold the Alfa I’d never be able to afford anything like it again. After all, who needs a fitted kitchen when you can have a Montreal?”