Was Restoring This 1956 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Berlina Really Worth It?
Note: This article first appeared in Hypebeast Magazine #11.
There is a cliché in Alfisti circles that says, “You don’t find an Alfa, the Alfa finds you.” Yeah, very cute, I thought. But as I think about the eleven Alfa Romeos that I’ve accumulated over the past eight years, I’m amused by the fact that I sought out only three of the eleven examples. The other eight really did find me.
This was especially true with the 1956 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Berlina rust-bucket project car that somehow found its way into my garage back in January of 2011. How I ended up with this car still baffles me. The first generation Berlina was never a model I thought about much, let alone be interested in owning. Furthermore, I had never done a restoration project. In fact, they scared me, and being impatient, I would rather just buy a car that has already been restored so I can drive it right away—let someone else suffer through the restoration, I thought.
A Virus Spreads
How did a restoration-averse guy like me end up buying a rusty old example of a model that didn’t interest him? Well, the short answer is that when it comes to matters of Alfa Romeo, reason is rarely a factor. For the reason, we’ll need to go back a few years to the summer of 2009. I had just purchased a 1965 Alfa Romeo Giulia Sprint Speciale (one of the three Alfas that I actually searched for), and during my inaugural visit to Santo’s Italian Car Service to have the Giulia SS checked out, I met Manuel Minassian.
Meeting Manuel was the beginning of the end of automotive normalcy for me.
Having been obsessed with cars all my life, I always imagined I would someday have a collection of four or five special cars–maybe even eight if I were to go really crazy. Not once did I ever consider anything of the scale of what Manuel introduced me to. Manuel invited me over to his warehouse, and as he rolled up the door, the light swept across a section of what seemed to be an endless lot of cars parked back-to-back and side-to-side. There were about 80 cars in total. Eighty! Most were Alfa Romeos, and many were in need of total restoration.
This wasn’t all. As I got to know Manuel, I slowly learned that in addition to his stash at the warehouse he had multiple projects happening simultaneously in various parts of the US—a dozen Alfas up in Seattle being restored, a GTA Junior in Michigan, not to mention several projects across different shops in Los Angeles, Riverside, and the valley. He knows just about all the mechanics, body shops, and machine shops in Southern California.
I was amazed. I didn’t really understand it, but I was amazed. Though his obsession is rather extreme, it did make me realize that the possibilities are much more vast than I had imagined. Why should one limit the number of their cars to the number of parking spaces available at home? Just get a warehouse. Why pass up on a great deal just because it’s 3,000 miles away? Simply wire the money and have them ship the car. And why let a poor, neglected Alfa end up in the junkyard? Buy it for cheap and bring it back to life.
It was with this new perspective that I purchased my next Alfa Romeo, a 1956 Giulietta Spider, sight unseen from Florida and had it shipped to Los Angeles. At about the same time, Manuel purchased a 1955 Giulietta Berlina. This was the first time I saw a Giulietta Berlina in person. It was cute. Certainly not very sporty looking—it is a family sedan, after all. We did a couple of drives together, Manuel in his ‘55 Berlina and me in my ’56 Spider, pretending we were living ’50s Rome, driving down to the Amalfi Coast. On these drives, the Berlina really grew on me, with its column shifter, the art deco airplane adorning the hood, and its surprising performance.
With the bug firmly planted, one day when I was visiting Manuel, he took out his iPad and pulled up an ad for a ’56 Berlina on the Alfa Romeo forums, and said “you should get this”.
It was to be my car. As I said, it was a complete rust bucket. I politely explained to Manuel that restoration projects are not my thing and that I rather not start now. “But look,” he reasoned, “it’s complete. It comes with all the parts and is in running condition. All it needs is new metal, paint, interior, and suspension.”
That’s all it needs? No thanks. He continues, “it’s advertised at $7,000, I bet you can get it for $6,000, and I’ll help you oversee the restoration. Don’t worry”. With that I figured, why not?
A few emails and phone calls later, I struck a deal with the seller at $6,000, plus $250 to trailer it down to Los Angeles from San Francisco. It looked bad in the photos and much worse in person. How anyone would even think of restoring this was beyond me, but it was too late. The car was mine now. On the plus side, it did come with several containers full of hard-to-find parts and a set of four additional, slightly less rusty doors. And it was indeed in running condition.
In fact, just for giggles (and perhaps foolishly), soon after I received the car I took it out on a 50 mile drive without having done anything to it. Wondering if it’ll make it back home, looking down through holes in the floor, and seeing the asphalt flash by was a novel experience.
It was now time to plan the restoration. I had no idea where to begin, but fortunately Manuel already had a body shop in mind for this project. He had recently discovered a shop an hour and a half north of Los Angeles in the vast suburb known as Lancaster that mainly specializes in restoring big American cars from the ’30s and ’40s. We had seen the results of his craft on an acquaintance’s Giulietta Spider and were impressed by his excellent metal and paint work, and baffled by how little he charged. So the decision was made, and an appointment was set for the shop owner to come pick up the car.
On the day of the pickup, Manuel comes over to my house to help with the hand-off. The shop owner arrives with a huge diesel dually pulling a trailer. The man, a big, burly, red Scotsman immediately assess the Berlina and says, “Oh, this is nothing. I’ve restored cars in way worse condition than this”.
In order to protect the innocent, let’s call him Sanjay. We proceeded to explain to Sanjay how we would like the car restored, what kind of paint we’d like, the need to fix the chrome, and mentioned some Alfa Romeo-specific details as well. His worrisome response to everything was, “Yeah, no problem,” without taking down any notes. He wasn’t even interested in going through the bins of spare parts I had, or to inquire about them. Had it not been for the beautifully-restored Giulietta Spider that I had seen as an example of his work (and for Manuel’s supervision), I would have had serious reservations letting Sanjay take the Berlina.
After the walkthrough, I ask the big questions: “How much, and how long?” His response is troubling on three levels: the figure was too round, too low, and seemly pulled out of thin air—and certainly not based on anything he wrote down. As for the timeframe, his “six weeks” estimate felt almost insulting. I tried to reason with Sanjay, and said something like, “Six weeks sounds very aggressive. I don’t mind if it takes longer, as I’m in no hurry. I rather have it done right than done fast. Are you sure six weeks is right?” Both Manuel and I were practically begging him to give us a longer estimate, but our pleas were falling on deaf ears.
By this point, I had resigned myself to the idea of jumping into this unknown world with both feet and hoping for the best. After a handshake with Sanjay and a thick envelope full of my cash deposit, I watched the Berlina being trailered off.
Time Is Relative
Fast forward 12 months to spring of 2012. “I never said six weeks, that’s ridiculous,” was by now an all too familiar phrase. Oh, there was progress being made, make no mistake. The Berlina was stripped to bare metal (wherever there was metal to begin with that is), and some new metal work had been done. New floors were installed, for example. But we were 12 months in, the engine and all the guts are out of the car, and all we had was a bare rolling shell—a far cry from its original estimate of being done in six weeks.
I wasn’t mad or disappointed, however. In fact, the extra time gave me a chance to hop over to Turin during one of my Italian trips in order to visit Trinchero and purchase OEM upholstery that is period-correct to the Berlina. I never took his “six weeks” estimate seriously to begin with. So long as progress was being made, I was O.K. with it within reason, but 12 months was now beginning to go beyond reasonable.
Throughout this time, I would make the occasional one and a half hour drive to Lancaster to check up on the progress and have a friendly chat with Sanjay. During one such visit with Manuel, we were discussing the sad condition of the chrome with Sanjay. Sanjay explained that he needed to send all the chrome out to a chrome shop, and that it would cost an extra $750. Manuel and I looked at each other and laughed. “Only $750?” we asked surprised. “Including all the bumpers? That’s impossible!” we said. Again, Sanjay stood by his word and insisted that because he sends so much work to his chrome guy, he gets special rates. Still, we were talking about all the chrome trim and the bumpers. Anywhere else, this was going to be a job costing a few thousand dollars.
When Guilty, Deny Everything And Go On The Offensive
A month went by, and I got an angry call from Sanjay, “Your chrome is done and I need you to send me a check for $3,500”. I think for a second and decide that $3,500 sounds about reasonable for the chrome work that needed to be done, but I was going to take this opportunity to point out to Sanjay that he continues to make promises he can’t keep. It had been over a year, and we were still far from completion. Not one to admit to mistakes, Sanjay takes on the offensive and denies ever having quoted $750, and accuses me of not wanting to pay for the work. He ends the call by saying that he doesn’t want to work on my car anymore, and that I should come pick it up.
I tried—uselessly—to call him back to calm him down, but my calls were not picked up. I then called Manuel, who by now has several other projects with Sanjay, and recounted what happened. He played the middle-man and is able to bring Sanjay to his senses. For the rest of the project, Sanjay refuses to talk to me, and Manuel kindly manages the situation and takes control of the project from here on out.
Would I Do It Again?
In the end, this “six week” restoration took about 30 months to complete, with the agony of not being able to communicate directly with Sanjay. The end result, however, is beautiful. The metal work is impeccable, and the Grigio Alba single-stage paint looks fantastic on this sedan. A few minor fit and finish issues remained, some of which Manuel has already addressed, and wipers and the front “whisker” chrome spears are missing. Otherwise, what I have now is a beautiful, rare, sporty Alfa Romeo sedan that almost looks like it just rolled off the assembly line.
So was it worth all the effort, cost, and waiting?
To answer this question, consider the following: there are maybe a dozen first generation Giulietta Berlinas in the US, and mine is undoubtedly the best example here. And though it did take 30 months to complete, the total cost including the initial purchase of the car came to be less than what it would have cost to buy a great example from Italy and ship it to the US.
Most importantly, driving it is an absolute charm. The Berlina is much lighter than it looks and the 1,300-cc engine mated to a column shifter is perfect for this car. In the end, the restoration troubles are easily forgotten, and I am definitely glad that Manuel talked me into taking on this project.
About the Car
Make: Alfa Romeo
Model: Giulietta Berlina
Color: Grigio Alba (dawn grey)
Engine: 1300cc twin cam 4-cylinder
Output: 52 bhp at 5,500 RPM
Carb: 1 solex downdraught single-choke
Transmission: Column-mounted 4 speed manual
Paint: Single-stage enamel
Upholstery: OEM upholstery sourced from Trinchero in Torino, Italy