Part Three: How I learned to stop worrying and love the brakes
Three months and two days into my ownership of an Alfa Romeo 156, I began to realise what people meant about the "continuous disappointment" of having one. Which is a bit of a shame, especially when you consider that it came with a three month and no days warranty. But it is a beautiful car.
A light comes on. It looks like something to do with the airbag, but I'm not too sure, I'm too busy looking ahead of me, as the dreary M4 slithers across the south, ruining most of the countryside it cuts through, but somehow still improving Swindon and most of Eastern Wales. And my beautiful car is improving it all.
Wait, if it's the airbag, what does that mean? Is it just going to blow up in my face, at 70-ish miles an hour? What if I have a crash? Will it do nothing?
It's been a long day in London.
"Do you reckon you could get out the car's handbook out the glovebox and have a look at something for me?"
"..... mmmm, right now?"
"Yeah, if you could wake up a bit"
"I think there's something wrong with the airbag"
"What the - THE AIRBAG? When did that go wrong? Why didn't you say earlier? Pull over! Pull over RIGHT FUCKING NOW AND LOOK YOURSELF, WHY DID YOU BUY A SHIT ALFA ROMEO I KNEW THIS WAS GOING TO HAPPEN."
We pull over, and I scan the handbook for any information that may save us both from a gruesome death. Nothing. Reading the handbook of an Alfa Romeo, you may think that it would contain information about what to do in the inevitable event of something going wrong. I could just have it as an ornament, and look at how beautiful it is, I suppose.
"Airbag light on: Take to a certified Alfa Romeo garage."
Remembering my harrowing experience of Ford's garages, I decline and instead take it to the place which correctly diagnosed the piston problem. Thankfully, they sort it while I wait, so there was only time for two people to say "Is that your Alfa Romeo there? Ooooh, risky mate, especially at your age!" (ha, good one mate, and despite what you ingest from the Daily fucking Mail, some people under 25 do have jobs, you know) and £30 later, I'm back on the road.
And I stay on the road. For ages. Oh my god, I've struck gold! The one Alfa Romeo in the world that is - dare I say it? - reliable! In my possession! These are the kind of good-luck-stories that you only see clogging up your Facebook page ("A young man from Cheltenham buys an Alfa Romeo - what happened next will blow your mind!"). Nothing has gone wrong for ages! It's practically biblical! Alfa Romeo will surely be on the phone asking for it back to go in their museum, as an artefact of historical importance.
But, dearest reader, pride doth often precede the fall. We are two days away from an MOT test, when I offer to drive to Bristol to pick up a couple of friends from a music concert. Feeling a bit like a responsible dad, I drive down early, find somewhere close to the venue to park, and wait for them.
Beautiful, but stationary. But beautiful.
It's only when I'm driving slowly through Bristol that I notice a slight grinding noise on the brakes. This sound usually only happens when they're cold, but I've been driving for 45 minutes, what could possibly be wrong?
But before I have a chance to investigate, my fare for the night arrives. Ears ringing from cheers, eyes glazed from beers, they hop into the car ("wow! You cleaned it just for us??" "No, it's filthy, it's just dark so you can't see the mess." "Right! Cool!") and we're on the motorway in no time.
As we arrive to a set of roadworks, I gently brake, but quite a rumble is fed back to me. And them. The reveller in the backseat, previously snoozing, sits up.
"Sorry mate, the brakes have started to grind slightly."
"Okay... Are we safe?"
"Well, I'm taking it for an MOT in a couple of days, so we'll only know with hindsight."
Interestingly, he didn't return to sleep.
And for 48 hours, my own body clock goes into spasms. What if it does fail? I'm not exactly a Barclays banker, it could spell disaster.
In it goes. But damn! I left my phone in there! I get home and ring the garage.
"Hi, I've just taken an Alfa Romeo in for an MOT and I think I left my phone in the car?"
"Oh, hi James! Your car has failed the MOT."
"Oh, that was quick, is it back yet?"
"No, it's there now being tested."
"Okay, so how do you know it's failed?"
"The airbag light came on while I was driving it over there, so that's a fail straight away."
"Also, the brakes sounded pretty dodgy, so we'll just have to wait and see what they say, I'll let you know."
"Okay - and was my phone in there?"
"I didn't see."
"Okay, thanks anyway."
10 minutes later.
"Hi James, it's [the garage] again. Yep, your car failed."
"Yeah, you're colleague said it might."
"Quite spectacularly, really."
"Yeah, he hinted at that as well."
"Even by Alfa Romeo's standar-
"Is my phone in the car?"
"Oh, I don't know, but your car will need some work. You're looking at some new brakes, a new sensor, and three tyres need replacing, and then it'll need a second test."
"It'll be around-" then a figure comes out of her mouth that is usually reserved for NASA's accountants... But it is a beautiful car, right?
And like most beautiful things, ultimately the Alfa become ravagingly expensive. Cars, diamonds, visits to Twickenham, the Cotswolds, my girlfriend's birthday present - my girlfriend, for that matter. But I would argue with you until the cows come home (just in time to become my girlfriend's next present, no doubt) that all things that are beautiful are worth it.
Alfa Romeos are worth it, whatever 'it' is. Money, embarrassment, jibes, it doesn't amount to a grain of sand on the warm beaches that Alfa Romeo owners walk upon.
Months after my own mini-economic recovery from MOT-gate, I am driving back from a day of working in London. The Sun and I are locked in a westerly race, and just as I pass through Oxford, I'm conceding defeat, which is more of a shame for the Sun more than myself, because now he's missing out on one of the best sights in England - the roads and the surrounding environment between Oxford and Cheltenham. A serenely stunning sight, one glance of which would cast away any doubts about the reliability and cost of an Alfa Romeo.
Life is too short to be pottering about in a dull car, staring at an empty road wondering if you can make it out onto the road in time for tea. It's too short to be sitting on a train pretending to work while you tweet about how shit trains are. It's too short to be on a bus, full stop.
If you're short on a smile, come and have a ride in my Alfa Romeo. You'll be beaming in seconds.
But not right now, it's in the garage.
And looking damn beautiful while it's there, I can assure you.