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1921 Alfa Romeo G1 a time machine


...but fell through a sort of time warp and ended up, instead, in the cockpit of the oldest in existence.

Though its body and certain components cannot with conscience, or by connoisseurs, be called strictly authentic, the chassis, essentials and - dare we say? - heart and soul of the only 1921 Alfa Romeo G1 most assuredly is.

The only remaining of the 52 built, this glitteringly and hideously-expensively restored olde world roadster has spent much of the last decade of its almost 90 years occupying the foyer of Ateco Automotive, which has recently taken to importing Chinese econo-cars in addition to Italy’s best and proudest.

The showpiece and occasional joy toy of Ateco’s formidable head and super-maxi yacht owner and skipper, Neville Crichton, the G1 is literally priceless. As in, no-one’s quite sure what it’s worth. Just that it’s a hell of a lot and that handsome overtures to take it back ‘home’ to Italy have been soundly spurned.

Amid the sleek anonymity of modern driving devices, this leviathan is almost a visual scandal. After you take in its imposing, sunlight-blocking majesty, it’s the ‘missing’ things that make the greatest impression.

You reach for the door handle; there’s none. Nor a door. No roof, either, to protect the dark green leather should the heavens frown on this rare outing which Ateco mechanics take to keep the old banger’s vital fluids fluid.

Clambering way up and in – in itself no mean feat for the outsized citizen – you reach for the seat belt; not a one to be had. Check mirrors; the only reflection to be had is off the blazing red paint. Indicators? Try hand signals. Reach for the ignition key and there’s a starter pedal (and another to switch off) on the floor.

As to the pedals that drive this 2.6-tonne automated carriage, they’re arranged to further frighten the already nerve-wracked wretch sliding into the right seat (European cars were RHD back then) for his go. Some practical joker has configured it so the clutch is on the left (I can live with that), the brake to the outside right and the accelerator slightly below and in the middle. This too was the way, back in the day.

Oh, and the four-speed H-pattern gearshift is – even more quixotically from the modern perspective – hard up against your right leg, making for yet more counter-intuitive contortions.

Like most near-nonagenarians, the old beast takes a bit of enlivening first thing in the morning. Daryl, whose duties include trotting the G1 out from time to time, has to more than once unbuckle the thick leather bonnet straps and have a word with the whacking great 6.3-litre inline six. However, once up and away it’s remarkably refined, certainly not much less so than the five cylinder turbo diesel of the newest 159 Ti.

With Daryl having got us off the main road, I wipe damp hands on my car coat, and lurch forward. Grasping the silver stick, I grind my teeth and those of the unsynchronized transmission into second (“just shove it through”), ensuring that the stick ends up wedged under my leg – clearly the marque’s famously awkward driving position has early origins.

We putter with something approaching confidence along a long straight piece of road, stumbling when I cleverly apply the accelerator rather than the brake, until – oh, God – here comes a corner. Wrench that enormous steering wheel with the determination of Ahab helming through a cyclone (and to think how we moan about today’s over-assisted and feel free tillers) and arrrrrrround we go.

Easy when you know how. Except we’re in a cul-de-sac and a three-point turn must now be achieved. Indeed ‘achievement’ is the mot juste. When reversing, the steering loads up to about double its regular resistance; and with much crunching and shuddering this elementary manoeuvre is achieved with all the grace and dexterity of an elephant on roller skates.

Back on the straight and wide, we gain a bit of momentum, reaching a heady 30 miles per hour (50km/h) in fourth. Motorists of yore might have needed to travel distances with their mechanic in the passenger seat, but they surely knew driving in its rawest, most exhilarating and enervating form.

Of course, even if its mighty power-plant were never again to roar, the G1 would be an aesthetic triumph. Already eye-widening from without, it’s when you get within and examine the white-faced dials, the glittering metal and upholstery that you see the point of history at which the lingering elegance of the belle époque belatedly met the industrial age. Mere functionality was left to the likes of Henry Ford – the Italian prestige automobile had to be something more.

That this unique example endures is due not just to devoted restoration but to no little amount of good fortune. Prior to its acquisition by Crichton, the G1’s history was more checkered than a finishing flag.

Once of seven imported to Australia, this one was bought by a grazier near Winton who proceeded to become bankrupt. He might have lacked cash, but not wits – hiding the beauty on a neighbour’s property.

It was a smart move, foiled only by the grazier’s death three years later. So it was the Milanese aristocrat spent the depression powering a water pump in outback Queensland. Around 1947, cockies got the thing going as a paddock basher until the new owner undertook its first full restoration, using the G1 as a daily driver and on a regular commute between Brisbane and Melbourne.

Crichton collared it at auction in 1999, sending it to Christchurch for a ground-up restoration, where it acquired the current body. Its most notable outing was in 2005 under the auspices of Sydney car classicist and journo David Berthon, when it won its class in California’s ultra-prestigious Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance.

Look, I don’t do nostalgia. I don’t pine for those good old days, which after even cursory research turn out not to have been very good at all, merely old (even at the time). But anyone who is not in the thrall of this singular experience – however brief – has lost the ability to be impressed.

I’m not an unfit fellow, but I’m simply in awe of those weedy little chaps who steered these mighty machines in competition. I mean: do Le Mans in something like this? Phew …

Back at Ateco, I slip into the 159 Ti, Alfa’s remarkable recent reinvention of its slow-selling midsizer.

Engaging drive (it’s still somehow difficult to grasp the notion of an automatic Alfa), I segue onto the rutted, ruined bitumen of a Sydney main road and head home among the variously inept and arrogant, but uniformly unschooled, motorists and muse that in terms of driverly sense, cars may have become cleverer, but we are surely dumber than those who drove in the era of the G1.