As regular followers of my reviews will no doubt have concluded, during the course of a year I do get the chance to attend car-related events all over the UK as well making a number of trips overseas. Most car events, of course, take place at weekends, and careful planning makes it relatively straightforward to get along to them. The hardest thing usually is to choose which one to attend when there are several equally compelling sounding events on offer. For those events that take place during the week, and in the summer months there are plenty of them, it is not quite so easy. I do work away from home quite a lot, so I am not confined to those local to my Bristol doorstep, but my diary requires me to work in a variety of locations around the country and sometimes I just cannot fix the schedule and work location to accommodate the car events I would most like to attend. And so, although I typically spend a couple of days a week in London, it is some months since these work days have coincided with the monthly Italian Night at the iconic Ace Cafe, an event which I do try to attend whenever possible and which always make for an agreeable evening. Finally, ten months after my last visit, everything did align for the May 2019 gathering, although the omens were not good when, following a timely exit from my central London office on the South Bank, I spent a full twenty minutes halted in waiting traffic as the police allowed throngs of Chelsea fans to walk along the Kings Road towards Stamford Bridge, across my direction of travel. Eventually the police moved the Transit van that they had use to block the traffic and I could make the remainder of the journey to the Ace Cafe, relatively untroubled by further traffic hold-ups. With the weather having been rather dreary all day and rain in the air, I was not optimistic that I was going to find a packed forecourt in front of the Cafe. As I parked up, there were even fewer cars than I had been expecting, but more did arrived in the following hour or so, but attendance was very low, and the car park attendants made no effort to keep non-Italian cars from parking on site, something they usually do. The non-Italian cars were all at the far end of the site and there was nothing notable there, so all that I am presenting here are the Italian cars that I saw in the three hours that I was there.
There were two Alfa Romeo models here. First one to catch my eye was a black 4C Competizione, which I quickly realised was the recent acquisition by former Abarth owner and ever better known You Tuber Stef Villaverde (Stef AB on his You Tube channel). The 4C has been around for a few years now, but is still a rare sighting, and it still looks even more exotic than its price tag would suggest. First seen as a concept at the 2011 Geneva Show, the definitive 4C Competizione model did not debut for a further 2 years. Production got underway later that year at the Maserati plant in Modena, and the first deliveries were late in 2013. Production was originally pegged at 1000 cars a year and a total of just 3500, which encouraged many speculators to put their name down in the hope of making a sizeable profit on selling their cars on. That plan backfired, and in the early months, there were lots of cars for sale for greater than list price. Press reaction to the car has been mixed, with everyone loving the looks, but most of them feeling that the driving experience is not as they would want. Owners generally disagree – as is so often the case! – and most love their car. The Spider model followed in 2015, with the first examples of these reaching owners around the turn of the year, and when these cars gather now, you are just as likely to see a Spider as a Competizione. Stef’s car is a Coupe and its black paint is far less common than the red, white and yellow colours also offered.
The only other Alfa here was a 916 Spider. This was not really a day for open top motoring, and sure enough the roof was firmly erect when I arrived, and that’s how it stayed as the owner emerged from the Cafe, got in and headed away from site. The 916 Series cars were conceived to replace two very different models in the Alfa range. First of these was the open topped 105 Series Spider which had been in production since 1966 and by the 1990s was long overdue a replacement. Alfa decided to combine a follow on to the Alfetta GTV, long out of production, with a new Spider model, and first work started in the late 1980s. The task was handed to Pininfarina, and Enrico Fumia’s initial renderings were produced in September 1987, with the first clay models to complete 1:1 scale model made in July 1988. Fumia produced something rather special. Clearly an Italian design, with the Alfa Romeo grille with dual round headlights, recalling the Audi-based Pininfarina Quartz, another design produced by Enrico Fumia back in 1981, the proposal was for a car that was low-slung, wedge-shaped with a low nose and high kicked up tail. The back of the car is “cut-off” with a “Kamm tail” giving improved aerodynamics. The Spider would share these traits with the GTV except that the rear is rounded, and would feature a folding soft-top with five hoop frame, which would completely disappear from sight under a flush fitting cover. An electric folding mechanism would be fitted as an option. Details included a one-piece rear lamp/foglamp/indicator strip across the rear of the body, the minor instruments in the centre console angled towards the driver. The exterior design was finished in July 1988. After Vittorio Ghidella, Fiat’s CEO, accepted the design, Alfa Romeo Centro Stile under Walter de Silva was made responsible for the completion of the detail work and also for the design of the interiors, as Pininfarina’s proposal was not accepted. The Spider and GTV were to be based on the then-current Fiat Group platform, called Tipo Due, in this case a heavily modified version with an all new multilink rear suspension. The front suspension and drivetrain was based on the 1992 Alfa Romeo 155 saloon. Chief engineer at that time was Bruno Cena. Drag coefficient was 0.33 for the GTV and 0.38 for the Spider. Production began in late 1993 with four cars, all 3.0 V6 Spiders, assembled at the Alfa Romeo Arese Plant in Milan. In early 1994 the first GTV was produced, with 2.0 Twin Spark engine. The first premiere was then held at the Paris Motor Show in 1994. The GTV and Spider were officially launched at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1995 and sales began the same year. The cars were well received. At launch, many journalists commented that Alfa had improved overall build quality considerably and that it came very close to equalling its German rivals. I can vouch for that, as I owned an early GTV for eighteen months, and it was a well built and reliable car. In 1997 a new engine, a 24-valve 3.0 litre V6, was available for the GTV along with bigger, 12.0 inch brakes and red four-pot calipers from Brembo. The console knobs were changed from round central to rectangle ones and to a three-spoke steering wheel. Some versions were upgraded with different front bumper mesh to bring the wind noise down to 74 dBA. In May 1998 the cars were revamped for the first time, creating the Phase 2 models. Most of the alterations were inside. The interior was changed with new centre console, painted letters on skirt seals, changed controls and switches arrangement and different instrument cluster. Outside, the main changes included chrome frame around the grille and colour-coded side skirts and bumpers. A new engine was introduced, the 142 hp 1.8 Twin Spark, and others were changed: the 2.0 Twin Spark was updated with a modular intake manifold with different length intakes and a different plastic cover. Power output of the 2.0 TS was raised to 153 hp. Engines changed engine management units and have a nomenclature of CF2. The dashboard was available in two new colours in addition to the standard black: Red Style and Blue Style, and with it new colour-coded upholstery and carpets. The 3.0 24V got a six-speed manual gearbox as standard and the 2.0 V6 TB engine was now also available for the Spider. August 2000 saw the revamp of engines to comply with new emission regulations, Euro3. The new engines were slightly detuned, and have a new identification code: CF3. 3.0 V6 12V was discontinued for the Spider and replaced with 24V Euro3 version from the GTV. 2.0 V6 Turbo and 1.8 T.Spark were discontinued as they did not comply with Euro3 emissions. By the 2001-2002 model year, only 2 engines were left, the 2.0 Twin.Spark and 3.0 V6 24V, until the Phase 3 engine range arrived. The Arese plant, where the cars had been built, was closing and, in October 2000, the production of GTV/Spider was transferred to Pininfarina Plant in San Giorgio Canavese in Turin. In 2003 there was another and final revamp, creating the Phase 3, also designed in Pininfarina but not by Enrico Fumia. The main changes were focused on the front with new 147-style grille and different front bumpers with offset numberplate holder. Change to the interior was minimal with different centre console and upholstery pattern and colours available. Instrument illumination colour was changed from green to red. Main specification change is an ASR traction control, not available for 2.0 TS Base model. New engines were introduced: 163 hp 2.0 JTS with direct petrol injection and 237 hp 3.2 V6 24V allowing a 158 mph top speed. Production ceased in late 2004, though some cars were still available for purchase till 2006. A total of 80,747 cars were made, and sales of the GTV and Spider were roughly equal. More V6 engined GTVs than Spiders were made, but in 2.0 guise, it was the other way round with the open model proving marginally more popular.
Abarths frequently dominate Italian nights here, rivalled only by the presence sometimes of a large contingent of SportMaserati members. They were nowhere to be seen on this occasion, and as my own Maserati was in the dealer for service work and for the first time ever, they had given me something other than a Maserati as a loaner (it was a BMW, so I had to park it up the road!) there none of this marque present at all which meant that this ended up being more like Abarth night than Italian night.
First Abarth that I spotted as I walked on to the site was a particularly familiar one, Paul Hatton’s much loved and now somewhat modified 500 Esseesse. He had been the first to arrive, as usual, and had claimed “his” parking spot, right by the door, as is his wont. Evidence of the unpromising forecast and the low turnout came from the fact that his bonnet was firmly shut, whereas usually, he leaves it open for people to be able to see the various modifications he has made.
It was not the only Esseesse car here, or even the oldest, as among the other Series 1 cars was Paul Feldman’s Bossa Nova White car, which happened to be celebrating its 10th birthday on this very day. It is a much cherished, but also much used car, and certainly hides its age very well.
Most of the other 500-based cars here were much more recent, being mainly Series 4 cars, in various colours, with the Modena Yellow ones belonging to Dan Deyong and Mark Johnson adding some much needed colour to an otherwise grey evening. Other cars of note were Nico Vogli’s somewhat personalised car and Steven Brownsea’s Bicolore car in one of the more unusual, and attractive of the combinations offered.
No fewer than 4 examples of the Punto came along, too. Kai Kan’s Punto Evo was the first car I spotted, and then I noticed James King’s later SuperSport model parked up, and these were joined by Steve Miller and another Punto Evo during the course of the evening.
Final Abarth present, and “completing the set”, so to speak, of the modern range was a 124 Spider. It was recently announced that sales of these in the UK has ended, at least for now, which means that are destined to remain a rarity. Around 1500 have been brought into the UK, which is roughly twice the number of Puntos that came here, but still a fraction of the number of 500-based cars, of which there are close to 20,000 now on the road.
And that was it. This event was certainly not memorable for the vast number of rare and unusual cars, as some previous Ace Cafe Italian Nights have been, but it did provide the backdrop to a very pleasant evening catching up and chatting with a bunch of enthusiasts, many of whom I have known for a number of years. Let’s hope that the weather gods and the diary gods both co-operate fully in June to give a bigger turn-out that is worthy of the long summer hours of daylight.