A farewell to arms

RussianDrive001_49e47a2d93f17-lightboxAfter an action-packed and enjoyable three years, my time in Moscow ended in December 2008. This meant one last marathon trans-European trek in the Alfa. Only this time in the depths of the Russian winter with all that that entails. Never mind – nothing ventured, nothing gained. The route was by now relatively familiar and this time I had rustled up a co-pilot for the majority of the trip.

So, just before Christmas and laden to the gunnels with the last of my worldly possessions not already in shipment to England, the Alfa and I slithered the 500 or so miles up to St Petersburg through filth and snow in a pretty good 10 hours. The last few hours were in darkness and very hairy since the copious muck spraying off the surface of the road was thick and black, and the headlamp washers had stopped functioning. This meant stopping every 20 mins or so to wipe the headlamps clear. Otherwise it became impossible to see the dangerously cratered road surface as the dirt collecting on the lights weakened them to a dim and useless glow.

In St Petersburg, I picked up my co-pilot (a friend from England who lives in St P) and we headed up in convoy to Helsinki, me in the Alfa and he in his ancient UK-registered Jaguar XJ-S which we were to leave in Helsinki for various reasons. As we left St Petersburg, the heavens opened and delivered an almighty blizzard generating the worst driving conditions I have ever encountered, which only lifted when we reached the Russian/Finnish border. It’s pretty terrifying to drive on thick snow along a main route that has no central reservation barrier with huge articulated lorries looming out of the snow bare metres ahead. At the border, we filled up with last tankfuls of cheap Russian petrol and had our cars comprehensively searched by Russian customs officials and then searched again by a fearsome black-clad chap who identified himself as being from the FSB (what the KGB is called these days), before finally reaching the safety and freedom of the European Union. I don’t mean to be funny, but it really does feel like that. You feel relief at making it out. After dropping the Jag off in Helsinki, we made for Turku and took the overnight ferry to Stockholm.

How far can you drive in one day? I don’t know the answer to that but I can now say that the furthest I’ve ever travelled in a car in one day is from Stockholm to London. We left Stockholm at 7am and, taking turns at driving, arrived at Calais just before midnight, finally reaching my home in London at 2am UK time having covered around 1,200 miles (plus the Rodby-Puttgarden ferry and the Eurotunnel) in 20 hours. The GTA never missed a beat and showed an average speed of 72mph and 31mpg for the day’s driving. At this point, I can only reiterate what a swift, comfortable and reliable long-distance companion this car has been. All problems with ride height and comfort evaporate on smooth European motorway tarmac, leaving you free to enjoy the prodigious power, talented handling, musical soundtrack and slick gearshift.

Now, although the Alfa has been a faithful companion over the last two years -comprehensively disappointing all the naysayers among my friends who liked to crack jokes about being best friends with the RAC when I first got it- I had promised myself a new car when I returned to the UK. Not least because the Alfa had been so reliable that, perhaps unfairly, I started to worry about it storing up trouble. The last service had been expensive (£1,000+ at specialist Black & White Garage) and the cambelt was going to need doing at the next service (on GTAs, they’ve been known to snap at less than 50k miles), so that promised to be expensive too.

So, having been given a thoroughly laughable £4,000 trade-in offer by BMW against the new 135i MSport that I’d picked to replace the Alfa, I had to commit to the task of getting a decent amount for it privately. A thorough wash and brush up inside and out, plus a going over with Meguiars’ Three-Step polish/wax, restored the Alfa to looking its gleaming best and into the classifieds it went. It must be said that selling a second-hand car is a painful process – you get no end of chancers who, priceguide in hand tell you that the market value of the car is X (where X represents 30% less than you’re asking) and that then they want to knock money off for the fact that the service/MoT are due etc. With a car like a 2005 156 GTA, I’m afraid the answer is “fine, go away and try to find another one like this for the price you want”. Because there aren’t any! Alfa sold a miniscule number of these cars and most were the less-sought after pre-2004 cars.

In the end, it took two months before the car eventually sold for a more acceptable £6,800 to the first person who actually looked at it; a private buyer who travelled all the way from Somerset. And I think that that price represents outstanding value for money for such a fast, classy and not very old bit of kit. I shall miss it.

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Jonathan Malim