Flawed diamond: Alfa Romeo Montreal

| 6 Aug 2020
Classic & Sports Car – Flawed diamond: Alfa Romeo Montreal

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The story of the fabulous yet flawed Montreal is as much about Bertone as it is Alfa Romeo.

In many ways, this car marked the end of a long honeymoon period between the two great houses that had begun in 1954 with the Giulietta Sprint.

I don’t entirely buy the tale about the debut of the Montreal at the 1967 World ’s Fair – it has the unmistakable whiff of PR spin.

The story goes that visitors to the ‘Man the Producer’ pavilion at Expo 67, held in Montreal, Canada, were so awestruck by the car’s appearance that Alfa Romeo felt compelled to put its dream car into production.

My feeling is the Italians knew they were going to build the Montreal in some form or another.

Classic & Sports Car – Flawed diamond: Alfa Romeo Montreal
The ‘eyelids’ over the twin headlights are for little more than show, but they do retract

Envious of the success of the Fiat Dino, at least in terms of column inches and reflected glory, the idea of this higher-priced flagship must have seemed rather appealing to Alfa bosses, particularly because there was a pressing need to replace the 2600 Sprint.

Bertone’s shape, created in just nine months for this prestigious event by a 28-year-old Marcello Gandini, was extrapolated from the proportions of his Miura.

Like the Lamborghini, the Alfa show car had the space-age aesthetic that had swept the fashion world since the mid-1960s in anticipation of the Apollo mission.

The funky eyelids allowed for the adjustment of the headlamp heights for different regulations, but also gave the car a mean and moody front end.

The clamshell bonnet didn’t make it to the final Montreals, however, and the famous light covers were nothing more than superfluous stoneguards by the time Bertone had massaged the design – with considerable difficulty due to strikes – into a viable production vehicle.

Classic & Sports Car – Flawed diamond: Alfa Romeo Montreal
The gills on the Montreal’s flanks are one of the many elements that suggest a mid-engined model

Finished in pearl white, the two show cars were pure André Courrèges Futurism.

But the Kamm-tailed hatchback Montreal was not futuristically mid-engined: the faux vents in its C-pillars, inspired by the Canguro concept car of 1964, merely highlighted the basic conceit that this was an entirely conventional front-engined grand-touring car masquerading as a mid-engined exotic.

In fact, despite speculation at the time that a mid-engined concept had to be abandoned due to a lack of time, the company had never actually considered it.

Most potential buyers forgave the Montreal this visual trick, but I do wonder how many liked the idea that the car was so ‘ordinary’ in terms of chassis and suspension architecture – which was unashamedly shared with the 1750 GTV.

That meant a live rear axle because there was no time to do anything else; it was well located, certainly, but not the sort of sophistication buyers were coming to expect in fast, expensive GT cars at the beginning of the 1970s.

Classic & Sports Car – Flawed diamond: Alfa Romeo Montreal
Low and kamm-tailed, the Montreal looked every inch a supercar contender in the metal

In some respects this was not a valid criticism because the Montreal, apart from having more body roll than quick drivers liked, measured up to established Alfa Romeo standards of highly controllable behaviour.

Its unassisted steering was a little slow, but the car was set up to transition gently through mild, safe understeer into a state of neutrality.

At well-flagged but high limits that became oversteer with the option of hanging the tail out at will with complete controllability in sharper corners.

It was not a Ferrari Dino or even a 911, but the Montreal belied its 3000lb bulk and lent some credence to Alfa’s claims that a live axle had been chosen rather than imposed upon the design because it was inherently more predictable than, say, semi-trailing arms.

The fact that even the 159 Alfetta GP car had a de Dion axle rather than true independence for its rear wheels suggests Alfa was inherently suspicious of IRS.

Classic & Sports Car – Flawed diamond: Alfa Romeo Montreal
The face-saving engine was provided by racing arm Autodelta

The glory of the production Montreal was, of course, its engine.

While the two Expo 67 cars (not badged Montreal) had standard 1600 twin-cams fitted to give them basic mobility, the Montreal as put into production boasted a detuned four-cam 2½-litre fuel-injected V8 courtesy of Carlo Chiti’s Autodelta.

Its racing-style flat-plane crank was replaced by a smoother-spinning cross-plane type, and while single plugs per cylinder were deemed adequate for road use, the dry sump remained for a lower bonnet line.

Spica mechanical injection replaced the Lucas type, but this remarkable V8 was still visually the sports-racing car engine that had powered the Tipo 33 to class wins on the Targa Florio, at Daytona and Le Mans, plus the handful of roadgoing 2-litre Stradales.

High-revving, super-smooth and surprisingly refined and flexible, it featured considerable amounts of advanced metallurgy to keep its weight down and in every way adapted itself to civilian life quite seamlessly.

With 90% of its maximum torque available from 3-6000rpm it was a pussycat around town, with clean running aided by the latest in twin-coil ignition.

Classic & Sports Car – Flawed diamond: Alfa Romeo Montreal
The large steering wheel dominates this sporty cabin

At the other end of the spectrum, you didn’t have to change into top until you were doing 120mph, a speed at which the car would cruise effortlessly.

Combined with an excellent ZF five-speed gearbox, the Montreal’s beautifully sonorous V8 was easily the most successful part of the car, although it shared practically nothing with the Autodelta racing units.

In fact, the seemingly handy cross-pollination of componentry with the four-cylinder 105-series range was not the time- and effort- saving measure it might have seemed for the Montreal project.

Beyond the obvious bought-in ZF gearbox and bigger ventilated disc brakes, many of the parts the Montreal supposedly shared with the 1750 and 2000 GTV had to be beefed up to take the increased weight and power, thus negating any benefit the accountants at Arese might have anticipated.

Classic & Sports Car – Flawed diamond: Alfa Romeo Montreal
There are hints of the Miura, a reflection of their shared creator at Bertone, Marcello Gandini

It all seemed like a lot of effort to sell fewer than 4000 cars and the protracted four-year development process, in which all kinds of tweaks and compromises had to be made, must have made many in Milan wish they had started with a clean sheet of paper in the first place.

The engine alone was worth the price of admission for many buyers but, as lovely as it was, this special power unit looked like a lot of fuss when its 200bhp only got you to 60mph from rest in 8.2 secs and on to a 135mph maximum, according to Motor.

At 13mpg, only the Montreal’s fuel consumption was in the true ‘supercar’ class, and stopping to fill the 14-gallon tank every 200 miles hardly chimed with the car’s grand-touring credentials.

You could buy a Dino 246 for the £5000 Alfa wanted for its flagship when Montreals finally began arriving in the UK in 1971.

A Citroën SM was £500 cheaper, a BMW 3.0 CS £500 more expensive; both offered similar performance combined with basic levels of practicality the designers of the Montreal seemed to have completely overlooked in their haste to get the car into production.

Classic & Sports Car – Flawed diamond: Alfa Romeo Montreal
Classic & Sports Car – Flawed diamond: Alfa Romeo Montreal
Intricate, quirky dial layout (left); the tight rear ‘seats’

With rear ‘seats’ not fit for human habitation, a travesty of a luggage bay (half-filled by the spare and accommodating just 3.2cu ft of bags) and poor rear vision, this was a car you bought with your heart and not your head, even in the rarefied sphere of Euro exotica.

It is perhaps the only front-engined sports car blessed with most of the impracticalities of a mid-engined one!

The Montreal is not, then, one of the great Alfa Romeos but it is certainly one of the most interesting.

Stylish and fast, although never as fast as it looked or sounded, it was conceived in a flourish of late-’60s enthusiasm but died with a mid-’70s whimper, its parents losing interest in their offspring before it realised its potential.

Even if the challenges of building any sort of car in the ’70s had not caused Alfa to grow bored of the increasingly irrelevant Montreal, the fuel crisis would have finished the job.

Classic & Sports Car – Flawed diamond: Alfa Romeo Montreal
Alfa’s bargain V8 bomber is a charismatic GT great

Launched at Geneva in 1970, deliveries didn’t begin until ’71 and production of a right-hooker required extensive modifications.

After sales peaked in ’72 at 2350 cars, it took Alfa until 1977 to sell the remaining 900 examples – which just about says it all.

Today, however, most of their period shortcomings are easily sorted, making this truly exotic yet surprisingly affordable Alfa an ever more appealing prospect.

Images: Louis Blom


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