Driven: Charging the Hill in a 1973 Alfa Romeo Berlina.

Typical Alfa body roll -- stable but neutral handling up the hill | Photo by ronaldnelson.zenfolio.com
Typical Alfa body roll — but stable and neutral handling up the hill | Photo by ronaldnelson.zenfolio.com

To the unfamiliar, the state of Wisconsin is shaped like the palm of your right hand. Look at the tip of your thumb. That’s Door County, our destination for the Ephraim Hillclimb and Concours held each September. And this month we’re seeing the hill from behind the wheel of a mid-‘70s European sporting sedan.

Taking inspiration from our own Nicole James’ article on the new Alfa Romeo 4C, I thought a story on the “Old 4C” — Alfa’s venerable all-aluminum twin-cam, Hemi-headed inline four two-liter engine — would be appropriate. In this case, the vessel for that iconic motor is not the stylish GTV, but it’s four door famiglia-car cousin, the Berlina.

A word to bachelors: I’ve owned everything from Maserati’s to Mustangs, but none of those cars received anywhere near the female attention that this one does. There is something disarmingly “cute” about the boxy Berlina that really gets a second look from the ladies. When I asked the hotel desk clerk to put her admiration into words, she thought that the person driving such a car would be sensitive, modest and practical. I was sorry to disappoint her on all counts.

Behind the wheel, the Berlina is the wolf in sheep’s clothing. The driving position is more neutral and upright than in the GTV, which has the traditional Alfa splayed-leg and straight-arm ergonomics. The result is a slightly more immediate steering connection to the road.

Among Alfisti, the Berlina is regarded as a rewarding driver’s car with nearly identical performance numbers to the GTV. At 3500 rpm and an indicated 80 mph, the Berlina is entering the sweet spot in the power curve and the roads around Door County’s Niagara Escarpment geological formation are her bread and butter.

We began the three-day Ephraim Hillclimb and Concours with an organized driving tour taking in the historic towns around Wisconsin’s upper peninsula. Settlement of this area pre-dates Wisconsin statehood and old architecture abounds; much of it tastefully converted to wineries, art galleries and fine dining establishments.

I spent the day chasing down a pair of 356 Porsches, while a 1989 Alfa Spider brought up the rear of our convoy.

About ½ mile before our first scheduled stop at a rural art gallery and boutique, a big deer leapt onto the highway just behind the rear bumper of our passing Berlina, his leg clipping the front plate of Debbie Carpenter’s ’89 Spider and spinning his body into the nose.

Tony Stompanato checks the damage |William Hall photo
Tony Stompanato checks the damage |William Hall photo

As if in slow motion, the big buck filled the windshield of the little roadster, floated over the top of the car, landed on his feet and bounded off into the woods.

At the gallery, we surveyed the damage, a healthy ding that nonetheless did not crease the sheet metal and can probably be massaged out by a good paintless-dent man. Passenger Tony Stompanato was quickly quaffing two warm beers in an attempt bring his blood pressure down. The incident could have been much, much worse. Fortunately, it’s now just part of the lore of the weekend’s events.

Door County derives its name from a shipping lane that cuts between the mainland peninsula and Washington Island, dipping down toward the paper mills of Green Bay. The passage is historically known as “Death’s Door,” which hints at the type of weather that can blow ashore in late summer.

Early Saturday we were treated to a small squall which downed a number of trees along our morning drive. The Berlina took it all in stride, thrumming along, sucking in the cool moist air through its twin Weber carburetors, exuding a sense of security and serenity against the storm outside.

 

 

 

 

As if on cue, the clouds parted and the roads dried in time for the main event, the Ephraim Hillclimb.

This year the course was longer and faster  and included a sweeping 130-degree left turn at the base of an old church. Stacked with traffic barriers and hay bales and staffed by 25 SCCA Midwest Region corner workers, the hillclimb closes down ¾ of a mile of public roads in the heart of the historic village.

The cars are not timed; the gentleman driver’s discretion serving as the arbiter of speed and safety.

The checkered flag | Ron Nelson photo
The checkered flag | Ron Nelson photo

Off the starting line, I brought the revs up on the Berlina and dumped the clutch, allowing the Alfa’s optional 4.56 limited-slip differential to grab and hold the inclined pavement. By the top of the first turn the Berlina was in third gear, slicing close to the guardrail at the apex and going into the Church Sweeper, which requires a hard double-clutch, notchy downshift into second; an infamous Alfa quirk. The 101-inch wheelbase (8.5 inches longer than the GTV) gave some dramatic body lean, but felt neutral and controlled in the turns. Crossing over the center line to carry speed through the chicane, which ends 100-yards later in a hairpin 90-degree turn and onto the checkered flag. Good fun.

After repeated runs up the hill, it was time to relax for a few hours before the evening’s social event, a retro-themed costume party with a live jazz orchestra.

The next day would bring the Concours d’Elegance held on the water’s edge directly across from the Ephraim Village Hall, a picturesque setting not unlike a downsized Pebble Beach. A perfect way to wrap up a wonderful driving weekend in the Upper Midwest with a classic Alfa Romeo.

Photos by William Hall

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