Archaeological Restoration: 1964 Alfa Romeo GTZ

Preserving the future of the past

Who in their right mind would want to repaint the front clip of an Alfa Romeo GTZ racing car and still preserve the forty years of accumulated sandblasting and chipping on the nose? Well, it turns out that the team that cares for the cars of the Miles Collier Collections wanted to do just that.

The Miles Collier Collections’ 1964 Alfa Romeo GTZ, serial number 750052, was the Florida International Grand Prix of Endurance class winner in that year’s twelve-hour race in Sebring, Florida. Entered by privateer Scuderia Sant Ambroeus – effectively the Alfa works racing team – four cars numbered 53 through 56 were prepared. Oddly, three were red and one, number 56, was white. Alfa number 53, driven by Jim Kaser and Chuck Stoddard, ultimately won the 1600 cc class by finishing thirteenth overall. Fifty-five years later, upon the occasion of a thorough inspection and maintenance service after a season of vintage racing, the Collier Collections team decided to improve the authenticity of the 53 car’s Sebring presentation.

Remarkably, the Alfa had survived more than fifty years of racing with no significant damage and without a restoration. Yes, she had been maintained, even repainted, and, earlier on, before her history and condition had made her a precious historical object, she had been lightly modified for better performance and ease of maintenance. Gone was the driver comfort air ducting attached to the front clip, the competition number identification light behind the passenger-side door, the windshield washer assembly and the bright aluminum windshield lock trim. The small front-mounted upright oil cooler was replaced with a larger flat-mounted one. Still present were the all-alloy scissors jack mounted in the back of the cabin and the inconceivably exotic three-eared alloy knock-off wheel nuts. Recently added were sliding Plexiglas side windows to improve driver comfort.

Dozens of Sebring race photographs were assembled for reference. Most notable was the discovery that all three red cars raced with apparently repainted front nose clips that did not match the red color of the rest of the car. The conservation team was speechless. What possible scenario could involve an apparently quick and dirty repaint of all three cars’ noses in the wrong shade of red? Bill Wuesthoff, who drove one of the sister cars with Chuck Dietrich in the 1964 Sebring race, is a volunteer at the Revs Institute that houses the Miles Collier Collections. Unfortunately, he recalled nothing about the cars’ “two-tone” color, nor how they got that way. Sadly, former Revs volunteer, Jim Kaser, and Porsche friend, Chuck Stoddard, the actual drivers of number 53, have passed away. What was not debatable, however, was that both color and black and white photographs from the race showed two very different red shades on each of the three cars.

Given that the paint mismatch is the most distinctive aspect of the cars’ appearance at Sebring, the conservation crew realized that the only way forward in the quest for historical accuracy was to repaint the nose of the car. The car had last been painted decades ago and had subsequently experienced considerable use. The nose of the car was covered with sand and gravel chips, minor fatigue cracking, and fingernail-sized losses of paint around the bonnet latches. Repainting the nose would recreate the historical color mismatch, but would destroy the aged patina that so eloquently spoke of decades of use, arguably the major feature of this wonderful old car. How then could a color change be effected without erasing the so-important marks of time and use? This was the conundrum.

It is an archaeological fact that wear, decay, and loss come to every object on earth. While loss and ruin are the fate of all things, that loss and ruin come to every individual thing in ways that are unique. Each scratch or chip has a story if only it could be known. The specific history of any historical car is displayed in its worn and patinated surface. This is why false patination – which in this case would consist of sandblasting the front of our old Alfa’s fresh paint to simulate racing-caused sand pits – would misrepresent its historical experiences of fifty years of use, cosmetic repaints, and minor accidents. Only by preserving every historical mark in a way that allows it to appear in the new finish would we be saving the Alfa’s unique history.

There is a liquid masking agent for body shop use that can be sprayed or brushed on as a replacement for tape and body paper. Our paint expert, Tim Bair, suggested this material might mask the historical patina from the new paint. Experiments on test panels were run. When Tim used a carbon dioxide blaster to unstick the painted-over masking agent, we knew we had a workable system.

Alfa number 53 seen at Sebring in 1964. The race has been underway for some time given the amount of brake dust that has accumulated on the front wheels and the high sun angle. The two-tone paint is noticeable as are the kitchen strainer rock guards mounted on the Cibie Super Oscar driving lights. Note, too, that the side windows do not have sliding panels for ventilation. Cool air is directed to the driver by holding the vent wings in a reversed, air scoop position with bungee cords.

The nose of the Alfa before any work had started. The front-facing surface of the bonnet is lightly and evenly covered in chips and spalls from years of use.

Here is a close-up of the passenger-side nose just below and outward from the headlight bucket before any remediation. Note the rubber marks, and sand chips from decades of vintage racing. Note, too, the layers of paint coats exposed in the headlight bucket during assessment by the conservation team. These layers attest to minor body work on the front quarter done to repair a dent decades ago.

The upper surface of the nose inboard of the passenger side headlight bucket shows both chips and pimple-like blemishes from previous coats of paint laid over rock and sand chips. This is the normal patina that accrues from age and ordinary use of a car that was not yet a hugely valuable historical treasure.

Here we see the trailing edge of the bottom of the nose before work started. Note the edge chipping from sand swirling off the tires at high speed. Again, evidence of former cosmetic re-painting can be seen.

The driver-side bonnet latch receiver before work. Note that spalls and chips as well as minor fatigue cracks are visible. This is a relatively stressed area of the bonnet as it has to endure the cam effect of the bonnet latch when it is closed.

Applying the liquid masking agent with a small artist’s brush. As can be seen, hundreds if not thousands of chips have to be carefully masked.

Masking the large paint loss area in the bonnet latch receiver.

Conservator technician, Tim Bair, partway through many days of meticulous liquid masking of all chips and scratches. Note that the headlight buckets have now been painted white to conform to the 1964 Sebring configuration.

The key to removing the masking agent after the fresh, “wrong” color paint has been applied, is the use of a carbon dioxide blaster. Note the condensation cloud coming off the bonnet lip. The masking agent breaks away from the substrate in the chip when blasted with carbon dioxide, and when it does so, it takes the fresh overpaint with it.

Here is the driver-side latch receiver after paint application and ice-blaster removal of masking. Only minor amounts of use will be required to blend in and soften the preserved patina.

The nose with its years of sandblasting after the repaint and mask removal with the ice blaster. A race or two will restore the black rubber marks from bits of racing tires.

An “after” look at the leading edge of the bonnet cooling air “letter box”. Note that the leading edge of the doors is the original darker red and shows several old chips. Analysis of many photographs caused the conservation team to believe the “wrong red” repaint before Sebring in 1964 was done with little tape masking. In this case, the letter box opening was just closed and the nose painted with the effect as shown here.

The finished passenger-side front quarter. Note how well the preserved patina integrates with the pock-marked and patinated headlight lens trim ring.

Displaying both its historical significance as a winning works Alfa GTZ from Sebring, and its importance as a genuine, and important automobile from the past living in the present, the Alfa is back on display with correct color bonnet, stick-on rondels on top of painted rondels, brown not black bonnet straps, body-colored side marker light and other Sebring details. Still to come is the refitting of a correct aluminum windshield gasket lock ring, “kitchen strainer” driving light covers, and minor under-bonnet details.

TOP PHOTO:  The Gurney/Johnson Cobra (DNF) leads the Ginther/Bucknum Porsche 904 (DNF) and the class-winning Stoddard/Kaser Alfa GTZ (13th).