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Alfaholics GTA-R 290 - Italian Masterpiece

Alfaholics brings a new range of handling to an Italian legend

Ian Kuah
Aug 4, 2017

They say you should never meet your heroes. When I finally got to drive a 105 Series Alfa Romeo 2000 GTV in the early '80s, I realized there was more than a little truth in this old adage. My first GTV drive left me torn between joy and disappointment. The bark of the charismatic engine up front and the gurgle of its twin Weber carbs was pure aural delight while the 130 lusty horses pushed this pretty little Italian coupe along as rapidly as I had expected.

Alfaholics GTA R 290 105 series Photo 2/53   |   Alfaholics GTA R 290 105 Series

However, it was clear that the Alfa's grip on the tarmac was not in the same league as its punchy 1,962cc twin cam. Whilst it had lovely steering and sweet, responsive handling, its road-holding fell noticeably short of some of its contemporaries—I won't even mention modern cars.

Alfaholics GTA R 290 alfaholics team Photo 3/53   |   Alfaholics GTA R 290 Alfaholics Team
Alfaholics GTA R 290 passenger side front view Photo 4/53   |   Alfaholics GTA R 290 Passenger Side Front View

Fast-forward to 2000, and British Alfa Romeo enthusiast Richard Banks—who had bought, sold, tuned, and raced countless 105 Series Alfas over the years—decided to set up a company specializing in their revival and improvement. The "Alfaholics" name seemed wholly appropriate as a love for old Italian cars can easily be as self-destructive as other notorious vices. After several years in the business, Richard found alfaholism is apparently genetic as well; his two sons, Andrew and Max, joined him in the family business motivated by an addiction for classic Italian beauty.

Alfaholics GTA R 290 spring kit Photo 5/53   |   Alfaholics GTA R 290 Spring Kit

The cornerstone of Alfaholics is a mail order business selling OE parts for classic Alfa Romeos. As demand for tuning and racing these cars increased and became more serious, in-house designed performance improvements for the classic Alfa Romeo models slowly found their way into the Alfaholics mail-order catalogue. The restoration and road and race tuning of customer cars to concourse standards followed, but as Max explained, "To maintain our quality standards, we will never restore or build more than 10 cars a year."

Engine tuning parts for the Nord twin-cam engine—which power all the 105-Series cars in 1300, 1600, 1750, and 2000cc form—follow traditional lines. But while Alfaholics still provide OE and tuning parts for these engines, their more recent conversions focus on the later TS Twin Spark engine from the Alfa 75, which is a relatively easy swap and offers far more tuning potential. In historical terms, the production eight-valve Alfa 75 Twin Spark engine was actually developed from Alfa Romeo's GTA race motor, itself a heavily revised version of the Nord. Using the TS as an upgrade for a 105 Series car is thus coming full circle.

Alfaholics GTA R 290 brake caliper Photo 9/53   |   Alfaholics GTA R 290 Brake Caliper
Alfaholics GTA R 290 individual throttle body system Photo 10/53   |   Alfaholics GTA R 290 Individual Throttle Body System

If you are wondering why Alfaholics did not use the later 16-valve Twin Spark, the cheaper-to-manufacture Fiat B family modular iron-block engine starts life with a weight penalty. Fitting its 16v head onto the earlier alloy block is mission impossible since the cams of the later engine are belt-driven while the eight-valve uses a chain drive.

Alfaholics GTA R 290 nord twin cam engine Photo 11/53   |   Alfaholics GTA R 290 Nord Twin Cam Engine

By 2015, Alfaholics had extracted a reliable 225 hp from the eight-valve 2.0L Twin Spark in GTA R 240 guise. However, the next step was the critical one in terms of output, cost, and complexity. Since it had to remain naturally aspirated and bulletproof, the logical option was to go down the time-honored larger-displacement route, with bore and stroke increased from the stock 84.0x88.5 mm to 87.0x94.0 mm, netting a 2,235cc or 2.2L displacement.

The engine uses forged lightweight CP pistons using a flat-top design with a trick bowl arrangement providing an 11.0:1 compression ratio. Carrillo rods marry them to a custom billet steel crankshaft in which the rotational inertia is minimized by a clever counterweight design, while a single mass flywheel is half the weight of the original.

Alfaholics GTA R 290 rear bumper Photo 15/53   |   Alfaholics GTA R 290 Rear Bumper

The larger engine meters air and fuel through Alfaholics' own CNC-machined manifold and individual throttle bodies. The system looks as great as it functions with integrated fuel-injection rail and carbon-fiber intake trumpets. Unlike a passive carburetor setup, a MOTEC ECU controls this engine's combustion.

On the other side of the ported, polished, and gas-flowed big-valve cylinder head, the engine's spent gases exit through a lovely set of long-tube headers crafted from marine 304-grade stainless steel and mated to a free-flow sport exhaust. The chassis dyno shows gains of 10 hp and 8 lb-ft of torque for the exhaust system alone. The end result is a solid 240 hp at 6,950 rpm, accompanied by 200 lb-ft of torque at 5,000 rpm, all of this from an undersquare engine with a robust torque curve that also thrives at high revs.

Alfaholics GTA R 290 nord twin cam engine Photo 16/53   |   Alfaholics GTA R 290 Nord Twin Cam Engine

A high-capacity radiator and twin-row oil cooler manage the extra heat produced by the high-output engine and the black crackle finish rocker cover is another custom Alfaholic's touch. At this point, the eagle eyed will be asking why the car wears a GTA-R 290 moniker? Alfaholics decided the power-to-weight ratio would be more telling than horsepower, thus 290 refers to the horsepower per ton of this 1,830-pound flying machine, which was previously dubbed GTA-R 240 when powered by a 225hp 2.0L.

Incidentally, the original 1.6L Giulia Sprint GT of 1963-1965 tipped the scales at 2,100 pounds, but with the arrival of the 2000 GTV in 1971, curb weight swelled to 2,300 pounds. The Alfaholics GTA R 290 is based on the lighter, and we think more characterful-looking, 1967 "step nose" GT 1300 Junior, this example of which Max acquired a decade ago as a well-used 200,000-miler.

Alfaholics GTA R 290 recaro seats Photo 20/53   |   Alfaholics GTA R 290 Recaro Seats

Max has tuned, tweaked, and honed the car with engine, suspension, and body modifications designed make it go harder and better, but in a way that befits the spirit of the original. So far, he has put 80,000 miles on the rebuilt car, with hundreds of laps on various British and European race circuits, including the Nurburgring. With quality and reliability sharing center stage with enhanced performance, the fully developed parts were then added to the international mail order business that is Alfaholics' primary mission.

The Alfaholics 170-pound crash diet consists of carbon-fiber bonnet, boot, and doors, along with a lightweight interior. Other parts required for this weight reduction fetish were the lightweight door cards, drilled boot hinges, and drilled door catch plates. This car even has titanium front suspension control arms, wheel nuts, and bolts, which slice around 7 pounds off each front corner.

Alfaholics GTA R 290 nord twin cam engine Photo 21/53   |   Alfaholics GTA R 290 Nord Twin Cam Engine

Body-shell stiffening is always good for handling, especially when a car wears grippy modern rubber. To this end, the Alfa benefits from a custom-designed Safety Devices bolt-in six-point full rollcage with removable sidebars, which significantly bolsters structural rigidity and provides occupant safety during its regular racetrack sessions.

Alfaholics also commissioned 20 percent thinner 4.0mm glass to save a total of 6 pounds high up in the car. An added plus is the fact that the new laminated front windscreen has an integral heating element.

A nice set of alloy wheels can always make or break a car, but when you are dealing with a classic, you have to be very careful to keep things looking period correct. Alfaholics decided that the factory 14-inch GTA style was optimal and had it re-cast in a 15x7-inch size to suit modern rubber. On Max's car, these are shod with sticky 195/55-15 Yokohama Advan Neova AD08R tire.

Alfaholics GTA R 290 driver side rear view Photo 25/53   |   Alfaholics GTA R 290 Driver Side Rear View

That extra inch makes all the difference both visually and technically. The slightly larger wheels and lowered ride height give the car a squatter and more purposeful stance reminiscent of the period factory GTA racers, even if with a slightly more modern tilt. The larger wheels and tires also require the Alfaholic's reproduction pressed aluminum 1967 Homologation GTA rear bubble flares for clearance, which also allow an increase of 15 mm in the rear track.

Keeping the much more powerful car tied down nicely are the most extreme components from Alfaholics' menu of suspension upgrades. Swapping out the big, heavy, factory springs for smaller diameter coils that mate to the OE lower control arms with an adapter significantly reduces unsprung weight.

Alfaholics GTA R 290 front grill Photo 26/53   |   Alfaholics GTA R 290 Front Grill

Another key to curing the Alfa's wayward handling lies at the rear, which Alfaholics ties down with several modifications. The first of these replaces the factory cast-iron upper reaction arms with its own aluminum pieces fitted with spherical bearings that allow the axle to articulate properly over bumps, without unwanted geometry changes.

Rose joints allow the axle to move vertically but not laterally, which all but eliminates the "will it, won't it?" sideways movement that saps driver confidence in fast bends, especially ones with bumps. In conjunction with an aluminum T-bar, lightweight trailing arms, adjustable dampers, and meticulously tested camber and toe settings, these alterations transform the Alfa's handling and grip.

Alfaholics GTA R 290 MOMO steering wheel Photo 30/53   |   Alfaholics GTA R 290 MOMO Steering Wheel

A lightweight driveshaft and rifle-drilled halfshafts take power from the gearbox to the rear wheels via a mechanical limited-slip differential. With a 70/30 percent locking action under acceleration and braking, this slippery diff is set up for progressive ramp action and has a lower than usual 30-pound pre-load.

A side effect of the larger wheels is the space to fit modern brakes, which are controlled by twin master cylinders with no vacuum assistance. These use 300mm vented floating front discs clamped by Alfaholic's billet aluminum four-piston calipers for road use or a six-piston version for the track. For fanatics of low unsprung weight, the Superleggera version features an even lighter version of these six-piston calipers, mounting bells and brackets that save a further 3.3 pounds per corner. At the rear, 267mm discs are clamped by new alloy billet calipers each 3.0 pounds lighter than the stock iron ATE item, while the Superleggera version shaves off a further 0.9 pound per corner.

Alfaholics GTA R 290 manufacturer plate Photo 31/53   |   Alfaholics GTA R 290 Manufacturer Plate

The side bars of the rollcage are a bit of a physical hurdle to be crossed before you can drop into one of the figure-hugging, four-point harness-equipped Recaro seats whose leather covering features a period-woven pattern.

The team at Alfaholics is made up of hard-core drivers, so a lot of attention has been paid to balancing the control weights. Thus the clutch, while beefed up to take sustained track abuse, is also very progressive in its action and weighted for a good perceived partnership with the accelerator.

The light, positive, and satisfying gearshift action tells you the long gear-lever in your hand is the window to a piece of precision machinery, requiring just a deft finger and wrist movement to find each ratio. The close-ratio gearbox features heavy-duty bearings and drilled and scalloped gears with rifle-drilled shafts to lower inertia. The synchros are OE Alfa pieces reinforced by Alfaholics.

Alfaholics GTA R 290 driver side view Photo 35/53   |   Alfaholics GTA R 290 Driver Side View

Blip the lightweight aluminum accelerator pedal and the revs rise and fall rapidly. With its low weight and strong torque, the GTA-R 290 can be driven around in a fairly high gear without protest from the drivetrain, while the strong torque curve allows you to make good progress with the rev counter needle never exceeding 5,000 rpm.

When you want to get a move-on, the long-stroke motor is happy to sing for its supper. The lightweight internals and flywheel help the engine soar to 7,000 rpm with gusto; the rich, multi-layered soundtrack and old-school mechanical feel of the controls conspire to deliver a driving experience that is deeply satisfying on several levels.

Alfaholics GTA R 290 valve cover stamp Photo 36/53   |   Alfaholics GTA R 290 Valve Cover Stamp

The updated chassis ensures that handling, grip, and the powerful engine are all reading from the same page, and the car feels like one piece when braking, turning in, and exiting a bend. The rear axle feels properly tied down, working nicely in concert with its incisive front end, and the little red car changes direction instantly, dancing to its drivers' tune with a delicacy and lack of surplus inertia that underlines the "light is might" concept.

The heavy steering effort at low speeds is a function of the stocky modern rubber and 4 degrees of castor, double that of a stock GTV. For those who drive around town a lot, the electric power steering option, built into the original steering box, will transform the car on the road. That said, Max personally prefers unassisted steering on track.

While Max's fast road and track-biased GTA-R 290 is more hard-core than most of the cars Alfaholics will create for its handful of lucky customers each year, rollcage apart, it is still a perfectly civilized and fun road car. Max lapped the Nurburgring in 8 minutes 15 seconds with the car in GTA R 240 form and weighing just shy of 2000 pounds. This time already puts it on par with much more powerful modern machinery, and in its latest lighter and more powerful 290 guise, it should be significantly quicker.

Alfaholics GTA R 290 driver side front view Photo 40/53   |   Alfaholics GTA R 290 Driver Side Front View

The original Alfa GTV did not fully live up to my expectations even 30 years ago. However, by merging 1970s character, feedback, and communication with 21st century levels of precision and dynamic ability, Alfaholics has created a modern classic I really do covet.

Alfaholics GTA R 290 front grill Photo 47/53   |   Alfaholics GTA R 290 Front Grill

Sources

By Ian Kuah
101 Articles
Alfaholics GTA-R 290 - Italian Masterpiece
Tech Spec
Price as tested: $260,000 (est.)
Layout: front-engine, RWD, two-seat, two-door coupe
Engine: 2.2L, 240hp/200-lb-ft, DOHC 16-valve I-4
Transmission: five-speed manual
Curb weight: 1,830 lb.
Wheelbase: 92.5 in.
Length x width x height: 161.0 x 62.0 x 50.0 in. (est.)
Suspension: dual control arm (f); live-axle (r)
Brakes: six-piston calipers, 11.8-in. rotors (f); two-piston calipers, 10.5-in. rotors (r)
Wheels & tires: Alfaholics 15x7.0 (f/r); Yokohama AD08R 195/55 (f/r)

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