As many an Alfa Romeo owner can attest, owning one of these mercurial Italian sports cars can result in an intense love-hate relationship. Nathan Wilson, an American public relations director, can demonstrate this when it comes to his 2001 Alfa Romeo 156. "Love and hate are inexorably linked when you own an Alfa," says the Dubai-based 30-year-old. "On good days, it's the best car in the world - it's during the other 354 that you find yourself wondering what you ever did to deserve this kind of treatment from an inanimate object."
He wryly says that he chose the car because "I like pretty things that have issues." Wilson says he'll stick with the 156 for a while longer even though he was tempted by the new 159, which he took for a test drive when his own car was in the garage a few months ago. "Alfa got the guy over from Mercedes who does the AMGs [Mercedes performance cars] to rework the engine - presumably to fix a few things so they wouldn't break on a weekly basis," Wilson recalls. But it would appear the car was fixed a little too well for his liking.
"I took the car back to the dealership after a day with it and told the guy that I thought it ran like a German car. He said thank you. I told him it wasn't a compliment." "Ultimately, if you fall for an Italian car, you're making a rather emphatic statement that what you want is passion, not reliability." But the Alfa is not the first car with "personality" Wilson has driven. He learnt to drive in the US and his first car was a Chevrolet Cavalier Z24 bought for him by his father when he was at university. But two weeks later, he wrote the car off while his parents were living in Doha and started driving their minivan instead.
"Rather than accept defeat, I decided to make lemonade. So I took out the rear seats, put down a Navajo blanket, threw a few bean bags in the back and strategically placed a few Grateful Dead bumper stickers on the windows," he says. "People still laughed when they saw me drive up in a minivan, but they were laughing with me. I think." While his Alfa is more visually appealing than the sneakily commandeered minivan, Wilson says his dream car is a 1967 Ford Mustang, saying 1967 was "the only year they attained aesthetic perfection."
He goes on to explain his love for this particular Mustang: "Ultimately, owning a '67 Mustang would amplify everything I love about driving an Alfa. It's original. It's fun. It's beautiful but still accessible." Accessibility, he says, is the point of owning a cool car. "It's not a work of art you're afraid to touch, and it's not a car you have to worry about putting a few miles on or letting your dog into the backseat of."
Speaking of which, Audrey, Wilson's Dalmatian, a dog that he says has "obedience issues", is certainly no stranger to the 156. "Audrey's love for my car doesn't stem from exactly the same place as mine. I doubt she cares much about how it looks or how it feels on a windy road. Mostly, she loves it because it means she's going somewhere fun," he says. "Don't get me wrong, she loves hanging out the window as much as the next dog. But what she's really excited about is getting to my parents' house in Abu Dhabi or the beach."
As well as being a dog-friendly car, Wilson says he feels a sense of solidarity with fellow Alfa owners when he seems them on the road, claiming there is a definite look they all seem to exchange. "It's almost as if we all have a certain amount of pity for each other. They give you a look that says, 'You poor, poor man. It got you too, didn't it?'" * Georgia Lewis