Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A good day

I got a bit of a shock the other day when I thought about how long I've been connected to the internet. When I was at university in the 80s, the internet was there, but it was something the science guys got to play with (I was studying arts). A few years later I remember one of my CompSci housemates telling me about this new thing called the "world wide web", which I had a hard time visualising at the time.

In 1991, when I first started working as a programmer, the internet still didn't mean much outside of universities and I guess the military. In 1991 I had a dial up modem that I used to connect to the office and to a few local bulletin boards, but it was really just for file transfers and limited message exchanges. I can't remember any of the BBSs allowing more than a couple of connections at once. When I went into the office there was a twisted pair network connecting some of the computers, but again it was really just to facilitate file transfers.

A couple of years after that, everything changed when a friend who was running one of the first (maybe the first?) public access internet nodes in Australia offered me an account so I could stay in touch with my girlfriend of the time, who was doing her PhD at a university in Sydney. I recall a frustrating time wrestling with PPP (or was it SLiP?) configuration before I got my aging modem to connect to his server, and then suddenly I had email, and access to a still relatively-young World Wide Web. Pretty much all the content was static back then, but I found it fascinating to just wander around, following hyperlinks from page to page and site to site and see what sort of things people were posting. To my shame I didn't see where the 'net and the 'web would take us. Really it just seemed like a grown up bulletin board, but with apparently infinite connections instead of a handful of 'phone lines. I didn't see, while I was reading bad poetry posted by some teenager on the other side of the world, that it was the infinite connectivity that would provide the magic.

All of which I thought about last week when, browsing the web on my 'phone whilst on the tram to work, I received a Twitter message from the original owner of my Ricciardi. He had seen this blog, recognised the car, and figured out how to get in touch with me via Twitter. I take the internet pretty much for granted these days, but that message really brought home to me what this kind of connectivity means.

Robert Marsh has been keeping an eye out for the car for years. Without the internet he might have bumped into me at a car show or club event, but in the 12 years I've owned the car it hasn't happened. Yet within a couple of months of me starting this blog, Robert came across it through an idle Google search and was able to get in touch.

After that first message we exchanged a few emails, and last Sunday I drove the Riciardi around to Rob's house. We spent the afternoon talking about the car and going through his archive of documents and photographs, and then for the first time in twelve years Rob took the Ricciardi for a drive. He certainly hadn't forgotten how - most people find the car a bit tricky at first, but Rob was confident and as smooth as silk. It was a real blast to sit in the passenger seat as we zoomed around the suburbs.

Ricciardi and original owner reunited

I had a delightful afternoon, and Rob and his family were very friendly and gracious with their hospitality and time. It was fascinating to see photos of all the stages of the build process, and of Rob pushing the car hard at various events (including the 1996 Grand Prix Rally, where he won the under 2 litre open class).

Now that I know more about the early history of the car (and have Rob's permission to post his story and some of his photographs) I'll be putting together some posts on the subject, but first I needed to capture my thoughts on the day I met the man who built the Ricciardi and owned it for so many years. A really good day.

Monday, January 31, 2011


Back in December I wrote about the new "123Tune" distributor I had just ordered from the Netherlands. It arrived a couple of weeks ago, and I fitted it last weekend, naturally on one of the hottest days of the year.

123Tune in shiny packaging

This was a bit of an experiment, since I hadn't been able to find anyone who had installed this particular distributor on a twin cam Alfa engine. All the dimensions seemed to be correct, but you never know for sure until you put it all together...

I needn't have worried - it went in quite smoothly. First item of business was to rotate the engine round to top dead centre on cylinder 1. Reasonably straight forward, but I pulled the plugs to make turning the crank easier. #2 was looking a bit sooty, but otherwise the plugs were a reasonable colour. The 123Tune manual suggests setting the timing from the engine's static timing mark (from memory about 4-6 degrees on the Alfa), but it made more sense to me to use TDC, since then the numbers on the curves I load into the distributor will be the absolute advance, rather than relative to the static setting.

Next it was time to remove the old dizzie. Here are a couple of pics of the two side by side....

As you can see, there is a bunch of wires attached to the 123Tune, which does make it look a little intimidating. However, it's all fairly straightforward - one wire to each terminal of the coil, one to earth, and a fourth can be wired to a dashboard switch to change between two stored ignition curves.

Before I took the collar off the old distributor, I marked the advance point with some liquid paper, just in case it had to go back in. Then it was off with the collar, and with a bit of work I was able to ease it onto the 123Tune. The Alfa engine uses an o-ring between the collar and the block to seal the distributor shaft, but the 123Tune has its own o-ring further along the shaft (you can see it in the photo above). I decided to put the Alfa o-ring back in anyway, figuring it couldn't hurt to have two!

Because of the o-ring, the 123Tune is a firm fit in the shaft, and required a bit of a push to get in place. All seemed good, but... I couldn't get the drive to mesh. Out it came while I measured everything again. All looked ok, so I took the original Alfa o-ring off and tried again. This time I was able to get the drive to engage, although there is a little play in the mechanism - presumably between the distributor shaft dogs and the slots in the drive.

From there it was just a matter of finding a convenient orientation of the distributor body so that the wires didn't clash with anything and so that the USB port was accessible. The distributor can do both vacuum and mechanical advance - the 1750 engine only has mechanical, so I didn't need to worry about hooking up the vacuum intake on the distributor.

After tightening the collar, it was time to hook up the wiring. The 123Tune comes with nice, long, unterminated wires, so you need to have some terminals to hand. The instructions say to connect all but the negative coil terminal wire and then adjust the static timing.

The 123Tune has a neat feature to help with the static adjustment - there's a green LED that shines through a slot in the body when the rotor is pointing to a firing point. It's functionally equivalent to the old trick of wiring a test lamp across the points, and makes the whole job pretty easy - make sure the timing marks are where you want them, and then turn the distributor body counter clock wise until the LED just lights.

123Tune in place - the LED shines through one of the slots either side of the rotor

All good, so I connected the last wire, popped the cap on, put the plugs back in, connected up the the spark plug wires (checking firing order carefully - the Alfa uses the standard 1342 sequence), and then connected my laptop. I had pre-installed and loaded the 123Tune software, and after the usual "device connected" beep, the software announced that it was connected to a 123Tune distributor.

I had already set up several standard Alfa distributor curves, so I loaded one up. The software is reasonably easy to use, although with a few idiosyncrasies, and it has a nice visual representation of the ignition curve. You can edit points either by selecting one and dragging it (although only up and down, which means you can only change advance, and not revs, with the mouse), or by editing a text box for each point (which allows you to change the revs and the advance). Points on the curve can be deleted, or new ones added, up to a maximum of ten. After playing with it for a while I'm fairly confident that pretty much any valid curve can be represented with ten points - the most I've used so far is nine, and I could probably remove several points from that one without losing the shape.

Then I tried to start the car... No dice. Turned over all right, but not even a cough. Resigned to checking everything from scratch, I started with the wiring, and found the problem straight away. I'd got the coil wires the wrong way around... No excuse, since I installed the coil only a few weeks ago, but somehow misremembered which terminal was which, and didn't bother to check. A good reminder to always check everything, even when I'm sure...

With the wires connected correctly, the engine fired first go, and the "gauges" on the 123Tune software all seemed good - showing a live picture of the revs, advance, coil current, etc.

The only problem I have now is the temptation to constantly fiddle with the timing. I spent a happy hour earlier this evening just trying out different amounts of advance with a single curve. There was something slightly surreal about driving around, occasionally stopping and jumping out to connect a laptop to the engine and fiddle around for a minute before roaring off again...

I think the 123Tune is mainly aimed at engines that 123Ignition don't have a specific distributor for, but it should also be useful for modified engines, or for optimising a particular engine for the fuel supply and driving conditions. It can also act as a rev limiter, which is handy. I plan to find a curve that suits this engine and then leave it alone, but I can envisage altering it slightly for the season, or for any changes to engine tune.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Ignition system

The Ricciardi has a good old Bosch distributor, points and coil system. When in good order they work well (although arguably the advance curve isn't ideal for modern fuels), but this one shows every sign of having been with the engine since 1970, and could do with some TLC.

It's probably not too bad, since the idle at least is fairly regular, but there is definitely some slop in the bearings, which will likely mean that the advance and dwell are not even across the cylinders, and possibly that the curve is incorrect as well. I pulled the rotor out for a quick look, and in addition to being very dirty it's looking pretty worn as well, as is the cap.

All round it looks like time for either a replacement or a rebuild. A bit of investigation showed that it's possible to get rebuilt distributors, and for a little more Alfaholics in the UK sell a rebuilt one with an ignition curve optimised for modern fuels. It's also possible to get a unit with a breakerless module to replace the points. Sounds good in theory, but Australia has fuel with higher octane than is commonly available in the UK, so I'm not convinced that the Alfaholics advance curve will be ideal.

Further research uncovered a firm in the Netherlands called 123Ignition who specialise in electronic advance systems incorporated into a standard-looking distributor. They have a drop-in replacement for the standard Alfa distributor, and it comes with the factory standard curves for each of the Alfa engine models, plus some of the more common after-market curves for modified engines, all selectable by a switch underneath the distributor body. It also provides spark balancing and a few other useful features. Sounds ideal, and I was leaning towards getting one until I saw that 123Ignition also make a completely "soft" version of the same product that can be programmed via a USB connection with any advance curve you like. This was quite intriguing, since it means you could start with a standard curve, and then optimise to the particular engine and usage pattern, and also easily change the curve to account for modifications. It also offers a rev limiter, and can be programmed with two different curves, switchable from the dashboard. The clincher was that it actually appears to be easier to change between curves on the "soft" version, since you can leave the distributor in the car and just plug a USB cable in. The "hard wired" version has to be removed from the car to access the switch that changes curves. Of course, I wasn't at all influenced by the idea of being able to program ignition curves on my laptop, or watch real time graphs of what the engine is doing. Really...

Despite it being Christmas holidays, and despite me currently being on an island in Bass straight which is only accessible by aircraft three times a week, and boat once a fortnight, I have been able to contact a distributor of the product, confirm which model should fit my car, and place an order. Ah, the magic of the internet. The reseller in question is Leen APK in the Netherlands, who seem to have a good reputation both for service and for understanding the product, and won my business by politely answering all my emailed questions within a few hours of the asking.

In the meantime I've confirmed that I've got copies of all the Alfa advance curves I'm likely to need. The plan will be to start with the standard Bosch curve for the 1750, and then experiment to see what best suits this engine.

Really looking forward to this!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Now that's more like it!

Wow. Suddenly it's all coming together.

Yesterday I adjusted the clutch (remembered to take a torch so I could see what I was doing this time). Big improvement in driveability - clutch pedal doesn't take up so much space, and the takeup in the throw is much less. Could probably go another few mm, but will leave it for the moment.

I also spent ages fiddling about trying to measure the wheel alignment. Camber was no problem - improvised straight edge plus tiltometer on my old iPhone. Castor was hard - couldn't get sufficient access to do it by distance measurements, so in the end I balanced the iPhone on top of the uprights and checked the readings. I couldn't get consistent numbers, but the trend seemed to suggest that there is a fair amount of castor, and that just possibly there's more castor on the right than the left. Toe I needed an assistant for, but to the naked eye it looks like there's some toe out at the front. Need a proper alignment to check all these things.

The real improvement came, however, from checking the tyre pressures. What a doofus - when I put the tyres on three weeks ago, I mislaid my gauge, and therefore relied on a service station gauge to set the pressures. Finally found my gauge yesterday, and it turns out they were all about 5 psi under what I thought they were. Set them all to 32 psi and the car was transformed.

Last night I took another run up to Kinglake, although this time we went the other way - up via Hurstbridge and St Andrews, back through Whittlesea. With the increased tyre pressures the steering came to life - I could feel everything the car was doing, and it turned in beautifully. The suspension is really working well now. You can feel small bumps, but they don't unsettle the car. Even big ones aren't too bad now that the car doesn't bottom out.

With a passenger in the car it became obvious how much quieter it is with the new diff - we could have a conversation at 100kph, which previously was almost impossible. Hugh found a piece of spider gear in the sump of the old unit, so it was definitely time for a change!

Going up the Diamond Creek road was interesting - we were being harried by a group of big bikes that would have liked to get past. I tried to let them by before the really twisty section, but only half of them made it. After that there was nothing for it but to push on.

The road is very narrow (with marker posts right at the edge of the bitumen), and not a good road for driving fast on if you don't know it, so I left some margin, but the car was really good and very smooth through the corners. A lot of the bends are "point and squirt" because the posts stop you from clipping the apex, and the car was fantastic braking hard for those and then punching out again in second or third. On the tighter ones the bikes couldn't stay with us because they couldn't get enough lean, but they were much quicker through the fast corners.

There was one occasion when I realised the corner was tighter than I'd thought, and stayed a fraction later on the brake to scrub speed. There was the slightest of chirps from the inside rear as we turned in, and the car went round as though on rails.

Once we got past Kinglake, the car was awesome on the fast sweepers. It felt very sure footed, and again was telling me what it was doing through the wheel and the seat. A wonderful feeling.

There are still things to do. There are some slight clunks from the front when the suspension goes into droop at slow speed - lower wishbone bushes would be my guess; the car is still slightly inconsistent right to left; the back still doesn't feel as planted as it could - trunnion bushes maybe?; and I'm going to replace the thermostat today and see if the temperature becomes more consistent.

However the Ricciardi is now approaching what it should be, and it can be used with confidence as a fast road car.

Big, big "thank you" and shout out to Hugh and the guys at Monza Motors - they've done a sterling job sorting the car over the last few weeks, and putting up with innumerable calls from the owner with questions and requests. It's been a great effort, and it's reflected in just how good the car now is (now, about that speedo cable...).

Monday, December 20, 2010

A cold gray day...

Today was the first day of my summer holidays, and the designated activities were to finish modifying my Logitech gaming pedals, adjust the throw of the clutch on the Ricciardi, and take the Ricciardi for a decent thrash on a twisty road. Well, two out of three isn't bad...

First up was to get parts for the Logitech pedals (one $5 pair of thongs, as a source of foam rubber). Next was the clutch. However, unpacking my tool box at the storage place I realised I'd forgotten the torch. The light isn't the best there, and lying upside down in the footwell I couldn't see well enough to measure the pushrod length. The clutch will have to wait.

The weather isn't the best at the moment. The hour by hour forecast basically showed a chance of rain at any given time during the day, but I wanted to see what the new tyres are like in the wet.

The intention was to replay the Kinglake drive of a fortnight ago, but I wasn't sure I could remember the various turns we took to get out of Melbourne. In the end it wasn't a problem, and I managed to follow the exact route (with two short pauses - one to fish two spanners out of the footwell before they fouled a pedal, and another for a breath test. The constables thought I was mad to be driving an open top car on such a cold day).

Late morning traffic and some roadworks made the going a little slower, but I didn't really mind. The traffic eventually faded away, and once we got onto the sweeping curves I was on my own. At this point I fished out the plastic safety glasses I'd brought along to trial as makeshift goggles - I've not yet found a set of goggles that really works. At speed the car felt much better than last time I'd passed this way, but with lots of damp patches on the road I was inclined to be cautious. Grip was good, but it's still hard to feel what the car wants to do.

Up above Kinglake it got really, really cold - so cold that the water temp gauge dropped 10 degrees. I've also noticed that the car has been slow to warm up, so time to add the thermostat to the list of things to check. The rain stayed away until the run down into the town, by which time I was cold enough to want a warm fire and a meal, so I pulled in at the pub to sit the rain shower out.

Outside the Kinglake pub

The pub had a fire going (it really was that cold!), and after a hot meal at a table near the hearth I was ready to brave the elements again.

Down the hill toward Diamond Creek the car felt really good. The Falkens hung on remarkably well, and I started to get more confidence in the car. The engine was appreciating the colder air, pulling hard out of the corners and responding instantly to the throttle. The limiting factor was again the driver, in this case not fast and smooth enough with the wheel and pedals when the corners are close together. The cockpit is a fairly tight squeeze for someone my size, and all the movements have to be carefully orchestrated if I'm not to jam a leg under the wheel jumping between brake and throttle, or bang an elbow searching for extra lock. Less haste, more speed, as my old fencing master used to say... More practice required!

The rest of the drive was uneventful, although I needed the auxiliary fan once we hit the suburban traffic again. Definitely checking that thermostat before the next drive...

The safety glasses made great goggles - stayed clear in the damp air, and allow really good peripheral vision. Have to try them at night, but I might finally have found goggles that work.

Oh, and the pedal mod seemed to work - the Logitech brake feels much more like a brake with a piece of heavy foam fitted inside the spring.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Shock absorbers Part 3 - (almost) all's well that ends well

After the dramas with the shocks, it was great to speak to Hugh yesterday and hear that the car was ready to be picked up.

New shock towers, newly rebuilt shocks, new rear bushes, new caster arm ball joints and bushes, new diff, new speedo and tacho cables... I was almost expecting the car to look different after all those changes!

It was a pleasant coincidence to bump into Mitch from Monza Motors on the train out to Bayswater, and we happily discussed Alfas all the way to the workshop - I'm now very keen to see his 105 race car in action.

Hugh wanted me to check the Ricciardi out, so after a quick cup of coffee to warm me up, I took it for a spin around the estate.

Ricciardi and cousins outside Monza Motors

Even a quick drive around the block, taking it easy because the engine and gearbox were cold, showed a vast improvement in the car. Small bumps and ripples no longer cause big movements from the back end, and the bump and torque steer are gone. The car still shows a slight preference for left turns over right, and a very slight nervousness when the throttle is lifted suddenly, but in general the handling, ride and road holding have been transformed. It also felt very sure-footed on the wet bitumen, and I think the formerly terrifying wet weather demons might finally be exorcised.

As a bonus, the brakes have dramatically improved, no longer giving an inconsistent pedal height. It was also very nice to have the two big gauges functioning again, and not have to be squinting down at the trip computer every time I want to check the speed.

Test drive and formalities complete, I headed for home, remembering just in time to fill the petrol tank before joining the freeway...

The longer drive confirmed my first impressions - there are still some minor eccentricities to be ironed out, but the handling is much, much better now, the best it has ever been in my ownership. I was really starting to enjoy the feel of everything working so well - and then the speedo died... again.

One of the joys and burdens of older car ownership is the constant struggle to keep all the little things working. Major mechanicals can be dealt with, and once they're correct they'll generally stay in good shape if maintained properly. Things like instruments, wiring looms and the like are a different proposition. They weren't made to last for forty years, and they can be difficult to replace with newer parts.

This particular speedo is proving very recalcitrant. It originally died several years ago, not long before I put the car in storage. Hugh determined that the cable at the speedo end had become slight rounded, and after he crimped it and refitted it everything worked again - for about two days. This time around it got a new cable, and was working beautifully until I got halfway home.

I rang Hugh (I think he's developing a twitch when he hears my voice on the 'phone), and he reckons that this time it's the drive unit in the gearbox causing the issue. Fortunately I'm not working next week, so another quick hop over to Bayswater is in order to see if we can sort it properly. At least I've got a tacho now which is the important thing, speeding fines being cheaper than engines.

The next step is to take a proper drive on a twisty road - I can't wait.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Shock absorbers Part 2 - Measure twice, cut once

The mystery of the missing 40mm of shock travel (detailed yesterday in "Shock absorbers Part 1") kept bugging me last night, and I couldn't shake the thought that we had to be missing something. The car couldn't have a design flaw that was so major, and the part in question didn't really look like it had come from somewhere else.

Eventually I hit on an idea. This is hard to explain without pictures, but bear with me....

The upper spring pan and the shock tower are both part of a single bracket. The shock sits inside the spring (as in a standard 105) and pokes up into the shock tower, where it is mounted.

The bracket is attached beneath two of the chassis tubes, bolted to them by 4 bolts, with spacers to set the ride height. The initial assumption was that there was insufficient distance between the spring pan and the shock tower, and the solution was to cut the shock tower and extend it.

What has occurred to me now is that the bracket could have been intended to sit above the chassis tubes rather than below them, but without pictures or access to the car I couldn't clearly visualise whether there was room for it to sit above without fouling anything - there are some diagonal bracing tubes in that part of the chassis and I couldn't recall where they run.

This morning I rang Hugh and outlined the theory. His objection was that the springs would then be too short. This is true, but it was more plausible to me that the springs were cut too short than that the chassis has a major design problem or that the brackets randomly came from another car. Since writing the above I've been in touch with Robert Marsh, the original owner and builder of the car. Rob confirms that both bracket and springs came as-is from the factory, so it looks like this was a design problem. Rob has graciously forgiven me for the implied slur on his mechanical abilities...

Hugh confirmed that the brackets would fit above the chassis tubes, and that this would in fact account for the required 40mm, so this looks like the solution to the problem.

Unfortunately he had already cut the shock towers, and since there are also no correct-length springs handily available, it made sense to keep going rather than change tack now. The car will have stiffer springing than it ideally should (due to the shorter spring), but no more so than before, and extending the shock tower should otherwise be functionally identical to moving the bracket.

For the longer term however, I'd like to put it back the way it was intended. This will mean either modifying the brackets again, or having replacements fabricated. Apart from preferring "originality" where it works, there is a practical advantage to mounting the bracket above the chassis tubes - it makes ride height adjustments much easier, since it won't be necessary to compress the spring in order to add or remove spacers. This is no doubt part of the design, and something I should have thought of earlier. Or not - see note above. This is how the car came, and now it's working I'm inclined to leave well alone. Perhaps if/when I get to the point of changing the rear spring rate I'll look at this again, but until then I'm happy to have a rear suspension that works.