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BBC Autos

Car Tribes

Berkeley’s other counter-culture

  • Italian labour union
    Patrick Ottis owns a shop in Berkeley, California, that specialises in mechanical restorations of Ferraris. (Nick Czap)
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    The last Ferrari 250 GT Lusso ever built (left) sits beside a 1955 250 Europa GT, each wearing its original paint. (Nick Czap)
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    The 250 GT Lusso was a detuned, rebodied version of the 250 GTO racecar. (Nick Czap)
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    A prancing horse adorns the Lusso's steering wheel. (Nick Czap)
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    A Testarossa awaits a new timing belt in Ottis' shop. (Nick Czap)
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    David McCarthy is Ottis' in-house engine expert. Restoring and rebuilding a single engine can entail 200 hours of labour. (Nick Czap)
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    Rebuild in progress. A V12 engine from a Ferrari 410 Superamerica rests on a stand in McCarthy's workshop. (Nick Czap)
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    Also among Ottis' supporting cast is Brian Brown, whose handiwork, a set of restored fuse boxes from a Ferrari 275 GTB/4, is pictured here. (Nick Czap)
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    Fasteners from a 275 GTB/4 glow with a newly restored clear cadmium finish in Ottis' shop.
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    Should circumstances call for them, Ottis has several drawers of specialised parts on hand. (Nick Czap)
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    Vic Almeida, who specialises in assembly work at Ottis' shop, rebuilding a Weber carburetor from a Ferrari 246 Dino. (Nick Czap)
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    Almeida checks the fit of a newly rebuilt engine in a Ferrari 410 Superamerica. (Nick Czap)
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    Nino Epifani's shop restores Italian racing cars. Here, Epifani rests a hand – very gently – on one of his own cars, a 1960 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint Zagato. (Nick Czap)
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    In Epifani's shop, a Siata 208S levitates. (Nick Czap)
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    Another of the mid-century racing rarities in Epifani's shop, an Abarth 207A. (Nick Czap)
  • Italian labour party
    Epifani's bread and butter: a Ferrari 410 Sport Scaglietti Spider, which Carroll Shelby drove to six first-place finishes between 1956 and 1957. (Nick Czap)
  • Italian labour union
    Conrad Stevenson, who specialises in the restoration of vintage Alfa Romeos, fits a hose to the air filter canister of an Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider Veloce. (Nick Czap)
  • Italian labour union
    Stevenson, who does everything from coachwork to mechanical restoration, became fascinated by Italian sports cars at an early age. (Nick Czap)
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    Inside Stevenson's walled compound, another Giulietta Spider Veloce waits its turn. (Nick Czap)
  • Italian labour union
    Stevenson built this Alfa Romeo Giulia Sprint Speciale, and raced it successfully in this year's La Carrera Panamericana. (Nick Czap)

HIDE CAPTION

A few things spring to mind at the mention of Berkeley, California.

For one, there is the renowned university whose politically outspoken students led some of the most influential anti-war protests of the 1960s. For another, Chez Panisse, where Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower started the movement known as California Cuisine. And perhaps Telegraph Avenue, a thoroughfare whose tie-dyed panhandlers – redolent of sandalwood, patchouli and a certain psychotropic herb – evoke a shabby reenactment of the Summer of Love. But for those enthralled with mid-century Italian design, Berkeley is ground zero for another kind of counter-culture: vintage automotive restoration.

Patrick Ottis, who specialises in the mechanical restoration of vintage Ferraris, is typical of the expertise that resides here. Ottis and his employees are currently engaged in a nut-and-bolt restoration of a 1967 Ferrari 275 GTB/4, but this doesn't imply that the car is merely disassembled prior to restoration. Literally every nut and bolt is fastidiously refurbished and restored to its original factory finish.

The time and labour involved (and by extension, the cost) are staggering, but for Ottis’ clients, it is a matter of simple economics. “If you have a rough Daytona coupe, you can spend more on a restoration than it's worth,” he says, naming a Ferrari that sells far below the stratospheric prices commanded by rarer models. “But if the value of the car is considerably more than the cost of restoration, then the owner is OK.” Judging by the multi-million dollar values of some of Ottis' recent Ferrari projects – a 340 Mexico Spider, a 250 GT 14-Louvre Tour de France and the aforementioned 275 GTB/4 – it would seem his clients are doing just fine.

Reflecting on his decades in the business, during which he made the acquaintance of luminaries such as the Ferrari designer and coachbuilder Sergio Scaglietti, Ottis was quick to acknowledge a debt to Stephen Griswold, whose Berkeley Ferrari/Alfa Romeo/Aston Martin dealership and vintage racecar restoration business spawned much of Berkeley's present-day talent. Ottis worked for Griswold from 1979 to 1982, and when Griswold moved his operation to Britain in 1983, Ottis began servicing the Ferraris of several of Griswold's former clients.

A stone's throw from Ottis' atelier, another of Griswold's former employees, Nino Epifani, oversees a shop specialising in the restoration of Italian racing cars. A native of Trieste, Epifani came to Berkeley in 1976 after running a contemporary racing shop in South Africa. At Griswold's, he developed a talent for rebuilding temperamental mechanicals such as Osca Mt4 engines and Maserati Birdcage transaxles. When Griswold closed shop, Epifani rolled some of the cars into a nearby garage and founded Epifani Restorations.

On a recent afternoon, the business had an air of quiet intensity. Epifani's son, Paolo, studied the fit of a door handle on a 1953 Ferrari 212 undergoing restoration for competition in concours events. As a teenager, Paolo assisted his father at Griswold's, and today, he oversees some of the shop's most demanding projects. “Paolo is extremely good at detail work,” said Epifani. “When he's done, you have a winner.”

In another area, the elder Epifani and his in-house engine technician discussed the status of a colossal Ferrari V12 engine in the final stages of re-assembly. A Ferrari V12 rebuild is complex enough, but this particular engine was designed by Aurelio Lampredi, who decided that the best way to circumvent notoriously leaky 1950s head gaskets was to screw the cylinder liners directly into the cylinder heads. One can only imagine the quantity of penetrating lubricant required to free a dozen such cylinder liners from their threads after a half-century of corrosion.

Their unusual design aside, Lampredi engines performed well on the track, and this one particularly so. A few stalls down, awaiting the return of its refurbished heart, sat a very red and dangerously fast-looking 410 Sport Scaglietti Spider that Epifani noted was driven by Carroll Shelby, the maverick US racer-entrepreneur, to six first-place finishes between 1956 and 1957. The value of such pedigree? With the cool detachment of someone no longer fazed by long strings of zeroes, Epifani estimated something on the order of $8m.

A few blocks away, in a hand-crafted corrugated metal building, Conrad Stevenson quipped that until he finished the reassembly of a dark blue Alfa Romeo convertible, he wouldn't be able to put food on the table. Stevenson had recently returned from racing in La Carrera Panamericana, the resurrected endurance race through Mexico – an enterprise that had sucked his bank account dry.

Like Ottis and Epifani, Stevenson shares a connection to Stephen Griswold. When Stevenson was 12, his school bus trundled by Griswold's shop, where the sound of exotic Italian engines captured his imagination. At 15, Stevenson bought his first car – a 1965 Alfa Romeo Giulia Spider Veloce whose owner abandoned it at Griswold's – for $3,200. He began tearing into the Giulia immediately, developing the skills he employs in his Alfa Romeo restoration business to this day. “That car”, said Stevenson, “brought me all the work I ever needed.”

In college, Stevenson studied engineering, supplementing an innate automotive intuition with heavy duty maths and physics. And while Stevenson's exegeses on suspension geometry can leave a reporter's head spinning, he is equally at home discussing the finer points of Alfa Romeo's pre-war history, or performing an eerily accurate impression of the wild harmonics generated by an Alfa Romeo Montreal's four-cam V8 engine revving to its 8,000rpm redline.

Though he contracts out certain tasks, Stevenson is essentially a one-man show, as adept at chassis welding and coachwork as he is at mechanical restoration. He explained the advantages of his diverse skill-set. “People say, 'Dude, you need to delegate. You're doing too much.'  But when you farm things out to someone else, it takes even longer.”

Stevenson still specialises in the Alfa Romeo Spider Veloce, and is best known for restorations that boost horsepower and improve handling without compromising a car’s original appearance. The modifications – special pistons, rods, valves, cams and springs, as well as upgraded suspension components – hide under the hood and beneath the body.

Occasionally, though, Stevenson's work assumes a more radical shape, as in the case of the purpose-built Giulia Sprint Speciale he created for La Carrera Panamericana. Oxblood-red, hunkered low on its haunches and far more menacing than a stock SS, the car boasted performance to match its looks, taking first in its class and 21st overall in a field of Nascar-engined behemoths. Stevenson attributes his success to the Alfa's nimbleness in the curves, and to a simple mantra: “Stay off the brakes.”

If Stevenson and his compatriots have a certain aura of Zen about them, it should perhaps come as no surprise. Berkeley, like much of northern California, is also renowned as a centre of spiritual activity where the quest for enlightenment can assume many forms – among which, a lifetime spent toiling in the service of a god named Veloce.