Hitting the headlines

A photo in a newspaper inspired my love for Alfa Romeo, Johan Huy tells JOSEPH BUSUTTIL from the Old Motors Club.

The attention of the boy was drawn to the main story and pictures splashed across the front page of a leading Dutch newspaper. It recounted the story of a murder that had taken place along the Amsterdam North Sea canal. An Italian man was found dead in his car, with a bullet that went through his head and lodged in the roof of the vehicle, an Alfa Romeo GTV.

“In my mind, reading the gruesome details faded into insignificance compared to viewing the stark beauty of the Italian iconic car, and from that day onwards, I became hooked to the Alfa Romeo marque. I was only ten at the time, but I said to myself that in future, I would be driving such a car,” said Johan Huy.

Huy’s father, Jan, drove a DAF car. “It was a lot of fun for me, because in those early post-World War II days in Holland, very few people had a four-wheeler. Primary and secondary school in Amsterdam were followed by university in Groningen, where I went to the department of psychology and the art academy for graphic design,” he added.

Soon after graduation, Huy went into business, setting up an art gallery as well as an aluminium frame factory in Holland. Eventually he expanded his business interests to textiles, and that is when the Malta connection started.

Photos: Tony Vassallo

“In the 1980s, I came over to the island in order to look into the feasibility of producing jeans here. The venture took off and was successful. I started visiting Malta more frequently, and lulled by its beauty as well as attractive tax system, eventually decided to relocate with my family here,” explained Johann, who then set up a marine business which he still runs today.

That childhood vision of the Alfa Romeo remained with him, and as was to be expected, his first car was a 1970 Alfa Romeo Bertina 1750cc.

“I’ve had 23 models of this marque at different periods in my life. At times, an intruder would come in – there have been a couple of Porsches, a twin turbo Maserati E, a Mini Countryman, and an MGB GT – but eventually they would be shown the door, for I always say to myself: when you drive a good car like an Alfa Romeo, why change it?” he explained.

His love and affection for this Italian manufacturer has seen him setting up the Dutch Alfa Romeo Club, of which he is an honorary life member. With a number of his Alfa Romeo models, renowned for their velocity, Johan has taken part in races in Holland, Belgium, Germany and France. He is also a regular contributor with articles in Alfa Romeo publications in Holland and Germany, where besides the auto element, he also gives a publicity plug to the Maltese islands.

Presently, Huy has four Alfa Romeo cars. Close to his heart is a 1970, red Zagato Junior 1300 GT.

“This is a very rare model, of which only 1,104 were built, with around one to two hundred still around today,” he said. “It was in production from 1969 to 1972, with the design coming from the Zagato company, which was similar to Bertone and Pininfarina, and that had many racing successes in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

“The Zagato Junior itself was built on a Spider platform, delivered by Alfa Romeo to Zagato, shortened, then the coach frames would be put on by hand and with the help of wooden frames. Basically, all cars were different, which is normal for hand built vehicles of a limited production.”

Huy had long coveted such a model, and in 1984 while in Holland, he spotted a newspaper advert with one for sale. He immediately phoned for an appointment, and together with a friend, was soon on his way to see it. “We had a look at the car, that had been in Sardinia. It was in a very original state – I drove it three times round the block, and bought the vehicle on the spot.”

Although in a good condition, Huy eventually decided to restore it, and harnessing Alfa Romeo restoration specialists in Holland, a long-term nut and bolt restoration project was initiated, coming to completion in 1987. He kept the car for 14 years since he not want to sell it – all other cars, including a Porsche 911, had to be sold since the Maltese customs authorities wanted to impose prohibitive taxes for the vehicles to come here. Finally in 2005, Huy drove the classic car from the Netherlands to Malta, a journey of more than 3,000kms, with no hiccups at all.

One other Alfa Romeo that Huy has is a 1971, yellow Giulia Super 1600cc, a four-door saloon which he proudly pronounces came out of the now defunct Malta Car Assembly in Marsa.

“One hears a lot about other models that were assembled there – the Triumph Spitfire, the Triumph Herald, the Austin Mini, the Morris Marina, the Hillman Hunter – but hardly is a sound ever uttered about the Alfa Romeos assembled there, like the Giulia and Sud models,” said Huy, who has plans to write a book about these locally assembled Italian icons.

Explaining how this classic car came into his possession, Huy said that while on the first trip that the Old Motors Club organised to Sicily, he got talking with another participant, who told him that he had a Giulia Super that he had wanted to restore, but had given up on it. Huy became interested and eventually bought the vehicle. He left it there for many years, but now that he has acquired a lot of spare parts for it, restoration is about to start soon.

“I will see to the mechanical tasks – I have already bought a block from Holland – but the panel beating and the rest, I will leave to expert hands.”

An extremely organised man, his innate love for classic cars and unquestionable teamwork, organisational and leadership skills have seen him being one of the founding members of the Valletta Grand Prix Foundation, where he served on the committee for a number of years. Huy is also a driving force behind an informal grouping of local Alfa Romeo owners, which he says numbers around 150, and which he hopes to turn into a formal organisation at some time in the future.

He is frequently seen at Old Motors Club events, sometimes with his son Johann Junior, who has inherited his father’s passion for old motors. Alas, his wife Jannette and his daughter Esther do not share the classic car enthusiasm gripping the male members of the family. As to the OMC, Huy urges more utilisation of the social media in order to modernise and thus attract younger members to the club, as well as the introduction of more mobile and interactive events, rather than, for example, static shows. He also opines that more use of the English language at activities would help foreign OMC members to feel more at home.

As to the national old motors scene, Huy feels that the former total dominance by British models on Maltese roads is now being seriously challenged by other iconic brands coming mainly from Italy, Germany, France, and even Japan. Popular and standard classic cars have also now been joined by more sophisticated and upmarket models that grace the local roads. He clings strongly to the idea that a classic car should be left in its original, factory like state, and comes down heavily on owners who change engine capacity or customise old vehicles with changes that are completely alien or irrelevant.

Although Huy presently has only four Alfa Romeo models, he finds that his passion for the Italian icon is emphatically enhanced as he goes around his vast collection of more than 500 Alfa Romeo small scale model cars, meticulously displayed in a number of glass showcases strategically placed in and around his study, and dating from the earliest production vehicles to more modern offerings.

(First published in Times of Malta on April 28, 2019)

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